Finding the Sublime in Disposable Digital Landscapes

When was the last time you did a google image search for “landscape”? Here, I’ll do it for you.

In almost every little box is the sort of motivational poster fare that begs to be paired with an inspirational quote. These caricatures or idealizations of a landscape are less about the places themselves than the feeling they’re meant to evoke.

In her series, aptly titled Landscape Sublime, photographer Anastasia Samoylova re-appropriates these disposable visions of unnamed places into new, physically abstracted landscapes.

She does this by printing photos onto paper and then manipulating and carefully arranging them. By giving these ephemeral visions of the world a physical heft and a new compositional context, she pokes at what we’re really seeing (or looking for) in such images to begin with.

To her, images such as these are shared and proliferated online as bite-sized portions of the sublime.

“These days beautiful things are not really taken seriously, they’re usually disregarded as something ‘picturesque,’” Samoylova says. “I wondered what really can be described as beautiful or sublime in today’s sort of mediated culture … I noticed a lot of them are used to symbolize just pure beauty, the beauty that can’t be possessed, like it would be with the human figure.”

Each intricate image starts out as a public domain landscape (chew on that phrase) collected while perusing the web. Samoylova then prints out these fair use vistas, favoring those that are most popular and widely shared online. Of particular interest to her are the idealized landscapes in advertising design, like the mountain ranges on water bottles.

They then become the central material for collaged compositions that also make use of whatever other materials she has at hand — mirrors, metals, photo gels.

The process — which she films — is iterative, a sort of gestural analogy for the browsing and swiping that brings these images in front of our eyeballs to begin with.

What emerges are shattered geometrical formations that still manage to convey something essential and even slightly ironic about the original subject. The sculptures, finalized as digital images, are again most likely to be encountered via a link on the Internet.

The notions of use, content, and image sharing that underpin the work were largely inspired by Samoylova’s avid participation in the early days of Flickr.

“I was really interested in this idea of sharing images, and images that are meant to be used,” she says. “I barely ever encountered them in physical form outside of advertisements and occasional posters, but unless you were to make a trip out to a gallery to see the work, you don’t really encounter those pictures in a materialized form. With this work I was trying to give them this form, I was trying to make them more physical and turn them into objects, into something you can hold in your hands.”

Like their various angles and vertices, the collages are built on a layered set of concepts that Samoylova strives to fit into a single image. The Illinois-based photographer and educator studied design in Moscow, and went on to study architectural and environmental design, shooting commercial photography on the side. Along with her Flickr habit, and a penchant for philosophy, the coordinates of Landscape Sublime were readily apparent.

“The interests were formed pretty early on in me, and my photography is really sort of a documentation of my process of thinking about images,” she says. “When you go out and see this vast landscape and you take a picture of that, you really shrink it down into something two dimensional and small … I’m trying to sort of bring them back to life, and print them out and rebuild them and create this environment again.”

There are distinct philosophical underpinnings driving these images, dealing formal ideas of the sublime — the transcendent sense of awe that a dramatic landscape seems to evoke and which informs our notions of beauty itself. Depending on the thinker you vibe with — Kant, Plato, Schopenhauer — the sublime can be the result of pure aesthetic beauty in form, line, and color, or it can represent something else, a more subtle phenomenon that isn’t about whether something is pretty or not but whether it stirs the witness internally.

Samoylova strikes a visual balance of these ideas, interpreting our sense for the sublime as the reason these “throwaway” and cliche landscapes still proliferate, then abstracting and exploding them to reveal new perspectives. “The images that are being produced with little digital cameras, with phones, might as well be illustrations in Kant’s books,” she says.

In our modern age of image-driven media, the old ideas of what constitutes beauty and what draws our eyes still hold currency. Even among the ubiquitous virtualized visions of the world we encounter online, the old hierarchies reliably hold sway — lightning strikes and rainbows are generally categorized as having a higher aesthetic and emotional power than an image of a stone in the grass, however beautiful.

“My work is not really about landscapes per se, but about aesthetics and about our notions of what’s beautiful and what’s worthy of photographing and sharing,” she says. “In those images I was wondering, ‘What are they communicating?’ — and I couldn’t find anything beyond this ideal; something beautiful.”

Sublime or not, Samoylova’s collages are lovely to look at. Images on the Internet have become so ephemeral, so easy to dismiss, yet they still impact, guide and reflect us in ways we are far from understanding. In the image of a beautiful landscape, we might see a place we recognize specifically, but more likely we’re looking at a more universal symbol of beauty itself.

In sharing such images — whether as a photographer or an advertiser — people seem to be trying to expand or exploit these fundamental human sensitivities. The question of whether we’re spreading beauty or commodifying a core human motivator may not be within the scope of these collages to answer, but it’s a question worth considering.

All images by Anastasia Samoylova

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