Zoe Leonard presents a new work comprising several thousand vintage postcards of Niagara Falls, dating from the early 1900s to the 1950s. Rendered stereotypical and generic through repetition over decades, these landscape motifs are emblematic of mass culture’s transformation of natural sites into tourist destinations.
You see I am here after all (2008) is the third in a series of projects at Dia:Beacon commissioned from a younger generation of artists in response to the museum’s collection and/or location. Comprising some four thousand vintage postcards sourced mostly online over the past year, Zoe Leonard’s piece reveals its renowned subject, Niagara Falls, from a series of prime vantage points tracing its extensive brink. Organized taxonomically by motif (Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil, Table Rock, etc.), the various groups of cards are displayed in grids arranged on a continuous “horizon” line in accordance with their positions along the perimeter of the panoramic site. The sequence of vistas unfolds as a series of stages; at each, the viewer assumes the perspective inscribed within that photographic shot.
The combination of a single subject, uniform format, and orderly layout, creates an almost overwhelming impression of standardization and repetition. That initial impact is quickly undercut once the surprising range of variations within any individual group of cards, however small in number, becomes evident. Rapid shifts in print and camera technologies during the first half of the twentieth century, when most of these examples were produced, account for these differences: For example, chromolithography and hand tinting and overpainting of black-and-white photographs were employed around 1900. Within a couple of decades, those methods had been supplanted by color process printing, which was, in turn, continually refined in the search for ever-greater fidelity and for improved industrial efficiency. In a parallel development, stronger, more sophisticated lenses and faster film uncovered more detail in the familiar scenery, and established more convincing impressions of spatial depth. Nonetheless, there is little evidence in Leonard’s ensemble of the far-reaching physical changes that the site underwent during this same period: inter alia, the amount of water flowing over the falls was reduced and regulated daily; certain outcroppings of rock, deemed dangerous, were blasted away; and erosion radically redrew the profile of the Horseshoe Falls. While the icon requires constancy to maintain its status as icon, the suppression in these reproductions of the site’s physical permutations contributes to the elision of the icon into cliché.
By foregrounding the techniques and means of representation of one of the most popular subjects ever to be found on picture postcards, Leonard’s project draws attention to the ways in which cultural conventions and artifacts have mapped and defined both the natural world and our understanding of it. Although not unique like the snapshot or a camera phone’s digital image, the postcard, a commercially produced artifact, can function as a form of witness. Mass produced, it paradoxically serves as visual testimony as well as memento—You see, I am here after all.
Human intervention, in forms as divergent as mass-market tourism, hydroelectric systems, and industrial and chemical plants, beset Niagara Falls almost from the moment it was acclaimed as a natural wonder and national landmark. Many other scenic destinations, ranging from the nearby Hudson River Valley to places much farther west, have been similarly afflicted. While obliquely referencing the traditions of American landscape portrayal, Leonard’s work likewise alludes to certain ways in which, in the 1960s and 1970s, a diverse generation including Hanne Darboven, Sol LeWitt, Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson (among others whose work is seen at Dia:Beacon) chose to address key features of their sociocultural milieu. For these artists, images produced by reproductive media provide not only the dominant vehicle through which the contemporary world is experienced but the problematic, and often insidious, means by which we lay claim to it—You see I am here after all.
Zoe Leonard was born in Liberty, New York, in 1961. She lives and works in New York City.
Zoe Leonard: You See I Am Here After All
Zoe Leonard's You see I am here after all brings together thousands of postcard images of Niagara Falls, from the early 1900s through the 1950s.