Distanced visuality, embodied proximity? Literary and photographic images of Finnish travel landscapes from the premodern journey to the railway era.

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterScientific

Abstract

This article investigates representations of the environmental experience of premodern road and early railway travel in literary descriptions, contrasting them with the aesthetic visions of the early railway in landscape photography. This historical material, from the 1880s to the 1930s, spans the eras before and after the construction of the Savo railway, Eastern Finland.

The exploration initially draws from the concept of proximity and the arguments of Finnish geographer J.G. Granö and German cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, both of whom, within different disciplinary contexts, employ the concept to signify the centrality of spatial nearness, closeness or immediacy to a subject’s experience of the environment and as enabling the production of sensations of actuality, of truly ‘being there’. In this discussion the notion of proximity is used to explore, firstly, the transformation of landscape experience that occurred in the wake of the mobility revolution caused by the construction of the railway in Savo province, eastern Finland, drawing in particular on the writing of Finnish novelist Juhani Aho, whose reminiscences about premodern travel show a world in which spatial immediacy was central to the apprehension of the environment.

In particular, Schivelbusch applies the concept of foreground to the changing experience of landscape brought about by the railway. Railway travel largely eradicated sensations borne of immediacy, effectively pictorializing the landscape: surroundings formerly experienced through all of the senses and active participation, were now increasingly encountered as ‘external’ visual impressions; for those who experienced premodern travel, landscape now involved existential distance with a corresponding reduction in the significance of the foreground.

The main argument developed in the latter part of the chapter is strongly inspired by Schivelbusch’s claim that one reason for photography’s historical success and miraculous sense of wonder was its ability to re-evoke the foreground eradicated by industrial revolution. It is argued that the special significance of railway landscape photography was – following Schivelbusch – its capability to restore the material closeness of the environment in the field of vision, especially in the case of the foreground, which may evoke a strong, affective sense of environmental closeness, involving an almost tactile and multisensory presence of objects. This is significant, because images thus possess a potential to challenge the limited scope of canonical models of seeing and appreciating the landscape. Yet in the present, these images exhibit a historically unrealized power. Their re-evocations of intimate, close experiences of the past environments may, affectively and performatively, promote important and critical aesthetic sensibilities towards the changing modern everyday landscape.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProximity and Distance in Northern Landscape Photography
Subtitle of host publicationContemporary Criticism, Curation and Practice
EditorsDarcy White, Chris Goldie
Place of PublicationBielefeld, Germany
Pages81–106
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-8394-4950-9
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jul 2020
MoE publication typeB2 Part of a book or another research book

Keywords

  • Photography
  • Landscape
  • Aesthetics
  • Travel

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