The Crapola Sublime

Photograph of a roadside advertisement, 1970s
© Stephen Shore/303 Gallery, New York
A photograph by Stephen Shore from Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971–1979, a collection of his images of the North American landscape just published by Mack

The pioneering American cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909–1996) learned to analyze landscapes not at Harvard, where he lectured, or in New Mexico, where he lived and ranched, but in the war-shattered countryside of Germany’s Hürtgen Forest during the Allied push eastward after the D-Day landings in 1944. German resistance had halted the American advance in the forest, and Jackson, attached to the Ninth Infantry Division as a combat intelligence officer, spent a cold and uncomfortable winter there. With time on his hands, he set about creating a most unusual library. During the day he moved between ruined buildings, searching the wreckage for regional guidebooks, picture postcards, tourist maps, and works of French geography and history—anything, really, that offered details of the terrain ahead. In the evenings, he studied aerial photographs of the area, questioned Wehrmacht prisoners, and scrutinized their diaries and Soldbücher (logbooks).

From this fragmentary archive—a bomb-struck Baedeker—Jackson pieced together a vision of the landscape beyond the front line. He gained not only a bird’s-eye view of the countryside, but also ground-level, fine-grained details of settlement and geology. He scrutinized soil textures and types of dwelling (wanting to know which farms had barns large enough to accommodate enemy vehicles). He assessed the differing sizes of roadside orchards (to determine which might conceal German artillery or troops). He gathered this evidence primarily to inform military decision-making, but he also read it historically as testimony to the long-term human culture of this landscape before its drastic rearrangement by war. Even when fighting through small industrial towns, he noted the small vegetable gardens that backed onto the “long rows of workers’ houses,” or the half-timbered farmhouses that were “wedged in at an angle among the modern buildings.” “Combat existence” also developed in him, he later recalled, a hunter’s “acute receptivity to the messages sent out by the environment.” He learned to distinguish between “kinds of gunfire,” the sounds of vehicle engines and footsteps, even the stink of the enemy—“for each army had a characteristic body odor.”

Jackson was thirty at the outbreak of World War II. Born in France to American parents, he grew up first in New York, then at boarding schools in Switzerland, France, and Massachusetts. He scarcely knew his father, who abandoned the family at the outset of World War I, when Jackson was five. His mother was loving, controlling, independently wealthy, and very ambitious for her son. Through a combination of her string-pulling and Jackson’s persistence, he was admitted to Harvard in 1929, where his undergraduate tutor found him to be a “rather half-baked intellectual.”

He fancied himself, incorrectly to my eye, to be a decent artist en…

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