Romanticism and Activism

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Romanticism and Activism – A comparison of the work of Fay Godwin and Sebastiao Salgado, to ascertain the degree to which they are romantics and how their images may move the viewer to action.

This essay will contrast how romanticism has influenced the photographic practice of Fay Godwin and Sebastiao Salgado, and how this approach in turn can start to affect environmental activism. The framework will specifically be within a genre defined by photographer David Ward, as ‘Romantic landscape’, (Ward, 2004, p.104). See plate 1.

Plate 1

Ward describes his approach as seeking to
‘evoking emotional responses from anonymous places’ (Ward, 2012) Highlighting a romantic approach of connecting with emotions. If an individual has an emotional response to an image they may be moved to action. Alistair Fuad-Luke describes activism as “Activism is about….taking actions to catalyse, encourage or bring about change, in order to elicit social, cultural and/or political transformations. It can also involve transformation of the individual activists.’ (Fuad-Luke, 2009, p.5)

We shall look at the intentions of the reknown photographers towards being an activist and how their images can be read. To read the images the theory defined by Barthes, as highlighting the denotation and connotation of images will be primarily used. “Barthes called the first, descriptive level, the level of denotation: the second level, that of connotation…Denotation is the simple, basic descriptive level where consensus is wide and most people would agree on the meaning…the second level of signification…. Is more general, global and diffuse” (Hall, 2011, p.38)

Carl Phillipp Fohr was one of the Romantics in Rome in 1816. Fohr devoted himself largely to Romantic landscape according to Wolf. His last and one of his most famous pictures was ‘The Ideal Landscape near Rocca Canterana’. See plate 2.

Plate 2

If we look at the denotation then we have, a landscape with the influences of humans, pastoral spaces bordering onto a mountainous area, three groups following a path, pilgrims, two shepherds, and two younger children. We may not even be aware that the two male groups are pilgrims or shepherds. Norbert Wolf comments :

‘By depicting the various stages of walking and wandering Fohr evokes the transience of all earthly things and the journey into the future, which is the true goal of human existence.’ (Wolf, 2007, p.52)

This quote illustrates the deeper connotation, which may be read into an image and is often implied by the painter or photographer. This process will be used to look carefully at selected images from Godwin and Salgado.

The romantic movement is hard to define precisely but began in the late 18th century and continued through the nineteenth century according to Wolf. It focused primarily on the inclusion of emotion and imagination within the artists work, “emphasizing an artists emotional sensibility above intellectual reasoning…….the artist’s task was seen as conveying feeling for the subject….” (Ward, 2004, p. 52)

This would lead in photography to the representation of the emotions of the photographer being conveyed, as opposed to a more objective viewpoint. Furst captures a significant point that ‘romantics’ will often be looking for an ideal solution “the romantics look with what is the eye of the imagination, which allows them to see beyond surface reality to the immanent ideal” (Furst, 1969, p.37)

The romantic movement with it’s focus on imagination and emotion had a clear aesthetical standpoint. Amelia Rauser writing on the aesthetic of romanticism makes the following observation “Romanticism was the dominant aesthetic movement in early 19th-century England” (Raueser, 2012)

The Concise Oxford dictionary (1982) defines aesthetics as ‘belonging to the appreciation of the beautiful’. As the essay progresses we will study the element of aesthetics within Godwin and Salgado’s work, that link it to ideas of...
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