Claire Hay holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently working on a second Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History and a minor in Photography at CU Denver. While in California, Claire studied black-and-white film photography with an emphasis on landscape photography and the Zone System. In 1982, Claire exhibited a black-and-white photo series of Death Valley at the Moody Medical Library, University of Texas, Galveston and more recently in 2016, 2017, and 2018, she exhibited abstract and landscape paintings at the Great Frame Up Gallery in Longmont, CO. As a geographer and an artist, Ms. Hay has traveled extensively in the western United States, and frequently in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa.
Photography of the Western American landscape from its earliest inception to the present exhibits two main themes: one is a political, socio-economic, or environmental commentary; the other is a formalist response to the landscape via minimalist, abstract aesthetics. While the first theme has been well-addressed by contemporary scholars who view landscape photography through a socio-political lens, the aesthetic and formalist considerations of these photographs has been marginalized. To remedy this imbalance, this thesis examines the overlooked and undervalued abstract aesthetics of landscape photographs. Late 19th century images, such as those by Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882), were often created during government-conducted surveys of the interior west to ascertain the region’s geological and economic resources. Progressing from the early documentary missions, more recent photographers viewed the now more developed and familiar landscape through a socio-political and environmentalist perspective. For example, the work of the contemporary photographer Richard Misrach (1949-) focuses on the effect of human exploitation on the landscape of the Interior Basin-and-Range and desert Southwest regions. Roger Minick (1944-) accepts humans in the landscape and as a part of the landscape and has a more positive and humorous approach in his work. While acknowledging the social content of Misrach’s and other’s work, this thesis will highlight the work’s concurrent aesthetic qualities. In doing so, this paper recognizes the formalist considerations of landscape photography that are essential to understanding the allure of the American West as subject matter and as a treasure trove of “found art” for artistic vision.