Translating the Landscape

Glen Loy, Scotland (Sept. 1978).

As a child, Anne Whiston Spirn says, “I was fortunate enough to be able to wander.”

Spirn’s explorations began in Connecticut, Boston, and the semi-wild reaches of the Cincinnati suburbs, where she remembers playing in the woods and pulling handfuls of tiny fossils from the streambeds. As a teenager, she spent a year on a farm in Denmark, strengthening her connection to landscape, she says, and deepening her awareness of light and place.

Now a professor of landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spirn has traveled the world as an author, scholar, landscape architect and photographer whose works will appear in The Eye Is A Door, an exhibition running from January 31 to August 31 at the Museum of Art, based upon her new book of the same title.

The photographs in The Eye Is A Door reflect Spirn’s extensive travels, featuring striking images of natural and built environments in locales ranging from Nahant, Massachusetts, to Vatnajokull, Iceland, to Kyoto, Japan.

The images are grouped in pairs, and Spirn sees special significance in the groupings. “I think of these pairs as haiku,” she describes. “And the break between the images is like the break in the haiku. So it’s like the metaphorical leap gives you this new realization that there’s a new whole that comes out of putting them together.”

Spirn’s works are ideal for an extended exhibition at the museum, notes Aprile Gallant, curator of prints, drawings and photographs. “The museum is really interested in helping people develop visual literacy,” she says. “In addition to helping people think deeply about what they see, Anne’s photographs work really well on an interdisciplinary level. There are so many layers in the images referring to a wide variety of topics, such as geology, history, visual art, environmental studies, and literature, to name a few—everything really tied in beautifully through this exhibition.”

In keeping with the interdisciplinary theme, the exhibition will feature programming in a variety of media, presented in conjunction with Smith’s departments of Landscape Studies and Dance. Highlights include a Landscape Studies lecture by Spirn on Monday, Feb. 10, and “Threshold: An Evening of Dance, Music, and Image,” a collaborative performance inspired by Spirn’s work, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. in Theatre 14, Mendenhall; Spirn will participate in a Q&A session following that performance. She will also deliver a gallery talk June 13 as part of the museum’s Second Fridays program.

A major theme of Spirn’s work is that landscapes have implications that go far beyond the surface impression. “Our built environments, our landscapes,” she says, “express societal values and beliefs.”


Parc de Sceaux, Paris (May 1993).

One such landscape is documented in her photograph “Parc de Sceaux.” “This garden in France was designed in the 17th Century,” she explains, “at the time when Louis XIV was king. And the geometry is a reflection of political values of a very organized, central state. These trees are on a path that leads up to the palace—it wasn’t Louis XIV’s palace, but this was the style at the time.”

Spirn’s connection with Smith dates back to the mid-1990s, when faculty consulted with her about the possibility of initiating a Landscape Studies Program. “Anne Spirn has been a supporter and mentor for the Landscape Studies Program from the very beginning,” says Ann Leone, director of Landscape Studies, “She has taught our classes, been a guest critic in our studios, spoken several times in our spring lecture series, and given us generous, expert guidance as we’ve developed the program.  In some ways, she is the program’s professional godmother.”

“Smith is the most perfect place for the exhibit to open,” Spirn says, “because of the extraordinary education department here, because of the quality of the museum, and because of the fact that it’s oriented toward visual literacy.”

According to Maggie Lind, associate educator for academic programs at the museum, “Anne’s photographs encourage a type of close, engaged looking that can be relevant to the analysis of images across disciplines. In her process, she focuses on highlighting the ‘significant details’ that tell the story of a place.”

Wherever she goes, Spirn says, she is drawn to the landscape, and much of her photography is accomplished “when I’m out doing professional things.” A conference comes to mind, she says, in Fort Collins, Colorado, at which she spoke on “the deep structure of landscape versus surface structure—the ephemeral versus the enduring. I gave that lecture and then I headed out to the prairie.”