Composite Landscapes: Photomontage and Landscape Architecture



Charles Waldheim, Hon. ASLA, and Andrea Hansen | Publisher: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Hatje Cantz


Composite Landscapes is a museum exhibition and catalog examining one of landscape architecture’s most recognizable representational forms, the montage view. These composite views depict the conceptual, experiential, and temporal dimensions of landscape. The practice of montage—the overlay of one image over another to produce a composite image—is as old as image making itself. As early as the eighteenth century, landscape gardeners found montage practices to be particularly well suited to representing the temporal dynamics of the ever-changing landscape. Photomontage—montage using photographic images—has been practiced since the origins of photography. Over the past quarter century, practices of photomontage have been appropriated from the visual arts and adapted for use by landscape architects. Today, digital photomontage remains the dominant mode of landscape representation around the world. In revisiting the composite landscape view, Composite Landscapes illuminates the handmade origins of a method now more commonly produced through digital means.


The Composite Landscapes exhibition and catalog describe photomontage as the dominant mode of landscape representation around the world. What began as a critical and imaginative analog tool literally made in the hands of a select few critical cultural producers has now become a widely available digital medium of depiction and description. Beginning in the last decades of the twentieth century, photomontage emerged as one critical dimension of a broader intellectual recuperation of landscape architecture as an imaginative and creative field. As evident in the essays and images collected in this volume, strategies of photomontage were understood not simply as representations of a future reality, but rather as instruments of imagination in their own right, occasioning new relationships, and new landscapes. In the wake of the digital appropriation of these techniques, and their ubiquitous co-option for purely descriptive means, the Composite Landscapes exhibition and this volume propose the recuperation of these tools and techniques in the service of newly imagined landscape futures.

The catalog is organized in two parts, mirroring the structure of the eponymous exhibition. Part one assembles essays and images as historical precedents for landscape montage from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Part two gathers essays and plates on notable international practices of photomontage in landscape architecture over the past quarter century. Taken together, the essays and images assembled in this volume represent the historical development, critical emergence, and generic ubiquity of one of landscape architecture’s most profound representation tools in contemporary practice.

Prior to the development of landscape architecture as a profession in the late nineteenth century, various forms of landscape montage had been practiced for over one hundred years. European landscape gardeners made extensive use of montage as early as the eighteenth century. By the end of that century, English landscape gardener Humphry Repton had developed a technique of overlaying views of the existing context, placed over the top of renderings of his proposed landscape improvements. Repton’s “Red Books,” so named for their red morocco leather bindings, included intricate watercolor renderings showing the before and after conditions of Repton’s garden designs. It is relevant to this account that Repton himself was not a landscape contractor, as were most garden designers in his era. Rather, Repton was an early proponent of a division of labor in which the landscape gardener made detailed drawings to direct the labor of others.

Stephen Daniels’s essay “Moveable Views” revisits the eighteenth century origins of landscape montage through Humphry Repton’s development of overlay views. By the time of Repton’s Red Books, English enthusiasts Mary Delaney and Booth Grey were already making hand-colored paper “mosaicks” of botanical subjects. A century after Delaney and Repton, landscape architects Arthur Shurcliff and Charles Eliot appropriated Repton’s overlay technique to illustrate their plans for the Metropolitan Reservations of Boston. By the time of Eliot’s proposals for the shaping of Boston’s larger landscape, the technique of overlay before and after views was widely available for landscape gardeners and landscape architects on both sides of the Atlantic. James Ackerman’s essay “The Photographic Picturesque” examines the impact of landscape representation on the very origins of photography in the nineteenth century. Ackerman shows how the nascent art form of photography came to be shaped by nineteenth-century understandings of picturesque aesthetics associated with landscape.

Anette Freytag’s essay “Back to Form: Landscape Architecture and Representation in Europe after the Sixties,” characterizes practices of photomontage in the work of European landscape architects over the past quarter century, including Brunier. Karen M’Closkey’s essay, “Structuring Relations: From Montage to Model in Composite Imaging,” describes the shifting status of landscape photomontage as found in the work of North American practices over the past quarter century. James Corner’s essay “Eidetic Operations and New Landscapes” argues for the seminal and projective role of photomontage as a mode of imaging particularly well suited to the conception of new landscapes. As described in Composite Landscapes, photomontage has come to occupy a privileged position in the depiction of found landscapes, yet the role of photomontage in imagining future landscapes has been an equally potent one.

Montage has long been valued for its unique capacity to efficiently and effectively represent a complex range of landscape interventions with an economy of visual means. As a record of the experience of landscape phenomena, it has been among the most significant tools for representing landscape architecture. Above all, montage has been privileged for its relative ease of use and accessible visual language. Beyond simple photorealism, montage has the capacity to distill complex perceptual and phenomenal experiences in a visual medium easily understood by broad public audiences. The practice has been deployed to represent temporal change over time across diurnal, seasonal, and generational scales. It has also been used to represent species and their environments, as well as social relations and urban orders.

Landscape architects as diverse as Dieter Kienast and Yves Brunier in Europe and Michael Van Valkenburgh in North America experimented with various forms of photomontage in the late eighties. By the early nineties, several landscape architects, including Adriaan Geuze in the Netherlands and James Corner and Ken Smith in the US, had developed distinct techniques of photomontage for use in their work. By the mid-nineties, the use of photomontage was evident across a range of landscape practices throughout North America and Western Europe, and by the end of that decade photomontage had emerged as the dominant mode of landscape representation internationally. Over the past decade, the use of photomontage in landscape architecture has been disseminated through digital media. First developed by hand in Western Europe and North America, digital photomontage is presently practiced across all continents and all cultures engaged in landscape representation.

The exhibition and eponymous catalog present the drawings made by landscape architects as works of art in their own right. The project communicates the status and role of photomontage as a privileged representational form in landscape architecture for literate lay audiences, design professionals, and students. In revisiting the composite landscape view, Composite Landscapes illuminates the handmade origins of a method now more commonly produced through digital means. In so doing, the project exposes museum-going audiences to the work of landscape architects and contemporary practices in the field of landscape architecture.

"The basic claim being made here is that the way we present images shapes our understanding of a landscape design."

- 2015 Awards Jury


Charles Waldheim, Honorary ASLA Ruettgers Curator of Landscape
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, curator/editor
Andrea Hansen, assistant curator/co-editor
Siena Scarff Design, graphic design
George Bouret, photography

Contributing authors: James S. Ackerman, James Corner, ASLA, Stephen Daniels, Anette Freytag, Andrea Hansen, Karen M’Closkey, and Charles Waldheim