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Window On the World
Seeing the landscape in black and white.
By Rebecca Fish Ewan

Landscape design has always been intimately tied to optics. How designers view the landscape affects how they do their work. So it's useful to consider the tools with which landscape architects can see and capture images.

The camera has been used to create images of landscapes since the Renaissance. Camera is a Latin word, meaning room, and the camera obscura, a centuries-old precursor to the handheld instrument, was simply a dark room into which light entered through a small hole in the wall. This light projected an image of the outside onto the opposite wall where an artist could then trace this projected landscape. Shrink the room down to fit into your hand, regulate the size of the hole, bend the light a bit with a lens, slide in a strip of light-sensitive film, and you have the basic workings of a modern-day mechanical camera.

Beginning in the 19th century, black-and-white photography as print art and documentary tool dominated, color being experimented with but lacking practical use until the introduction of Kodachrome film in 1937. So, early landscape architectural work-gardens, parks, plazas, or street-scapes-was photographed in monochrome. The late A. E. Bye is well known for the use of black-and-white photography in his work (see "A Subtle Hand," Landscape Architecture, May 1996). He used the camera not only to document his work after completion but also as a design tool to help during client meetings. The subtle quality of the black-and-white print worked in stunning parallel with his simple, understated designs. Bye considered his landscape work a success if it looked as if nothing had been done, if the design didn't scream at the viewer. Using black and white for these kinds of highly refined and quiet projects can emphasize the design's minimalist sensibility.

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