The Far Side Of Eden

PETER PLAGENS

The National Museum of American Art, in Washington, D.C., has reframed in period style three giant Thomas Moran landscape paintings from the late 19th century. Big deal, you say. Well, now we can see more clearly what they originally were: achingly romantic visions of a majestic natural America with sweeping skies, golden gorges and bright blue waterfalls straight from the palette of God. Downstairs in the museum is a far less transcendental exhibition, called "Between Home and Heaven: Contemporary American Landscape Photography," that shows how much the country-and our view of it-has changed. (The show runs through June 28, then travels to Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Cleveland and other cities.)

The great photographers in Moran's time, like Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan, also depicted a grand, unsullied landscape. A century later, human intrusions on Eden-from such benign signs of civilization as cattle guards and suburban cul-de-sacs to bombing ranges-tell a different story. Although some in this current generation of photographers (most in the show are around 40) still lovingly record fertile fields and misty mornings, most see nature and culture in, at best, an uneasy balance. The bridge spanning the Snake River in a way interrupts it. And even dreamily reflected in floodwater, the Salt Air Pavilion looks like a tacky Taj Mahal. As curator Merry Foresta writes in the accompanying book (176 pages. University of New Mexico. $50, paperback $35), "In a space age capable of sending back to earth an image of the entire planet, any move 'closer' to nature involves a landscape that inescapably bears the marks of human intervention." As reminders of how wrongheaded we can be, the pictures in "Between Home and Heaven" can be collectively depressing. Many of them are preachy, and a few employ chic tricks like montage. But the photographers' fudging is limited mostly to cropping and wide-angle lenses. Nearly all of the pictures are superbly crafted. Pretty, even, like a landscape ought to be.

Great Basin National Park, Nevada, 1987