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The eye is a door

New exhibit showcases landscape photographs by Anne Whiston Spirn
Threshold.  Mt. Rokko Chapel, Kobe, Japan, July 1990.
Threshold. Mt. Rokko Chapel, Kobe, Japan, July 1990.
Photo: Anne Whiston Spirn. All Rights Reserved.

A new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art showcases the work of Anne Whiston Spirn, professor of landscape architecture and planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. "The Eye Is a Door: Landscape Photographs by Anne Whiston Spirn," is the first major exhibition to explore how Spirn’s photographs encourage a deeper understanding of the natural and built environment through the development of visual literacy: seeing as a way of knowing, photography as a way of thinking.

The 46 color images featured in the show connect such diverse topics as geology, biology, astronomy, anthropology, engineering, architecture, history, literary studies, studio art, and landscape studies. Produced over the past 35 years, they capture stories and ideas embodied in places Spirn has visited for her research, which range from the volcanic landscapes of Iceland to sacred Buddhist gardens in Japan.

"Her images manage to be simultaneously gorgeous and chaste," writes Mark Feeney in his Boston Globe review. "There’s something like exaltation [in them], but not quite. The images are too grounded in specificity for that. They’re too solid. Exaltation is a quality of spirit, and the emotions here are always rooted in place — a particular, there-and-then, on-this-planet place."

The locations in the photos range from Nahant, Mass., where Spirn lives, to Japan, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Britain, France and the American West; most of the pictures are 20” x 30” or 30” x 40”, with two at 50” x 40”. "The size of the pictures makes the landscapes feel habitable," Feeney writes. "There are no people in them, but often evidence of their presence — not just the 'acceptable' picturesqueness of white-washed cottages or stone walls, but an aqueduct, a pipeline, telephone poles and wires. Spirn’s vision of the world is inclusive."

Spirn is the author of several award-winning books including "Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange’s Photographs and Reports from the Field" (University of Chicago Press, 2008); "The Language of Landscape" (Yale University Press, 1998); and "The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design" (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Her new book, "The Eye Is a Door: Landscape, Photography, and the Art of Discovery," published this spring as an original e-book, describes her approach to developing visual literacy through photography. For more on the book and the exhibit, visit

Spirn is director of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project — integrating teaching, research, and community service — which was cited as a "Model of Best Practice" at a White House summit in March 1999. She has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Charles Warren Center, Woodrow Wilson Center, Radcliffe Institute, California Humanities Research Institute, and National Endowment for the Arts. In 2001, Spirn received the prestigious International Cosmos Prize for a lifetime of work contributing to the "harmonious co-existence of nature and mankind."

"The Eye Is a Door: Landscape Photographs by Anne Whiston Spirn" is on display through August 31st.

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