One of the stranger suggestions in “Picture-taking at Letchworth Park,” Kodak’s brochure for amateur photographers, is to create a type of snapshot that wouldn't seem to be very scenic: “Make ‘title’ pictures by photographing signs. Include people looking or pointing at the ‘title’ signs.” Kodak’s advice makes a certain sense for organizing pictures in a family photo album, but it’s also incredibly self-referential in describing how to make a picture about picture-taking. The company’s advertisements, from an early date, often depicted photographers wielding cameras in scenic locations—nowhere more spectacularly than in its famous 18 x 60 foot “Colorama” display in Grand Central Station. The idea of title pictures, commercial undercurrent and all, reveal to us a moment in time when individuals were being taught how to frame undifferentiated experience; how to select and name what was memorable.
Of course, it’s easier to see the heavy-handedness of Kodak in retrospect because Americans don’t dress, pose, idealize or photograph like this anymore—not precisely. And yet we still behold scenery at Letchworth State Park, making sense of it according to our needs and sharing that experience with others. This becomes more apparent when looking at four images spanning 140 years, each of which contains self-conscious cues as to the changing infrastructure for representing the picturesque.
Most of the time we’re not so conscious of scenery as something that has been constructed; perhaps we fear that over-analysis will disrupt our appreciation of nature. But an important early writer on the picturesque, Uvedale Price, wrote in 1796 that we benefit from “studying copies of nature, though the original is before us” because the accumulated experience of artists help us see nature’s disparate parts more perceptively: “Many of these objects, that are scarcely marked as they lie scattered over the face of nature, when brought together in the compass of a small space of canvas are forcibly impressed upon the eye, which by that means learns how to separate, to select, and to combine.” Price compares it to the way a deeply observant writer like Shakespeare can sensitize us, so that “what passes in real life is rendered infinitely more poignant, by a resemblance to what we have read, or have seen on the stage” (5-6).
Price’s Essays on the Picturesque were influential for aesthetic theory but also, more practically, for landscape design (painting wasn’t the only medium through which to create the picturesque). Deforested parcels of real estate purchased by William P. Letchworth slowly became the aesthetically pleasing parkland we experience today, thanks to the careful designs of men like “landscape artist” William Webster, arborist Overton Price, and of course Letchworth’s own sensibilities. As the following sections enumerate, the park’s evolution also drew upon the work of uncountable writers, painters, photographers, and marketers to create practices of the scenic. Kodak’s twenty picture spots, including its “title picture,” have a complex genealogy.
—Price, Uvedale. Essays on the picturesque, as compared with the sublime and the beautiful; and, on the use of studying pictures, for the purpose of improving real landscape. Vol. 1. 1796. London: J. Mawman, 1810. Web version available at Internet Archive.