On a clear autumn afternoon last year, on a flight between two cities in the American West, I had a spectacular view of Yosemite Valley. Even from an altitude of 30,000 feet the famous landscape Half Dome! was instantly recognisable. And more: it seemed to me to have a particular and unsettling power. This was not a new sensation. Years earlier on a rock-climbing trip. I remember feeling profoundly moved but also oddly dislocated, as my real-time, personal experience of the park merged with memories of iconic photographs by such celebrated artists as Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Edward Weston, and countless anonymous postcard and calendar views. Photographer Mark Klett has argued that this sheer density of imagery makes Yosemite at least as much a cultural as a natural. (The Service’s “Scenic Vista Management Plan” involves cutting trees and clearing vegetation to recreate the vistas captured in those early photographs.) What is true of Yosemite is also true of landscape in general: the tension between the image of a place and the place itself a tension shaped by photographic practice of the last 150 years is at the heart of a conflicted relationship with the land we use and inhabit.

The seminal work of Ansel Adams has had enormous influence on attitudes about nature and landscape. From the start of his in the until his Adams took thousands of photographs in the American West in which he constructs a vision of landscape as a wilderness untouched, unmarred by human habitation. Although animated by a passionate love for the natural world Adams considered himself a conservationist as well as photographer his work is riddled with contradictions. He took pains to exclude traces of human presence from his images and even a cursory study of his technique reveals the photographs to be highly stylised and artfully manipulated. Unfortunately one consequence of Adams’s carefully framed and distanced views is to reinforce a dualism deep in the American grain: the idea that the natural and the human are separate worlds. Nature is a wilderness to visit, not an environment to inhabit.

Work of subsequent generations has challenged Adams’s legacy. The flight on which I reveled in that view of Yosemite was taking me from Reno Nevada to my home in Arizona; I’d been in Reno to attend a conference sponsored by the Art Environment Program at the Nevada Museum of Art, and to see the companion exhibition, The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment. The NMA show followed trends established by the now legendary exhibition New Topographic: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape curated by William Jenkins at the George Eastman House in Rochester New York which examined both the desolation and the unexpected beauty of built environments like industrial parks and strip malls rejecting the idea, or ideal, of nature as untouched. Comprising works from the through today, The Altered Landscape placed New Topographics artists such as Robert Adams Lewis Baltz and Joe Deal alongside younger practitioners like Edward Burtynsky Chris Jordan Richard Misrach and Subhanker Banerjee who have taken as their subject the effects of human activity on the land. While the work in the exhibition varied widely in its politics and aesthetics some of the more recent work focusing on our alterations and abuses of the environment seemed to me to imply an irreconcilable divide between the human and natural worlds an apparent return to the dualism of the Ansel Adams tradition.