Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Film Studies

First Advisor

Rabinovitz, Lauren

First Committee Member

Kinsey-Fields, Joni

Second Committee Member

Creekmur, Corey

Third Committee Member

Rigal, Laura

Fourth Committee Member

Choe, Steve


This dissertation traces a half-century of interactions between motion pictures and other visual media, using scenery as a node of meaning-making that affected key aspects of cinema as a medium: narrative, mode of documenting the natural world, propaganda tool, conduit of ‘ experience’ for American modernity. Exploring often-ignored aspects of visual culture like set design, moving panoramas and art exhibitions, it argues for the cross-disciplinary importance of landscape in debates around nationhood, empire, environmental blight and the relation between style and ideology, as they played out in the United States from the 1890s to the 1930s. As an inquiry, it takes its cue from concrete historical artifacts, artworks and their reception, bringing what is usually relegated to the backdrop (scenery) into the foreground of cultural history. An iconological approach is put forth that places the motion picture in the context of broader contemporaneous developments in American art.

Depictions of the natural landscape had been the principal artistic means of crafting an identity for the “republic of nature” that the United States aspired to be long before the advent of cinema. To a major extent, cinema became the legitimate heir to photography and painting because of its attempt to realize the uneasy but productive co-existence of nature and artifice. Drawing from the methodology of visual studies and adopting a comparative, historically-grounded perspective, this cultural history focuses on the natural and urban landscape as a motif and a certain way of looking at the world that cuts across media and anchors cinema to late nineteenth and twentieth century visual culture in the U.S. It is thus an intervention in the visual rhetoric of space that looks for the afterlives of the nineteenth century popular obsession with nature, beyond the familiar trope of the Western genre in cinema.

The impact that the early landscape photography of Eadweard Muybridge had for his subsequent experiments in chronophotography is examined by comparing the two phases of his career in technical and conceptual terms. The collaboration between railroad companies and movie studios for the promotion of Western scenery is as important to a history of landscape in early and silent America cinema as a consideration of the studios’ own layout ad their occasional function as amusement parks. Moving into the 1920s, “city symphonies” like Manhatta (1921) and documentaries of the American Southwest are placed against the background of Paul Strand’s photography and Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, works that addressed the same issues and locales. F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise is examined as a complex “landscape text” with a collaborative visual authorship and Warren Newcombe’s Hollywood career as a effects technician and exhibiting painter is presented as a case were landscape catalyzed a crosspollination of cinematic and painterly aesthetics. This cultural history culminates with a survey of landscape’s status as a national theme (from a political, economic and artistic point of view) during the years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, drawing from a variety of government-produced documentaries on themes like the dustbowl and New Deal agricultural revitalization efforts (as seen in Pare Lorentz’s The River, 1938). A major retrospective exhibition of American art staged in Paris in 1938 reveals the crucial importance attributed to landscape as a national motif around which various art forms, styles and periods in the cultural production of the United States were assembled and made intelligible for an international public.


Cinema, Landscape, Nation, Photography, United States, Visual Culture


xxxiv, 473 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 445-473).


Copyright © 2015 Dimitrios Latsis