Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Mist, 1818
Looking at paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and others, I always thought there must be a term that describes that figure with his back to us, contemplating the natural scene before him. And I was right, there is such a term, the German word Rückenfigur, or back figure (clearly the German word is better).
A Rückenfigur is ‘a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is encouraged to place himself in the position of the Rückenfigur, by which means he experiences the sublime potential of nature, understanding that the scene is as perceived and idealised by a human.‘ (Elizabeth Prettejohn).
In Friedrich’s Romanticist work from the early 19th century, the new idea of Nature is the subject. Nature as a primal wilderness separate from Man was a concept that barely existed before that time, so Friedrich’s paintings were significant, depicting a sublime otherness which human beings must negotiate. See how the figure in his painting above is conspicuously clothed and even carries a walking stick. The two realms of Nature and Culture are confronted within the painting.
Nature ain’t what it used to be, so when Stephen Shore in the 1970s and Louis Porter in the 2000s focussed on the same topic (Porters’s image pays homage to Shore’s) nature is still the subject, but present only through its absence. And both photographers capture resignation and defeat in their rückenfigur figures.
Stephen Shore, El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975
Louis Porter, from Unknown Land, 2010