Lonely planet

Human life is tangential in these eerie landscapes, assembled over 50 years by Magnum's team of photographers. With their silent bridges and buildings, they evoke an earth peopled by survivors of a nameless catastrophe. By Ian Jeffrey
The great space missions of the 1960s altered our perceptions of landscape irrevocably, for they familiarised us with news of the earth as Elsewhere, or as another planet rising and setting with planetary destinies. By enlarging our sense of space and time, the missions with their photographers made it possible - or just easier - to imagine the earth before habitation, or as once more abandoned under the trodden moon dust of 20 July 1969.

We were no longer to be so safely at home among nature's objects which we had put to our own uses: all those rocks, trees and rivers of poetry and theology which had long been part of the moral landscape.

From the 1960s onwards, we were invited to think of ourselves rather as short-term visitors to a site that was changing under our feet and largely indifferent to our presence. Probably to save face, we claimed a negative responsibility for the deadening of the planet.

In the 1920s, we had wondered what it would be like to inhabit a perfected, foreseeable future - not far off, if the blueprints were to be believed. Landscape, as envisaged under those Utopian terms, would be subdued; it would either be a managed adjunct to the city, supervised from the air, or it would be a homely world of vignettes seen selectively from the motorway.

The first atomic explosions, at the Trinity site in New Mexico on 16 July 1945, began to dislodge that view. What would it be like, the new turn of mind suggested, if there were to be no survivors, or very few? How would it be to have to forage in the ruins of cities, under weather systems grown inhospitable? What would become of us, on foot in the wreckage, without civilised amenities? Photographers, engrossed by the new narrative, have turned their attention to survivors. And here they are - cyclists making do among the ruins, solitaries lost in the woods or fleeing the city, or at the wheel of the last car in a landscape gone over to desert

Photographs from `Magnum Landscape', published by Phaidon Press on 20 Feb 1997, price pounds 14.99

Sound of silence: (left) Kun Ming Hu Lake, Summer Palace, Beijing, China, 1964, by Rene Burri; (top right) White Sands, New Mexico, USA, 1952, by Ernst Haas; (above) the Walled City, Hong Kong, 1987, by Patrick Zachmann Modern giants: (above) The Verrazano Bridge and the Queen Mary, New York, USA, 1963, by Bruce Davidson; (right) Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1960, by Rene Burri

Pale riders: (top right) Sioux horse riders crossing Big Foot Pass in memory of the massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA, 1990, by Guy Le Querrec; (below right) Fire at Hoboken, New York, USA, 1946, by Henri Cartier-Bresson