Portraits in the Landscape

Posted on January 9, 2013


At the beginning of February I am going on a photographic workshop in Scotland. The leaders of the workshop are Joe Cornish, David Ward, Eddie Ephraums and Adrian Hollister. I attended the workshop last year and thoroughly enjoyed myself. A particular highlight was learning about book production from Eddie who is a publisher – we all got to produce our own mini fold out book. I also came back with some good photographs, with this video being my best work. I plan to take my large format camera this year and hope to learn a lot from Joe and David who are experts.

I have decided that I would like to make a series of portraits of the photographers who are taking part in the workshop. I aim to make these portraits out in the field. I have started to give some thought to what I am trying to achieve with this and how I might go about it.

To kick start my thinking I decided to have a very brief look at the history of portraiture in the landscape starting with renaissance portrait painting and ending with contemporary photography. This post sets out my initial findings and a view on how this might direct my  work up in Scotland.

Painting, Portraits and Landscape

Renaissance portraits often included an idealised landscape scene for portraits. This detail from the Mona Lisa by Leonardo is typical.

Detail from the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Detail from the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

The landscape has no specific relevance in terms of an actual place which might provide context as to the identity of the sitter. It is an idealised depiction used to elaborate the composition, and maybe to emphasise the beauty of the figure by way of contrast – the smooth gentle features of the woman set against the harsh ruggedness of the land. The landscape also provides depth to the painting with Leonardo using atmospheric perspective to create a sense of distance in the landscape.

Landscape was a recognised genre in Chinese art by the fourth century, but in Western art, it didn’t begin until the sixteenth century. Even then it ranked very low in the academic hierarchy of genres (types of painting), being ranked fourth after history painting, portraiture, genre painting with only still life being regarded as inferior. This discouraged artists of note from practicing landscape work. In the sixteenth century Northern artists such as Durer and Breugel the elder began to work more freely with landscape. But even Breugel stuck with the classical tradition of using beautiful scenery purely as background to the mythological message. It was not until the 17th century that landscape painting began to come into its own with Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorain leading the way.

Claude’s paintings were characterised by the way in which they are bathed in a beautiful warm light. He included figures in the landscape with the aim of furthering the narrative of the painting. The truth is that they were small elements within the frame and that the paintings were really a celebration of the beauty of nature. These could not really be described as portraits.

Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba by Claude Lorrain

Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba by Claude Lorain

By the 18th century landscape painting had become more established in its own right particularly in England with the likes of Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. The tradition of including human elements in such paintings continued. Gainsborough called figures in landscape paintings “a little business for the eye”.  Turner on the other hand saw them as intrinsic to his pictures’ meaning, as was the obviously the case for example in his painting of  Hannibal and his soldiers crossing the Alps in a snowstorm. Whilst Turner scoured Europe for dramatic landscapes to paint, Constable stayed closer to home painting the places he loved best and because he believed that no two leaves of a tree were ever “alike since the creation of the world” his method was one of minute observation.

From around 1720 onwards a fashion developed for informal portrait paintings set in domestic or rural locations. These became known as ‘conversation pieces’. They usually comprised  of an informal group apparently engaged in genteel conversation or some activity. The conversation piece is perhaps the first signifiant reference point for the portraits I am planning.The subject(s) is(are) located within a representation of an actual landscape . This work by Gainsborough is typical of the style.

Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1748-50

Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, 1748-50

In Gainsborough’s painting the landscape performs a much more important role than mere background. It depicts the Andrews’ estate. and is intended to represent their wealth and status. The painting is full of symbolism with the  oak tree  a metaphor for Mr Andrews’ strength, courage and steadfastness. The ripening corn could also be a reference to fertility and the continuance of the family line.

In the 19th century the Impressionists were greatly concerned with the landscape. Their aim was to capture fleeting moments during which a tree (or pond) might for example appear pink, in which case it would be painted pink. Naturalist colour schemes do not allow for such detailed scrutiny  of nature and how it changes with the light. Impressionists also included figures and everyday scenes set in the landscape, but I can find no specific tradition of painting portraits in such settings. Paintings such as Manet’s ‘Dejeurner Sur L’Herbe’ were groundbreaking in their day.

Dejeurner sur L'herbe Edouard Manet

Dejeurner sur L’herbe Edouard Manet

This painting is not really a portrait as the characters do not represent particular subjects but they show ‘types’ prevalent in the society of the day. The work is more about challenging to the prevailing values of society and the arts establishment. The setting of a nude figure in a contemporary landscape was shocking as the painting did not make reference to any historical or mythological context. Its shock value was even stronger as the woman engages the viewer head on without any sense of modesty.

Photography Portraits and Landscape

The mid 1800s of course saw the emergence of photography. Most early portraiture was done in the studio. The reason for this is pretty clear. The equipment was very heavy to transport and the process difficult enough without having to contend with the weather. Long exposure times also meant that the subjects needed to be in a place where they could be ‘anchored down’. The exceptions this were a few pioneering landscape photographers who occasionally ventured into portraiture. Carleton Watkins who is notable for his photographs of Yosemite in the 1860s that significantly influenced the US Congress’s decision to establish the valley as a National Park in 1864. Watkins made this self portrait:

Self Portrait Carleton Watkins

Self Portrait Carleton Watkins

As cameras became more portable and their use democratised making portraits in the landscape became common place. Most were ‘snapshots’ of family members and friends pictured with the backdrop of well know landscapes. Kodak even went to the trouble of erecting sign posts showing where the touring motorist should go to find the best viewpoints for their photographs. It is of no surprise that Kodak even referred to such photography in their advertisement.

Kodak Camera Advertisent

1962 Kodak Camera Advertisement

‘Family’ photographs are about preserving memories, very often memories of the family’s travels away from the home. As Patricia Holland says in her essay ‘Sweet it is to scan…”, “The domestication of the unfamiliar, by capturing it on film, has remained one of the most important uses of snapshot cameras since Kodak’s fist appeal to tourists and travellers. A site is not a sight until we’ve snapped it and made it ours, often by placing a familiar face….in an unfamiliar place.’ (Wells 1996, pp146). Almost all of such photography was of little value for anyone outside of the immediate family of the amateur photographer. However, they do represent an informative historical record.

Whilst there is a strong tradition of documentary portraiture in urban environments, my research has revealed relatively few examples where photographers have deliberately placed their subjects in a landscape setting. Amongst these are August Sander, James Ravilious, Bernhard Fuchs, Albrecht Tubke, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth and Mark Power.

James Ravilious worked in the South West of England and spent many years documenting his local rural community. Portraits feature prominently within his work and many are set outdoors with the local rural countryside as a backdrop. The landscape in these portraits places the subjects in the context of their specific rural surroundings. Often the subjects are captured as they are working on their land. The relationship between subject and landscape is very clear. It is the place where they live and work and the place itself can be identified. Ravilious’s portraits are a record of people and place.

archie parkhouse with ivy for sheep, millhams dolton, Devon, England 1975

Archie Parkhouse with ivy for sheep, millhams dolton, Devon, England 1975 by James Ravilious

August Sander sometimes photographed his subjects within the landscape (Sander, 1994). He did this when the inclusion of a rural background said something about the subjects classification within his typological structure. He segregated subjects into seven essential types: the farmer, the skilled tradesman, the woman, classes and professions, the artists, the city and the last people (social misfits and the handicapped). It is the farmers who he places in the landscape. In these portraits however the landscape  serves only as a background to show the subject in a rural environment. It provides little or no information about the exact location.

Young Farmers 1914 by August Sander 1876-1964

Young Farmers 1914 by August Sander 1876-1964

In perhaps her most well known series Beach Portraits (Dijkstra, 2012)  Rineke Dijkstra places her subjects in a landscape setting, standing on a sandy beach with sea and sky beyond. Whilst the portraits were made in different locations the formal structure is the same in every case. The captions identify the place and the date but not the name of the subject. In these portraits I get the feeling that the landscape is intended more as neutral background for the portraits. The choice of the beach location does however have interesting connotations, with the junction of land and sea perhaps serving as a metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Most of her subjects were adolescent children.

Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA June 24, 1992

Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA June 24, 1992

Bernhard Fuchs is a member of the Dusseldorf School and trained under the Bechers. His book Portrait Photographs shows people from his local village, Mühlviertel. Many are pictured in the landscape, in places where they have deep roots. The approach here is similar to that of Ravilious. The specific link between person and place is made by photographs. In both cases the photographers clearly identify the place through the caption but Fuchs does not name the subject. He appears to be using the portraits as a means of representing the nature of the community through images which show a combination of people and place.

Wünschendorf 1998 by Bernhard Fuchs

Wünschendorf 1998 by Bernhard Fuchs

Albrecht Tubke’ Dalliendorf (Tubke, 2006) is very similar to Fuchs’ portraits. Tubke’s work documents his home town through a series of portraits, some of which are set in the landscape. Specific captions are omitted but the viewer knows that all are set in or in the environment of Dalliendorf.

Dalliendorf by Albrecht Tubke

Dalliendorf by Albrecht Tubke

Joel Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing is a series of portraits made by the photographer made in his travels throughout the USA over a 15 year period. As the title of the work suggests the portraits were of people he did not know who he bumped into along the way. The portraits are full body  often showing a broad swathe of the environment in which the subject is situated. Many are set in the landscape with the location clearly specified in the caption, as is the date. People and place and time are clearly of interest to Sternfeld in this document of the USA.

A man on the banks of the Mississippi, Baton Rouge, Louisiana August 1985

A man on the banks of the Mississippi, Baton Rouge, Louisiana August 1985

Alec Soth’s Broken Manual (Soth) is an investigation into people who retreat to escape civilization. He photographed monks, survivalists, hermits and runaways. One of the things I found interesting about this work is the way in which in some of the portraits Soth gives greater prominence to the landscape in which the subject is pictured (and lives) than the subject himself. By doing this he stresses the isolation of his subjects. The landscape is being used both to place the subjects in a physical environment and as a metaphor for their lifestyle. The book does not provide captions for these portraits which seems to give force the idea that his subjects are shut off from society. I think Soth’s approach works really well although as portraits they are rather unconventional.

Broken Manual by Alec Soth

Broken Manual by Alec Soth

Mark Power’s The Sound of Two Songs is a personal documentary of Poland, a place  he has become very attached to. It is a mixture of urban and rural landscapes and some portraits. In the portraits the subjects are shown full body with some placed within the landscape. The photographs are captioned with the first name of the subject, the location and a date, clearly situating the subject in place and time. By using first names only I get the sense that Power is presenting his subjects more as ‘types’ than as individuals. Similarly the landscape backdrops where they are used do not provide sufficient information to identify their specific location and as such I get the feeling that they are intended to place the subject in a ‘type’ of context, e.g. rural rather than urban (this is similar to Sander’s use of rural backgrounds for this farmers and Soth’s woodland settings in Broken Manual).

POLAND. 2004. Upper Silesia. Zabrze. L-R: 'Patryk', 'Natalia', 'Damian'.

POLAND. 2004. Upper Silesia. Zabrze. L-R: ‘Patryk’, ‘Natalia’, ‘Damian’. from Sound of Two Songs by Mark Power

Portraits of Landscape Photographers

I also looked at whether there are any useful references for portraiture of landscape photographers in the landscape. Generally I found that such photographs are of a PR nature for well known photographers or professionals wishing to publicising their services. This portrait of Ansel Adams is typical – it looks a little orchestrated and forced. Adams and/or his promoters is putting on a show for the camera and projecting an image of him as they wish him to be represented rather than as he might really have been.

Portrait of Ansel Adams

Portrait of Ansel Adams

I did find one exception to this. It is a self portrait by Galen Rowell. It is a much more genuine portrait. He is scruffy and dirty just as he would have been out in the field. He addresses the camera with an earnest expression. The landscape forms a large part of the image and is both interesting as a landscape in itself and as a means of placing the subject in context. Rowell does not identify himself by name in the caption, which is intriguing.

Self-portrait of the young climber in Yosemite Valley, 1967 by Galen Rowell

Self-portrait of the young climber in Yosemite Valley, 1967 by Galen Rowell

What I’ve learned and implications for my own work

So what does this all add up to. Well it seems to me that, when making a portrait with a landscape as the background, the landscape can fulfil many different purposes.

  • It can simply be a useful background to enable the artist/photographer better represent their subject. This seems to have been the case with Renaissance portraiture.
  • It can in truth be the central purpose of the image, with the figures being there simply to provide ‘a little business for the eye’ or to further the narrative. This was the approach of Claude Lorain, Gainsborough, Turner and Constable.
  • It can be used as a means of describing the nature of the portrait subject as was the case for Sander’s farmers.
  • It can be used in conjunction with the portrait to describe the nature of a community (both national and local). This is the case I believe in the photographs of Ravilious, Fuchs, Tubke, Power and Sternfeld.
  • It can be used as a metaphor to imply more about the subjects: the wealth of the Andrews family in Gainsborough’s portrait; the transition from childhood to adulthood for Dijkstra’s subjects in Beach Portraits; the loneliness and isolation of Soth’s subjects in Broken Manual. 

For my own work, I want to make portraits of my fellow photographers within the landscape firstly because  by doing so I am immediately saying something more about them – in simplistic terms I am making an association between them and the natural world. Conceptually I also think that it would be interesting for the landscape background to have been chosen by the subject. What I have in mind is to use as a backdrop a landscape which the subject photographer has just photographed. This creates a more personal association between the subject and the landscape and perhaps says a little more about them. I would like the subject, time and place to be identifiable (either implicitly or through information in the caption).  I see the work as both a series of portrait studies of the specific individuals and as a document of the group, individuals, places and times.

In terms of aesthetic style I see the Galen Rowell portrait as an excellent role model. I am most definitely not looking for PR type photographs and would wish to avoid the snapshot aesthetic with smiling faces. I also envisage shooting in landscape format to enable a wide view of the landscape to feature in the photographs.

There are many logistical issues with the approach I am contemplating, not least of which being the weather conditions and the likelihood that I will find myself shooting the portraits in low light and often against the light. I do not want to use nor would it be practical to use artificial lighting for the portraits. I will have to carry everything with me into the mountains. I am looking to achieve a natural looking light for the portraits….this might mean that I will need to accept that in some situations the subjects themselves may be a little dark. I think that this could make the portraits more interesting in a way as it would reflect the real working environment of the photographers.

I plan to make the portraits in colour using my 4×5 camera. I will also be carrying my DSLR which I plan to use to set up the portraits – like polaroids were used in the past. The digital images will also be valuable to share with the workshop leaders and other members during the course of the week. I will be taking a small LED light with me which I might be able to use to provide a small amount of  fill light in some circumstances.

I am only in Scotland for a week and I will not be able to control the selection of locations, time of day and such like. I will also be relying on the good will of  my fellow photographers who naturally will be keen to make their own work. As such I am viewing this exercise more as a learning experience and am keeping my fingers crossed that I might be able to make a few good portraits along the way.


Dijkstra R. (2012) Rineke Dykstra: A Retrospective New York: The Guggenheim Foundation

Fuchs B. (2003) Portrait Photographs Salzburg: Fotohof

James Ravilious Website Available from:  http://www.jamesravilious.com/default.asp [Accessed on: 9th January 2013]

Power M. (2010) The Sound of Two Songs Brighton: Photoworks

Sander A. (1994) Face of Our Time Munich: Schirmer/Mosel

Alec Soth Website Available from: http://alecsoth.com/photography/projects/broken-manual/ [Accessed on: 9th January 2013]

Sternfeld J. (2012) Stranger Passing Gottingen: Steidl

Tubke A. (2006) “Albrecht Tubke: Portraits” Vienna: Verlag fur Moderne Kunst
Wells L. (Ed.) (1996)  Photography: A Critical Introduction London: Routledge