Thoughts on Landscape Photography

Posted on January 22, 2013

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I’ve been looking again at books I read on the Landscape module of the OCA photography degree course. I’ve been getting my mind back into landscape mode for my trip to Scotland in two weeks time. The book I’ve just re-read is the Oxford History of Art Landscape and Western Art. This is a good overview of the topic. Photography gets little mention but I think that many of the questions arising in painting have some relevance to photography also. The book is divided into chapters each of which poses a key question which the author then discusses. It tackles the following issues:

  1. When does land become landscape? – The central issue here is that ‘landscape’ is  a culturally defined term. When most people existed within the land the idea of ‘landscape’ was unheard of. It was only as society became more urbanised the idea of the landscape emerged. Images of landscapes became substitutes for the thing itself. They became one way of dealing with our alienation from the land which we vaguely perceived as the place we came from.
  2. Is the landscape the subject or merely the setting? – This is a question which I raised in my previous post here. Whilst landscapes did form part of early painting, they were generally idealised depictions and were used to provide background or context to the central purpose of the painting. History, religious and allegorical art all employed this approach. Often the landscape included symbolic elements which lend weight to the underlying message of the painting. It was perhaps during the 17th century with the work of Poussin and Claude when the landscape, albeit still idealised, began to take more prominence. The paintings of these two celebrated artists still ostensibly dealt with issues of high art (history, religious and allegorical), but it is apparent that the artists put a great deal of work into the landscape component. It was in the 17th century that landscape painting in its own right began to develop. There appears to be some debate however about just how this came about.
  3. Landscape as Amenity –The notion that the landscape can detoxify the mind and spirit has been around for a long time. The phrase ‘locus amoenus’ or ‘pleasant place’  was used in classical times and emerged again in the Renaissance. From the 16th century onwards the rich began to build country villas and country houses outside the oppressive urban environments. For those in the city the practice of painting fresco landscapes on the walls of their grand houses in the city began. It is a short step from this to the popularisation of landscape paintings on the walls of more modest houses.
  4. Landscape as Topography or the Beau Ideal – The question here is whether the landscape painting should be a literal description of the view in question or an idealised landscape invented by the artist. Dutch 17th landscape painting was essentially topographic in nature. It is apparent that landscape as a mere record of place was held in low esteem by the ‘Academy’. In contrast it was thought that the idealised landscape embodied the creative ideas of the artist. Thus making the case that landscape is a bona fide genre in its own right. This kind of debate continues to the present. Post modern thinkers have seriously challenged the idealised landscape as a means of perpetuating the myths of the prevailing ideology. The peasants are usually shown as well fed  and content with their lot!! Constable’s paintings for example are accurate representations of the landscape but  what he does not show is that there was great hardship and political unrest in the countryside.
  5. Framing the view – Including part of an interior, such as a window, in a landscape image is a strategy sometimes employed by many painters and indeed photographers. Such a frame forces the viewer  to confront the duality of ‘indoors’/’outdoors’. Drawing attention to this opposition may indeed be the main purpose of the painting serving as a metaphor for our alienation from the land. Framing can also be used to ‘carve up’ a vast landscape and focus attention on particular elements. It is only a short step from this to the thinking of the Picturesque movement which in effect viewed the landscape as a series of images which met the strict criteria of its aesthetic ideals. Parts of the landscape not meeting these criteria were in effect regarded as not worthy of representation. This has some resonance with how we view the world around us today. Do we look at the landscape as it is or do we go out into the landscape looking for elements within it which conform to the ideals of great images of the landscape stored in our memories. I often feel that contemporary landscape photography as evidenced by the photographic magazines and competitions such as Landscape Photographer of the Year seriously falls into this trap.
  6. Landscape the Sublime and the Unpresentable – Formulaic Picturesque conventions reduced novelty and variety to secure aesthetic uniformity. (Again this resonates with my thoughts on present day landscape photography ). Artists tried to break free of these tendencies by searching out new and uncharted landscapes and by finding ways to reconfigure the familiar. The pursuit of Sublime, awesome images was an path frequently followed. There is much discussion on the nature of the Sublime  and it is not my intention to enter into this debate here. Essentially landscape painters sought out views of the natural world which, whilst filling the viewer with foreboding and helplessness, also induced a pleasurable response. Huge waterfalls, towering mountains, rushing rivers, storms at sea are much in evidence in this style. For the viewer to be positively stimulated he/she must not in reality be in danger. Pursuit of the Sublime  is also a strategy employed by many landscape photographers. The second strategy of reconfiguring the familiar is the approach taken by painters such as Paul Cezanne, who in his later life experimented with a more expressive interpretation of the landscape bordering on the abstract. I was  particularly drawn to this quote from Cezanne on the question of how we have come to view the landscape: Today our sight is a little weary, burdened by the memory of a thousand images….We no longer see nature, we see pictures over and over again. 
  7. Landscape and Politics – As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the idea of landscape is culturally defined. It should come as no surprise therefore to realise that landscapes either directly or implicitly are frequently used for political purposes. Early landscapes, such as were depicted on the walls of Palazzo Publico in Sienna, were sometimes used to exemplify ‘Good Government’. Such works presented a utopian vision of a world innocent of history and political meaning. Landscape is also associated with National identities. England’s ‘Green and Pleasant land’ is part of our national psyche not just because of the land itself but also because of its depiction in landscape art. The same is true of other nations. It could be argued for example that American artists were largely responsible for forging their national identity with their focus on the wilderness as the frontier moved west and by portraying landscapes with no markers of European civilisation. Many critics also talk of ‘pictorial colonialism’ where European models of landscape depiction  (as opposed to ‘native’ styles) have been used to depict landscapes in far off places. Closer to home landscape paintings very often reaffirm the prevailing hegemony as in the example above with Constable’s representation of peasants. In  ‘conversation piece’ paintings portrait subjects are shown in the landscape, or more specifically their landscape, reaffirming their wealth and power. Topographic styles of landscape painting have also been used to mark out the property of the wealthy. There are clearly many ways in which landscapes whilst appearing innocent and benign are put to political ends.
  8. Nature as Picture or Process – With the development of British landscape painting in the 19th century, came a greater insistence on depicting the landscape as it really is. Through scientific knowledge and close observation of natural phenomena landscape painters became more concerned with representing the natural history of the earth and not its cultural and social history. Turner and Constable led the way (although as we have seen they may also have implicitly commented on culture and societal issues). Works by Turner for example suggest changes to the seasons in a single painting or capture a moment of transition in the weather.  Nature’s processes were given an heroic grandeur equivalent to the highest forms of history painting.  The idea of ‘truth to nature’ came to be understood in both literal terms and also in an emotional sense. With the Impressionists came the practice of  ‘Plein Air’ painting as a means of getting closer to nature. Looser, freer styles of painting emerged.  Cezanne’s repeated painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire for example can be seen as a means of getting those memories of ‘a thousand images‘ out of his system enabling him to appreciate the full sensation of the landscape with its light, colour, smell, sounds and tactile experience. The idea of switching from the concept of the landscape to one of the environment started to take hold.  With photography it is possible to depict nature as a process as photographers such as Ansel Adams did with his images of changing weather in the mountains and contemporary photographers such as Jem Southam have achieved with his studies of erosion on coastlines.  It is however impossible for photography to capture the full sensation of the environment.
  9. Landscape into Land – The presumption throughout my review so far has been that landscape art does not happen in nature rather it is an abstraction from or appropriation of nature. The assumption has also been that an ‘original’ artefact is created in the form of a painting or photograph. This process attributes a different kind of value to the artefact creating a tension between ‘nature’ and ‘art’. In the late 20th century the prioritisation of the art object as commodity was beginning to give way to prioritisation of a process. Artists began to work with the land, using it as the very raw material for their artworks. Earth or Land art created sculptures out in the landscape. These sculptures or art installations are often ephemeral in nature and in many cases films and photographs of the works are all that remains of them. This development of landscape art raises many issues. Amongst these is the question of how acceptable it is to uproot the landscape with the JCB to create art. For now I will content myself in this overview with just a mention of Land/Earth art.

I have always maintained an interest in landscape photography but have often wondered what exactly I was trying to show or say with my work. I found going back to this book and looking again at landscape art very interesting. Most of the issues the book raises are relevant to my own photographic practice. I’ve considered the implications for my own work and summarised these below. I plan to refer back to these at a later stage when I renew my acquaintance with the landscape (rather than being preoccupied with portrait photography).

  • I should always remember that no image of the landscape is innocent. The choice of subject, viewpoint, lens, framing, timing etc. defines the messages that the eventual photograph will convey. For example, by choosing to depict a landscape devoid of signs of human intervention, am I really presenting a viewpoint that the wilderness is still intact and man’s encroachment is not a threat. I am sure it is also possible to use photography to represent completely the opposite view. 
  • Photography’s real strength is its capacity to make a literal representation of what is in the frame. It is highly suited to documentary or topographic work. I have often found myself trying to over-ride this capacity for literal interpretation by seeking to produce landscape images of a more poetic nature. (although the messages that these poetic images were intended to convey were never quite clear to me). I hope to develop a much clearer sense of purpose for my landscape work in the future .
  • I am interested in the idea that photography can document the process of nature as well as describe a physical location. Changes to the seasons, light and weather are all interesting phenomena. They are around us all of the time and have a huge influence on our daily lives.
  • I am much less interested in producing ‘beautiful’ idealised images of the well known landscapes. The practice of revisiting locations that have been photographed time and again is frankly little more than an exercise in creating images that demonstrate the skill of the photographer. I find it sad for example that in the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition, every year many of the same scenes reappear with subtle nuances (and in recent times with Photoshop adjusted improvements).
  • I have been experimenting with the use of Pinhole cameras in the landscape and in truth I am not sure where these images sit within the canons of landscape art. They do show the world in a different more etherial way and often because of the need for long exposures they embody a recognisable (blurry) time dimension. I have commented here on the way in which Tom Hunter has used Pinhole photographs to suggest that a more metaphorical interpretation of a photograph is relevant. I guess the issue here is that if I am using a particular photographic process then I need to understand why I have chosen that process and how it is relevant in the work.
  • I have a sense that here in the UK landscape photographers have a curiously ambiguous relationship with man made elements in the landscape. And there are many such elements as most of our landscape has been altered by man. Dry stone walls, old bridges and such like have tended to be assimilated into the landscape as quaint, picturesque features. Other elements such as pylons, motorways, modern buildings, TV aerials and so on are likely to be avoided or even cloned out of photographs. The spirit of the Picturesque movement is alive and well.  For my own work I want to show things as they are – the good, the bad and the plain ugly. At least in this way I can feel that I am not perpetuating erroneous myths about the state of the land and man’s encroachment on it.
  • I was very much taken by a quote from the book which appeared in the final chapter. The author made the very important point about the state of man’s relationship with our environment: ‘Nature used to be that ‘robust’ other’, there to be tamed and cultivated….Now it is a fragile, anorexic dependent, to be protected and ‘managed’. Pretending that all is ok in the natural world ignores this vitally important observation.
  • I am still not entirely sure what I want to achieve with my landscape work but I do believe that it will be centred on work which is of a documentary/topographic nature. I would hope to work on series of images which would give a broader perspective to the issue in question. That said I do believe that photography also needs to be aesthetically arresting if it is to grab the attention of the viewer.

I thought I would close this post which has become very long with a few thoughts on two of my recent landscape photographs. I made these images instinctively without really thinking about the issues I have set out in my reflections above. I guess that I was carrying around my ‘memory of a thousand images’ and pulled out a couple and went looking for them in the landscape around where I live. Both of the photographs were taken recently in the woodland at Burnham Beeches.

The first image is of a pollarded tree on the side of a path through the wood. This image is essentially topographic. It shows the nature of the woodland and through the pollarded tree and path, man’s intervention with it. The snowy conditions refer to the winter season and has a resonance with the idea of ‘landscape as process’. I shot the image on film and have not cropped or cloned out any details. I did however consider very carefully the composition and tried to make the shot ‘picturesque’. It is however more than anything a document, showing how the woodland looks in 2013 during a winter snowstorm. The gesture of the tree could lend itself to other metaphorical interpretations. This was not in my mind when I made the image. I was more concerned about recording the state of pollarded trees in Burnham Beeches and specifically this tree. I may even go back to this tree later in the year.

Pollarded tree alongside path to Middle Pond, Burnham Beeches January 2013

Pollarded tree alongside path to Middle Pond, Burnham Beeches January 2013

The second photograph is a detail from the landscape. It presents a small area of the Middle Pond at Burnham Beeches where the snow was abutting the water in the pond. The designs created by the interaction of the snow and the water is what attracted me to this photograph. (pulling out pictures from my memory bank again). That said the photograph also shows very clearly the process of snow melting into the pond.

Snow melting into Middle Pond, Burnham Beeches January 2013

Snow melting into Middle Pond, Burnham Beeches January 2013

Reference

Andrews M. (1999) Landscape and Western Art Oxford: Oxford University Press

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