In his essay ‘The Photographic Message’ Roland Barthes observes that the background setting and items placed in a scene operate as ‘elements of signification’, which influence meaning (1). Landscape Portraits seeks to explore this idea through a series of portraits.
My subjects are all friends who are also landscape photographers. I asked each of them to choose a location somewhere in the landscape for their portrait. I wanted this to be a place that has special significance for them — a site that they have returned to on many occasions to make photographs. In this way, the setting not only functions as the stage set for the portrait but also adds contextual meaning through its psychological connection with the subject. As landscape photographers, my subjects have a particular awareness of the physical environment around them. Some are drawn to the natural landscape others to urban spaces. These preferences are apparent in the individual portraits. I make it clear through the contextual information supporting the work that the background has a particular significance, i.e. the subject chose it as a favourite place. The viewer is invited to make a conscious judgment about how this knowledge influences their reading of the portraits.
Linda Nochlin has said that it is ‘institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so called talent or genius’ (2). In other words our patriarchal society is geared up to support male artists. The same might be said of photographers and particularly so for landscape photographers. There is considerable evidence to support this view. For example, Canon’s ‘Explorers of Light’ programme, which recognises excellence in photography, has only five women out thirty-five listed ‘Explorers’ (3). I have chosen to include only women in my series to draw attention to the question of gender in photography.
The portraits are subdued and are made in an objective rather than expressive style. I used a large format film camera. This slows down the process and is a significant factor influencing the appearance of the portraits. Bernhard Fuch’s portraits (4), set in the countryside of Upper Austria, have been a key influence as was Metta Tronvoll’s ‘Portraits and Architecture’ series in which explores the relations between subject and the architectural context within which they are pictured (5). Clare Strand’s ‘Gone Astray Portraits’ was also another useful point of reference. In this subversive work Strand places homeless people in a studio setting with an Arcadian landscape as the background. The disjuncture between subject and background draws attention to how the latter conventionally influences the reading of a portrait (6).
To date I have made eleven portraits. This has been challenging logistically and has involved travelling to Scotland three times, Devon twice, Nottinghamshire, the New Forest and various other locations in London and the Home Counties. I aim to extend the series and have several other subjects who have agreed to participate. I also plan to explore how presenting quotations from the photographers alongside the portraits would influence how they are interpreted. These texts would expand on each photographer’s connection to their chosen location.
In due course I envisage that the portraits will be shown as a series in an exhibition. My intention is that the viewer would see each portrait in isolation of the others. I want my subjects to be seen as individuals and not as ‘types’ and I want the viewer to concentrate on the relationship between each subject and their chosen landscape. Each portrait will be titled with the name of the subject, the location and the date when the portrait was made, further emphasising the individuality of the subjects. I also want the viewer to discover progressively that all the subjects are women photographers. I hope that this process of self-discovery will surprise the viewer and cause him/her to think about the issue of gender in photography.
- Barthes R. (1977) Image Music Text London: Fontana Press, p. 22
- Nochlin, L. (1971) Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? ARTnews January 1971
- See http://learn.usa.canon.com/dlc/contributors/explorers.spr
- Fuchs B. (2003) Portrait Photographs Salzburg: Fotothof
- Trondvoll M. (2002-) Portraits and Architecture, 2002- Available from: http://www.tronvoll.net/PortandArch.html [Accessed on 25th January 2015
- Strand C. (2002/3) Gone Astray Portraits Available from: http://www.clarestrand.co.uk/works/ [Accessed on: 11th February 2015]