In my recent incursions into the “art world”, a distinct resistance against landscape photography was present in many discussions. Someone went as far as saying “I just can’t stomach it”. Someone I respect, and not being snobbish or pompous. Someone genuinely not interested and, in fact, repulsed. Why?
Now, let’s be honest, I’ve had my share of anti-landscape remarks in these pages in the past and, no doubt, many more to come in the future. But please don’t take this post as a steaming pile of hypocritical go-se.
Even worse, the number of actual landscape photographs in my collection that can be used to illustrate this post is so low that I’d have to search very far into the past just to assemble the few shots necessary, had I not made some during a recent trip to the UK. That’s how uninterested I am as well, in my personal work. And yet, hiking is one of my favourite occupations. Possibly the favourite.
So, what’s wrong with landscape photography? This is a genuine interrogation and I’m typing words as ideas come through my mind.
It occurs to me that maybe, the foremost problem is one of definition. Maybe, so many various types of photography are encapsulated under one same moniker that many have trouble relating to the generic term.
Would you call Salgado a landscape photographer? No. He’s an activist. An engaged social, political and environmental photographer that just happens to photograph landscapes to make his point.
Would you call David Maisel a landscape photographer? No. He’s a conceptual artist who happens to pinpoint and magnify the ironic beauty of man made environmental catastrophes in the landscape.
Would you call Bruce Barnbaum a landscape photographer? No. He self defines as a fine art photographer who uses the landscape as inspiration.
Heck, would you call Ansel Adams a landscape photographer? Possibly. Wiki does, adding “and an environmentalist”. As if being a landscape photographer wasn’t enough to secure a page description. His own website shuns the word landscape altogether.
There’s a huge difference between people photographing the landscape, as I do on this page, and others photographing a subject present in the landscape although, to be accurate, I am photographing paths more than the landscape). In fact, to make progress, let’s even note that the former are called photographers while the latter are called artists …
Which brings us to the second point, closely related to the first but expressed as a gradation rather than a divide.
It’s not so much whether you photograph the landscape or not that matters but how munch intent and meaning you place in your photographs of it.
The reason why my art-centered contact refuses to even consider a landscape photograph isn’t related to the landscape itself but to the lack of intent most of us place in our photography of the landscape.
Take the photographs on this page, for example. Nice photographs of a lovely landscape (an 11-mile walks in the fields around the very pretty village of Pirton, in the Chiltern hills, not far from Luton) made on a lovely autumn day.
The strongest idea in all of those is “my, do I love hiking and public footpaths”. Which is perfectly OK when you acknowledge that’s all there is in them.
And this is often where it gets awry with landscape photography. So many photographers are using complex recipes to create their images that (1) they often end up very much alike, and only the one that have perfected the recipe stand out from the rest of the idea-less crowd; (2) they sometimes add some equally complex train of ideas or vague intentions to somehow justify the amount of effort (no, that 30 sec exposure of the sea and rocks at sunrise with 3 filters isn’t showing the purity of nature, since no one will ever experience it that way 😉 😉 😉 )
Pretty landscapes are pretty landscapes and that’s it. They need no further justification!!! We all love them. But we can all create our own photographs of them, so they have relatively little lasting value to others, which mostly excludes them from the art world. Those are photographs we mostly take for ourselves. We can share them (please do 🙂 ) but they generally don’t challenge our worldview or force us to rethink our approach, hence they are not art in the closed art-world acceptation of the word (for which it refuses to deliver a simple explanation, so here’s our actionable working definition of the word).
Does this mean we can’t create art around our admiration of the landscape? No, it doesn’t. Certainly not! The two photographs below are of the exact same hills. One is the frequent pretty-colour sunset view. The other a more personal approach based on my interest in clouds and b&w.
And I think there are two other ways to turn landscape into art, beyond the previously mentioned ‘landscape as a set for social commentary’.
First, you can apply a strong personal style. This is what Nancee Rostad did in her photographs of The Palouse. Her style is not just a matter of post processing but subject matter selection (a very keen eye-brain kit), gear choice, composition … a whole chain of events leading up to a very consistent, interesting and recognizable style.
Secondly, you can edit and curate into projects and add consistency that goes far beyond the display of pretty pictures done on this page. Also the case in Nancee’s Palouse post.
Combine all three, and you’re Salgado or Maisel. Congratulations 😉 But that’s not my conclusion.
As great as it must be to have your photographs shown in famous galleries and sell them for 5 figures, the landscape is a place for finding personal peace and introspection. When I wrote “those are photographs we mostly make for ourselves”, there was nothing derogatory in the intention. In fact, I believe there’s nothing more important than doing just that: crafting photographs for yourself. Others are bound to relate, as I do to Nancee’s gems. But Nancee didn’t make them with other people in mind. And neither should you.
At the end of the day, the more you like your own photographs subjectively, the better they are, objectively. And the more likely they are to become desirable to others as well, as a byproduct of you finding yourself. Sensibilities will develop in you that will draw you to some subjects more than others, some styles more than others and, before you know it, your photographs will be about you. And that’s what everyone wants to see, not a pretty hedge row, you.
So here’s to landscape photographers and landscape photography. Don’t you think?
(all photos made with a Hasselblad X1D, mostly with the XCD 45 lens, and a couple with the XCD 90)
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