Mention ‘landscape photography’ these days and many would immediately think of that style of photography that looks to the ‘beautiful’ or to the ‘sublime’ or to the ‘picturesque’ in our countryside. Perhaps we have Edmund Burke’s ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful‘ to blame for that …
Romanticism in landscape photography is nothing new of course. 19th century Romantic photography provided a position which enabled a counter-reaction into Modernism.
Today this romantic form of ‘landscape photography’, is both ubiquitous and at times cloying 1. The view that the ‘picturesque’ 2 is inimical to serious visual explorations of the countryside (what I will call critical landscape) has had its adherents for many years. I think it was Fay Godwin who ranted against the picturesque back in the 1970’s. The problem with the ubiquity of sugar-coated photographs is that it drives critical landscape photography to the sidelines to such an extent that even the very term – ‘landscape’ – seems to have become synonymous with that aspect of photography that draws on the picturesque.
So how far can we stretch the term ‘ landscape’? If it is to encapsulate both the picturesque and the critical is it not in danger of having to work beyond its means?
Perhaps it was ever thus. The genre of landscape has come to embrace much more than photographs of the countryside. The tradition of working the land with a camera to interrogate historical, social, political, ecological and psychological themes has a rich history 3. Although classifications can be helpful, they are also limiting. We might think about Bill Brandt’s landscapes in terms of psychological themes (the ‘grim and grainy brigade’) but in doing so we might overlook his emphasis of transcendental motifs, for example. Hajek-Halke may be best known for his abstractions, but, as with Cartier-Bresson we should not deny his surrealist tendencies. We may recognise a John Davies landscape for its topographical elevated viewpoints looking back at the urban from the rural, but we should also note his ‘fine art photography’ credentials. And so on.
The point is that we cannot pinpoint photographers onto one end of an absolute scale for all time. Each photographer admits of degrees and therefore each needs to be relativised to an area of inquiry. Classifications are there simply to help us to frame questions 4.
For my part I continue to look carefully at those photographers who have worked the landscape in all its diversities, as I trudge the paths of the countryside of North Wales in all weathers, sleeping rough, questioning the landscape, both external and internal, with my camera. And when I seem unable to see with the clarity needed, I fall back on my inspirations: In my sitting room I have four Fay Godwin prints on the wall. I have looked at them almost every day for 30 years and they still motivate me. And there is also of course Raymond Moore. Let me sign off with a couple of his pictures:
The ability to see something special in the humdrum – a very real talent.
- Rant: In propagating certain types of landscape image the tourism industry entices its customers with the promise of a visual experience that is far removed from anything real. Locations become sanitised; perceptions distorted. The selfie generation collects experiences as moments, fixed in time but lacking any real connection with the landscapes that form their backdrops. The landscape is consumed rather than traveled through. ‘Landscape’ as a representation loses its potency. Mountains have to be reflected in still lakes. Waterfalls have to be rendered as long exposures. Fields become super-saturated green. Coastal groynes point to infinity. Bridges disappear in fog. All is hyperbole. The commoditization of nature is complete and Photography’s role in this is overlooked. There is even a series of landscape photography books that describes where photographers need to go to take great pictures, what lens to use, what time of day, where to stand etc ↩
- I make a distinction between the picturesque and the pictorial. In shorthand, the picturesque refers to scenes that are deemed suitable for pictures – chocolate box or post-card pictures or travel advertising campaigns. I use the term to include the Beautiful and the Sublime. The picturesque favours order and celebrates the wild and spontaneous, but strangely it does this by domesticating the wild and normalising the random. The pictorial refers to the way in which the photographer establishes an intent in the picture, normally through post processing. It is the opposite of ‘straight’ as basically recorded by the film or camera sensor. ↩
- One can look to the recent examples of Xavier Ribas’ ‘Nitrate’ (which we showed as part of the Liverpool Look Festival in 2015); Fergus Heron’s ‘Cawdor, Common, A view of London’; Jem Southam’s ‘River Mouths, Rockfalls and Ponds’; and from many more photographers such as Martin Newth, Keith Arnatt, Ingrid Pollard, John Kippen, Paul Hill, Chris Killip, John Blakemore and John Davies. Further back in time we can cite Minor White, Paul Strand, Paul Caponigro, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Fay Godwin, Bill Brandt, and of course, Raymond Moore ↩
- This is most especially so for that breed of photographer that defies description; the photographer who does not subscribe to a genre or to system or to a series. Photographers like Raymond Moore (see for example ‘the golden fleece‘) or Andrew Sanderson or Paul Hill. Such photographers find it hard to show their work in galleries – their work does not readily coalesce into a theme or perambulate around an event. More the pity as they have plenty to say. ↩