Thursday, 24 November 2011

Neo Romanticism in Landscape Photography

This post could form the basis of a thesis if I let it...I won't...but I do want to clarify my thoughts before embarking on the Landscape module, without getting too bogged down in theory. I thought it was useful to consider Romanticism or more specifically neo-Romanticism and its impact on landscape photography in the Lake District...

The height of the Romantic era (1800s) preceded photography, just. Consequently, there were no Romantics using photography as their medium. However, on reading this article on I started to consider the ongoing legacy the Romantics have left behind with regards landscape photography in the Lake District. The Lake District was at the heart of the British Romantic movement with Wordsworth, Coleridge, De Quincy, Southey, Ruskin, Hill, Potter and others fighting to protect and tame the very landscape that was previously considered with intrepidation, fear and hostility. These individuals strongly believed the Lakes should be revered as a thing of beauty and 'conserved'. We owe much to these enlightened individuals.

It is ironic therefore that the photographic medium largely unavailable to the original Romantics and the values they bestowed on the landscape, are still held so dear today, particularly with landscape photographers. Consequently, there is a huge number of images that depict the 'sublime' and beauty of the Lakes. Yet, do these photos challenge our perceptions of the landscape or merely affirm it as 'picturesque'? The original Romantics were protesting against convention, as a response to mass urban sprawl and industrialisation.  What are we challenging today by continuing to respond to the landscape in the same way?

In my opinion, this romantic view of the Lakes has been done...and very successfully too. The Lakes is a place of beauty, physical and otherwise: period.  And as the area is held dear to so many visitors, this catalogue of images will undoubtedly grow. Should I be spending my time chasing forecasts to capture the next dew-sparkling dawn or haunting hanging mist? Is it not a little 'repetitive'?  And is beauty merely 'surface-deep' when describing a landscape? And when you live amongst the splendour of such scenery, should and does it take on a different meaning?

Interestingly, OCA tutor Peter Haveland has just produced a book of 'abstract' style landscape images entitled 'blurscapes', which offers an alternative response to a well-photographed Snowdonia landscape.  His introduction mirrors much of my own photographic challenges with regards living in a 'picturesque' landscape.

I know the genre of landscape photography has moved on significantly since the Romantics. From the New Topographics to much contemporary landscape work there is little depicting the 'sublime' anymore. The rose-tinted glasses came off decades ago. There is an almost 'antithetical' thread that runs through much landscape work of today, exposing the least aesthetic landscapes and how we, as a race, exist within it, usually uncomfortably. Early examples include Stephen Shore, Robert Adams and more recently Andreas Gursky and Mitch Epstein. The camera's gaze shifted from beautiful to impoverished landscapes, geographic or metaphoric. Of course I am generalising dangerously.

I have found a few examples so far (and only two locally) where the 'sublime' landscapes have been photographed as anything other than resplendent...I will be checking these artists out: Jean Marc Bustamante, Andreas Gursky, Dan Holdsworth, Richard Misrach, Walter Niedermayr, Raymond Moore, Keith Arnatt, Chris-Steele Perkins, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton.

Perhaps we do still appreciate the concept of 'picturesque' as much as our forebears and therefore don't need to photograph it any other way...on the other hand...I would like to at least try...which I know will be harder to achieve than write about!! I have no clue yet how to go about this!!

I am also aware my knowledge is limited at the moment, so I am happy to stand corrected on any of the above!!


  1. Hi Penny.

    So does this mark the official start of Landscape?

    Anyway, the way I see it, if the Lakes are continued to be photographed in a picturesque way, it's acting as a re-affirmation I suppose, confirming that all is well, when actually it isn't. Not really. I see this as part of the reasoning for the works of, say, Robert Adams - a staunch conservationist. He didn't just photograph tract housing by the way - "Questions for an overcast day" is a lovely little book. And his "Beauty in photography" is an interesting read.

    I've also been tempted to photograph Barrow-in-Furness, I find the place both depressing and fascinating in equal measure. There have been mornings when the sun has struck the side of the shipyard and it looked... better.

    Anyway, looking forward to how you approach it, and how the likes of Kate Kirkwood and others you have mentioned in SocDoc influence you along with the more "traditionally" recognised landscape photographers.


  2. Reading this I was reminded of this from "In our time" on the subject of "sublime" and listening to it again, it references "landscape" throughout and, which I found interesting, Wollstonecraft and gender responses to both landscape and sublimity.
    Gilpin drew up the "rules" for picturesque I think - do you think they still hold true?

  3. Yes Rob it does...will be signing the dotted line for landscape shortly.

    And I'm sure I'll be investing a good deal of time researching the work of Robert Adams too...'reside' was not the right word, have changed it to exist...basically the man v nature debate.

    Barrow I think is just a fabulous place to document from a soc doc perspective...its distant proximity from anywhere means it has a micro-culture all its own. I recall a road down to the docks with rows of housing that I would love to photograph now. I think the Victoria Wood film, Housewife 49, was filmed around there because of its timelessness. And the landscape around Barrow is stunning, full of heritage too. I think there is scope for you in your lunch hour if you take one...

    John, thank you for the link and references...I am about half way through the broadcast at the moment (it's quite dry isn't it?)...the conclusions with regards the sublime seem inconclusive...being neither an internal emotional or externally stimulated notion...but a bit of both...and to my mind this then suits the physical and psychological benefits of the landscape and how you apply the term 'sublime' to it.

    The gender aspect of beauty v sublimity I'm not quite sure how to make use of this. The landscape genre seems wrought with theory so no doubt I will have to revisit it, but I struggle with theory for theory's sake!

    Gilpin's headline definition of 'picturesque beauty' I don't think has moved on too far from its origins - 'that kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture', I think to most that is still the case. Tourism was just beginning to develop when he coined the phrase. And today, although not exclusively so, many leisure tourists still seek out areas of beauty and the 'picturesque'. However, I would have to look at his specific thoughts on composition and content to see if today's definition of picturesque is true to its origins.

    Thank you John for getting the old grey matter in to gear this morning! As I say, my knowledge is sketchy so all links and advice helpful, thank you.

  4. Interesting reading, Penny; I had similar thoughts about photographing the landscape of West Yorkshire.

    Have you looked at the work Jem Southam has done around the Cumbrian coast - 'Clouds Descending'? He was commissioned to 'follow the footsteps' of LS Lowry - definitely a more contemporary take on it.

  5. It's examples like this that I'm looking for. I have come across Jem Southam before but did not know of this series or that he had worked on the Cumbrian Coast or followed in Lowry's footsteps for this project. Great stuff, I will go and have a good look.