Friday, 6 January 2012

Landscape Photographers Trap

Take a look at this quote:
Landscape photography is one of those 'branches' of photography which is so appealing to the picture buying public that it has become associated with the sort of bland scenes that you might find on the walls of a hotel; pseudo-dramas with dense clouds and misty water. It has become a victim of the rule of thirds and a pictorial orthodoxy for epic large scale scenery featuring superfluous foreground objects in sharp focus shot for little else than as a gratuitous display of its author's technical prowess. 
Put all this together with an exotic location, and you have the recipe for what would be and is often mistaken as being representative of landscape photography. Wall fodder. 
But landscape photography is about much more than far away or unseen places and an expensive camera. Landscape photography, like all other photography, like all art in fact, must convey a message or communicate an idea if it is to avoid becoming Ikea stock and take on a role in the fickle, jargon riddled world of contemporary fine art. 
That isn't to say that pictures can't simply be enjoyed, quite the contrary, but it is up to us to distinguish between simple decoration and art. 
extracted from the intro text of a contemporary landscape photography exhibition held at Bristol Creative in May 2010: 
Why am I posting this?

Firstly I think, even out of context, this extract articulates so eloquently a concern I've labelled as 'landscape photographers trap'. I for one, beguiled by the beautiful, fell in to this 'trap' before I even understood that it was one and have been looking for escape routes ever since. And secondly, it indirectly highlights, more for its absence, the emphasis of the course material. Whilst I accept the importance of technical competency in landscape photography, the projects focus almost entirely on this. By producing a technically perfect image we can create, what? - 'wall fodder'? And as revered as Ikea is, I haven't set my sights on supplying them 'simple decoration'.

Appreciating that this is probably no more than a consequence of dated course notes and having had prior knowledge from other OCA students, I have no interest to protesteth too much. However, I am still at a loss as to where to find guidance on these ephemeral 'non-technical' skills that 'one' clearly needs to elevate 'one's' work from simple decoration to art. How do you move up the curve and work out how to...

- make images that challenge,
- translate ideas in to a visual, 2d, 'indexical' (think that's the word) photograph,
- contextualise and create a visual language,
- produce work that is contemporary, relevant and original.

I'm reading plenty of books and these bullet points are only the tip of my enquiries. I do have some thoughts, but I was hoping I didn't have to tackle it all by trial and error...

Any answers on a postcard...well just down here in the comments box would be just fine...pretty please...I'll even buy you a there's northern generosity for you!!!


  1. No postcard from me Penny! I paraphrase because I can't remember the actual quote, but Bresson said something like this of Ansel Adams - there's bloody war on and he (AA) is making pictures of mountains and lakes. In other words - the beautiful rendition of the landscape a la Cornish et al (again from a personal perspective) is lacking in substance, whilst elsewhere there is a whole narrative we should be focussing on that does bloody matter. Your quoted text summarises, to me, so much of what we (budding artists) need to move to. To engage with ideas primarily then find ways of expressing them. Adams seems now not to say too much to me about anything other than the size and beauty of the American landscape, it's bloody mountains and lakes and all at f64. Whereas someone like Epstein challenges us to think and engage about what it is we are looking at - and in his case, also with beautiful imagery.
    As regards the visual language I am also having difficulties generating my own vernacular, as I've said in my own learning log. I am sure that working my own, rather than by a received didacticism, will enable me to explore whatever it is that concerns me, but I am a little concerned on how long it will be before I learn to speak proper! Some form of tutorial would help enormously I feel, other than, as you say, explore by trail and error. Expressing oneself with fellow travellers - even at a study day, for a short time and listening to other, sometimes opposing views - does wonders I think.
    I know this probably won't help a great deal but I do think I know where you are coming from, but I fear less for you than I do for me. For my part your work and thought processes have been inspirational to me.

  2. On the basis that there is drink in the offing I am happy to talk landscape Penny. The problem I had was taking Freemans words literally. He is quite prescriptive, especially in the projects and it is only now, after 18 months that I have the courage to ignore him at that level and do something a bit different. At the start I religiously did the projects as described and it felt like being 11 yo again, when the mathematics teacher told us at senior school, we dont do sums anymore its mat-he-mat-ics and we all wrote it down. There are some projects I have never done, I will have to I suppose before assessment. I would rather do something productive than set out to prove that a heavy DSLR at 1/10 sec produces a sharper image on the tripod than hand held. Honestly I would rather 10 assignment than 40 projects of no learning value.
    With it all nearly over I have at last found I enjoy it, but its the reading rather than the making of new images. Land matters by Liz Wells is a bit heavy going but worth it, as was all my Weston work. I am now so wrapped up with his work and that has had a huge effect on me. Maybe by selecting your Ass 4 and 5 photographer sooner rather than later you can identify yourself with a style and work close to that, with your own input and local landscape. The Lake District is of course a marvelous place but full of cliche and that can be an issue. However, a commission from the national park to photograph the seasons etc etc and be offered loads of money would suddenly make a difference.

  3. Many thanks for your last comments John, although I'm sure your fears are unfounded.

    I think the study days are enormously useful and I do hope to attend more this year if at all possible. I find the forums and OCA blog really helpful too and there are many places to glean nuggets.

    What I'm struggling with is where the starting point is. Do you just go ahead and do what you feel compelled to do and then contextualise it afterwards. Or do you have to respond to the contemporary stuff that's out there and join in the debate with your own visual response. Whilst the latter seems more logical, when I consider doing that, I keep coming up with repeat ideas or an idea I'm not as stimulated by...anyhow...

    I can imagine the humdingers HCB and AA must have had...they sort of still rage on don't they!!!

  4. Sorry Nigel, cross posted. You know, an evening in the pub with a bunch of photography bores (I include myself in that btw!) is not a bad idea. It would probably go down well with our partners too! We should set up a there's an

    ...I can imagine the rates LDNP would pay!!! But too right it would make a difference, I forget that people pay for photographs!

    I think because I live in the Lakes I will have to deal with the cliches and romantic view of the Lakes directly, as I am surrounded by it...but its easier said than done...if you take the alter ego and photograph 'dark' images, it seems unnecessarily depressing...some way to go on this.

    and I'm with you on the projects front...I know you have battled your way through, very much as I did with soc doc. However, it is positive that you have come out the other end feeling upbeat. I will endeavour to do the projects but they fly in the face of what I think OCA is trying to encourage us to do.

    Interestingly, I think I know who I want to research for the critical review. I haven't asked if its ok yet but I'm hoping to do it on Mitch Epstein. Whilst he isn't as revered as others mentioned in the course material, I want to study current photography practices.

    I guess you'll be packing up your assessment material fairly soon...if you're anything like me, you'll be itching to start the next course, despite any failings...

  5. I think you have answered your own questions Penny - "just go ahead and do what you feel compelled to do and then contextualise it afterwards." I think the only way to really deeply learn is toi go out and do work. Then look at it very critically, learn what you can, and try again.

    Best of luck!

  6. Yes you need to create work and try different things...but its when you have an idea and think its new, and then realise, actually so and so did that back in the 1980s and 1990s and, and, and. So what you thought may be original is really very not. But then I guess everything has been tried before so nothing is truly original...yet there are the pioneers and forerunners such as the Bechers, HCB, AA, Shore who forge their own burrow and then a whole raft of imitators follow in their wake, for decades...

    I guess its having a clearer understanding of the artistic environment in which we work (answering my own question again) and this idea of 'contextualising' or placing our work within it which is probably a red herring as I guess the critiques would do that anyway.

  7. Wot Eileen said; if you don't do that then you're working for someone else and you should be being paid. ' }

    If you're being true to yourself you can only do the work you can do at any particular time, as Eileen says, keep shooting and the progression will take care of itself. Whether that ultimately results in recognition and acclaim is beyond your control, its pursuit is stultifying and counter productive. An important component of the development is to regularly review your motivations in making the work, allowing either to inform the other.

    Your thinking seems to be progressing well to me.

  8. Hi Clive, I appreciate your comments. And agree about the importance of creating work, I suppose by reading up on what is going on out there, what you see and read is indirectly contributing to your own thought processes anyway. I guess with the landscape module, there is a need to keep one eye on all the assignments at the same time as they will span most of the year. So I'm keen not to choose themes I later regret!



  9. Of course you have to be aware of the contemporary culture and history that surrounds your work. Thinking about how your work is operating in that context is important in as much as it can give you insights into your work.

    The landscape module being the oldest and consequently the most in need of revision means that you have to work harder within its framework to meld it into something where you can express your current interests.

    Dewald has successfully done that in a way that crystallised for me some ideas about the consumer revolution in China, all within the framework of landscape.

    I'm always telling students that landscape isn't just trees and fields, although the notes do tend to have that bias; landscape is anything across your threshold or even seen through your windows.

    I had a landscape student with ME who couldn't leave the house for extended periods, she photographed through her windows, in her garden or at locations she was driven to and photographed through the car windows. Consequently the way she engaged with, and presented, her limited landscape served as a metaphor for her condition, making for some strong work that had shades of Jo Spence about it.

    She wasn't concerned with 'fitting in' or impressing, just expressing something about her human condition.

    She either got an A or a B, I don't remember exactly, but the work was well received.

  10. Dewald's work is hugely inspiring as his interpretation of the landscape by the sounds of it is your other student's work. And I accept we can expand the boundaries, but I am trying to find ways of photographing a traditional British landscape - Lake District scenes, which may include trees and fields, in some way other than traditional or chocolate box...but it will have to be a personal response and I will probably need to think a little bit more outside the box...

  11. The last time I was in the Lakes it occurred to me that a project on social housing might be interesting.

  12. Apologies, not sure what I've done, but something's happened to the formatting of these comments and the times are all wrong too...

    Thank you Clive, certainly an interesting angle...and it is an ongoing contentious issue particularly in South Lakes...will give it some thought...cheers

  13. It's a horrible old trap, that's for sure!

  14. Keep stumbling in to it...over and over...