SOME THOUGHTS ON READING ‘LANDSCAPE IN PHOTOGRAPHY’
ANSEL ADAMS – MOON AND MOUNT MCKINLEY (from www.playle.com/listing.php?i=KDL65801)
Landscape photography is a branch of photography that I enjoy practising. On reading the chapters ‘Photography and the Nineteenth Century’ and ‘Landscape in Photography’ in Graham Clarke’s book ‘The Photograph‘ (Oxford University Press, 1997) I was struck by the changing face of landscape photography over the years and the breadth and range of images that could be called ‘landscape’ photographs. A number of thoughts were generated as a result both about the general subject and also regarding my own photographs. I felt the need to write down a few notes to capture some thoughts while they were fresh and here is a Learning Log based on what I wrote.
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The style and purpose of landscape photography has undergone a number of changes over the years. In the 19th Century, landscape photographs predominantly fell into the following categories : –
- the capturing of scenes to provide a record for scientific purposes, for example Edward S Curtis’ important record of the native American peoples
- photographs of foreign lands to inform and inspire those who were unable to visit the locations, for example the works of Francis Frith and Samuel Bourne
- to provide a record of man in his environment as in the work of Peter Henry Emerson in the Norfolk Broads and Frank Sutcliffe in Whitby (I have only recently became aware of the work of these two photographers and I am deeply impressed by them)
- to provide a record of the environment without the presence and impact of man (pristine, sublime, grandeur or intimacy)
- the capturing of an idyll rather than the reality, the avoidance of the unpleasant, the revealing and the challenging, as exemplified in the work of Roger Fenton and others
More recent photographers have sought to expose the changes imposed by cultural shifts, industrialisation, population growth, etc. and to capture reality, often in an oblique way leaving the viewer to ‘read’ and find meaning in the photograph, while others are still trying to seek the idyll in different ways to reveal the spiritual elements in the subject and expose or fill the vacuum in present day urban lives. Examples of the former included in ‘The Photograph’ are Raymond Moore and Robert Adams and of the latter are Ansel Adams and Fay Goodwin.
Many of the more recent photographers have concentrated less on the aesthetic, but more on the underlying messages and meanings within the scenes. Sometimes the two combine, the deeper message being couched within an image that is also visually appealing as in John Davies’ fine study of Agecroft Power Station ( see page 70, The Photograph) . Others use a subject or a technique / effect which is strong on message but lacks visual appeal as with Martin Parr’s New Brighton of 1984 ( page 72, The Photograph). Indeed, many works fall outside the range of what many would popularly call ‘landscapes’.
It is clear from my increasing understanding of and involvement with the art of photography that none of these photographs were random ‘snaps’ (however much some might appear to be!), but were taken after considerable thought and planning and with considerable technical knowledge and application. This new awareness has significantly changed the way that I now look at photographs whilst also raising a number of questions about my own work.
Why do I take a photograph?
On reflection, my reasons, conscious and unconscious are many and include the following: –
- To capture an appealing scene that ‘speaks’ to me.
- To engage more deeply and be more present with the environment in which I am
- To impress and interest others
- To learn what works and what doesn’t in terms of technique, framing, impact of final image, etc.
- To justify the time that I am spending in that place and to have something to show for it
- To increase my familiarity with the equipment.
What do I get from taking the photographs?
- A visual record of events and subjects, many of which are only that!
- Sometimes I get photos that impress me and give me a buzz
- Sometimes I get photos that impress others and I can bask in short lived ‘success’ and self-justification
- Sometimes I learn what works and what doesn’t but not often enough
My shots are generally of ‘found’ subjects. I go out and see what is there and scenes / subjects present themselves to me. I then frame, focus and expose appropriate to what I see and think will look right in the finished shot as much as time allows. I do not usually know in advance what I want to get or how I want to get it and I do not usually have a prior vision or purpose. I have a sense that I am consciously or unconsciously attempting to emulate the work of others rather than establishing my own goals, ideas, vocabulary and styles, and this can lead to frustration, lack of clarity and lack of motivation .
- Do I need to have high (possibly unachievable?) aspirations for my work or is that going to take away the relaxed pleasure of the experience and make me driven and insular?
- Can I be happy just achieving attractive chocolate box / calendar shots which are no more than being aesthetically appealing?
- Do I need to measure myself and my work against others?
- No, I do not need to have high aspirations if that is going to affect my pleasure and well being. If higher goals present themselves I can explore them when the time feels right and I have developed the skills to make them realisable.
- Yes, I can be happy taking shots as they present themselves provided that I use such shots to hone my skills and knowledge and remain open to finding themes and messages to explore and develop.
- No I do not need to measure myself against others, just use them as a source of inspiration and understanding.
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Some ‘great’ and successful photographs are captured almost spontaneously and ‘in the moment’, but most are the product of planning (at least on some level), forethought and years of experience.
Luck in photography, as in many aspects of life, is about being in the right place at the right time to make the most of an opportunity. The photographer, with some forethought and a lot of practice, can make ‘luck’ happen quite frequently!
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The Ansel Adams image used in this Log is taken from www.playle.com/listing.php?i=KDL65801