Brook - MP Osborne Isle of Wight Landscape Photography
Categories: Essays, Landscape, Photography

Landscape photography and the Picturesque

This is my third attempt to write this post and has taken nearly a year to finish. One of the reasons has been research. I have been reading a lot about landscape. Both as a photographic subject but also landscape in and of itself from a geographic point of view. The sticking point is the middle ground, where photography, geography, identity, culture, and place meet and that’s before we even think about getting philosophy and art history into the mix. I perhaps naively thought writing about landscape photography would be easy. It turns out it is very hard!

For this post I have attempted to get over some thoughts that I’ve been having on landscape photography but in reality, I am barely scratching the surface. I feel that this subject deserves a lot more than a single post, but in researching this I have learnt a lot and continue to learn. I hope this also feeds into my own practice too.

When I started photography in the late 90’s, I wanted to be a mountain bike photographer. This unsurprisingly proved to be a lot harder than anticipated on a small island. After realising that mountain bike photography was probably not going to work for me, I ended up labeling myself a ‘landscape photographer’. Living somewhere that is very pretty, taking and selling landscape photography is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. I sold prints and even had a few published in the mid-2000’s. There are a lot of landscape photographers on the Isle of Wight. Some that I looked to for inspiration 20 years ago are still going strong, others carved out their own niche much later. All of them work hard to make a living from photography, especially in today’s tricky economic times.

However, I soon became dissatisfied with the work I produced. Low evening light, dramatic sky, all the elements perfectly composed and the rule of thirds – were to me, just going through the motions or following a script on how to take a picturesque landscape. They were technically good, but I was really struggling to enjoy the process. In fact, landscape photography generally was leaving me cold. I looked in the shop windows of photographers I admired years before and found myself appreciating what they did, I didn’t wholly like it, as if something was missing.

Over the subsequent years I did mostly commercial photography and hardly ever took any landscapes. This took a change on my BA. Art History is a wonderful subject, and gave me a new appreciation and understanding of art. For one unit we looked at photography in colonial India. I bought a book – ‘Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth Century India by Zahid R. Chaudhary. This book helped me to understand landscape photography in a completely different way. I realised that my tastes had changed from the purely aesthetic and picturesque to something deeper. Studying the photographs of Felice Beato and Lala Deen Dayal (and others) taught me to look and photographs and find meaning behind them. I am looking for a narrative, a series of questions: ‘Why did the photographer choose to photograph this?’. ‘What are they trying to tell me?’. ‘What can I learn from this photograph?’.

Finding Landscape Photography

Realising this was my eureka moment. I sought out images that challenged me, discovered new photographers, and learnt to understand and appreciate landscape photography anew. In doing so I have spent the last few years learning about landscape. How we react to it, and interact with it. How this is recorded, documented, interpreted, understood and impacts on our own lives and culture. I even changed the way I photograph to incorporate this way of thinking. In a previous post I wrote about psychogeography which helps me to think about landscape as an artist and practitioner and to better my own work. The practice of psychogeography comes out of Marxist Aesthetics, but there are other more familiar terms that have an equally – if not more – in-depth theory or theories behind them. The first of these is the picturesque.

This may seem an innocuous word, meaning essentially attractive like a picture. This is a word often ascribed to a place which is why it’s often used to describe views; Place A is picturesque, therefore a picture of it will be picturesque. When it comes to landscape photography, it is usually the picturesque that instantly draws people in. It appeals greatly to our aesthetic tastes. This is the landscape photography of many calendars and adorns many walls around the world. It is the archetypal sunset or sunrise, long shadows, and wide vistas.

I would like to mention, that I do not have a problem with this type of photography. As mentioned at the start, this is what I used to do. Getting a good shot is not easy and requires a lot of planning. Waiting for the right light, often the right season, and hoping the weather cooperates for that five-minute window.

For me though, this type of photography, while beautiful to look at, generally does not push my knowledge or understanding of a place. Mind you, this is usually not the photographer’s intention, so we must tread lightly in looking for meaning. From my own experience, I used to photograph scenes that I felt were picturesque in the hope that others would see them and would appeal to their own aesthetic tastes. I was taking a photograph for the ‘wow’ factor, hoping that my photograph and thus my experience of a place could be shared but never replicated. However, as my tastes changed, I realised that chasing my own idea of the picturesque was not what I wanted to do. It was not how I wanted to take photographs.

The landscape photographer Fay Godwin in a BBC Southbank Show commented:

I am wary of picturesque pictures. I get satiated with looking at postcards in local newsagents and at the picture books that are on sale, many of which don’t bear any relation to my own experience of the place… The problem for me about these picturesque pictures, which proliferate all over the place, is that they are a very soft, warm blanket of sentiment, which covers everybody’s ideas about the countryside… It idealizes the country in a very unreal way (Godwin, 1986).

This quote may seem harsh but picking it apart it is critiquing not the photographer who chooses to photograph the picturesque, but the pictures themselves which do not accurately reflect the experience of being there. Picturesque pictures could be termed hyperreal, which philosopher Jean Baudrillard defines as “the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another, reproductive medium, such as photography” (Wolfreys et al, 2006). These pictures then align more with how we think a place should look. For example, a place that has been designated as ‘picturesque’ (I often wonder who decides this) with lots of postcards or tea towels for sale idealizing (to use Godwin’s parlance) that place. People then visit these places with a preconceived notion of what they should see and are often disappointed when faced with the reality.

Chasing the Picturesque

From my own experience chasing the picturesque, I was trying to photograph an unrealistic version of what I was feeling at that moment in that specific location. I was not happy with the results of my photography because it was not how I experienced it at the time. Looking at other’s photographs I felt the same. My personal experience of, let’s say a sunset at Compton Beach, was vastly different to the photographer’s when they took their photograph.

Going deeper, what is this photograph of a sunset at Compton beach showing me, apart from playing to my own (and perhaps others) preconceived ideas about what it should look like? A Hyperreal version? What other information can I take from this photograph that I have not seen or experienced for myself? Even as far as what is the photographer saying with this photograph; about themselves or the place that they are recording? Professor of photographic culture Liz Wells states, “Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder” (Wells, 2011). This is how we as viewers understand a place we have never been to. A visual representation of a thin slice of geography framed between two edges of a photograph.

However, is it the photographer that then chooses how to represent this slice. I found that by choosing to photograph the picturesque I was essentially missing out on a lot of information that would help a viewer understand the place better, including things I could not capture; the sounds, smells or temperature, which could help better describe the experience of that place. Herein lies another question: Whom is the photograph for? A picturesque landscape will appeal to a lot of people as it would probably align with their idea of what an ideal landscape should look like, based on their preconceived ideas of what a landscape is, more so if they are familiar with the landscape represented. Using the photograph as an aide-mémoire to recall their own experience of the place depicted.

Many landscape photographers try and seek out a picturesque view with good light and compose according to long-standing traditions of composition. However, Robert Adams postulated a different set of ideas which needed to be balanced as a whole to produce meaningful landscape photographs: geography, autobiography and metaphor. (Adams, 1996). I agree with Adams’ analysis and see purely picturesque images as too weighted in favor of the geography – regardless of how pretty the sunset is. Autobiography is how the photographer can use the image to reflect their own thoughts tastes and values. But the metaphor is where I believe the interesting things happens. This is what makes the photograph go from a mere picture, to a deeper visual narrative.

However, as Deborah Bright comments ‘whatever the aesthetic merits, every representation of landscape is also a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time’ (Bright 1989). It’s hard to argue with this considering every landscape photograph is also a record of the landscape. In photographing it, the photographer is not only recording it, but also saying that they were there. Landscape photographers form representations of the place which can be interpreted by the viewer. It also ties the landscape to culture, but that is for another post…

The Picturesque

Personally, I feel that the picturesque is an interesting concept within landscape photography. Its roots can be found deep within art history, and its prevalence in the myriad photographic postcards and pictures sold every day show that there is a market for these types of photographs. Picturesque photographs could be interpreted as a hyperreal version of preconceived ideas surrounding a particular place that aligns to the aesthetic tastes of an audience. For myself these photographs can and do look nice, but do not go deeper, and that’s where I feel photography starts to have an impact. Thinking about Robert Adams’ ideas behind the elements that can make up a meaningful landscape photograph, these are the elements that I feel allow landscape photographs to tell people what the photographer is trying to say with their work. In effect, as Deborah Bright comments, this recording is more important than the aesthetic consideration (although this can help).

I am still at the beginning of my learning about landscape photography, but the journey is as exciting as it is daunting. As I have discovered, the landscape photography rabbit hole is very deep and quite intense.

Adams, R., 1996, Beauty in Photography, New York: Aperture

Bright, D., 1989, ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography’ in Bolton, R., (ed) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, Massachusetts

Godwin, F., 1986, in Alexander, J.A.P., 2015, Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London/New York: Routledge

Wells, L., 2011, Land Matters: Landscape photography, Culture and Identity. London/New York: Routledge

Wolfreys, J., R. Robbins and K. Womack, 2006, Key Concepts in Literary Theory. 2nd Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press