What’s in it for the landscape photographer?

Bernd and Hilla Becher, ‘Spherical Gas Tanks’, 1983-92

The most pressing issue in the photography of place is a site’s history, how it has been affected by time, by climate and by mankind. Landscape photography has become political, not necessarily in terms of environmental causes – although many photographers are directly concerned with such issues – but in terms of the meanings it asks us to consider. Since the 1970s, the best photography of place does not simply expect the viewer to inhabit the depicted space. It asks that the viewer think more deeply about how a place came into being, how environmental and social pressures may change it, and the way people use it. Landscape photography still takes us ‘there’, but the contemporary photographer also recognizes that a place, and its depiction, is a complicated matter – every site is acted upon by both nature and mankind. In photographing place, we are never just photographing nature. We are photographing culture.

Gerry Badger, in The Genius of Photography, p.154.

The heritage industry tends to rely on a kind of freeze-framing of time in order to present the tourist and visitor with a reordered, partial, tidied-up account of what happened at any particular site. Edgelands ruins contain a collage of time, built up in layers of mould and pigeon shit, in the way a groundsel rises through a crack in a concrete floor open to the elements. They turn space inside out, in the way nature makes itself at home indoors, or in the way fly-tipping gathers at their former loading bays, behind obselete walls. Encountering the decay and abandonment of these places is to be made more aware than ever that we are only passing through; that there is something much bigger than us.

England’s edgelands are the next big thing in photography. After all, photographing gritty urban locations is now likely to lead to arrest on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, and if you photograph rural Britain you are on very well-trodden ground. This is not to say that edgelands are untouched by the lens. Far from it. Great photographers like William Eggleston and Bernd and Hilla Becher have built their careers on these overlooked landscapes. But their edgelands were in the southern states of America, or in Germany. Eggleston’s notion of the ‘democratic’ function of photography, to step aside from received ideas of what is beautiful or romantic, has influenced a generation of art-school trained photographers. But it has sent most of them into the city. … In the early Seventies, [the Bechers’] attention turned to cooling towers, and they printed the images like sheets from an inventory, nine or ten towers to a page. The effect of this repeated pattern was very powerful. A single cooling tower may look beautiful, but nine cooling towers on one sheet looks like a series of ancient monoliths, or temples, or plinths for statues of long-forgotten gods.

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, p.157, 194.

Emerson and the beauty of ‘Marsh Leaves’

Peter Henry Emerson, ‘Rime Crystals’, photogravure, 1895

The beauty of the place was infinite and heartbreaking. Emerson, in love with the landscape, overlooked nothing, from winter’s mists to summer’s fullness. Yet such opulence was beyond the scope of photography and, eventually realizing this, Emerson had to content himself with exquisite miniature pictures of frozen earth, mists and far horizons – winter landscape, which suited photography’s monochromatic limitations. His last illustrated book, ‘Marsh Leaves’ (1895), contains sixteen of photography’s most reticent pictures, tiny photo-etchings of a remote grey world punctuated by thorn trees and wasted reeds. These resemble nothing so much as souvenirs, fragile mementos impressed on paper.

To do full justice to such opulence and variety as he found in the Norfolk Broads Emerson had to rely on words, which eventually made up for everything the camera had promised and failed to deliver. Emerson was no ordinary writer, although he could be longwinded and apocalyptic when goaded by modern enormities. Guided by naturalistic precepts he wrote, when in control of himself, as a recorder, describing landscape and transcribing local speech. … At other times his reporting is anything but objective. He felt acutely for landcape as a living thing, stirred by the springtime, purified by fire, flayed by the wind, smothered and killed by winter. Some of his descriptions of this animated world read like word pictures of agile expressionist landscapes. Naturalist objectivity was at odds with a powerful subjective sense likely to dramatize anything which came its way. Why, in this case, did Emerson trouble to photograph at all? Because the camera, with its sparing depictions, placed some control on an imagination which threatened to run wild.

Ian Jeffrey in ‘Photography: A Concise History’, T & H, 1989, p.69, 70.
In memory of being overwhelmed by Emerson’s pictures at the Musée d’Orsay, August 2010.


From Beate Gütschow’s ‘LS’ series, the text below is from The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago:

Beate Gütschow’s exploration as an artist directly probes questions of pictorial representations of reality. As a student in Hamburg and Oslo, she explored verisimilitude initially as a painter and installation artist and eventually became attracted to photography for its apparent, though qualified, ability to more faithfully and accurately represent reality. Her final constructions at first glace appear as if captured from reality but upon closer inspection they are revealed as fiction.

The exhibition (2008) surveys two of Gütschow’s photographic series: LS and S. LS is an abbreviation of Landschaft, or landscape, and S is for Stadt, or city. Both series posit questions of idealization—one of nature and the other of urbanity. Drawing from her enormous archive of collected images, mostly taken with analog film, of trees, buildings, clouds, hills and people, Gütschow’s pictures are montages consisting of up to hundred different images assembled together digitally. Her final constructions at first glace appear as if captured from reality but upon closer inspection they are revealed as fiction.

Influenced by artists such as Claude Lorrain, John Constable, and Nicolas Poussin, the LS series follows the rules of romantic landscape painting of the 17th century. Traditional landscape paintings are organized with three distinct spaces: the foreground serves as the viewer’s entrance into the picture, usually framed by trees like a stages set; the middle ground contains a river or path and people looking outward; and the background vanishes in the far distance. The frame suggests an expansive terrain. Using these rules, Gütschow creates an idyllic landscape by mixing elements of pictures taken from parks, construction sites, pristine nature, and people engaged in leisure activities. The deliberate inclusion of familiar 21st century elements like garbage, trees cut by chainsaws, and people in T-shirts endows an otherwise romantic landscape with implausibility and suspicion.

New Year musings, with David Hockney

Hockney's timeline

Lenses and their use pre-Reformation was often considered heretical, whether in camera obscura ‘shows’ (Arnold of Villanova in 1300), Roger Bacon’s ideas, Della Porta on painters’ secret tools. How do you trust something that so distorts plain sight? Hockney says this was actually about power, as wielded by the church. The power over lens-based media reasserted itself in more secular terms with the early 20th-century wars, where Hitler, Stalin and even Mao elevated photo-realism and were suspicious of abstraction.

The revolution in the making and transmission of imagery in recent times is as big as the revolution wrought by printing in conjunction with Renaissance naturalism. Is this good or bad? It has the potential to be both, to huge degrees. Everything from paedophilia to personal understanding, from surveillance and intrusion to the power of the individual over the collective. My fear is that we are not getting a proper cultural grip on all this – that we are stumbling blindly into a blinding glare of ill-understood images, flickering past too rapidly for our critical scrutiny. It’s a big job for the cultural historian. It’s a big job for the artist. We should be in the same base camp, with the same mountain range in sight.

Martin Kemp writing to Hockney, 28/11/99, p.281 in ‘Secret Knowledge’ by Hockney.

The science of photography wasn’t new at the invention of photography (1839), the aesthetics were (attr. Heinrich Schwarz, p.284). = romanticism?

To use a lens-based system involves more than a combination of technical means and an aspiration to naturalism. It involves a conceptual definition of artistic representation as literal imitation, together with a sense that an optical device which creates an image through the geometry of light delivers a more objective picture than the fallible human apparatus. Once this faint in the artificially made image became widespread, it could provide a model for objective naturalism even when not actually used to make a particular work. In this way, it is possible to see the ‘age of the objective image’ as extending from the Renaissance to the present day, with the domain of such images defined as Fine Art until the mid-nineteenth century, when their sovereignty passes to photography and later the cinema and TV.

Martin Kemp to Hockney, 19/01/00, p.284.

The aspiration of optical imitation in Western art is very exceptional. Its apparent ‘normality’ is because of the triumph of this way of representing in our century, above all as the result of the universal spread of photography, film, TV etc.

Martin Kemp to Hockney, 03/03/00, p.286.

Better to have the human hand at work, at least it’s connected to an eye and therefore a body. We are a part of nature, in it, not a mathematical point.

Hockney to Dr Susan Foister, 05/04/00, p.303.

Quote collage from this week’s reading

Spelterini, The Alps
Eduard Spelterini, The Alps, 1910

During the ascent in the balloon at heights of 500 to 1,000 metres over the ground, we were especially enchanted by the shining, full, lush blaze of colours revealed by the earth below us. Far and wide, the forests appeared as the most gleaming, greenest moss or like glorious green velvet. … But as we ascended ever higher in the balloon, the picture changed. Close by, what we first noticed, like in the high mountains, was the blinding, dazzling, cold lighting. … At 4,000 to 5,000 metres above sea level, the earth below us became ever more shrouded in a blue or blue-violet haze.

Swiss geologist Albert Heim, 1912, ‘Luft-Farben’ (literally translated: ‘air-coloured’).

We get to know life under new, unusual, entirely unique conditions – a stimulus that humanity has first begun to taste, and which only a few select are able to enjoy. In good spirits and without will, we follow our wind bride until we again force the balloon to earth with deliberation, calm, and mental presence. All of this gives us nerves of steel for the further battle of daily life, frees our hearts of all of the many little cares and shows us the sublime greatness of nature in proud, lonely flights above a world that is so small.

Austrian balloon pioneer Franz Hinterstoisser, 1904, ‘Aus Meinem Luftschiffertagebuche’.

The landscape in photography became the stage set for a dream dreamt by the middle-class subject who sought to reconstitute him- or herself away from the confines of the city and remote from the masses and the hectic pace of life. In essence, little about this relationship has changed.

Friedrich Tietjen writing in ‘Vanishing Landscapes’, 2008. He suggests the photographers in this book pave a middle way between the ‘moralising tone’ of the glossy landscape photographs in magazines and the intent to aesthetically overwhelm of large-format gallery photographs – here instead ‘these images of vanishing landscapes open up spaces that the observer cannot enter but which remain accessible to our powers of reflection.’