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.

Back to the beginning with Fox Talbot

W. H. Fox Talbot’s 1835 negative and positive photographs ‘Latticed Window, Lacock Abbey’

A photographic image is true and false in equal measure.

(Quote from Gerry Badger in The Genius of Photography, p.8). The earliest days of photography don’t bring any ideological foundation to its trajectory through history. The one thing you can’t do with a consideration of photography’s story is to call it The Story of Photography. Even in the 1830s, it was postmodern. There are, as Gerry Badger has pointed out, many stories of photography, and it proves impossible to ask them to form a neat line. As Fox Talbot so aptly showed in The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), even when you ask photographic images to show us what they can do, the multiplicity of the ‘picture-ness’ itself defies a confining logic.

Talbot’s book is a series of commentary on 24 photographs (all originally unique calotypes), produced in instalments over two years. Architectural scenes, still life, copies of drawing and print, the textures of manmade and natural objects: an eclectic choice of subjects are all accompanied by short texts of description or reflection on the image-capture process. Ian Jeffrey has noted the uncertainty in this presentation of ‘the new Art’ (Talbot’s term used in his introductory outline of the process at the beginning of The Pencil of Nature), suggestive of the surprise at being made ‘acutely alert to seeing itself’ (p.26, Photography: A Concise History, 1989).

Fox Talbot remarks on the camera’s ability to see everything ‘all at once’ (after Plate III, Articles of China), to ‘introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation’, being found to ‘give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented’ (after Plate X, The Haystack), to ‘awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings’ (after Plate VI, The Open Door), to produce copies of any number of artefacts which ‘may be preserved from loss, and multiplied to any extent’ (after Plate XXIII, Hagar in the Desert), ‘as much larger or smaller than the originals as we may desire’ (after Plate XI, Copy of a Lithographic Print). He even muses on the possibility of the photographic image making visible the invisible, by virtue of fixing ultraviolet rays (after Plate VIII, A Scene in A Library).

Each of these, and others besides, act not only to endorse the polyvalence of a photograph’s possible meaning, but also to present the paradox of photography: we both see the subject as immediate, as a short-circuit to visual reality AND we inhabit the interpretative process which is always invested in a picture, undermining such objectivity. Like Talbot’s first negative of 1835, above, this reveals that perceptive flip of comprehension, where the impossibility of operating in two modes at the same time is brought tantalisingly close. Close enough to explode the dominance of all previous means of representation.