1.1 Preconceptions

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Campo Imperatore, Abruzzo, Italy – Steve Middlehurst 2004

The landscape module opens with the challenge to sketch a ‘landscape’ picture. Many people say they can’t draw, but I really can’t draw, so I will not burden the internet with an embarrassingly inadequate and indecipherable sketch. Bill Jay, that most pithy of photography’s writers, suggests that it is “true, there are photographers who are failed artists, but so are most artists” (1: p.93) and for over forty years my efforts as a landscape photographer have been fuelled by the frustration of not being able to capture a scene with pen, pencil or paint. This is not unusual, William Henry Fox-Talbot’s discovery of the “Photogenic Drawing” system, the forerunner of the photographic print came as a direct result of his own frustration with drawing:

“I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of Lake Como in Italy, taking sketches with Wollaston’s camera lucida, or rather, I should say, attempting to take them: but with the smallest amount of success ……. the idea occurred to me – how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.” (2: p.19)

But, to return to the point of this exercise, we are asked to sketch this ‘landscape’ picture, comment on it and presumably reveal the depth or shallowness of our understanding of photographic landscape.

Instead I have chosen a fourteen year old photograph of a type that has often been part of my landscape work over the years. I selected this particular image because it was the first to come to my mind as a landscape photograph in the painterly tradition:

  • the classic horizontal, rectangular frame that is so associated with this genre that it is commonly called a landscape orientation;
  • the sunlit mountain is roughly a third of the way into the frame from the right and the horses a third of the way up from the base;
  • there is a distinct foreground, middle ground and background and whilst there are some human subjects they are so hidden behind the horses as to be irrelevant;
  • one might argue that the sky is Sublime and my framing suggests I wanted to emphasise its dominance of the scene but the strong colours and the idyllic rural scene set against the majestic beauty of Gran Sasso suggests that this photograph has  “picturesque” in its DNA;
  • the subject matter echoes the subject of many painters and photographers: nature, wilderness, beauty and solitude;
  • it tends towards promoting the rural idyll, it is not just a landscape, the scene includes a corral of horses whose purpose is ambiguous but suggestive of a rural pursuit;
  • it describes an element of human intervention in the natural landscape, someone built the corral and filled it with horses and a viewer who knows these highlands might point out that the plateau’s character is the result of thousands of years of grazing by millions of sheep; I make this point as it speaks to the more contemporary theme of man’s impact on the land.

So, how can we categorise this photograph? Is it a simple record, a topographical document of a place at a moment in time, a mechanical reproduction of reality? Is there anything of me, the photographer within the frame, or could it have as easily been  taken by a Google car? Can it be disregarded as a tourist snapshot or is it a more complex representation of an Italian scene and man’s relationship with this high plateau in the Apennine mountains?

Jussim and Lindquist-Cock, when considering a set of early photographic landscapes, argued that:

“It seems obvious that the pictures themselves are the result of a complex of technological factors commingled with intellectual aspirations, narrative propensities, aesthetic expertise, and symbolism. If it were only something called ‘content’ that concerned us, we should never be able to distinguish between two photographs of a specific subject.” (3: p.5)

At the start of any learning module, there are, and perhaps should be, more questions than answers so I am making no attempt to reach definitive conclusions, perhaps there are none when discussing such a broad and diverse genre as landscape photography. More than any other genre of photography landscape is born of painted art, it not only adopted its subjects, structures, symbolism and concepts but is also burdened by structures of criticism that are often applied as an aesthetic, social and political test to contemporary landscape photography. So, the question I raise is whether a photograph that is clearly, if sub-consciously, a derivative of painted art and thereby picturesque, with the negative connotations that label holds, wholly devoid of substance or do Jussim and Lindquist-Cocks’ complex factors need to be taken into some account.

I selected the photograph above partly because it represents a style of landscape photography that reflects the painterly traditions of landscape art and thereby provides the “reference point” called for in this first exercise, I have taken many similar pictures and will no doubt take many more but like many photographers I simultaneously pursue distinct but parallel paths. Luigi Ghirri eloquently explains this point :

“I take two kinds of photographs: the typical ones that everyone takes, and which, in the end, I’m hardly interested in; and then the others, the ones I really care about, and the only ones that I really consider ‘my own’.” (4: p.17)

This would be the moment to include a deadpan, desaturated picture of a mundane object or a piece of vernacular architecture to show that ‘my own’ work is more meaningful that horses on Campo Imperatore. However, whilst I picked this picture without much thought, I recognise that it is very much ‘my own’; it is a place near where I lived for many years and that moved me and spoke to me in many complex ways every time I walked in the mountains and this speaks to a idea described by Robert Adams:

“Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is often trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life.” (5: p.15)

Clearly we use landscape photography in many ways; to make social or political statements, to document and record change or stability, as touristic memories or as some writers would argue to exercise our masculinity in an act of dominance and possession. However, perhaps we should also bear in mind that, at times, a beautiful, sublime or picturesque landscape might be worth capturing just to celebrate being alive, being privileged to travel and being there to see that view; an affection for life.

Sources

Books

(1) Jay, Bill (2009) LensWork #83: the Best of Bill Jay’s EndNotes. (Kindle Edition 2011) Anacortes: LensWork Publishing

(2) Newhall, Beaumont (1982) The History of Potography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

(3) Jussim, Estelle and Lindquist-Cock, Elizabeth (1985) landscape as Photograph. Cambridge MA: Yale University

(4) Ghirri, Luigi (1973) Cardboard Landscapes (an essay included in Luigi Ghirri: The Complete Essays 1973 – 1991). London: MACK

(5) Adams, Robert (1996) Beauty in Photography. New York: Aperture.

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3 Responses to 1.1 Preconceptions

  1. You have gone to great lengths to subvert the brief and the OCA will no doubt recognise this favourably. The fact you cannot draw very well however is not the point; in drawing one can tap into what one unconsciously believes constitutes landscape rather than what one considers to be landscape.

  2. Amano, thank you for your comment. I agree that I have subverted the brief but I haven’t really gone to any great lengths to do so, it just felt like the right approach for me. Selecting an old photograph where I had subconsciously adopted the structures of historical painted landscapes is arguably more revealing that a drawing made now where I would have consciously decided to adopt or to reject those structures and motifs.

  3. Catherine says:

    What’s interesting to me is how much the photograph pleases my eyes with it’s composition.

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