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ON LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY



1. Landscape Photography and Culture


Moveing Water

Land shapes its people, and people shape the land.

From the bushmen of the Kalahari desert to the tribesmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands, the impact of landscape on culture is undeniable. It underpins our mythology and informs our values. Sometimes for better - the Swiss culture of political neutrality is largely an accident of geography - sometimes for worse.

While the connection between landscape and culture may be most apparent in the case of "primitive" societies, even modern Western culture, where rationality and measurement may be thought to be the ultimate arbiter of value, is rooted in nature. Much has been written, for example, about modern Australian culture's reliance upon the twin myths of "the bush" and "the beach".

By presenting the natural world around us the landscape photographer helps us understand that which underlies our culture. They give form to, and enable us to connect with, the nature myths that sustain our societies. The photographer's focus on landscape helps us understand ourselves.

But more than that. As Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory asserts, landscape is a work of the mind. Not only does the physical landscape shape who we are, we also shape the material world of rocks, trees and flowers to meet our needs - witness Nazism's appeal to a sentimentalised teutonic culture rooted in forest and woodlands.

The landscape photographer's interpretation of the natural world is a many faceted creative act. In addition to their creation of the art object, the photographer's process of selecting and ordering what they present to us conditions the way we perceive and respond to the land. Our initial reaction to the expressive print may be to exalt the photographer's celebration of natural beauty. For many (most?) that may be the only response. Perhaps for some the initial elation may be tempered, after a period of reflection, by a sense of grief or loss. Perhaps even, in the case of a few, consideration of the image may directly result in some form of positive action.

In photographing the land the photographer therefore not only helps us find out who we are, they also participate in shaping who we will become.

 

2. Landscape Photography and The Environment


Neates Glen, 1997

Ansel Adams believed natural beauty was its own justification: "... I do not recall that I ever intentionally made a photograph for environmentally significant purposes. My photographs that are considered to relate to these issues are images conceived for their intrinsic aesthetic and emotional qualities ..." Nevertheless, Adams was a lion of the environmental movement in the USA between the 1930s and 1970s. Whether made for any specific environmental purpose or not, his images, along with those of other photographers such as Eliot Porter and Philip Hyde; or more latterly Tupper Ansel Blake and Robert Glenn Ketchum; or the Australian artist Peter Dombrovskis, had a significant impact on a number of environmental battles.

Landscape photography has served as a handmaiden to the burgeoning environmental movement for the last 60 years or so, only now the struggle for protection of wilderness for its own sake has been overtaken by the need to protect it in order to survive. Only recently have we started to understand the mechanisms behind global warming and ozone holes; to identify the linkages between deep-ocean currents and meteorological phenomena; to appreciate the true importance of natural systems such as rainforest and wetlands. The health of the landscape has become the litmus test of our survival. Landscape photography therefore reminds us not only of natural grandeur but also the fragility of nature. No photographic image of the natural world can now remain independent of the struggle to save nature, and thereby save ourselves.

 

3. Landscape Photography and The Inner Life


Natural Arch, 1995

Adams was largely reliant upon income from corporate work or private commissions. He contrasted these "assignments from without" with his private, expressive work : his "assignments from within". Interestingly, his place in photography is almost exclusively due to the latter.

For many, landscape photography is a vehicle for personal expression. A means of exploring the world and expressing a response to the landforms that surround us. The challenge of recording on film not just what we see, but what we experience. Capturing those feelings and moods and translating them, via the craft of photography, onto light sensitive paper so they can be shared with others.

In re-connecting us with the land, photography helps integrate our lives. It allows us to overcome the alienation from nature inherent in so much of urban living. Time spent alone in the bush/mountains/coastal margins provides a safety-valve, a release from the pressures of modern life. Photography as therapy. The slow, methodical, disciplined approach necessitated by the best landscape photography forces us to slow down. To contemplate. To cultivate a sense of wonder. To appreciate the Divine Author's creativity.

 

Notes:

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (Fontana Press, 1996)

Ansel Adams, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983)


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