the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

Cutural Issues

in General Rants , Monday, June 26, 2006

Meanwhile, over at the highly productive and entertaining, Colin wrote an entry in response to a comment I made on a previous entry (still with me here ?), which I turn would like to expand on. Colin wrote:
I recently wrote a short essay called In defence of the non-luminous landscape where I tried to draw a distinction between landscape photography that met cultural ideals and landscape photography that was a much more personal reaction to the land. Both forms can be satisfying to look at, but I find the cultural norm sort very unsatisfying to produce. I'm not in the business of making mass market calendars
This leads me to wonder about these "cultural ideals". Are succesful landscape photographers such as David Noton, Charlie Waite or David Ward, following cultural ideals ? Can we consider that they do not have a personal reaction, because they are popular ? Is there something inherently wrong with emphasising beauty in landscape ? Is it perhaps that "real" photographers only do black & white ? In fact, I'd even say that the sort of B&W stuff which typically decorates "tasteful" Habitat-furnished homes is a far worse offender when it comes to purely decorative unchallenging dreck masquerading as art. We are all part of a culture. We are conditioned by that culture. We see wild landscape as beautiful, or at least interesting, whereas in an earlier culture we'd have seen it as hostile or just a wasteland of non-viable farmland. Cultural conditioning works both ways, it is both shaped by us and shapes us. Maybe there is some confusion between "cultural ideals" and "popular culture", or even "pandering to the lowest denominator". But to be honest, if you line up a series of standard "local views" postcards in any seaside tourist shop, alongside the same scenes shot by, say, Joe Cornish, I bet a pound to a penny that the flat, midday sun, blue sky "Greetings from Sunny Skegness" will outsell the more artistic stuff by 20:1. Just because a photo has a visual attractiveness, or is taken in dawn light, does not make it necessarly unchallenging or even unsettling, and it certainly does not rule out a "personal reaction" on the part of the photographer.

Older Comments

from Colin on Tue, June 27, 2006 - 8:32


I have no knowledge of the motives of the people you mention.  I don’t know them, haven’t talked to them, or even, mostly, heard or read what they have to say about the subject.

I do know photographers who try to take photos to meet an expectation of what a photo should look like.  It is perhaps these people I had in mind.

By ‘cultural ideals’  I mean the same as I think you are meaning.  We are conditioned to see landscape as beautiful.  It is a view we are expected to espouse.  That is, when we look up from our in-car DVD system for long enough to notice that we have left town.

There is nothing wrong with emphasising beauty in landscape.  And beyond any unthinking response there are plenty of people who have a deep emotional reaction and attachment to that beauty.  So, as ever, in trying to write a short essay, and then in trying to summarise that essay in one short paragraph, I end up falling into the trap of setting out a complex and subtle position in too few words.

And you are perfectly right about the volume of monochrome trash that falls into essentially the same artistic bucket as the sunset trash.

I think that I made it clear in my original piece that there is no winning of the game of beauty versus (um, can’t think of a non-emotive word for it) non-beauty.  They are different sports.

I’ve been not finishing a review of a Joe Cornish book for quite some time now.  I’m struggling with it because he sees a world that I just don’t see.  And that is despite a number of the photographs being made in places that I could walk to from my door.

So where is this comment going (except on and on)?  Some, perhaps many, photos are taken to meet the perceived expectation of society.  That could be society at large, or a smaller grouping that the photographer is, or wants to be, in.  These photographs rarely advance anything but they can work well enough within the limits that the photographers set themselves.  There are plenty of people, like that photography tutor that I quoted, who seem to want photography to work within limits.  There is a wonderful thread on the-online-photographer today about a Cartier Bresson picture being rejected just because it was blurry.  Examples are easy to come by.

But equally there are plenty of photographers who are sharing a much more personal vision or response.

My comments were not directed at photographs which happen to match a cultural norm.  My comments were directed at photos that were taken because they meet a cultural norm.  This distinction is easy to lose.