photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

On Landscape Photography

no, but seriously…

in General Rants , Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A couple of days ago, Ugo Cei published a “A curmudgeonly look at the current state of landscape photography” rant on landscape photography which has stirred up quite some debate.

As I read, “There is this prevalent style in landscape photography that aims to capture the viewer with dramatic light, strong composition and bright, saturated colors” I found myself nodding wildly in agreement, but on reflection, I’m not sure that firing at such an obvious target is fruitful. And to be brutally frank, Ugo’s own work, beautiful as it is, doesn’t seem to be so many notches away from that which he decries.

Yes, much popular landscape photography on 500px is formulaic, garish, fluff, craving attention, pandering to a lowest common denominator threshold derived from endless identical tutorials. It’s much the same on 1x, wildly so on WhyTake, and also on Flickr, even if there some dilution is evident from the sheer volume. But so what. Commentary on the post is largely split between people defending their right to be superficial, and others agreeing but without much in the way of realistic alternatives. For example, “going back to film” is a popular panacea, but film - specifically, Velvia - is actually what got us here in the first place. The opposite trend of the exaggerated “Portra 400” heavily unsaturated look, usually featuring anonymous, bland subject matter, is equally as affected as the saturation sliders to 11 wave. Black & white is a valid alternative, but equally open to wild contrast exaggeration. The dark, scratchy gothic look is also a popular counter-trend, but again, often superficial. The problem is not the presentation, but rather the content.

There seems to be a great desire from a subset of landscape photographers to produce “meaningful work”. I’d include myself in that group. Unfortunately, at the same time, they seem to crave popular acclaim, and that’s likely to be a problem (and yes, that’s me, too). The key point about social media is that the “social” part often outweighs the “media” part. Getting likes on 500px et al is not going to be hampered by showing great photos, but playing the social networking game is far more important. I honestly do not know of any inspiring landscape photographers who are stars on photo sharing sites.

It certainly isn’t impossible for landscape photography to be meaningful and artistic. Some high profile examples include Ed Burtinsky, and Salgado, obviously, but there are plenty of others out there. Some favourites of mine include Stuart Klipper, Dav Thomas, and Tiina Itkonen. I don’t think any of these are big (if at all) on 500px.

Coming back to the tricky topic of meaningfulness in landscape photography, the debate has helped to crystallise my own views a little. First of all, I would propose that any photograph which provokes some response beyond the superficial holds meaning. I do not think that landscape photography, or indeed much photography at all, generally holds explicit meaning. Why should it? We have several senses, why do we need to translate a visual, visceral response into textual description? The meaning in landscape photography is general intangible, and we should be comfortable with that. As landscape photographers, we have compositional tricks of the trade to deploy to make our photos more visually interesting. And of course these are flogged to death in magazine tutorials, how-to books, and “fine art photographer” websites. They’re all well and good, but going out specifically to find leading lines, Ye Olde Foregrounde Intereste, or s-curves is going to result in bland eye candy, although it might get you noticed on 500px. It’s the wrong way round: these techniques can be used to enhance an interesting subject, but they’re not terribly interesting of themselves.

So then, what makes a photograph interesting? Well, there are several key reference works on that topic, for example by Stephen Shore, John Szarkowski, or George Barr. But these are generic - useful, enlightening, classic maybe, but not infallible sets of instructions. I believe that individually we have to find our own parameters. About a year after I started posting on Flickr, I started indulging in a little conceit which was to give my photos one word titles. These titles were often oblique and obscure, but there was a method behind them. After a while, I started to realise that for some photos the titles came quickly, and for others it was a struggle, or nothing came at all. For some, the title turned out to have several layers of meaning, some direct, some indirect. And so I imposed the rule on myself that until a photo “named itself”, I could not post it. The photos with the strongest titles were not necessarily technically stronger, nor did they get huge acclaim on Flickr, but they were the most satisfying to me. I’ve notice other people using different ways to express meaning by association, for example by adding fragments of poetry. I’d like to think that if a photograph speaks to me in this way, it may speak to others, eventually. Of course I could just be delusional.

It’s actually very, very hard in my experience to produce meaningful landscape work which excludes human elements. So it’s a shame that so many landscape photographers seek to do just that, and yes, mea culpa. We’re shooting ourselves in both feet, as well diving deep into denial, in trying to separate ourselves from nature.

The following two photos attempt to illustrate what I’m getting at. The positive example (the second) was much harder to select.

Sandflat sunset

This says very little to me other than “ooh, nice sunset”. When I published it on Flickr it was before my “title” phase and the best I could come up with was a bland, descriptive “Breiðamerkursandur sunset”.

Xpan verzasca0412 12

This, on the other, means quite a lot to me, although there’s no context here. The title “siccità” was obvious. To me, anyway.

A lot of photos I see online give homage to the hackneyed “capture the light” theme. And often that is all they do, albeit often very, very well from a technical perspective. But they don’t capture the place, and don’t hold attention beyond a quick social blast. Getting away from the addiction to instant fleeting praise may be the first step on the road to a true sense of accomplishment, but it’s a long road to take. And whatever I may have said or implied here, being dismissive about other people’s take on the wide, wide world of photography is not a step in a rewarding direction.




That first image is one of the best landscapes I’ve seen in a while :)
I think photography is a semi transparent mirror, and I think landscape’s biggest issue is the over reliance on what’s outside versus what’s inside.
I would argue it’s hard to do meaningful work when what one shoots doesn’t reflect the inside.  Salgado proves that there IS still expressive possibilities in Landscapes. His Genesis will make you believe in the creator they are so grandiose. Some of the best landscape work in my opinion is from those who had an intent before even going out to shoot somewhere.
The reason why I like your stuff is because it’s the opposite of what is on the popular sites: interchangeable landscapes. Peter Lik’s image stunt of the Antelope canyon looks like every single Google image search of the place.
I would call your landscapes “Genuine Landscapes”. They look real and honest, not like the images you see out of 500px that look like wallpapers. They are muted and do not seek to represent the landscape the way it looks like for a few moments of the day at magic hour. You usually (except that image of the sunset above)  represent the landscape straight at any time of the day.
It is highly unexpected where most landscapers usually wait for magic hour and their ND filters. I think there is a deeper meaning in your work, the one of honesty. How much do we humans put up a mask for a few hours in the day, while we are someone else the rest of the day?
I can see that in your work, a rebellion against the overly saturated landscape with predictable results. That is the genuineness I see in your work and I believe I am right when I read your stuff, as I also see the genuineness of your words.
Also, your images usually contain an element of decay, like a subconscious fight against the landscape that you are photographing. An abandoned house, a broke tanker (my favorite image of yours), some Antelope bones, etc. Where Ansel Adams showed a type of physical majesty of the landscape, your images show a time majesty.
Ansel’s images where in your face dramatic, but your drama is much more subtle. The drama comes from the contrast between decay in the front and landscape in the back. Your landscapes do not need to prove majesty with anything but the fact that it was there before and will be there after us.
It was there before the antelope bones and will be there after. Technically humans cannot stand death, but in the case of your decayed elements like the tanker and the bones, the dead wood, it feels ok. It’s dead. Things run down. But it’s ok.
You mentioned Brian Eno, he said about his Music for Airports that his intent was somewhere along the line of “Yeah, you might die in an airplane but that’s ok”. I feel the same type of bitter-sweet sentiment in those images of your where you contrast decay and landscape.
My 2 cents at least :)

By Olivier Duong, on January 30, 2015

Olivier, that was considerably more than 2 cents’ worth.  Thank you very much for your kind words. I think that maybe you ascribe more intent to my output than really exists, but then again, intent isn’t necessarily always conscious. To be honest, one reason I don’t stray much into the over saturated magic hour stuff is actually I’m really not very good at it. Well, another reason would be I hate getting up early!
Over the last few days I’ve been devouring Frank Gohlke’s collection of writings, “Thoughts on Landscape”, and while it is quite enthralling, the unstated message that comes over is that two non-negotiable requirements to develop a meaningful body of work are extreme dedication and very hard work. Pity I’m allergic to both!

By David Mantripp, on January 30, 2015

I think you are being too humble, there’s nothing to be good at for magi hour, just wake up early! But that’s a good excuse anyway :)
Intent can be conscious or subconscious like you said…..If it was only one image it would be luck or a fluke, but it’s a recurring pattern.
I’ll check the essays out. I think meaning comes from intent. You set out to do something and every step you take towards that is meaninful :)

By Olivier Duong, on January 30, 2015

i read ugo’s blog and comments – and now your piece, david – that olivier linked to in the inspired eye newsletter. i have my own website and blog (both un-promoted other than handing out a photo-business card here and there), and subscribe to several photographers’ blogs. i enjoy the heck out of photography and am always interested in what people, photographers themselves, especially, think about it, no matter the genre or lack of. (kudos to inspired eye for asking all those questions of the featured photographers!)
in the same way, i am usually more interested in the special features on a movie dvd where the intent and approach are discussed. the actual film can be “successful” or not in money or art, and the audience may have a different take on the “message” than the creator(s) intended, but that is the viewer’s right. but it is fascinating to delve into the motivations behind creativity, because otherwise you might never figure it out by the end product alone.
a lot of the discussion around ugo’s post seems to be commerce versus creativity, technique versus reaction. it’s rather like watching a couple walking down the street and trying to guess what each one sees in the other: sometimes opposites attract, sometimes they look like twins, but unless you are in bed or the kitchen with them you will never be able to tell what’s cooking from the outside looking in.
i am not trying to make money on/off my photos, and don’t visit 500px, flickr, or facebook, so i only know about many folks’ reliance on these avenues of validation by their writing of it. and lately i often read about how fed up folks are getting with their own addiction to social media.
there were a lot of good comments on ugo’s piece, covering a lot of angles. i almost didn’t read his post when i saw the sunstar photos of mesa arch and delicate arch… i thought, oh no, not another one of these guys! please, somebody show me what mesa arch looks like from a different angle or another time of day or from ten feet behind ten other photographers! but i wasn’t there. maybe it’s too compelling to do anything else?
olivier says, “I think photography is a semi transparent mirror, and I think
landscape’s biggest issue is the over reliance on what’s outside versus
what’s inside.”
and i would add to that, viewers tend to rely on the obvious too, rather than contemplate what is being shown about the geography, geology, weather, season, etc., that the photographer was surrounded by. in the same way that a street photo is always different because the people and interactions are changing, if we knew what to look for in a nature shot, we would realize that it is not a static situation either, despite the samness of mesa arch, and so on.
well, i don’t even know what i’m getting at here, but it was sparked by
reading an excerpt from Frank Gohlke/“Thoughts on Landscape” which david mentioned in comments, and i went searching for:
“At its best, telling the landscape’s story can still feel like a sacred task.”
i would add to that, telling your own story can be sacred, too. your
audience may not “get” your intent, message, or style. you may not even
have an audience except the one who lives inside you. but you will know
if it is sacred for you, and for that there need not be any “likes.”

By marke blue –, on January 31, 2015

Marke, I think you’re absolutely correct about the “commerce v. creativity” point, and the fact that there is a dramatic communication gap between the 2 rough camps that people have organised themselves into.  A certain subset of photographers seem to want things both ways - they want the warm glow of appreciation they get from social media popularity, but they don’t want to create the type of photography, or play the social games, that attracts that praise. Personally I just toss stuff out on Flickr on a whim. Generally, the amount of views I get strongly correlates with the camera I used: photos taken with my Sigma cameras get most views. And photos I find particular interesting generally get very, very few views. Probably because interesting photos don’t usually have that instant “wow” factor. Or perhaps because actually, they’re not interesting :-)
The storm and sub-storms stirred up by Ugo’s blog post certainly are fascinating, but when it comes down to it, I think the underlying message is that if you want satisfaction from your photography, first you have to be true to yourself. And unless the stars align, that might well be as far as you’re going to get. If, on the other hand, you’re using photography as a vehicle for social interaction, that’s well and good, but don’t confuse your objectives.

By David Mantripp, on January 31, 2015

Now this was a post that stirred things up - so thought-provoking that I’ve had to return to it more than once (up North, we think quite slowly, you understand). Actually, the ramifications go well beyond photography The debate about how “great art” can be discriminated from the derivative, humdrum, me-too stuff has been running a very long time - probably ever since folk were daubing pictures of mammoths on cave walls. In particular, your post reminded me of a passage in Kenneth Clark’s “Landscape into Art” where he’s comparing the Impressionists (“True Art”) with a painting by the also-ran B W Leader, “February Fill Dyke” - p.170 in my edition. Worth a read ...

By Project Hyakumeizan, on February 04, 2015

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