Is landscape photography stuck in a rut?

I ask this question because just recently I have been spending some time researching the Romantic period in painting. Anyway, without further delay, let’s take a look at the evidence for the prosecution. The following three pictures are by the Norwegian, Hans Gude:

'Høyfjell', Hans Gude, 1857

'Høyfjell', Hans Gude, 1857

'Efoybroen, Nord Wales' Hans Gude, 1863

'Efoybroen, Nord Wales' Hans Gude, 1863

'Vinterettermiddag', Hans Gude, 1847

'Vinterettermiddag', Hans Gude, 1847

Notice the use of light and composition – even the choice of subject and viewpoint. I think you’ll agree that any of these could, in concept at least, be from many of the better landscape portfolios on Flickr (or other sharing sites, for that matter). Although Gude’s compositions are much more subtle than those often exhibited on the ‘Net, it might appear that representations of the landscape haven’t really changed in 150 years. Some might even say we’re slowly going backwards. Now, I do appreciate that there are many places – even in Europe – that have barely changed in that time and that there are only a few viewpoints from which it’s possible to make a pleasing composition but, taking that into account, where’s the creativity and innovation in modern landscape photography? Do we all secretly hanker after a romantic past where sunsets were rosier and picturesque Welsh bridges were still being crossed by people on horseback (even if they are somewhat out of scale… 😉 ) ?

Gude’s work was praised for its naturalism and truthfulness in its day yet it still manages to look fresh to modern eyes, jaded as they are by countless nuclear sunsets, radioactive meadows and chemically-cyan surf (this last is a pet peeve. Since when has surf ever been the same colour as the sea?)

Of course, there is plenty of innovative work in the landscape genre – Andrew Nadolski’s ‘End of the Land’ project, David Ward’s mesmerising work on small-scale scenes and Jan Töve’s intricate Nordic landscapes to name but three examples. And Joe Cornish, who has been strongly influenced by the Romantic school, is pushing the art forward with his cleverly-conceived and subtle compositions and the fresh, modern presentation of some of his more recent digital images.

Yet, at the more commercial end of professional landscape photography – and even more so on the amateur side – the 19th century seems to be where it’s at, stylistically. Could this simply be that photographers are reacting to their customers’ tastes? In many cases I’m sure this is so. Or maybe it’s down to the mainstream photographic press which has never really been able to see beyond this style? Probably a bit of both.

It is, I think, rather depressing that very little seems to have changed in landscape imagery – unless you are willing to dig quite a bit deeper. The vast majority of landscape photography still seems to be in a style which was innovative 150 years ago.

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9 Responses to Is landscape photography stuck in a rut?

  1. kevinallan says:

    Well at least Gude didn’t have his angle of vision artifically widened to equate that of an ultra-wideangle lens … which is a diversion that much current landscape photography falls into. The top two paintings are ones which I’d be happy to see stylistically influence flickr members whilst the third does show that the tendency for oversaturation didn’t orginate in the 21st Century.

  2. Yes that snowy sunset scene is a little much, isn’t it? You have to be a little careful in that a reproduction of a painting may or may not be faithful to the original so, in Gude’s defence, the original might not be so lurid…

    If it’s saturation you want, try this. I have seen the original (or at least the smaller version that hangs in the Southampton Art Gallery) and the reproduction here is somewhat held back…

    • kevinallan says:

      There are at least two John Martin originals at the Laing Art Gallery here in Newcastle and they certainly fall into the “wow” approach to image-making. I think if he had been alive in the late 20th Century Martin would have been designing album covers for “progressive” rock bands. They are highly saturated, combined with highly exaggerated versions of the landscape (eg Wales looking like the Alps in a picture called “The Bard”) and drawn from semi-mythical tales; I presume that the audience at the time would not think Martin’s images to be realistic interpretations of natural scenes.

      I have seen other 19th century paintings – I can’t remember the artist but I recall paintings of anglers on the River Dee near Balmoral – which grossly exaggerated the “terrible” nature of the landscape but without the mythical “excuse” that Martin had. Once railway travel allowed people to more easily see these scenes for themselves, the “deceipt” would be painfully clear.

      Perhaps that points to a problem that current landscape photographers have – that there are few surprises anymore, at least not in terms of grand vistas.

      • I googled ‘The Bard’ and what a bizarre picture! The musician looks far too large for his surroundings and seems to be perched rather improbably.

        As regards your last paragraph, I think you’re right. Plenty of surprises on a more intimate scale, though…. ;o)

  3. Mike Green says:

    An interesting thesis, Julian. I concur with your main idea, that the bulk of landscape photography is not wildly dissimilar to landscape painting in the past, and the examples you’ve used are very good in that respect. Yet, art in general, and pictorial art in particular, has always been predominantly representational, don’t you think? It’s always been the case that those artists doing something different have been in the minority, surely?

    At the moment, with the sudden ability for huge numbers of people to make landscape photographs easily and relatively cheaply, it seems only natural that most would seek to emulate the ‘normal’ view of landscape art? Of course, that doesn’t say that things are /not/ stuck in a rut, it just explains it….

    I think you refute your own argument though: the examples you give are prominent photographers, but there are also a fair few other people making images which are different from the norm, and that’s pretty normal for a group of people creating ‘art’ at any point in history, surely?

    So, all I’m saying is “yes, I agree, it is, but no more so than at any point in history”. Interesting and thought-provoking piece – thanks!

    Mike
    p.s. I just Googled ‘the bard’ too – very odd 😉

    • I mentioned the ‘prominent photographers’ because most people reading this would have heard of them. I could have given some exposure to quite a few of my Flickr contacts but I didn’t want people to feel put out if I didn’t give them a mention.

      You have a point but a lot has changed in the landscape in 150 years and, with a few exceptions (compacted silage rolls being one), people in general are still harking back to a romantic view of the landscape. Dramatic subjects in dramatic light are the norm. The sort of images that you, I and a number of others like to make are very much in the minority, sadly.

      • Mike Green says:

        I one hundred per cent agree 😉 I just think that nothing has changed. I think the metaphorical rut has lasted for centuries (even if the literal rut’s creation has changed in its nature, in the form of tractors!). Unfortunately, I think the whole ‘representational’ thing, and also the ‘big vista’ thing is the most popular taste. Hey – I like those things too of course – I just feel the need to do something a little different once in a while!

  4. I’d have to agree with you, Julian. I think that, by and large, mass tastes co-incide with mass practise. Those who are different from this norm go out on a limb and, with some very notable exceptions, just don’t get recognised. Still, when the muse calls…

    • Hi Carol,

      Good to hear from you again!

      I think those who ‘go out on a limb’ do get some measure of recognition but it is much harder to come by and involves actively seeking out an audience. The main hurdle is that most photo-sharing websites encourage conformance to a norm and few reward people who like to do things differently. That’s my opinion, anyway. 🙂

      Best,
      Julian

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