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:
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.