Saturday, October 24, 2015


I saw a remark attributed to Ansel Adams:

Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment.

Which is an interesting statement, I'd say. Taken at face value, he seems to be saying that landscape photography is the hardest kind of picture taking. One might imagine that a little ego might be in play here.

But I think he might be right. We certainly have ample evidence that it's hard. We have billions of bad landscapes, and extraordinarily few good ones. And yet, even your run of the mill flickr/500px hack can knock out an interesting portrait, fashion photo, or what have you.

Hardcore landscape guys think you should have no people in your landscapes, nor indeed evidence of man. This makes it a bloody hard row to hoe, to be blunt. The things people care about are people, and thing related to people. Pictures of people start, therefore, with a leg up. We find them inherently interesting. There's all manner of body language and facial language we can grapple with, feel, interpolate and extrapolate.

The things of people are a nice secondary genre. A still life still shows, usually, the hand of man at work. We see the apples picked for eating, in the bowl turned by the craftsman, in the kitchen where perhaps a meal will be prepared in a moment. So again we have these people-centered stories we can chew on.

As photographers we can draw on a thousand cues and clues, conscious and unconscious, to express some idea. Some, almost invariably, people-centric idea. The absence of people from a human space is telling. The presence of a person, and that person's posture is likewise telling, but writes a different tale of meaning. And so on.

A landscape, it strikes me, especially the strict kind without the hand of man, can only express one idea, which is essentially "wow!"

"Wow, how beautiful"
"Wow, how vast"
"Wow, how pristine"
"Wow, how terrifying"

It's pretty much all "look at this, isn't it, well, doesn't it make you go wow?"

Which is all very well. Ansel Adams certainly felt a lot of "wow!" and he's made me feel a lot of "wow!" It's a fine thing. But ultimately, kind of a limited palette.

Content is almost submerged. It becomes a game of explaining what the "wow!" is all about. If it's vast, you have to make it feel vast. If it's tall, you have to make it feel tall.

Here's an experiment. Pull any random Ansel Adams off the web, suck it into your favorite editor, and raise the blacks to a mushy grey. Not all his landscapes, but many of them, disintegrate. The more graphically strong ones simply become weaker. The ones with a bunch of trees and crap, where the point is that this one tree sticks out or whatever, simply disintegrate into incomprehensible mush.

Pick some other talented landscape people. Grab a couple JMW Turner's and remove the color. The damage tends again to be substantial.

I'm wrestling with the words for this idea. There seems to be something which can survive this sort of abuse, something about content. An interesting portrait does not depend on deep blacks to be interesting, because it's the person's face that's interesting inherently. A still life of pears in a basket is interesting because of what it is, and it should not rely on subtle details of the color for that interest. A landscape is, in some sense, essentially not interesting, and it is somehow the role of the artist here to make it interesting with the tricks of their particular trade.

There are photographs and paintings which are about marrying an idea to some content to create an expression of the idea.

Landscapes don't seem to be capable of that. The palette of available ideas is limited, and the landscape must be coaxed into revealing the idea that's already built in to the artist's perception of it.

This is not to say that landscape photography sucks or is easy, quite the contrary. It's very hard. The easiest photograph to make is probably the mediocre landscape, but among the most difficult is the excellent landscape. The pictures you make, even when successful, are rarely a robust punch in the face. On the contrary they are fragile things, a delicate balance of graphical elements and tricks, carrying a fine thread of a small idea, with little hope of success.

You'd think that The Sublime would be a big idea, and in a sense it is. But if you feel it, if you feel that "wow" about the natural world, well, it's everywhere out there. Translating something that you feel literally everywhere you look into a single picture isn't easy. Why this frame instead of that one? Most frames merely break the spell and produce a crummy picture of a bunch of trees and/or rocks.

Even the good frames need a bit of help.

Without the Hand of Man, all you have is the Hand of God, the only idea you have to express is The Sublime, and it's a tough job to cram that into a picture without breaking it.


  1. A fine landscape image isn't "gimicky". Perhaps it doesn't have anything that's instictively interesting to us (like faces or genitals).

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  3. Landscape is both a noun and a verb.

    I think your definition of landscape photography being merely the untouched, the sublime is too narrow and not supported by the actual photographs of notable artists in that genre. I'm thinking of photographers like Burtynsky, Sternfeld, Misrach, just to name a few. Maybe they aren't the "hardcore" landscape guys you're talking about but they are unmistakably landscape photographers even if their version of it requires a modifier in the description.

    Similarly, I can't outdo the "wow factor" of the 500px crowd---or Peter Lik and their many snappy photographs lacking human footprint, nor do I want to...

    1. You are quite right, I have been vaguely regretting this piece since I wrote it. I am of course talking about a very specific kind of landscape.

      Weston did some great stuff, and in general there's a lot of interesting things that can be done when you begin to even slightly abstract a landscape. There's a lot of great stuff when you make pictures of essentially human landscapes (cityscapes, factories, farms, etc) starting with, basically, social commentary.

      Sally Mann's Southern Landscapes are a different thing again, I think, and pretty powerful stuff. Not, I submit, particularly easy either, but they're a different kind of a beast and perhaps not *as* difficult.

      I think I might still be OK, since I begin with an Ansel Adams quote, though. I'm talking about a very very specific and narrow kind of landscape, which is nonetheless a very very popular form to take a crack at. It is that form that is so viciously difficult.

    2. Don't regret it! This piece made me think very carefully about my photographs, which keep gravitating back to landscapes- albeit very small ones.

      I think that landscapes should be able to communicate as much as any other subjects. Is it any harder to communicate past "what a lovely tree" than past "what a lovely person"?