Friday, September 6, 2019

Landslop Photography <strangled noise>

So I accidentally fell into a conversation on twitter with this guy Philip Leyland Hyde, which turned out to be an error. Nice enough fellow, won't stop banging on about how important and influential his father Philip Hyde (who studied with Ansel Adams, dontcha know) was in photography and photo books. You can look Philip Hyde up, he's just barely important enough. I had never heard of him, and in a year, I will be back to blessedly not having ever heard of him. You can see some of his photographs here, for instance. It may occur to you that they look contemporary.

From there, for reasons I cannot fathom except apparently I need to suffer, I stumbled across Photo Cascadia, a collective of mainly Oregon photographers who produce interchangeable eye-searing landscapes in, actually, pretty much the same style as Philip Hyde. They identify with group f.64, though, and have probably never heard of Philip Hyde either.

Of course there's endless hordes of these people, some doing pretty well, some just banging out photos and prints on their own dime and trying to persuade their shrinking circle of increasingly haunted friends and relatives to take them and hang them up.

I stamped around my house ranting incoherently like schizophrenic for a while until the dog, out of concern for the children, called the police.

Having calmed down, something occurred to me.

What all these people are doing is driving off into the wilderness with a bunch of camera gear, going to particularly fortuitous vantage points at particularly fortuitous times of day, and waiting patiently for a particularly fortuitous combination of light, cloud, and fog to appear. They pride themselves on the difficulty of hobby, and the rareness of their photographs.

Now, the hobby is not difficult, merely expensive and labor-intensive, and the photographs are not rare. Witness, um, the internet. Or any small town in the Pacific Northwest, which will contain at least one "art gallery" infested with candy-colored pictures of mountains and trees "in the great tradition of Ansel Adams."

Still, these photos do take a bit of work. You don't just step into the woods and see these sights. Go out camping for a week in a good area, and there will be one or two mornings when, for 20 minutes, the fog and the light will drift through the trees just so. There will be an evening when the clouds over the mountains will look very nice, and also be pinklit by the setting sun for half an hour. You'll see this stuff, and you could certainly photograph it. Most days, these sights won't be quite perfect examples. It takes several days, some planning, and some hiking to grind out even one or two things of the sort Photo Cascadia prides itself on.

My realization is that if you spend 24 hours in a particularly good place, you're gonna get maybe 30 minutes of these sorts of thing. More with luck and planning, less without. Maybe it just rains all day.

It turns out that the wilderness, in the other 23 and one half hours, does not turn in to a mall parking lot. It's still pretty sublime. It is still filled with wonders. It is still painfully beautiful.

Even taking away the absurd distortions of wide lenses, candy colors, long exposure flowing water (ugh), and all the other ugly tropes of the genre, the wilderness simply does not look that way most of the time.

It is certainly true that the pinklit clouds and drifting fog through the awe inspiring vista do indeed take the breath away. On that one morning, wow, that was something. But these photographers are trading away every other moment for that one.

Sure, the wow moments sell prints. Well, some prints. Not as many as the photographers pretend, naturally, but enough to keep an apparently endless string of small town gallery shops open, at least as a part of the business.

They are not photographing the forests and valleys that I know. They are not re-creating my experience of these things, in any meaningful way.

My experience, to be honest, is more wondrous by far.


  1. that link to Philip Hyde's work annoys me I rolled over the last two photos and encountered Yolo (sic) Park in BC and then Ketchekan (sic), AK? Boom, boom, two-for-two. I kind of lost my temper a bit and touched a photo of Denali and it turns out that somehow the Thorofare River in Yellowstone has crept into the foreground. I'm now off to assuage my annoyance with coffee. Someone should curate this guy's photos a bit better. That said, I do like looking at landslop photos cuz then I remember places I've been and places I'd like to go, but I'd never buy one for my walls (stone seal)

  2. I am gratified to hear that I am not the only one who finds himself provoked into stamping around and ranting; unfortunately I no longer have a dog to help me out, maybe I should look into that.

  3. Replies
    1. My anger management strategy is to shout at YOU.

  4. I think the potential clientele of the small town gallery for the landslop prints are the tourists who have stayed in the area for the day or maybe two. The first day it was overcast and drab and the second day it rained. They want something bigger than a postcard or a refrigerator magnet to remind them that made it to that epic location on their epic vacation. Once they have the print up on their wall back home, they can tell their friends, that yes, they were there. They don't have to mention the fact that the mountain, ocean, canyon, etc. didn't look quite like that when they were there.

  5. I flipped through some of the Photo Cascadia galleries. The postprocessing on most of them is so bad that I felt compelled to post here as a kind of digital screaming into the void. The color is bad, the sharpening is bad, and the it looks like the clarity slider was tossed all the way to the right in Lightroom. Absolutely tasteless.

    I don't have any problem with producing and viewing pretty landscapes for fun, but these are more like videogame screenshots.

  6. You may hate the Ansel Adams school of sycophancy but it could be argued that they promote the notion of wilderness, even if only as picturesque, in an age of fracking motherfuckers hellbent on global ruin.

    I don't really like the adams-sycophant pictures, for one thing they get it all wrong, nor would I be want to take them, but it doesn't seem worth banging on about for half the morning. Move on.

  7. Well this is another thought provoking blog, Andrew!

    If I can summarize
    * You generally do not like landscape photography (or else why call it “slop”)
    * You do not like waterfalls with a shutter speed < 1/500th second
    * The saturation slider is overused (but only if you push it to the right)
    * You think that people should buy landscape photographs as drab as the day they happened to be there. Or maybe not buy landscape photos at all.
    * You assume that a “landslop” photographer will spend the other 23 hours or so of the day in the carpark, certainly not wandering around the wilderness appreciating everything around them.

    My concern with this is that we all like different things and to different degrees. I enjoyed looking at the Photo Cascadia images. I would not buy them, but I used to want to emulate them. Still do sometimes.

    The tone I read is one of destructive criticism, not critique, with nothing to indicate why that feeling is the one you have, or what your individual aesthetic judgement would be. Perhaps that is an issue worth exploring more. What exactly do you have against blurred water? Where does a comment like “absolutely tasteless” emanate from? Is there ANY branch of photography that could not be criticized in a similar way?

    1. There are two fundamental problems.

      The first is essentially cultural. There are 1000s of photographers grinding out photographs which are essentially indistinguishable from each other. These photos are a commodity, in the economic sense. These pictures are completely fungible.

      This reality is combined, because all these people read one another's copy, with some sort of weird need to *present* the pictures as representing some unique vision, some sort of specialness, where manifestly none is present. This is disingenuous, the kind of marketing that justly gives marketing a bad name. They are pretending that their toothpaste is better, even though it comes out of the same plant in China.

      The second problem is artistic: these photographs are in general falsehoods of one form or another. Landscapes simply don't look like that, and most of the time they don't feel like that either.

  8. I dunno, but it feels like the name Ansel Adams get tossed around a bit too much. These color photos don't feel "Adamseque", and I suspect the Venn diagram of his vision of wilderness might coincide surprisingly well with yours.

  9. I don't know about his son, but actually I have heard of Philip Hyde, as he is recognised as a major influence by Jack Dykinga, who maybe you have heard of? I think a lot of photographers get tarred with the same brush, thanks to the painful worship of Ansell Adams. I also think that most of the Adams worshippers come across as the photography equivalent of the Followers of Brian, in Life of Brian. Not Adams' fault. Also not Hyde's fault that his son is relying to live of his father's work. Hyde himself seems to have been a pretty decent sort of chap.

    Having said that I do largely agree with your analysis of "art gallery" landscape photography. It reduces the natural world to a safe, pretty palette which you can nail to your wall, so to demonstrate how totally anti-fracking you are. Pah!

    Personally - and it's always going to be subjective - as a consumer I get more out of books such as "Accommodating Nature" by Frank Gohlke, even if as a photographer I don't really have the vision to untangle the details of the "mundane" landscape.

    But the wandering off into looking epic with 50kg of PhaseOne strapped to your back? Whatever, but it very, very, very rarely, and indeed tragically, turns out anything of artistic worth. Even if you've studied at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris.

    1. It is entirely possible that I have heard of Philip Hyde, and also possible that I have not! The pictures are forgettable, and I am 54 years old, after all.

      All of the Hydes appear to me to be perfectly decent chaps.

    2. Edward Hyde was definitely a wrong 'un. At least, as RLS tells it.


  10. The “he was a student of Ansel Adams” is not only a fallacious piece of logic (appeal to authority) but is also a pretty lame one at that: Adams had a shit ton of students, as he was keen on doing workshops at amateur photoclubs, where he would sell all his ideas about technical photography which is the only thing that people at photoclubs are interested in.

  11. Like most of everything else, nature landscape photographs are indistinguishable from each other only when you don't take a closer look. After you did for some of Ansel Adams followers, you found out how John Sexton had a voice distinct from Adams. Now, you are writing that the Photo Cascadia folks are followers of Philip Hyde, but a closer examination would show that their emphasis on the dramatic and the associated moments in nature is exactly the opposite of Hyde's approach. Hyde often eschewed the "golden hours" to work in midday. His work is the opposite of "eye searing" and my favorite quote of him is "I don’t feel nature needs to be dramatized: it is dramatic enough!”. If you look at current nature landscape photography trends, you will notice a revival of Porter's "intimate landscape" esthetic. Those photographs do not rely on any light magic present only 1 hour per day, but rather the type of wonder you are fond of. Personally, I strive to photograph all day long, but I admit I often find it easier, maybe of the limitations of my skill, to make an appealing image at days ends.

    1. I don't believe Cascadia consciously follows Hyde, and they certainly have a great deal more pink clouds and so on. I find Hyde merely boring, but Cascadia to be somewhere between hilarious and painful.

      Hyde is certainly much closer to something I can approve of (and, to be fair, I only know him from a little time spent with the collection curated by his son, which may or may not be representative).

      To my eye, and based on that collection, he still leans pretty heavily on the "Hero Shot"

      It occurs to me that Hyde does have a dash of Porter in him, which as you note is more intimate. I don't much care for Porter either ;) While physically smaller in scale, and more genuine, I feel like the Porter approach also leaves far too much on the table.

      There is more to the wilderness than the grand vista, and the beautiful whorl on the leaf, I feel. What, exactly, it is, and how to photograph it, I am uncertain, but that is the subject of much of my current cogitation.