Thursday, 17 March 2011

Landscape Photography...'clearly defined' so I've heard!

Middle Earth: Nantlle Ridge:Glyn Davies©

OK..... before I start, this is to pre-empt any upset by the end. It may seem at first like a rant, but it's not really, honest! I saw a comment just two days ago and the silliness of it has been bugging me so much that I felt compelled to put across my thoughts about landscape photography, immersed in it 24/7 with little else getting a look in. This is more of an essay for education than a blog post I advise you! All images were taken on one walk over four hours on Monday afternoon, in bitterly cold winter weather and in utter and total solitude on Mynydd Mawr in Snowdonia.

I have been narked for the last few days. I read a comment below a story on someone else's blog, which stated "Just because the photos are of landscape, doesn't make them "landscape photography, which is very defined".

Wow, what a crazy comment, where did it originate and on what foundations have they based that comment ? I never realised that when I am spiritually immersed in the outdoor environment, the simple fact that I may use a camera to create personal depiction's of the place is actually nothing more than applying a formula, fitting within nicely defined though unwritten boundaries of a genre ! The sad thing is, that at one level the anonymous writer may have come to this assumption due to the mass of formulaic imagery which DOES pervade this 'subject' area. The original blog article was actually relevant and interesting, nothing new, but interesting nevertheless. It was discussing the very specific angle of 'organised' landscapes created by man himself, lines of trees, geometrical patterns of planted shrubs, plants etc. To me these are still landscape, even if planned and planted by man, because they are still dealing with living, organic objects on a land-form, whether hillsides, plains or valleys. Realistically there is very little natural looking landscape which hasn't in reality been massively influenced or affected by man anyway- through farming, forestry, community or even leisure and sport. In the UK, apart from maybe cliffs at the coastline, I'd guess almost 90% is now shaped by man and almost entirely unrecognisable from 10,000 years ago. I gather that even the highest peaks of UK would at one time have had trees and vegetation growing over them and it's us who have influenced the change. The only outdoor subjects I do not class as landscape in my mind, are city-scape's and any images primarily dealing with the built and concrete environment. Yes- they can look like landscapes sometimes,  but the word LAND within landscape simply doesn't apply to those subjects, to my mind at least.

The frustrating thing is that not all of us see photography as the prime objective for being in the landscape. For me at least it's simply being outdoors, preferably alone in the landscape, which matters more than anything else in my life (other than family and friends of course!). I am not thinking gear, techniques,  genre, business, marketing, profession, peers, sales, customers, gallery or even who I want to impress, I am purely excited by being there and really REALLY observing the changing world and fleeting light about me. I am in love with the wind in my hair, the heat and cold on my face, the vulnerability of my situation and often the phenomenal sensuality of being in wild and beautiful landscapes, it's that ultimate leveller, that power to make everything else seem very trivial and very false. If it were not for the cold most of the year, or for it possibly shocking passers-by I'd probably walk most of the hills naked, as this would be as close as it gets to being part of it all, to feel the maximum connection with the elements, the surface, the nature and the topography. All of this is in my head way before the photography.

Rising in the cold air: Elidir Fawr above fog. Glyn Davies©

The photographic element is also important to me though, as a secondary activity beyond being outdoors. Art is in my family, has been for generations so whether through nature or nurture, it's in my blood. After 24 years of full time professional photography, and four years in photographic education, I have given up everything except landscape photography (and occasional portrait shoots) as I wanted to go back to where I started, which was my love for the blend of landscape and photography. Brought up in windswept Cornwall, a rich rural landscape bordered by spectacular coastline, resilient granite, changeable weather and monstrous seas, it has influenced most major decisions I've made in life. I was also surrounded by other artists who painted, sculpted, drew and photographed the landscape, all differently, all personally. Think back to the sixties, when I was in early childhood, and there was a major art movement in Cornwall, "The St Ives School", as diverse as it was new, from Terry Frost, Barbara Hepworth and Peter Lanyon, to the naive and inspirational art of fisherman Alfred Wallis. Their art inspired later generations but they were all heavily inspired themselves by landscape and the sea. They didn't stick to formulas, they didn't follow rules about what to do and how to fit in, they simply took the subject matter which inspired them and expressed their ideas through their work.

The difficulty I see with photography is that it doesn't have the same tactile (sensual) connection, and the equipment and two dimensional media can lead to a homogenisation of output, at a surface level at least. I see that it is much harder in some ways therefore, for a photographic artist to produce work that is as personal and liberating as a true and free thinking painter or sculptor. Harder, but not impossible. I have really enjoyed landscape work from photographers including the likes of Ansel Adams (in my early days anyway), John Blakemore, Joel Meyerowitz, Thomas Joshua Cooper, John Davies, Jem Southam, Simon Culliford, Philippe Plisson, recent work by Nadav Kander,  and perhaps most of all, James Ravillious but they all work in very different different ways and this is very clearly identifiable in their imagery.     

For me, although I create imagery for myself primarily, there is nothing more rewarding than finding that they also excite, engage, inspire or move other people, spiritually and emotionally. When some viewers have been moved to tears after allowing their minds to wander within my landscapes, I know I have created something beyond superficial delight, an empathy through the work, shared thoughts and emotions. This is not a landscape discipline, this is not a routine adherence to accepted formula. Although I use adjustment layers in the same way as dodging and burning in the wet darkroom, I am nevertheless attempting to present my own emotional response to the landscape as honestly as possible to the viewer. Honesty does not mean a straight forward, unadjusted mechanical  copy of what I see in front of me, as I 'see' in my mind so much more than the objects. I want to convey sadness, melancholy, anger, frustration, fear, vulnerability, happiness, excitement, exhilaration, escape, freedom, freshness, sensuality and so on.

Landscape Graffiti,Rhosgadfan Quarry. Glyn Davies©

I despair therefore when I see yet another technique-orientated, HDR, ND long exposure, dawn or night shot of landscape, to add to the millions already bogging down the likes of Flickr. I want to question the snapper as to why they even bothered. They often seem like a desperate emulations of what everyone else takes. In the old days we old-timers used to be extremely disparaging about the Cokin tobacco graduated filters, which pervaded so much image making at the time, even in advertising! Creators were basically saying, "Look what filter I've bought"! Now of course we have software to do the same, and new kit like ND10 filters, interval timers for night-long multiple exposures and star trails, but of course the real modern day Psychedelic filters, the sickness of badly used HDR. Occasionally crazy techniques used judiciously, could be used for genuinely relevant reasons, but where they are used perpetually, not only does the technique become a joke, but so does photography, once again easily labelled as just a tricksy hobby.

Getting back to the comment which triggered this post though, "landscape photography, which is very defined", perhaps the following is a prime reason ? In the bird watching world there are 'twitchers'. These are people who will go anywhere and everywhere at the drop of a hat just to spot a rare species, but not to study the bird, to learn about it or even to really observe it's behaviour, it is just so that they can tick off it's name on their bird identification guide check list, that all they need. These 'twitchers' exist in photo-land too! They do nothing more than travel from pre-defined, well publicised 'ideal viewpoints', to play with kit and techniques, create their own copy and then move off to the next spot. Our best local example of this is the easy to visit Penmon Lighthouse. There are literally thousands of images of this lighthouse 24 hours a day, in all seasons and at all exposures, yet amazingly still looking as if they have been shot by the same person! I guess it's no wonder that some will see landscape photography as "very defined" when maybe this is the limit of their research, but also what mostly seems to be on offer! What would I like to see happen about all this ? I'd love to see people doing their OWN thing! I want to see what THEY have to say, what THEY have felt and experienced at a location and most importantly, what did the place mean to them. There is very little of that, just bland emulation.
Small path to oblivion: Nantlle Ridge from Mynydd Mawr. Glyn Davies©

Glyn Davies©

Originally published on 'Musings from an Angelsey Photo-Artist'