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HomeContentsThemes > Landscape photography

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Landscape remains one of the commonest genres for the photographer with most using the camera as a memory machine but with little inner reflection on the underlying reasons for their choice of shot. The fact that it is a view of the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower is sufficient and the resulting images are a means of demonstrating that the taker has been to the location and it really is as remarkable as people say it is. For others the selection is more reflective and the resulting images allow the viewer to dissect their own emotional and socio-political reactions and add their own interpretions, correct or incorrect, to what the photographer intended.
1.   Nineteenth century landscape photography
To understand the origins of landscape photography there are different pages that cover regional areas during the nineteenth century. The reason for this is that in each area the cultural motivations and styles have subtle differences worthy of examination.  
2.   Trends and themes within landscape photography
Once the regional trends in the landscape photography in the nineteenth century have been examined it is necessary to understand the motivations that provoked global movements through exhibitions, magazines and personal relationships. The soft focused pigment prints of pictorialism are examined followed by the reaction against it with the straight landscape photography of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
There are a number of additional factors that have influenced greatly influenced landscape photography and these include the increasing awareness of environmental issues since the 1960‘s. The New Topographics photographers from the 1960's onwards showed the suburbs and industrial parks rather than pristine wilderness and increasing lobby groups and socially committed photographers are showing the impacts of uncontrolled industrial and urban growth.
Although a single landscape photograph is taken at a specific moment in time it can also fit into a temporal continuum and the historical issues of locations are being increasingly questioned and explored.  
3.   Illustrative examples
Landscape theme: Straight vs. Pictorialist
Michael Kenna
Torii, Takaishima, Honshu, Japan 
Emile Joachim Constant Puyo
Bords de Seine 
Timothy H. O'Sullivan
Ancient Ruins in the Canon de Chelle 
Ansel Adams
The Tetons - Snake River [Wyoming] 
By examining these four photographs we can clearly see how styles have changed over time in response to fashion and technological changes.
  • The 1873 albumen silver print by Timothy H. O'Sullivan is about clarity and showing all possible detail, he was accompanying a scientific survey team in the American West and although the choice of camera position and time of day could be selected for artistic purpose the primary aim is to record as accurately as possible what was seen.
  • If the photograph by Timothy H. O'Sullivan was taken for scientific effect the bromoil print by the French photographer Emile Joachim Constant Puyo was taken for an artistic purpose. It shows a landscape with a solitary woman in misty hues on the banks of the Seine. The choice of the bromoil process, so beloved by pictorialists, softens the focus so the overall effect is one of a nineteenth century salon oil painting.
  • By the 1920s the accepted practice of rendering the landscape as a painting was being challenged as modernism was superseding impressionism and becoming the dominant trend in the arts. With the clarity of the 1942 silver gelatin print by Ansel Adams the mood of the shot is captured in a way that Timothy H. O'Sullivan did not strive for but Adams also gets all the detail. This is not about resembling a painting but creating awe by showing the grandeur of nature.
  • Towards the end of the twentieth century there are photographers who strive for the tonalities of Ansel Adams but the Fine Art market has moved on and now we have what I term "The New Pictorialism" with high quality printing of long exposure shots that are delving deeper into the emotions of a location. No person walks in the dream landscapes of these worlds. Michael Kenna is a master of this style.
When looking at photographs keep in mind the technologies that were available and the artistic trends that were taking place when the photograph was created. Photographs reflect the mental frameworks of the time they were taken and they go in and out of fashion just as much as clothes.
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Landscape theme: Pristine vs. Altered by man
Robert Adams
Pikes Peak Park, Colorado Springs 
Eliot Porter
Waterslide from Above, Long Canyon 
1965, 21 September
Carleton E. Watkins
Trestle on Central Pacific Railroad 
C.L. Weed
Mirror Lake and Reflections, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, California 
Over time within landscape photography we have seen changes in the way human activity is recorded - many photographers strive to ensure that there is no trace of humanity and that no telegraph pole, power line or road is shown. They see a world in which nature is a pristine Eden unblemished by human progress.
  • This approach is in keeping with the 1865 albumen print of Mirror Lake and Reflections, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, California by Charles Leander Weed. He was the first person to take photographs of the Yosemite Valley and at a time when there was little human activity so it really was virgin territory.
  • Many of the early topographical views of the American West were taken by survey teams and railroad photographers. Their photographs highlighted the boundless opportunities of the untouched territories to the audience in the eastern cities and encouraged them to travel west. At the same time the photographs showed the stockholders and owners of the railroads the progress that was being made. The incredibly detailed albumen print of Carleton Eugene Watkins, taken between 1866-1868, shows one of the trestles on the Canadian Pacific Railroad - here the landscape is being tamed and conquered.
  • The vision of photographers such as Jim Dine, Lewis Baltz and Robert Hickman Adams in the western USA in the 1960s and 1970s was a break with the nature as grandeur that could be tamed tradition. In the seventies their approach was termed the "New Topographics" and the name was well chosen. They rejected the wilderness and showed the industrial parks, suburbs and mundane construction that were paving the land. They showed a brutalized world that had been black topped into parking lots, turned into gas stations and become an endless series of strip malls and road junctions. In the 1970 silver gelatin print by Robert Hickman Adams there is an attraction in the patterns of uncontrolled suburbs but it is the antithesis of the untouched valleys of Charles Leander Weed from a hundred years earlier.
  • As color photography became accepted as an art form photojournalists like Ernst Haas adopted it and now it is widely accepted by contemporary landscape photographers such as Christopher Burkett, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Stephen Shore and Shinzo Maeda. The photograph by Eliot Porter is a return to the nostalgia for the untouched wilderness and the need to preserve it.
There are cyclical movements in the way that landscape is photographed.
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4.   Conclusions
When we look at landscape photography it can be viewed as a series of trends that reflect upon the wider political and social movements of the time.
  • The idealism of raw nature (Pioneer spirit)
  • The taming of nature by man (Acceptance and control)
  • The pretty as a painting approach to landscape (Crafting photographs to appear to be paintings)
  • The realization that the taming of nature has detrimental effects (Environmental issues)
  • The nostalgic quest for a pristine and more spiritual world (The New Pictorialism)
Each of these has its own adherents and today one can find photographers who have made a conscious or an unconscious choice about the one they've selected.
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