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Distant Horizons

A Look at a Photographic Meme

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Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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To stand on a coastal cliff and look out over an expanse of sea and sky can be a humbling and sublime experience. The simple junction of water and air, sometimes clearly visible as a straight line and at other times smudged so that the difference is barely discernible, has a fascination that must have inspired people since the dawn of civilisation.

Caribbean Sea, Jamaica - 1980 - Hiroshi Sugimoto

Caribbean Sea, Jamaica - 1980 - Hiroshi Sugimoto

As photographers we are probably familiar with the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto whose minimalist, black and white seascapes seem to have provided the prototype for an entire genre of images, but you won’t be surprised to know he wasn’t the first person to have his muse tweaked by such subject matter. In fact you have to go back to the early 19th century to find the roots of this minimalist horizon-centred aesthetic in mainstream art (if you know of anything earlier we’d love to hear about it!).

Much of landscape photography as we know it began with a solitary German painter, Caspar David Friedrich. His “Stimmungslandschaft” or literally “mood landscapes” approached nature as a subject in its own right and although his images often included a solitary figure or “Rückenfigur” (back figure), the subject is there to symbolise the viewer and to help prompt them to engage in the view as if they were there. Our visual lexicon of nature is now suitably rich that we instinctively view a scene as if we were there (given context of scale etc).

Monk by the Sea, 1808 - Caspar David Friedrich

Monk by the Sea, 1808 - Caspar David Friedrich

Friedrich’s first seascape that could be considered as the germ of the horizon idea is “The Monk by the Sea”: a truly revolutionary, minimalist landscape replete with white horses and reeling gulls and a presumably retreating storm on the horizon as night turns to day.

Finally - a big thanks to Neil from Beyond Words has kindly supplied the following bibliography to run alongside this article.


Rothko/Sugimoto  - Sugimoto’s seascapes compared and contrasted with Rothko’s paintings

Hiroshi Sugimoto "Retrospective" - a full range of his work

Gustave Le Gray "1820-1884"

Gerhard Richter "Landscapes"

Fabien Baron "Liquid Light" - One reduced copy available from Beyond Words

Debra Bloomfield "Still" - Out of print but still fairly easily available.

Richard Misrach (Bloomfield’s husband’s) "Golden Gate" - might also be relevant here though Aperture now appear to be out of stock of the new edition

Boomoon "Naksan" - Similar work, website: http://www.boomoon.net/

"The Sea", ed Pierre Borhan - Good general sea work which is still available in hardback and paperback

Beyond Words can get any of these titles even if not listed on their website as long as they are in print.

And you’re in for a treat if you can find copies of these two out of print books: Waterproof (ISBN 9783908161264) and Sea Change (ISBN 9780938262329).  If you can find Waterproof at a reasonable price, I’d be interested too!

Neil McIlwraith

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  • Great to see an in-depth look at a particular sub-sub genre, a potted history, if you will! You clearly enjoyed this look-back and I’m glad that painting is covered so well and you haven’t just concentrated on photography. It’s interesting to see you picking points in the history of art that clearly relate so well to our understanding of some photography today and I personally don’t think we do this enough. If we take the time to look back at the history of visual art, there is a wealth of resources to be found that can inform our own work and make it all the richer.

    I do find the penultimate paragraph unnecessary though. There’s a whole different discussion to be had there and I’m not sure why you have included it. Also, a small bibliography would be helpful for those who want to explore artists work further (assuming this isn’t all found on the internet!)

    Including all the pictures within the article really helps with this specialist discussion and I really hope that lots of people read it!

    • Thanks Tom – I shall try to do more of these sorts of research articles as they were both enjoyable and very educational for me too.

  • Beyond Words

    Tim, thanks very much for a very interesting article. Where do you find the time? I’d be happy to try and provide a brief bibliography if Tom Wilkinson (and others) were interested. Off the top of my head, I know we have a couple of copies of the Rothko/Sugimoto book and a slightly shopsoiled copy of the Fabien Baron. Keep up the good work, Neil (Beyond Words photographic books)

    • Thanks Neil – send me a few links and I’ll put them up straight away!

  • milouvision

    Very interesting. I think most seascapers will gravitate towards their own interpretation of this ‘style’ whilst being unaware of any of the fore-runners (myself included). Mike Stacey via art limited (the tones!), Fabien Baron and Debra Bloomfield (via her Still book) are favourites. I agree with Tom’s comment about David Burdeny.

    • Penultimate paragraph removed – it wasn’t required and if it offended… perhaps I’ll write a specific article about it sometime.

      • milouvision

        It must have been rather fab to research this, and it’s terrific to encounter artists involved in the genre.

      • It certainly didn’t offend me Tim, so no worries, there, it just struck me as surplus to requirements for this article. Very interesting topic in itself though!

  • Mike Roberts

    Enjoyed this article very much, Tim.

    I shall try to take on board and apply your phrase of ‘looking past the landscape’. In a sense it reminds me of David Ward’s notion of “The Landscape Beyond”. It is also expressed as: ‘The task of … the camera is not to imitate the human eye, but to see and record what the human eye does not see …. The photo-eye can show us things from unexpected viewpoints and in unusual configurations, and we should exploit this possibility.’ (Liz Wells, (ed.) “The Photography Reader”, p.90)

    Your article and this comment seem to contain the idea of letting the camera lead us into a potential shot, rather than (as it usually is for me) seeking too much control over what I see in the landscape. What the eye sees is the reportage rather than the mood music, I suppose.

    Mike Roberts

    • I should probably note that “Looking past the landscape” was Mike Stacey’s comment but I’m in agreement that these images are probably as far from reportage as you can get in representational photography.

  • Joe Rainbow

    An excellent article and nicely researched. I wondered if the early Japanese woodblocks by Hokusai and the likes date a bit early than late 19C European Art. They are definitely minimalist horizon based works and inspired a few generations of Western Artists :) Not just ‘the great wave’ but many other stunning paintings and woodblocks.
    Lots to think on and a nice take on current photographic trends and their history.

    • Good point – I’ll take a look at some

  • My first exhibition – in 1986/7 – was called “Skylines”. I had been searching for a theme but the recognition of it came in a very embarrassing way. I was photographing the incoming tide on a landscape photography workshop when a freak wave drenched me in full view of all the other participants. I got my picture and eventually recognised my theme, but the camera was a write-off.

    I’m not sure if any of the photographs would stand up to any kind of criticism now, though…….

    • There is definitely the shape of the idea already imprinted in the brain of anybody who has stood and looked at the sea in this way. Something that’s difficult to forget. Did you do a book of the Skylines project? I seem to remember seeing it passing when I was doing my research

      • No, although there was an exhibition catalogue of sorts…I saw one on Ebay for £0.75p a while back…….(including postage)….

        I must say I’m embarrassed about the quality of the photographs now. Skylines was really only a bag to throw a load of landscape images into. Nothing like the carefully considered images you have drawn our attention to.

        But maybe most of us would feel the same way about our early efforts?

        • I feel that way about most of my new efforts :-)

          • Seeing the work of some of the best landscape photographers around – as you do – must give you, particularly, but all of us in general such high standards to attempt to reach.

  • JaneG

    A really interesting commentary Tim.
    I think there is something unusual about the sea and horizon that inspires and demands contemplation, in a way that no other landscape view can. One walks to edge of the sea, a cliff, the beach. There is a physical ending to the wanderings but the eye keeps staring into the distance.
    I too have been transfixed by that edge of blue against the sky on many occasions. Most recently actually, after my 200 mile coast to coast walk where I finshed on the edge of the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay, looking into the turquoise sea watching the horizon line soften with sea mist. Of course I captured the moment after absorbing the view.

    • I saw your photo – and was impressed at your long walk! The end of the land is tantamount to the sea taunting the observer, “Just come and have a look if you’re brave enough”. You can understand the temptation that Columbus must have felt (plus the money and fame as well – things don’t change that much)

  • Jon Tainton

    Wouldn’t this type of photographic meme be associated with those who are ‘left brain’ characteristic?

    It’s more of a genre surely? where a sky is omnipresent but is propped up by a uniform base layer i.e ploughed field, corn field, snow, sand, conifer plantation etc. Andreas Gursky’s – Rhein III, daringly went for the horizontal layering of grass/tarmac/river combo under the sky, with some assistance of Photoshops clone tool too, IIRC?

    • I didn’t think about Andreas Gursky’s as I was being a little ‘sea’ blinkered, but yes it’s definitely a part of the genre in my eyes.

      • Jon Tainton

        Ah, but is this ‘genre’ a case of nature or nurture? In my eyes, Andreas Gursky applies this compositional template in a lot of his work, as do many other photographers. OTOH, there are other photographers with seemingly no apparent influence in their work, from this composition/subject template.

  • nik1957

    Really enjoyed this piece. I was lucky enough to go to the Rothko/Sugimoto exhibition in London last year and was astonished by the scale and beauty of both artists’ works. I was used to seeing Sugimoto’s seascapes on a monitor and was slightly unprepared for their size. There is a catalogue, which can still be purchased from Pace London, and contains all the images from the show.

  • Good stuff, Tim. And the sort of material you don’t see anywhere else, sadly. In fact, I don’t think anybody has taken a specific photographic meme and really examined it in this way before – correct me if I’m wrong. Looking forward to more.

  • David OBrien

    A thoroughly interesting read and it must have been a rewarding exercise to research and write this. It is fascinating to see how certain names can be linked together to provide a opinion piece such as this. I expect this was a time-consuming exercise but would really like to see more of this kind of work in the mag. thanks again.

  • Adam Pierzchala

    Echoing the thoughts of others, thanks for a great article. Many of us have looked at the raw majestic beauty of a simple seascape and felt compelled to press the shutter – releasing tension perhaps. My preference is to use the sea as a base for a cloudscape, but at times simplicity works best.

  • mikestacey

    I’ve always just done this kind of photography without too much conscious thought and the article made me invest some time thinking about the ‘why’. Have just arrived back from a trip Lake Eyre, where there is a pin sharp horizon around you for 360 degrees. I realised, trips like this (for me anyway) are more personal experiences; mind trips if you will, in the same boat as previous remote wilderness trips I’ve done. It’s just that the wilderness now, has nothing in it – no objects or elements. It’s an exploration of pure space, with a camera.

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