on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Distant Horizons

A Look at a Photographic Meme

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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