on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Changing Landscapes?

A Look at the History of Landscape Photography

David Ward

T-shirt winning landscape photographer, one time carpenter, full-time workshop leader and occasional author who does all his own decorating.


When Eadweard Muybridge – he of the random extra vowels in his name and inventor of the camera shutter and remote release – made his images of Yosemite in the late 1860’s, landscape photography was an altogether more physically challenging experience than it is today. We may think that we’ve got it hard walking a mile or two from our cars and waiting for an hour or two in the cold in our modern wind and waterproof clothing but we really have no idea how hard it can be. People moan about the weight of a modern DSLR and a couple of lenses but Muybridge and his contemporaries worked on cumbersome wooden cameras weighing up to 20kg. Despite the vast differences in technology, there are many connections between their images and how we make landscape photographs today - especially in terms of what we choose to photograph. Actually, the photographers working in the Western U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century are largely responsible for creating the photographic landscape aesthetic that we still adhere to today. Even before Muybridge, the vista was king, a position inherited from western traditions in painting, stretching back to the landscape works of great seventeenth century artists such as Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin. In fact, the representations of the vista we commonly see in photography are still largely bound to the landscape traditions that arose in painting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

So what kind of men were the early pioneer photographers? Muybridge and contemporaries like William Henry Jackson, Timothy O'Sullivan and others working in the "Wild West" were a colourful crowd, ranging from murderers (Muybridge) to Civil War photographers (O’Sullivan). It would be fair to say that they were as far away from being wimpish aesthetes as it's possible to imagine. Indeed, apart perhaps from Muybridge, none even regarded themselves as artists. They were hard men, skilled in survival and willing to endure terrible hardship in order to photograph an untamed land. The wet-collodion process they used was known as instant photography, but it wasn’t anything like modern Polaroid. They produced enormous glass plate negatives (sometimes 20"X24"), often in extremely difficult conditions. Photographers in the 19th century American West had to carry all the paraphernalia of the darkroom, including the chemistry and delicate glass plates, with them whilst travelling by mule or boat across hundreds of miles of trackless wilderness. Not for them the convenience of popping a fresh 16Gb memory card into the camera. Because the latent image was chemically and physically unstable, each plate had to be developed within minutes of being exposed, and you couldn’t just nip down to the nearest street corner lab. Making an image involved not only setting up your large camera in an appropriate position – perhaps atop a 3,000ft cliff as Muybridge did to photograph Yosemite Falls – but also erecting the light-tight developing tent nearby. Having made an exposure, you had to process it there and then. And if that wasn’t hard enough there was always the possibility of unfriendly natives, appalling weather and deadly wild animals to cope with. All of which makes climbing a Scottish mountain to make a few images on a digital camera seem very tame indeed.

Let’s look for a moment at where our desire to make landscape images comes from. Prior to the early 19th century, landscapes in paintings were merely backdrops for mythical or religious subjects. Landscape only achieved the status of the subject in its own right as Europeans began to tame Nature. But crucially, the early landscape paintings didn’t exclude man or his work from the frame. Nature was depicted in relation to man's dominance over it. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, Nature became harnessed for Man’s benefit and hence less frightening. This new accord with Nature – or, some would say, its subjugation - made the landscape a fitting subject for artistic interpretation in the European mind.

Landscape in western art graduated from backdrop to subject around the beginning of the seventeenth century. The word entered the English language in this period as ‘landskip’ from the Dutch word ‘landschap’. The northern European tradition of landscape painting, epitomised by the Dutch, was naturalistic and celebratory in a secular, even nationalistic manner (Holland having just gained independence from Spain). In contrast the landscapes of Poussin and Lorraine, from southern Europe, were grand, idealised and dramatic arrangements that were still employed as backgrounds for mythological or religious figures. Whatever the stylistic approach taken, both Dutch and Italian artists concentrated on the wide view, the vista. It was not until late in the nineteenth century that smaller scale views became commonplace.

In the eighteenth century, numerous well-to-do English men and women took the grand tour of Europe to broaden their social, cultural and artistic horizons. Inspired by the imaginary, allegorically constructed landscapes by Poussin and Lorraine that they encountered on their travels, they sought equally dramatic viewpoints on their return to Britain. What they thought of as dramatic we would be much more likely to describe as picturesque; a word that is, more often than not, thought synonymous with pretty or pleasing but simply means worthy of capture as a picture.

Our current positive attitudes toward wild, windswept and craggy mountains arose with the Romantic movement in art, beginning in the late eighteenth and continuing throughout the nineteenth century. Romanticism emphasised an artist’s emotional sensibility above intellectual reasoning – though ironically there was no shortage of theorising as to what constituted good Romantic art. The artist’s task was seen as conveying feeling for the subject - as portraying beauty and the sublime, and their offspring the picturesque. To a Romantic artist the word picturesque had a much deeper resonance than it has today. The defining characteristic of the picturesque was a concentration on ruggedness in form and texture, something which still fascinates photographers. The influential art critic and theorist Revd William Gilpin wrote, ‘Roughness forms the essential point of difference between the beautiful and the picturesque’. A study of the beauty of the natural world was central to Romanticism, but importantly beauty was seen as dependent upon certain compositional criteria being fulfilled: nature was only truly beautiful when you could fit its elements neatly in a frame. And they weren’t above subtle manipulation of perspective and content to achieve this. Sound familiar?

19th Century painters working in the newly formed Romantic Movement, such as Caspar David Friedrich, began to depict Nature as their main subject. Friedrich’s works still invariably include either a figure or sign of man. Perhaps his most famous work is “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog”.


This is a classic example of Friedrich’s use of the Rückenfigur – a person seen from behind, contemplating the view. The viewer is invited to place themselves in the position of the figure in the painting. This idea was recently revisited by Scottish photographer Alex Boyd in his series “Sonnets”.

Sonnets - The Cuillin from Elgol
Crucially, we are unable to see the face of the figure on the mountain and hence unable to judge their reaction to the scene before them. Are they aghast or in ecstasy? Friedrich’s work, whilst not directly depicting scenes from the Bible, was still closely allied to the religious themes of death and redemption. Many of his pieces feature symbols such as the cross or ruined churches, as in “The Abbey in the Oakwood”. In Friedrich’s mind the landscape was still a potent symbol for the work of God and a means to express our relationship to the sublime. It wasn’t until American photographers turned their attention to the landscape that we see the more secular and straightforwardly celebratory view of Nature, as separate from Man and God, that we are familiar with today. But this movement still grew from a desire to prove a theory about God and Creation.

When Clarence King employed Timothy O’Sullivan to take photographs for The Fortieth Parallel Survey of 1867, he had in mind a grander enterprise than mere topographical record keeping - he was a man with a mission. The survey was instigated to pave the way for the settlement and commercial exploitation of the land west of the Mississippi. O’Sullivan’s images are striking to us today for their apparent modernity and their lack of stylistic conceit. It is easy to see them as coolly factual, as documentary evidence of the lie of the land to accompany geological and topological reports. But King, an adherent of Louis Agassiz’s theory of catastrophism, had another agenda for the images. The catastrophists rejected Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and believed that the world had been periodically wiped clean of life by violent geological upheavals after which God then instigated creation anew. Agassiz was an enthusiastic supporter of the then radical theory that the world had undergone cataclysmic ice ages. These, he thought, had literally wiped the slate clean, expunging life and making way for a new beginning. This catastrophic annihilation allowed them to dismiss the fossil record as proof of continuous evolution and, by a sort of intellectual sleight of hand, proclaim that fossils were just evidence of previous creations. They ‘proposed that Man, established after the last upheaval, was shaped by God’s handiwork evident in the landscape’. King saw the hand of God in the forms of nature and believed that the American landscape, in particular, showed traces of the last catastrophe. O’Sullivan’s photographs were used in an attempt to illustrate this theory with photographic evidence. The images certainly showed a rugged and almost primeval landscape but whether that was proof of Agassiz’s theory or not is quite a different matter. In the end it seems likely that even King could not reconcile his belief in catastrophism and the ‘evidence’ in O’Sullivan’s images with the growing weight of geological and other scientific evidence in favour of Darwinism: he eventually went mad in Central Park, New York in 1893 and was committed to an asylum.

The American West did not conform to the European concept of a pastoral idyll. This was a landscape fraught with physical dangers; the West was intimidating for its vast scale, its geography difficult (but spectacular) and any explorers risked serious injury from the wild animals that inhabited it. There were no pleasant green pastures with cows grazing beneath lime trees and towering cumulus here. Instead there was red rock, snakes, bears and sagebrush beneath an actinic desert sun. In short, it wasn’t at all pretty by 19th century standards!

Both history and geography combined in the U.S. to help shape how landscape photography developed. California, in the far west, had first been settled by the Spanish in the 18th century but was now part of the United States. The Federal Government in Washington was keen to link its eastern territories with its possessions on the Pacific shore but in between lay a great, mostly uncharted land. An ambitious programme of surveys was instigated to pave the way for the settlement and commercial exploitation of the land west of the Mississippi. The U.S. Government commissioned a number of photographers, such as O’Sullivan and Jackson, to accompany the survey teams that they sent out. Photography was a new medium that seemed ideally suited to recording the awe inspiring grandeur of the new land that was just being charted. The new medium was “cool” - both in the sense of being seen as a dispassionate tool and up-to-the-minute.

The motive for the survey photographers’ work may have been simply to document what they saw but the images they made incidentally formed the basis for a new approach to landscape. By and large, human figures are absent from their images and when they do appear they seem overpowered by the landscape rather than Lords of all they survey. For instance, when Jackson photographed the Garden of the Gods in Colorado in the 1880's, he seems to have placed a human figure at the base of the formation not only to confer a sense of scale to the image but also to illustrate Man's apparent insignificance in such a vast landscape.

Consequently, even today, the images the survey photographers made of a land soon to be tamed by the flourishing U.S. economy seem very fresh. Significantly, their work lacks the painterly manipulation that characterised landscape photography in Europe and the early decades of the twentieth century in America. More than this, their work shuns the compositional conventions commonly used in the Eastern U.S. and Europe. The images seem to convey Nature's splendour directly and without artifice. Through these straightforward photographic records they had accidentally developed a “straight” approach that would form the basis of modern landscape photography.

As the American frontier moved west so the photographic practice and sensibilities changed; a settled landscape is a safe landscape, one that encourages a more European outlook on landscape. The landscape photographs of Edward Steichen and Clarence White, made around the turn of the twentieth century in the Eastern U.S., are infused with a sense of tranquillity. There are no raging torrents, no barren deserts, just peaceful woods and billowing clouds. The images are also often inhabited by figures (in fancy dress!) borrowed from Classical or pagan myths; fauns, dryads, nereids and Pan piping amongst the trees of an Edenic landscape.

But this re-introduction of Man (…or nymphs) into a gentle landscape wasn’t to last. The largely colour work we see published today lies within a landscape tradition stretching back to the 1930’s and monochrome photographers working under the banner of “Group f64”. The declared aims of this loose association were to promote “straight” photography; to move away from soft-focus Pictorialism and to celebrate what they saw as photography’s fundamental qualities – its clarity and ability to render fine detail and delicate tonality – rather than to apologise for them. Above all they wanted to promote un-manipulated photography (though dodging and burning and other darkroom manipulations were allowed!) in order to emphasise photography’s veracity. This straight approach was indirectly descended from the survey photographers’ work.

As far as the story of landscape photography is concerned, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were without doubt the most important members of the Group f64.

In terms of the overall development of photography, it could be argued that Weston was in many ways the more significant artist. But he was not, by nature, a maker of landscape photographs. Indeed, he initially thought that landscape was an inappropriate subject for photography, being "chaotic...too crude and lacking in arrangement", and he once said that, “Anything more than 500 yds from the car just isn't photogenic”. Having lugged a view camera over too many miles to count, I have some sympathy with that viewpoint. It was only much later in his life that he turned to the landscapes for which he eventually became famous. In Weston’s view, the subjects of landscape photographs weren’t simply the objects photographed: "Artists (fine ones) don't copy nature, and when they do record quite literally, the presentation is such as to arouse connotations quite apart from the subject matter." I will return to Weston’s legacy later on.

Ansel Adams seems to stand head and shoulders above all the rest when we think of landscape photographers. As far as I’m concerned, Adams left two lasting legacies to photography; a deep understanding and consistent explanation of the technical aspects of photography and a new celebratory approach to photographing landscapes. He especially concentrated on “wild” landscapes from which not only modern man but any sign of his works is conspicuously absent. Adams was one of the first great photographic artists to present Nature as uninhabited; as powerful but not frightening; and as an expression of the hand of Divinity. This attitude to landscape, combined with a straight aesthetic, is still the dominant approach taken by landscape photographers today. Most of us work hard to exclude any sign of the 21st Century from our images – and if we can’t exclude there’s always the clone tool... One might say that, in a way, both current day photographers and Adams present a view of the Earth before Man’s eviction from Eden.

Some have criticised Adams’ images of the American wilderness for their wilful exclusion of the signs of Man because they seem to ignore the environmental threats posed by Western civilisation. On the contrary, he was a committed, tireless and outspoken environmental campaigner – especially, though not exclusively, for his beloved Yosemite. He wanted to present pristine Nature in a celebratory fashion, in order to emphasise that it was a worthwhile endeavour to save it from the excesses of Man.

I feel that we can clearly see echoes of Adams’ celebratory approach to the landscape when we look at the work of modern masters such as Joe Cornish, Jack Dykinga and Michael Fatali. Like Adams, their emphasis is on displaying wider landscapes with incredible clarity – indeed it’s probably no coincidence that all of those mentioned use large format as Adams did. Their images invite the viewer to share the photographers’ sense of awe, almost to feel that they are looking through their eyes at the moment the image was made. It is a heady combination of overwhelming descriptive power combined with a wonderful sense of light and a deep understanding of the landscapes in which they work. The most obvious difference between their approach and that of Adams is the use of colour. Whilst Adams did make a number of images in colour he never seemed at ease with it. By contrast, the modern photographers revel in colour’s ability to convey mood (think of the preponderance of modern images made in the warm light of dawn or dusk) or just to show how subtle and beautiful the hues of Nature can be. One might think that Adams’ monochrome images would be impoverished by comparison but this isn’t the case. He was a great artist and chose subjects that would best suit rendering in black and white.

But I don’t want to give the impression that the “straight” approach is the only way the landscape has been photographed. There is another whose roots were in Modernism and a fascination with the abstract but whose fruit are sometimes laced with mysticism.

From the early 1920's onwards, Adams’ mentor Alfred Stieglitz began working on a series photographs that he called Equivalents. He started with images of clouds but moved on to other subjects that prompted an emotional response in him. He described the process of photography thus; “I come across something that excites me emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically. I see the photograph in my mind's eye and I compose and expose the negative. I give you the print as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.” He declared that photographs “are equivalents of my basic philosophy of life”. The pursuit of this idea dominated his photography until he died in 1946. The underlying concept, borrowed from Symbolism, was that the emotion conveyed by an image was not dependant upon the subject matter but transmitted at some deeper level by the pattern of forms and the play of light and shade. By picking increasingly commonplace subject matter and shooting it in an abstract manner, he sought to show that the Great Artist (in which category he, naturally, included himself!) could explore the depths of the human psyche. One of his spiritual disciples, Minor White, described the concept thus, “If the individual viewer realises that for him what he sees in a picture corresponds to something within himself - that is, the photograph mirrors something in himself - then his experience is some degree of Equivalence.” This is an attempt to explain how the greatest photographs transcend their subject matter, moving beyond simple description and creating a complex symbolic relationship between the object, photograph and viewer.

White believed that for a photograph to function as an Equivalent the photographer first had to recognise something in the external world as equivalent to his concerns or emotions. The subject of the photograph that is then made is not the object in front of the camera, but rather the feeling that the photographer is trying to convey. This sounds very close to the viewpoint that Weston expressed a couple of decades before and in many ways echoes my own views. For me, the landscape provides me with material but I’m rarely concerned with illustrating a place. I’d rather make images of somewhere anonymous if they better conveyed my feelings.

Landscape imagery within the confines of Art photography has moved on from Adams et al, indeed it was doing so in their lifetimes. The baton has been passed to figures like Harry Callahan, Paul Caponigro, Brett Weston and Wynn Bullock. In the 1980’s, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams et al were featured in an exhibition entitled ‘New Topographics’. The title sought to place their images in a documentary tradition stretching back to O’Sullivan and Jackson and, crucially, to distance them from the celebratory stance employed by Ansel Adams. Landscape once again became depicted in relation to mankind, rather than as an idealised separate entity. To adopt a religious metaphor (you might say inappropriately!), these photographers felt that we had “fallen” from Eden and their mission was to document that fall from grace. Hence, Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams documented an American West where huge estates of tract houses destroyed the natural landscape. This is a study of commercial greed and hypocrisy, with homebuyers lured to a better life “in the country” only to find that the promised Eden had been paved over.

Modern masters such as Edward Burtynsky, Thomas Struth, and Bernd and Hilla Becher – with their student Andreas Gursky – continue to study mankind’s relationship with the land. The current photographers working with landscapes are, in the main, products of an urban intellectual tradition. They aren’t seeking to uncritically praise the natural realm but rather to use images of landscapes to make intellectual points. This use of landscape imagery to support arguments outwardly disconnected from the subjects depicted seems to be tenuous. However, in a sense, they doing nothing different from Friedrich co-opting Nature as a symbolic setting for religious allegories. Today, landscape images have been used as metaphors in the ongoing debate about the nature of Art. In Gursky’s “Rhein II” we are presented with a huge, manipulated and idealised image of a simplified landscape. But the landscape here isn’t the subject in the way that it was in Adams’ images of Yosemite. The river and its environs haven’t been chosen as an image of Nature but instead as a means to talk about the nature of imagery.

Yet, in the wider world, the perspective of our natural world championed by Ansel Adams and his contemporaries still holds sway. You might say that this is because, in the Western world, many of our attitudes to Nature are still trapped in the 19th century, caught at the moment when we divorced ourselves from our surroundings. But I think there is much older origin for the preference for paradisal images. The depiction of nature as something worth celebrating in its own right, divorced from religious symbolism or overt political significance, may be a relatively modern thing but that doesn’t mean that the feeling behind such depictions is new. We are fundamentally products of the land and, at a deep level, I believe we feel a strong spiritual attachment to the landscape. We may sit all day in air conditioned offices, rather than work as tillers of the soil; we may drive from place to place, rather than walking across the landscape, but the majority of us still feel most at home under the arc of the sky. Sure, there are urbanites who profess to hate the messiness of Nature, its inconvenient muddyness and lack of central heating. There are also people whose greed drives them to despoil the landscape in the name of profit. But they are the exception.

When we look at landscape photographs we want to see an ideal and not the reality. We are searching for a primordial connection to Nature that has been lost by many in our everyday lives; we are searching for peace; room for inner contemplation; and - not incidentally - we are searching for Beauty. There’s another reason why the celebratory stance has remained so popular; it represents hope in the face of increasing predictions of manmade environmental catastrophe. All the dire warnings of climate change and habitat destruction are simply not going to make us want to look at images of these things, quite the contrary in fact. And that’s why, despite all the changes in artistic outlook and advances in camera technology, the majority of photographers are still making images with an intent that Adams or even Muybridge would recognise.

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