on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

The Death of Landscape Photography is greatly exaggerated

A provocative critique

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Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish

Professional landscape photographer. His personal website is www.joecornishphotographer.com/

It’s been a busy few months and I had been struggling to find time for my favourite photography magazine, but over the last week or two I have been catching up with recent On Landscape articles. What a source of inspiration, and perspective! The quality of the writing and the images (especially Guy Tal’s) is excellent. And most recently, Mike Chisholm’s article has given me considerable pause for thought. If you haven’t yet read it (and I suggest you do) it is a provocative critique of contemporary landscape photography and states that this is a ‘movement’ which has run its course. At least at the moment of reading, I even found myself agreeing with some of it; a sign of a persuasive argument.

If we were to follow the logic of the article, we should, as the title suggests, all abandon landscape photography, a genre the article sees as, at the very least, derivative, ‘depressing’ and deceitful. It identifies landscape photography’s popularity as a symptom of its malaise:

‘But... sheer populousness is often a sign that something has peaked, and that it's exciting, pioneering days are over’.

Lichen, Anna Booth

Lichen, Anna Booth

In pursuing any artistic practice with intent, Originality is the mountain top. And whatever falls short is by implication, pretty pointless: 

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  • My love of photography began in the landscape. Part of me still lives there and always will. However, I am increasingly drawn to other environments. I find them much more interesting and much more challenging. I take landscape pictures for myself because I enjoy my time in that space. But I find that landscapes are easy to shoot and almost impossible to make interesting.

    I rarely like looking at the landscape work of others. I find it does not hold my interest. Pretty, or the decorative aesthetic, dominates so much, and without supporting words there is often nothing else.

    • Blimey, seems as if I may be in a shrinking minority.
      “…landscapes are easy to shoot and almost impossible to make interesting.” Really? Perhaps it’s the landscapes I am looking at, or the photographs that I see, but I have to respectfully disagree.

      • Joe, of course it depends on what we each define as “interesting”. I have written a few words for Tim, which will be published soon, which goes some way to explaining my thoughts. And I must confess it is a work in progress. Perhaps we might take up the debate after you read it.

        • I can see that much of landscape photography may not hold your interest Steve but I would say this makes the production of interesting landscape photography even more challenging. Sadly, it’s often very easy to produce meaning in work in other genres by the use of subject (you can borrow whole reams of narrative by photographing the man made world) but the natural world doesn’t hold an inherent narrative and hence to evoke something personal (and to see it once evoked) is, I would say, a much greater challenge. In reality, we’re all right – just like in music the singer songwriter struggles to understand and play jazz and the jazz musician struggles to understand the pop hook and they all don’t get alternative math rock. Subjects and genres are a personal mix and it’s tough to write any off without objectively (whilst subjectively it’s easy)

          • And yet the landscape, and landscape photography, does hold a deep interest for me. I think it’s important to try and make interesting pictures of it. Really interesting pictures. And I think it’s important, for photography, to try to make stand alone pictures, where a picture can be hero, without words. And that it be done by photographers who can do it in-camera. Real photographers.

            I think, at its core, the world of landscape photography is dominated by the easy pretty picture. That’s not healthy and I think this devalues everything associated with landscape photography.

            Anyway, I try to challenge for the good of photography, it’s an often misunderstood quest.

            • valda bailey

              I come late to this fascinating debate and I’m sure this response will be bypassed.

              “Photographers who can do it in-camera. Real photographers”

              Have I understood this correctly? The first name that springs to mind is Rob Hudson. Also Chris Friel. Their images move and inspire me and the fact that they may (or may not) have been helped along with post processing couldn’t matter less.

              Artists use all tools at their disposal to assist in their creative endeavours and I don’t see why we, as photographers shouldn’t have the same freedom.

              Also, both make images that stand alone. Rob supports his with narrative; Chris, not so much, but to my mind both produce powerful work that makes me look at the landscape in a different light.

              Of course what you find interesting and what I find interesting aren’t necessarily the same. I heard someone say on the radio the other day (apropos of what, I don’t know – I came in halfway though) ‘there aren’t rights or wrongs, just opinions’.

              Perhaps we’re all guilty of hearing what we want to hear and disregarding the rest (thank you Simon and Garfunkel). However I’m sure we can agree that Tim should be applauded for providing a platform for such interesting debates.

  • Photography as a means of exercise and well-being should be celebrated more, in my opinion. I truly believe that the therapeutic benefits of landscape photography could help many many people who may currently be struggling to manage their health problems – whether they be physical or mental.

    I personally don’t believe that your purpose as a landscape photography should be to produce new and innovative work. First and foremost it should be about the enjoyment, experience and connection with the landscape. Capturing what you truly enjoy will lead to images that you personally find exciting. If your interpretation is also compelling, exciting and perhaps new to others then it’s great to know that it’s come from an honest place.

    • Landscape photography, as with photography in general, is a broad church. And yes we are all here for very different reasons. Yet we will often speak on the same topics as if we are standing in the same place as everyone else. You raise some good points Simon.

    • Adam Pierzchala

      Absolutely correct, bravo! I admit to being saddened by Mike’s article, it made me think the author is somehow jaded by what’s on offer now, disheartened even. It also seemed to attack some of the reasons I enjoy going out with a camera and recording that which I find interesting, curious or simply beautiful. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that. Or with taking exercise and having the bonus of photography as an excuse to grab an occasional rest. And I cannot accept that there is something wrong with waiting for the best light or framing a view to avoid an ugly concrete block or pylon. After all, the view was at its best in that shaft of sunlight, the view is beautiful if you don’t include the ugly man-made construction (derelict old character-full shacks are an exception of course…).

      While it is true that much of landscape photography is formulaic, be it to conform to club rules or what will sell in photo magazines, thankfully there is much that breaks all conventions and rules yet still produces wonderful images. And there is plenty that sticks to the rules but also produces fantastic images full of emotion. This magazine and community is proof of all that. And you don’t need to use bizarre techniques to produce beautiful work – though I am slowly beginning to accept new approaches to how cameras can be used.

      So thank you Joe for pushing back: pursuing one’s own search for natural beauty, escaping from the daily urban routine, just walking, and ultimately sharing that which gives us joy, all remain legitimate activities. There, I feel better now!

  • Simon Miles

    I agree there may be a danger of drowning in the massive sea of images shared online, but I would have thought this applies across most genres and not just to landscape photography. Just glancing across my bookshelves reassures me there is still plenty of original and exciting landscape photography being produced. For whatever it’s worth, my own personal time on the hills with my camera is a small but precious part of my life. I can only hope I’ll still be out there when I’m in my eighties!

  • prashant khapane

    This is a very interesting read. I enjoyed the discussion.
    Joe – new website is stunning and so is the book “This Land” (which now has so many earmarks) I’m hoping get autographed by you someday). That has inspired me go out and see even in this cold and wet January. Glencoe here we come.

    • Prashant, thanks for those thoughts. Just in case anyone is interested the website I think you’re referring to is the one built for me by Tim (www.joecornishphotographer.com) rather than the gallery one.
      And yes, all conditions can be enjoyed, so enjoy Glen Coe!

      • Adam Pierzchala

        Thanks Joe for drawing attention to your new website – I was blown away by the images even though I had already seen some and a few I even watched you making. I think I recognise a tree from Burnham Beeches…? And hats off to Tim for the design.

        I find that much of the new work here is a departure from the conventional “beautiful view” (though there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that – see below) and hopefully shows Mike that there is still a lot to seek out and enjoy.

  • Darren Lewey

    The best articles should be provocative as Mike’s was. I believe there is some truth in what he wrote. I’ve come across many websites where the landscape images look the same; similarities often rest on location, time of day(partly unavoidable), framing and saturation, indeed a school of sorts. There are also many where there some freshness of perspective as evident within OL but the number of the former means Mike’s critique stands up. Landscape photography is not unique here. I find the contemporary leanings towards conceptual people photography in other spheres very uninspiring. Are you reading Lens Culture? I also believe that the virtues of personal enjoyment out in the landscape outweighs the need to be original, however the gate keepers of the past have long gone and the ability to publish our own work without a second ‘informed’ opinion to critique has perhaps got us to this stage. Adam P. raises an interesting point about waiting for the right light. We don’t want to deny this core element of seeking idealism but at the same time we shouldn’t be prisoners to it either. Returning home often disappointed would surely taint the enjoyment and experience as Simon B. says.

  • Hi everybody,

    The last days I have looked at several interviews with top landscape photographers on YouTube. It is pretty interesting to see how many still are following the classic “dramatic landscapes in beautiful light” concept. This has been the standard template since the dawn of landscape photography. There must be more to it than just beauty and greatness? The lack of new concepts is one of the reasons classic landscape photography have difficulties to find its place inside the art world. There are exceptions though. Just look at Edward Burtynsky, who have found a very strong concept behind his imagery. His images are made with impeccable perfection ( which is of course very classic), but his images are not about beauty. Instead he shows naked ugliness implemented in the landscape by man. The message is striking and therefore not another sleeping pill. Hence one of the reasons for his success as a landscape photographer.

    The problem today is that internet has become the testing lab for our work and the crowd has become the jury. I can often see myself trapped in this reality and have therefore become more and more careful with what I post on internet. This to avoid the rotten tomatoes from the mob. We have to break free from the urge for appreciation. To please with beauty only is not enough year 2017.

    • Hans,

      Oh dear, I fear that I don’t ‘do’ social media, so perhaps with so little experience I was naive in writing this article…in fairness I simply do not feel this over-exposure to cliched image-making that seems to be a common theme here.

      Burtynsky certainly epitomises one (or many) fascinating and significant strands of contemporary landscape photography (see my choice for Endframe a year or so ago).

      Perhaps the problem with social media is the danger that we only see a narrow area of activity…that to which we are naturally drawn. And then the nature of the internet means that we keep seeing the same sort of thing, a reinforcing of prejudice and preference.

      For a number of years I have ben doing a bit of voluntary work with the RPS, and almost none of the work that I was involved in assessing was landscape at all; it helped me to get a better handle on the incredible range of photographic expression out there. Maybe we all just need to step outside of our own echo chambers a bit more often and see what else is happening.

      • I think people are very quick to paint social media in a negative light (there’s a pun in there) – I’ve done it myself when I lacked confidence in my work and seeked reassurance (or lack of) from the internet. However, I’ve witnessed a huge amount of positivity and appreciation for subtle, abstract and very personal images. Yes, the over saturated and dramatic vistas are very much celebrated, but people are becoming increasingly exposed to more intimate scenes and they’re loving it.
        I slowly learnt to detach myself from how an image was received on social media and the result (I liked to think) is that my work improved. People then start to appreciate that honesty and commitment, the whole thing goes full circle and social media can then suddenly become a largely positive place (with exceptions).
        So I guess what I’m saying is – do what you love, shoot what your connect with, have oodles of passion. You’ll be happier for it and viewers will be drawn to that.

  • Kevin Fidler

    To me part of the problem, if indeed that what it is, that Mike identifies for us is saturation. We are immersed constantly in photographs and video clips very often of places we could only dream years ago. A great many of those photographs are accomplished and so beautiful images can become rather commonplace especially if taken at a familiar location. In our comparative affluence far more people own a bewildering array of photographic kit and in a matter of minutes you can publish to a worldwide audience. No wonder it seems like we have got into a rut. Joe however counters the argument; look closely at what is being produced and the creativity is there. Take Valda Bailey as one of a number of examples. I remember standing with a fellow photographer somewhat awe struck at Southwell Minster at her multi exposure and ICM images. So different from the other exhibitors (equally accomplished in their own styles). I am not saying we have now to go all ME and ICM but the technology we now have opens up all sorts of creative avenues. Lastly I would add that that landscapes is hardly a dying art as I look round and a great many photographers I know are branching out, or rather back into larger formats and film. Every one I speak to says more or less the same thing: it slows you down, it makes you think about what you are taking and why. That to me is a good sign.

  • What a fantastic exchange! And thank you, Joe, for the kind endorsement.

    Among the things often lost in such discussions is that photography still is, to many, considered a means of representing “reality,” when in fact it is a means of representing (or misrepresenting) appearances. These are not the same thing. Reality has many more dimensions than just appearance. Accurate depictions of appearances can still grossly misrepresent reality, and so-called “manipulated” appearances can, at times, convey reality more accurately than literal ones. And yet, those who believe that (all) photography has some sort of (inexplicable) duty to faithfully represent appearances decry departure from such appearances as misrepresentations or manipulations of reality, while those who do not wish to be bound by such notions often cry “art.”

    But the thing that few seem to acknowledge is that reality can be created by a photograph to the same (or, I would argue, to a greater) degree than it can be reduced to representations of appearances, no matter how “realistic.”

  • Stuart Westmore

    Now there’s a novel idea: reflect on an idea you don’t agree with, offer a coherent and considered counter argument and thank the author of the original idea for provoking you to consider and evolve your position. Imagine if we conducted other public debates with this level of respect (I know, its pretty old fashioned, isn’t it)
    Congrats to Joe and Mike for sparking this wonderful debate. These are the moments when OL jumps up from a consistently excellent forum to something more profound than you find in most other places.

  • Peter Stevens

    Firstly this is a very interesting discussion with some really thought provoking contributions.

    For me the debate is polarised between two extremes. On the one hand, there’s nothing new out there to photograph so why bother, and on the other hand, there is always scope for creativity but it does seem to be much harder for landscape. Tim captured a similar point in his introduction to Issue 131 when he said ‘..that photography should move past the mere representational, (and that) the rendering of a non-verbal response to an image leaves a huge amount of room for originality.’

    So the key question for me is what does a creative and original landscape look like? Would we all recognise it when we see it, and would we all pick out the same images as being original or do we all see things differently. Many many words have been written about interpreting and ‘reading’ photographs in both popular and academic articles, but I find them almost universally full of what I call ‘slippery’ words and concepts. Ideas that sort of make sense when read but somehow slip away and fade before they gain any real traction. They have a very short half-life. To give just one example, I’ve often read that photographs should have ‘soul’ (I think Joe has said this?), but in truth I have no idea what this means. How do I go out and take an image with ‘soul’? And the discussions around the ‘meaning’ of photographs are particularly slippery. My (controversial) view is that most photographs are taken for visual impact, and any underlying meaning is very thin and inaccessible to most viewers. The example of Burtynsky is a valid exception. His stunning photographs have a very real intent, he is exploring ‘mans impact on the landscape’, and the meaning is clear for all to see. You don’t have to think very hard to understand what he is saying. Nadav Kander would be another such example and also Salgado. This is not the case for 99% landscape photographers.

    One other point worth making is that commentary on images is often written from the viewer’s perspective, not from the photographer’s perspective. They provide a commentary on the output, not the input, so often do not provide insight to the photographer’s intent at the point of taking the image, which must be the key to understanding the image.

    We all know there is not a magic formula to creating original work, but it would be interesting for OnLandscape to explore more explicitly the thinking of photographers when they take their images. What were they trying to do? To what extent was the photograph preplanned or a happy accident? So my request to Tim, as editor, is to explore in more practical terms with the featured photographers the thinking behind their images, their intent when taking and especially their views on why the images might be regarded as original and creative. That way we might start to fill in the gaps between the two extremes of this debate.
    Peter Stevens

  • Jason Theaker

    Surely, this is a debate about target audiences. Landscape photography isn’t dead at all, but the personal development of many of the photographers thinking has pushed them so far away from ‘classic’ that they are left wanting new, fresh, original work. There is nothing wrong with that at all, in fact it’s a good thing. However, holding on to labels (and trying to justify said labels) is creating that dissatisfaction.

    So why not take a multifaceted approach? Produce work for oneself, that satisfies the deeper creative needs, and produce work that your grandma wants to put on her wall! That way you keep everybody happy!

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