I’ve wasted more film shooting portraits of grass than almost anything else. It took me years to realise that a view that was magnificent, deep and structured to the eye looked small and insignificant to the camera.
It was all down to me of course. If only I had shot from lower down with a Joe Cornish rock ®️ in the foreground things would have been so much better. If only I had cooked the colours more (like a well known local calendar photographer who shall remain nameless). If only I had been there at Hernandez.
Instead I was usually on holiday with no specific intent to shoot landscape, it was just the thing that was in front of me at the time. There is also that thing where your partner is going “isn’t this fantastic?” and the correct answer is not “sure, but I’m not wasting film on it”. I lie: it was never my partner’s fault. I had it in my head that if I could see it, I should photograph it. And how do we learn but from our mistakes? Or rather, reflecting on our mistakes.
So yes, I’ve sure shot a shedload of shoddy snaps. The worst of these have got to be my landscapes. My only redemption is that I have tried to avoid the tripod holes and footprint grooves worn by previous generations of tourists. Seriously, if the picture is on every postcard you could buy, why are you making the same picture? Oh, I see, it’s because the picture is of you with the landscape/ edifice/ train crash in the background. Alien landing? Yep, that’s it just over my right shoulder. The picture is proof I was there. Otherwise you might think the camera went on holiday without me.
Saying that, I have a picture that I like very much indeed. It’s a landscape and I didn’t take it. I saw it in a gallery and my lovely partner remembered and bought it for me. It’s some smudgy shadows and a few dark shapes. It is also a brilliant evocation of a Dales farmhouse hunched in a hollow against the rain. That’s the kind of thing I would take, but the photographer has done it better. (Farm in Farndale, by Alan Clark)
There seems to be a canon of landscape photography that we all have to do to be a real photographer, like reading the classics. You’ve seen it and you’ve probably done it. You know the thing: long exposure of a river or waterfall, or waves. Trees alone and in groups on the skyline. A low-angle wide shot with flowers in the foreground expanding to the horizon beyond. Boats drawn up on the beach. With lobster pots if possible. Mountains seen from the car park. A jetty protruding from the point of view out onto a lake, preferably with long-exposure water. Yawn.
So what is the point of landscape photography? Is it to record what was there, or the nice weather at the time, or to see something that others didn’t? My worst landscapes are a poor record of what was there. Occasionally I’ve got what I saw in the scene and captured something more than just a record. Never forget the Filmosaur Manifesto though: a photograph has no meaning but what the viewer sees.
And why is the landscape category usually the most subscribed in any kind of photography competition? Is it because we think they make the best photographs, or that they keep still? Or are landscapes less challenging?
So what does the viewer want? What do people like about landscapes? My partner thinks that photos without people in are boring. I might have a superb moody, contrasty shot looking down Wast Water from the top of Great Gable and she will flick past it for the snaps of us gurning at the summit or holding hands in fear as we descend through Hell Gate.
But seriously, what makes a good landscape? Is there a difference between pictures of places you might never get to see, places that you might see but are rendered in a way that you would never find yourself, and pictures that just look nice? That picture of the Earth taken from the moon counts as both dramatic and rare. Ansell Adam’s pictures from Yosemite are places that I could one day visit, but never in the conditions that he saw them and rendered them. They are dramatic, and I would class them with my picture of the farm in Farndale: I like what the photographer has done with light.
And then there are the calendar shots. The calendar shots are the ones you see on posters and from stock libraries. These are the standard shots from the landscape canon above. You might see them on a calendar, but you’d never take one, right? You know what? Take the postcard shot; fill your boots, but then see if you can find the unseen or expressive view. Or just be honest about it and say “it’s nice to be here and look at this stuff, but I don’t need a picture of it”.
OK class, discuss…