What is Landscape Photography
One of the question that most landscape photographers don’t conciously think about very often but always seems to come up when discussing competitions/awards is ‘What is Landscape Photography?’. It seems like a fairly innocuous question but it’s not really that simple to answer; and even if you ask people who seem to agree, the edges of their definitions are always a little cloudy.
The subject has come up again because of the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition. The competition defines what could/should be included in any of it’s categories, but all of the categories sit under the banner of ‘Landscape Photography’ and so a definition can be drawn from their entry requirements. The classic view is fairly innocuous as the description fits what most people would agree on (to a point), living view is a picture of somebody or a group of people outside with the only limit being ‘no close ups’ – I’m sure their are many interpretations of this that people would not categorise as landscape photography. Your view – “Pretty much anything goes, as long as it is in the UK and in the outdoors.” – definitely open to all sorts of photography that isn’t landscape. So we have a over arching definition for the majority of the competition that is “Anything that is outdoors as long as it isn’t a portrait”. I made a few comments about many of the photographs not meeting my personal definition of landscape photography and that quite a few people seem to agree with. But I also got a couple of comments from people that pointed out I was wrong (and that I was a miserable so and so) and as much as this is a subjective choice (not the miserable bit, I’ll agree with that) there must be some form of overall consensus on what landscape photography means otherwise it’s absolutely meaningless to use the term at all.
In the comments beneath my recent post about the competition, I came up with my own rough definition of what I think landscape photography is. “If the primary part of the picture is of part of the natural, inorganic world or of a human construction that was intended to become part of the natural world then it’s heading into landscape photography territory. (This means that Gormley’s statues in the sand are in, trolleys are out). Even if something was intended not to blend in to the landscape but ultimately does, that would be OK (old mills perhaps but not supermarkets).”
It got me thinking though. Landscape art has been around for hundreds of years. The first mention of landscape was in about 1600 (originally ‘landskip’) and arised in cities where people were using it to describe the land around and away from the city (prior to this, when people lived in the country, there was no need for a distinction between where you lived and the countryside). From then on, the conversations around landscape generally accepted this city/countryside, urban/rural divide. The Oxford History of Art’s book, Landscape and Western Art even goes so far as to define landscape by comparing a Joel Meyerowitz shot of New York with a Claude Monet country painting, defining landscape as the difference between the two radically opposed viewpoints. An interesting ‘hierarchy of art’ was published in the 17th Century wherein the first were important and the latter not … it went .. (1) History Painting; (2) Portraits; (3) Genre Painting; (4) Landscapes; (5) Still Life.The interesting bit is that ‘Genre Painting’ was about scenes of everyday life (the fact that landscape was near the bottom hasn’t changed much though). Here is the definition given “Landscape denoted paintings whose main theme was the portrayal of a scenic view (countryside, seascape, rivers, mountains, townscape etc). Thus a peopled landscape might be classified as a genre painting, if the artist was mainly concerned with portraying human action.”. So historically, including a town in your picture could be landscape but a picture from inside a town would be a genre painting.
As a quick diversion, let’s see what the dictionaries have to say ..
“a picture representing a section of natural, inland scenery, as of prairie, woodland, mountains…an expanse of natural scenery seen by the eye in one view.”
– Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary
“1) A picture representing natural inland scenery, as distinguished from a sea picture, a portrait, etc. 2) A view or prospect of natural inland scenery, such as can be taken in at a glance from one point of view; a piece of country scenery. 3) In generalized sense (from 1 and 2): Inland natural scenery, or its representation in painting.”
“landscape [n]: “Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package” (My emphases, see W.J.T. Mitchell”s “Imperial Landscape” in Landscape and Power, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 5)”
“landscape [n]: literally, “shape of the land”; a word deriving from the Dutch landschap that signifies (a) a vista or “cut” (hence the -scape) of the perceived world, construed as “country” or “land” of “field” set within a horizon; (b) the circumambience provided by a particular place; (c) by extension, seascape, cityscape, and so on; (d) a genre of painting that, in contrast with landskip [q.v.], is concerned with the material essence of a place or region rather than with its precise topography, and with transplacement rather than with transposition.”
– Representing Place – Landscape Painting and Maps, Edward S Casey
So interestingly, they don’t include seascapes.. Well I think that’s 90% of most current landscape photography out of the window But dictionary definitions aren’t much use in general terms, although they do say ‘Natural’ quite a lot which I think is key to a lot of people’s understanding.
To try and guage what people think is and isn’t “Landscape Photography” I’ve put together a little survey. If you follow the link below and answer the questions, I’ll publish the answers in a week or so.. I’ve asked if you can give me your email and name. If you don’t want me to quote you in the follow up, just leave the email empty…
It does seem from my straw poll that the general issues are related to :
- should people be included in landscape photography
- what level of urban/industrial buildings are shown
- How much of the landscape is shown (some people don’t consider macro shots or even intimate shots as landscapes)
So why is this relevant at the moment? Well I’m trying to work out what categories might be included in the landscape photography awards/competition that I’m considering. If you have any suggestions as to where the line should be drawn within a competition, I’d be interested to hear them.
UPDATE: It’s been pointed out that I’m never going to get a consensus on what landscape photography is, which I agree with. However, I can get an idea of where we agree and where the grey areas are. I should also add that I’m not so interested in the historical and dictionary definitions, I include those only as ‘interesting sidelines’. The interesting aspect to me is what people mean when they put ‘landscape photographer’ on their website. Is it just a form of group identity (i.e. I’m working in the same field as he is) or is it a definition of what to expect within?
UPDATE: I want to reiterate that I am definitely not trying to define what ‘Landscape Photography’ should mean! It will always mean different things to different people but I would like to know if there is at least a bit of consensus. Also, this isn’t wholly a reaction against the landscape photographer of the year, it’s a question I’ve thought about previously. My own personal opinion about ‘cityscapes’ is that they aren’t landscapes and I pointed this out with regard to LPotY but, again, this is a personal opinion and one that I know people are going to disagree with – how many will disagree though?
and no I don’t mean a real field..