30 October 2009

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…

Click Here to take the survey

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..

Comments (skip to bottom)

19 Responses to “What is Landscape Photography”

  1. On November 2, 2009 at 7:47 am Charles Twist responded with... #

    On reflection, I think it’s just a natural phenomenon. I’ll put forward two laws:

    1- the more you look into a term, the more that term becomes generic in light of more specific sub-terms;

    2- the more you look into a generic term, the less it is defined but the more it is meaningful.

    Happy thinking!

  2. On April 5, 2011 at 8:54 am Steve Terry responded with... #

    Hi Tim

    Would you like to attempt a definition of travel photography? I personally feel that much of what the professionals like Charlie and Joe do could be classified under that category.

  3. On June 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm Charles Twist responded with... #

    Hello Tim,

    Haven’t you collected enough scars yet?!?

    I’ll have a look at your survey, but just a couple quick points:

    (i) you say: "a picture from inside a town would be a genre painting", but the definition said "the portrayal of a scenic view (countryside, seascape, rivers, mountains, townscape etc)". So towns are in as long as there is nobody in them performing a function. Many would disagree with that.

    (ii) Seascapes have two definitions: only sea and sea as an element in the picture. The latter might be considered "inland", even if only by a few yards. That recovers 90% of your 90%.

    What is subtle about the Oxford History of Art’s book’s definition, is that it says the "main theme was the portrayal of a scenic view". So the theme has to be a portrayal not an interpretation or an abstraction. The work has to be about showing the land: this is definitely more Corry-Wright than Ward. Quite a stance and not one that is easy to argue for.

    Best regards,

  4. On June 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm Tim Parkin responded with... #

    @Charles – Heh… yes I suppose according to that definition you might be right! However, reading around the term landscape from that time, they also refer to ‘townscape’ more recently ‘cityscape’ as differentiated from ‘landscape’.
    As far as seascapes go, even the UK government has got in on the act and have defined seascape "A combination of adjacent land, coastline and sea within an area, defined by a mix of land-sea inter-visibility and coastal landscape character assessment" – that does fit the bill for a lot of ‘foamscapes’.

    We’ll end up discussing what portray means (which just means to make an make a representation, where represent means ‘be the equivalent of’ – hmm equivalence….).

  5. On June 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm Jason Theaker responded with... #

    I’m not sure the definition of landscape is the issue here. (Well outside the competition anyway and according to my personal views, I hasten to add)
    Many people seem to want to categorise what they do into actable social conventions, but what does it matter if you have 75% sea and 10% person and the rest sand…? What does it matter if its land, sea, air, water, rocks, moss? Its how the image makes me and other feel that is the issue.

    My own personal definition of landscape photography reflects what I want it to be. I tend not to do people, (because they distract from my own personal creative vision), I tend not to include manmade structures (well not often) because they distract from my escapism. But I only do this to reflect (or impose) my own views on others.

    When you get into this type of categorization there is the possibility to inhibit creativity, as we are all different. Anyway, must get to a friends Halloween party. Interesting post Tim..

  6. On June 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm Tim Parkin responded with... #

    Hi Jason – I suppose it only matters if you refer to ‘landscape photography’ in your work. If you do, and you do, then your opinion either conforms to a linguistic zeitgeist or clashes with it. If it clashes with it then using landscape as a word is potentially confusing.

    The category isn’t the driver of peoples photography, it is used a description so often that it is important to have a shared meaning of some sort (or to stop using the word landscape).

  7. On June 10, 2011 at 8:38 pm David Mantripp responded with... #

    Should people be included in landscape photography ? Well, I don’t see why not, if they contribute to a coherent vision. Actually, I think that one of the main reasons you don’t see this is that it is blood difficult to get it right. Another reason might be that landscape photographers by and large are a bunch of antisocial old loners, so they avoid people anyway. But seriously, one example could be Sigurgeir Sigurjonsson’s massively successful "Lost in Iceland", which includes people in every shot. And it would be hard to argue that it is not landscape photography. So, I don’t know about "should", be if the question is "could", then my vote is Yes.

    What level of urban/industrial buildings are shown ? Well, again, I’d say it is down to what the photographer wants to convey.
    Take Edward Burtynsky’s work – is that landscape ? I’d say so (although I’d accept it is borderline). And is pretty much all about industry shaping the landscape. Same could be said for at least some of Michael Kenna’s work. Some may want to limit themselves to quaint Olde Worlde country cottages, crumbling castles, or whatever, but fail to realise just how different these structures and their environs would have appeared in their heydays. Urban & industrial buildings are part of the landscape. Photography of these structures can be beautiful, it can be depressing, it can be purely illustrative – or it can, like any photo, be a complete mess. But I would never agree that it should be excluded from the idea of landscape.

    How much of the landscape is shown – that’s a trickier one. But in the end, the landscape, in whatever shape or form, is the photographer’s raw material. If he, or she, feels they can express what they feel by getting in close, then that’s more than fine by me.

    I left the UK a long time ago, and I never really belonged anyway. Having been brought up outside of England, and then gone to University in London, I was really struck by the obsessive categorisation that seemed to exist everywhere. Not just in society, but in other things. For example, my peers were completely flummoxed by the fact that I in one week I went to, and enjoyed, and got fully into, shows by The Cure (in the early 80s), ELO and, amazingly, Peter Skellern. It seems that British photography is plagued by the same obsessions, to an extent that French, or Italian, for example isn’t (but German, mayve, is). Of course if you’re going to organise a competition you need to set some boundaries, but my understanding of photography is that in the end it is more about the photographer than the subject – at least, when it’s successful. A successful landscape photograph leaves me feeling something about the photographer’s feelings for the place have been conveyed to me. So, maybe there’s a theme – "a sense of place".

  8. On June 10, 2011 at 10:32 pm David Mantripp responded with... #


    I tried to take your survey, but it just doesn’t work for me. I had to bail out because I wasn’t giving any meaningful information. Pretty much all the questions on the first two pages could have been answered by "any of the above". Photography is visual. How can I say how I would classify a photo of John’s house if I can’t see it ? If it was taken by Michael Kenna it might well be "landscape". If it was taken by Fred the Estate Agent with view to a quick sale, then probably it wouldn’t….

  9. On June 10, 2011 at 11:34 pm Tim Parkin responded with... #

    Hi David – My idea was to find out the types of subject matter, not the competence with which someone has taken it, that are classified as landscape.

    If there is a set of award categories that say "you can enter as long as your pictures are good enough to be called landscape" it wouldn’t really help anybody.

    You description of Michael Kenna vs the estate agent suggests that anything Michael Kenna took could be classified as landscape but the estate agent? forget about it..

    Do you not think that the subject matter of a picture indicates what words may be use to describe it? For instance, I would’nt say a picture of a door was a landscape picture.. A sunset over a house in the dales with some limestone pavement probably..

    If you can only say whether something is landscape if you see it then it means landscape has no meaning as it can’t be described – which you have said as much already.

    I appreciate you trying though :-)

  10. On July 10, 2011 at 8:32 am David Mantripp responded with... #

    But I make the distinction between "could" and "would" :-) Take Kenna’s Mont St Michel – as a body of work, I would say that the genre argument is irrelevant – the collection is about the location. But individually, some shots could be described as landscape, some not, some borderline. I’m sure MK could take a shot of a door which I would stubbornly insist was landscape.

    God help everyone if we ever meet over a few beers :-)


  11. On July 10, 2011 at 10:10 am Charles Twist responded with... #

    "If you can only say whether something is landscape if you see it, then it means landscape has no meaning as it can’t be described – which you have said as much already. "

    What nonsense! Have you never felt love? Do you know anyone who has described it (not its effects) in words in a universally, meaningful way?

    Beyond that, not one thing can be given meaning accurately by a bunch of words. The words point you in the right direction – that’s all. But the meaning is personal. Meaning is about connectivity to the other concepts in your mind, not in anybody else’s. And the words in the definition merely allow you to find some of these other concepts so that you can infer the meaning of the new concept. Landscape has plenty of meaning and it’s not because of the words we attach to it.

    Must do better. Best regards, Charles

  12. On July 10, 2011 at 10:30 am Tim Parkin responded with... #

    Without any pool of shared meaning for our words we’re up shit creek. So, yes, you might say that ‘landscape means eating pizza in a turkish bath’ but everyone else would disagree with you. You might say ‘landscape is the raw wilderness’ and a substantial number of people will agree with you. Are both meanings equally relevant in langauge?

    If the shared definition of landscape is ‘something I call landscape if I recognise it as such’ what is the point of having the word?

    And when you say ‘meaning is about concepts in your mind, nobody elses’ you are implying that someone is using the word ‘landscape’ internally? What point are words/meaning if not to communicate?

    If I have a feeling, I don’t necessarily have to give it a word or work out it’s meaning. If I have a word and I use it in conversation or writing with someone else, it helps if there is a common understanding of what that word means otherwise we will be speaking different languages.

    Landscape has all sorts of meaning internally as an idea.. when the word is used with other people, then that meaning becomes important in other peope’s minds as well.. not just your own.

    p.s. btw … we shouldn’t insult each other just because we disagree .. it only gets out of hand online – In person it’s OK, at least in person you can resort to violence when it gets too out of hand ;-)

  13. On July 10, 2011 at 1:03 pm Simon Miles responded with... #

    Hello Tim et al, I have been following the last few posts with interest. I fully understand your criticisms of the LPOTY competition. However, I wonder if you are over-reacting? I see no reason why urban landscapes, or townscapes, should be excluded from a definition of landscape photography, any more than seascapes. Much as you might wish, I am not sure you can escape the conclusion that a landscape is simply a view of the land, be it natural, man-made or (as would be the case for most landscapes in mainland Britain) a combination of the two. Surely, therefore, a landscape photograph is simply one view of a particular place by an individual. I would say that it is the last part of this definition, the individual interpretation of place, which makes the genre so interesting (and, yes, very diverse, just like the land itself). Personally, I feel uneasy about your attempts to define the genre in more specific terms. I wonder if you are in danger of trying to narrow the definition to fit your individual tastes and preferences about landscape photography?

  14. On July 10, 2011 at 1:38 pm Tim Parkin responded with... #

    Hi Simon,

    My criticism of the LPotY was primarily to do with the judging quality, not necessarily to do with the categories of landscape that were included. However, as much as there are pictures that I woudln’t class as landscape personally, I want to find out what other people think landscape is..

    I want to reiterate that I’m not trying to define or delimit what landscape is, I’m trying to find out what people think it is.. I think that this is an important distinction..

    For instance, David Ward takes pictures of the insides of fishing refineries, barrels, grain elevators and cars. Joe Cornish takes pictures of chemical refineries and flowers. Charlie Waite takes architecture, fisherman portraits, indoor staircases, etc. They all call themselves landscape photographers, I’m just trying to work out what it means to other people – do they think that these pictures are landscape photographs because they were taken by landscape photographers?

    My own view is a grey area itself (for instance I think of Edward Burtynsky as a landscape photographer but his quarry pictures taken alone don’t fit my own initial reaction as to what landscape photography is) and I wouldn’t want to impose it on anyone else. I would you hope you don’t me voicing my own opinion and asking what other people think?

  15. On July 10, 2011 at 2:22 pm Charles Twist responded with... #

    It would seem I got carried away: there was no intention to insult. I will try and tone down a bit.

    We use words to communicate, but we could and indeed do use a host of other objects to communicate: pictures, facial expressions, non-vocal sounds etc. Meanings are internal and language is predicated on a degree of overlap between the two internal meanings. There is enough mis-communication out there to tell me that the system works only so well (even between two people with similar backgrounds who have known each other for years). There are a lot of words which refer to complex concepts with elaborate and far-reaching meanings which cannot be summarised in a few words due to the very lack of overlap in the meanings. I suspect that landscape is such a word: the dictionary definition is a contrived meaning which has some validity, but is it any better than what each one of us believes it is? I think we are fairly well agreed that it isn’t. Your exercise seeks to uncover some of the different individual meanings: that has some merit and will help to compare one’s approach to that of others. I doubt that averaging these different meanings has any relevance or validity though.

    Best regards, Charles

  16. On July 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm Tim Parkin responded with... #

    No problem Charles – me and you would read it OK but a stranger may not realise we’re arguing the toss..

    I agree that we’ll never hit a group meaning of landscape – I do wonder if it might be better to think about some sub-genres that could describe things better… intimate landscape, natural landscape, etc. Perhaps the genres should be emotions instead? Beauty, truth, pain, etc. Or maybe anything goes. The more I think about it the more pointless ‘landscape photography’ as a phrase is (beyond answering someone when they ask what kind of photographer are you?)

  17. On July 10, 2011 at 2:58 pm Simon Miles responded with... #

    Tim, I take your point and I can see why you are interested in how other people approach landscape photography. My own body of work fits quite neatly into the Your View category of LPOTY, because it is personal and conceptual and I always try and take My View (as opposed to The View, for example).

    However, you did say that you wanted to set up your own photography competition. My impression – which may be incorrect – is that you are dissatisfied not only with the judging of LPOTY but also the subject matter of some of the photographs (shopping trolleys, etc). Whatever its faults, I think LPOTY achieves its stated aims of promoting the enjoyment of landscape photography and the UK landscape. Perhaps it would help to set out your aims in wanting to establish another competition (a future post perhaps?).

  18. On July 10, 2011 at 8:15 pm David Mantripp responded with... #


    I think you may have inadvertently hit on the solution: just call it "wilderness photography", and you’ll be out of the woods.


  19. On August 9, 2013 at 1:40 pm Peter James responded with... #

    My definition of a great Landscape Photograph or Photographer, is a picture or pictures of subjects that can not easily be copied.

    There are lots of so called Top Landscape Photographers in the UK whose work could easily be copied, or someone of average ability could produce the same standard of work if they put in similar effort.

    A prime example of a great Landscape Photographer Marc Adamus, whose work would be very difficult to copy.

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