Rob Wilson makes a case for the importance of traditional values in landscape photography.
In recent years, I have despaired a little at landscape photography. Please do not get me wrong, I adore the genre and it stirred my earliest interest in photography. Nonetheless, it fills me with frustration. If you visit the photography website 500px and search for ‘Antelope Canyon’, your screen will fill with an almost uncountable number of images. Not only is the count enormous, they all look almost identical, whether it be warm colours or toned black and white, light shining through dust particles or a waterfall-like flow of dust. I scrolled through this heap of images and not once did I find anything interesting or original. However, these images remain wildly popular with many of them achieving 500px’s cherished pulse of 99. The canyon is clearly a place of images for the masses.
It is not only Antelope Canyon. You get a similar result if you search for ‘Kirkjufell’, a mountain in Iceland. There is, I concede, somewhat more variation in the results as the mountain landscape affords many more alternative viewpoints, but this is still a place that has been photographed to death with little innovation.
Now, if you have your own favourite photograph of the canyon or mountain and are about ready to close this page and never return to my column again, let me be clear that this is not about you. I freely admit that if I visited these places, I would attempt to get those same images. After all, the desire to get the picture postcard shot is a very human response. My problem comes when you sell a dull photograph of Antelope Canyon for US$6.5 million. In 2014, this is what Peter Lik claimed to have done with a banal monochrome image called Phantom. Robert Adams, in his endlessly quotable essay Truth and Landscape, told us that landscape photographs should contain “three verities – geography, autobiography, and metaphor”. I suppose that Phantom contains the first, but I find none of the others present. This is perhaps where my despair began.
This despair goes deeper still. I even find the work of many talented and committed modern landscape photographers uninteresting. I look at many an image which may appear to show the truth and realise that what is before me is not a reflection of reality but an idealised, colour-saturated, and often formulaic fantasy world. I long to see images that contain Adams’s three truths. My mind frequently turns to photographs with the power of Peter Dombrovskis’s Morning Mist, Rock Bend Island, a picture I regard as Australia’s greatest; the ground-breaking work of the early landscape pioneers, like the Carlton Watkins image that heads this article; the majesty of Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez; the serious and quiet beauty in Robert Adams’s The New West; or the moods in Fay Godwin’s images of the English Lake District and Scottish Highlands.
Despite my frustrations, Adams’s “verities” can still be found, and I am happy to give some examples. It delights me no end that these can be found in our own FRAMES community.
One of the few modern landscape photographers whose work I find compelling is Michael Kenna, and Paul Gallagher’s Trees in Snowstorm immediately brings his images to mind. This is also a clear example of Adams’s three truths in a landscape. The wintery geography is obvious and needs no further discussion, but you can feel the autobiographical element: the photographer struggling in the snow with frozen fingers trying to manipulate his equipment easily comes to mind. There are also any number of metaphors here. For me, it is one of resilience and loneliness. These trees are isolated, but their strength when facing hostile weather is evident. It is a lovely image and one that I would happily place on my wall.
This image, A Kiss of Fog, is all about the story of the geography. It is a simple yet beautiful photograph of a tree in fog. However, with the additional knowledge of its location, it becomes something even greater. This is a melancholy place of ghosts stranded in the fog. Over 22,000 lives were lost here on the bloodiest day on American soil in September of 1862, and those lives haunt the image. Clark’s image shows us that even the most blood stained of locations eventually return to peace, yet the photograph quietly demands that we consider its meaning and significance. He has photographed this place frequently and his knowledge and understanding of the location are evident. Landscape photography does not need to be overly demonstrative or spectacular to be wonderfully effective, and this image exemplifies this perfectly.
Our third image is one of possibilities. This beautifully composed image is reminiscent of the post-conflict work of Sir Don McCullin, arguably Britain’s greatest photographer, who Rahmatalla amusingly describes as his ‘local rival’. The dark shadow of violence, death, and destruction does not hang over this image in the way that I would argue it does over McCullin’s, but this image is rich in metaphor. Whilst the main sign quite literally shows directions, it also poses questions for us. Where will we go? What will we do? This future is hidden in the fog, and the picture’s questions are not easily answered.
Robert Adams subtitled his book Beauty in Photography as Essays in Defence of Traditional Values. Whilst I am sceptical about most forms of conservatism both socially and politically, this essay is my small attempt to contribute to the defence of these values in photography. I accept that a cogent argument could be made that my tolerance of traditional styles of image manipulation and rejection of more colour saturating methods is hypocritical. It may be that my misgivings about modern landscape are unfair in many cases, and for this reason I have deliberately not named any of the talented individuals who produce this style of work. However, it is images such as those shared in this article that delight me most and that is the way I intend to keep it.
Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation.
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