I like to think of myself as a documentary photographer. Its only a title but for me it conjures images of a press photographer who is looking at the ‘story behind the story’ and portraying it visually. I always thought that meant getting portraits and the odd detail shot and I had never really considered the importance of landscape photography.
From the earliest days of photography the land has been the muse of many a photographer. I can see the attraction: you have plenty of time to capture a subject that doesn’t move, you don’t need a model release and generally there’s no need to ask for permission.
The earliest landscape photographers often found themselves under the employment of government agencies. Their task was to chart and record the ‘unknown’ country. This was especially true in the USA where Timothy O’Sullivan was working to capture images of the vast basin areas. Although his pictures show empty landscapes it is known that thousands of native Americans inhabited the area. Already we can see the politics of landscape photography – take the first picture or draw a map and it seems you can claim it as your own.
Thomas Joshua Cooper’s The Atlantic Basin Project is an interesting take on landscapes and combines a journey too. He has skirted around the edges of the Atlantic Basin and takes photographs where the sea reaches the shore. Inspired by the early photo explorers he is using a camera from 1898 and this gives his pictures a sinister feel as long exposures turn day into a misty other world. He talks about his work here.
Mark Power came to my university recently and talked about his project 26 Different Endings. This project was inspired by changes he noticed in the London A-Z map book. Each year the book is updated and the borders of ‘London’ tend to ebb and flow with each edition. He travelled around the edge of the area shown by the book and photographed in the different regions. This is a clever use of an everyday object and by picturing the changes in this way it highlights our understanding of space and ownership.
Ian Brown is another artist who likes to travel. A painter by training he would walk the countryside looking for inspiration. To remind him of what he saw he took photographs every few steps. He then merged the images together to create impressionist style prints. Not just pretty to look at but an abstract ‘map’ of his travels.
Taking a darker turn by looking at a more ominous journey, Michal Iwanowski’s work Clear of People was inspired by his grandparents. They escaped from a POW camp and travelled 2,000km, mostly at night. They were scared of being turned in by the locals and so steered clear of any built up areas.
Journeys really seem to be popular amongst photographers. Perhaps it’s just an easy excuse to get out of the house and travel the world. Chris Coekin The Hitcher (2007) was made over a series of journeys during which he hitch-hiked across the country. There are four strands to his images, selfies, the roadside/detritus, the signs he used to get lifts and portraits of the people who gave him a lift. This takes the project beyond a simple landscape project. By including the portraits Coekin is making his work a social documentary by showing us the sort of people that are prepared to take the risk and pick up a complete stranger.
Two great series of work that help provide counter viewpoints of each other are Simon Roberts’ We English (2008) and James Morris’ A Landscape of Wales (2010). Both were taken in an attempt to counter the ‘traditional’ view of their respective countries but have their own focal points – Roberts looks at leisure and the middle classes, Morris tourism and the post-industrialised landscape. These images feel very ‘contemporary’ and the trend for taking pictures of the ‘ordinary’ dull landscape is growing.
We are exploring our planet in greater and greater detail. Google street view cars are driving across the planet taking photographs every few metres. Videos like the one above show that with patience it’s possible to ‘travel’ anywhere without leaving the comforting glow of your computer screen.
Satellite imagery is now easier than ever to access and there has been a recent upsurge in the number of photographers and videographers using small drones to get a different perspective on the land. As the number of uncharted places diminishes we must look elsewhere for inspiration. NASA is one of the few government agencies that happily releases images of its work. The Santa Anita panorama was taken on Mars in 2004. Many of the images from this program tend to have a hyper-real look to them, almost like a video game screen shot. There is a potential photo project lurking there that combines the two I’m sure.
For some heavier reading on the subject of landscapes and photography/art two books are recommended. Liz Wells’ Land Matters (2011) is hard to find in print form and very expensive. Thankfully technology saves the day and the kindle version is around £10. Malcolm Andrews’ Landscape and Western Art (1999) looks beyond the boundaries of photography – it predates the digital age, but is still an interesting read.
So what have I learnt from all of this? Well the first thing is that there is really no such thing as ‘just’ a landscape photograph – there are usually layers of political, social and historical meaning in every shot. Secondly is that I need to try and take more landscape photographs to include in my documentary stories. By missing out these sorts of shot I am only telling a small part of a story. Finally the landscape around us is changing all the time from coastlines that are eroding to cities that are swelling uncontrollably – it’s important to record these images.