On photographing the landscape

Wye Valley, walkerLone walker in the Wye Valley – if you can’t see him, click for a larger view!

Another very ‘linky’ post this week, but it demanded to be written! The last week or two has seen a surprising number of landscape-related things land in my inbox.  The first was Geoff Harris’ article on why landscape photography is often so boring and predictable, with hundreds of images all looking much the same.

“It seems as if many enthusiast photographers (and some of the more predictable professionals) have internalised a landscape photography checklist which they feel they always need to follow. First, they head to the coast, or popular beauty spots. Then there needs to be some of kind of rocks or boulders in the foreground to lead in the eye, then the depth of field needs to stretch to infinity.

This is often balanced by water and sea shot at long exposures, so it looks glassy or milky, and heavily filtered skies that look so apocalyptic, you expect the accusing finger of God to point down through the clouds………A layer of HDR varnish is sometimes applied by cruder exponents of this style, or the golden hour colours ‘lysergically’ cranked up in software.”

Harris does concede that this style of photography is not easy – it’s very demanding technically, and sometimes even physically when it entails rising before dawn and walking miles to get to the right spot – but he argues that there’s little personal expression in the resulting images, and there’s a danger that satisfying the technical and compositional requirements becomes an end in itself.  He calls for more originality in landscape photographs.

Harris goes on to talk about an exhibition local to me, in Southwell Minster, called Masters of Light, which he feels transcends the traditional landscape.  I went to this myself a few weeks ago, and was blown away by the quality and originality of the work there.  You can see several examples of it in Harris’ article.  There were seven photographers exhibiting, and although a couple of them were showing a very traditional style of landscape image, these had something that lifted them above the crowd, and they were anything but dull and predictable.  Of the rest, two photographers really pushed the boundaries of photography – Valda Bailey (whose work I love) and Paul Kenny – and the others spanned the spectrum between these extremes.  It was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen for a long time, and showed beyond doubt that landscape photography can be varied, interesting, and exciting.

One of the participating photographers, Mark Littlejohn, was Landscape Photographer of the Year 2014, winning it with an image of Glencoe that stands apart from the traditional views.  I grew up in Scotland, spent a lot of time in the Highlands, and to me this image ‘says’ Glencoe in a way that the other classic views I’ve seen of it never have – it’s a place of dark rock, grim beauty, and falling water, and most images romanticise it and fail to express the slightly menacing feel of the place.  Littlejohn has written an interesting article for On Landscape online photography magazine that explains his approach to photographing landscape and displays some of his work.  The full article can only be read by subscribing to the magazine, but there’s a fairish chunk of it available free.

A link to this year’s Landscape Photographer of the Year winners then appeared in my inbox.  This has often been a bastion of the traditional landscape view, but I noticed with pleasure that a large number of this year’s winners have moved a long way away from this.  An image by one of my favourite photographers – Caroline Fraser – was included in the top 101, and it’s a double exposure which is wonderfully unlike the sort of thing we’ve come to expect.  She’s written a blog post telling the story of how it came about.

Sarah Merino has compiled a list of 200+ women landscape and nature photographers.  Female landscape photographers, on the whole, would much prefer to be known as landscape photographers who just happen to be women, and whose work is assessed on its own merit, but it’s a fact that women are under-represented at the top levels in this field.  Some of this may be the common female reluctance to push ourselves forward, but there’s almost certainly more to it than that.  (You can read more about this under-representation in Merino’s article, along with her reasons for compiling the list.)

It takes a lot of time to work your way through more than two hundred links.  I’ve been doing it in chunks since I received the article, and still have many to go.  I thought it might be a nice idea to sift out the photographers that stand out for me, and give links to a few at a time over the course of the next few weeks.  I’ll make a start at the end of this post.

Finally, I’ve just come across another couple of events featuring women in photography.  The Tate is holding a conference in November entitled Fast Forward: Women in Photography which ‘explores the complex and dynamic evolution of the history of women in photography, from early commercial practices, to the impact of World War II on women and their work, to reframing the role of the archive’.  And the Oxo Tower in London is holding an exhibition called Mistresses of Light – I do feel it could have been better titled, but it features some of the best and most interesting female landscape photographers around.  It runs from 9th-13th September and if I could get there, I would.


200+ Women Landscape Photographers – a selection from Sarah Merino’s list

This is a very personal selection which won’t reflect everyone’s tastes.  Everyone on the 200+ list is worth looking at and many of the photographers not featured here are masters of their craft.  I had to sift through them somehow, however, so I dismissed most of the more traditional approaches to photography because they don’t interest me greatly, although I did include a small number that I felt really stood out.  I also left out all the nature photographers because, although I love watching wildlife, I don’t particularly enjoy photographs of it.  On the whole, I was looking for something different and something with a very individual voice – images with which I felt I’d like to spend some time.  Over the next weeks I’ll link to a small number of photographers at a time and hope you’ll follow the links and have a look round.

Jennifer Adler – Adler’s subject matter is unusual: underwater photographs taken in mainly freshwater sites.  I particularly like her Rain gallery, in which you find yourself looking up from underneath at the rain on the water.  These are a cut above other underwater photographs I’ve seen, and show a very individual approach.

Valda Bailey – Valda has to be one of the most original photo artists I’ve come across.  She uses intentional camera movement and multiple exposures to create multi-layered, textured images that are quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  Her work is (quite literally) darker than I usually like, but it’s so striking that it doesn’t matter.  She pushes photography to its limits and beyond.

Sandra Bartocha – Bartocha’s work is much closer to the traditional idea of landscape photography, but it stands out from the usual.  Her light, delicate images have an appealing ethereality about them, and in places she makes use of interesting techniques and perspectives.  Her Pflanzen gallery – macro flowers – is particularly lovely.