What is a Landscape?

by Brian K. Edwards

Every few years I undertake an exercise to revise and revamp my web page. The process usually involves starting from scratch, rethinking the selection of images, the layout, the fonts, background colors, what contact information I should include, which profile picture I should choose…the list goes on.  Image selection usually comes last even though it probably should come first. With image selection comes the issue or arrangement and the inevitable selection of categories for these images.

As long as I have done photography, landscapes have always found their way into my repertoire and these images were always grouped under a “Landscape” moniker. Image choice was usually simple - the shot below of Gesto Bay is one of the first I would consider for such this category. This was amongst the low hanging fruit on a tree containing many images that could easily be called landscapes. After all, they were taken outdoors, included lots of trees or other flora and in some cases fauna, and their taking encompassed the normal-to-wide angle perspective that made these landscape shots look like, well, landscapes. What could be easier?

 Brian K. Edwards,  Gesto Bay, Isle of Skye, Scotland, May 15, 2007

Brian K. Edwards, Gesto Bay, Isle of Skye, Scotland, May 15, 2007

This time around, it wasn’t so easy, and it still isn’t. The current version of my website (www.briankedwards.com) has no Landscape category, gallery, or portfolio, even if there might be some images scattered in other categories, galleries or portfolios that could be so categorized. I do not know how to explain this. Possible explanations? For one, maybe there just aren’t enough landscape-type images that I want to show anyone. I doubt this, since there are at least five or six (enough to constitute a category, gallery, or portfolio) that I still like, and others I have liked, so I cannot say that not including these shots is the result of some change of heart.  Second, have I crossed a precipice into a world where I care only about what the images are about and eschew such broad and perhaps anachronistic groupings including that of landscape? After all, we do live in modern times and I have read Susan Sontag (which has made me a better person, by the way). [1] This is not a bad option, but I don’t think it is the best option. My updated site includes a portrait category, so I have not moved beyond the use of more traditional (and possibly overly broad) groupings. Third, am I struggling with the notion of what a landscape is, what the notion means, and therefore what sorts of images might rightfully fall into such a category?

I think the answer lies behind door number three, but there might be a little bit of option two sprinkled in. For one, I am just not sure any more just what it means for an image to be considered a landscape, or whether images that I had previously thought of as being landscapes might better fit into some other category. This argument could easily apply to other genres like portraits (compare the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, August Sander, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, and Loretta Lux, to illustrate) and even the line between color and black and white is no longer as thick and impervious as in days past even if attempts to add color to monochromatic images began soon after the invention of the daguerreotype.

Like many genres, the definition of landscape has expanded considerably since the early survey images of Timothy O’Sullivan and even since the modernist landscapes of Ansel Adams defined what a landscape image was and what a landscape was supposed to look like. The New Topographics movement certainly changed, at least for me, the meaning of landscape, as did the work of Timothy Misrach. Writings by the likes of John Beck (example, The Purloined Landscape: Photography and Power in the American West) have also influenced my thinking. [2]

 Richard Misrach,  Personnel Carrier Pained to Simulate School Bus , 1986 [2

Richard Misrach, Personnel Carrier Pained to Simulate School Bus, 1986 [2

Topographic photography introduced into the landscape many of the same issues that long influenced the social documentary photography of the likes of Lewis Hine and the countless shots or urban places dating back to the work of Charles Marville, who produced an extensive body of Parisian cityscapes during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. [3] John Thomson is another photographer of the same era who photographed Victorian London in a way similar to Marville. [4] What all of this work shared was an interest in how people interact with their environment and, for better or worse, how they affect that environment. Combining this with the vernacular landscape embedded in the work and writing of John Brinckeroff (J.B.) Jackson moves us quite a way from the romanticized view of landscapes embodied in centuries of landscape painting and the bulk of modernist landscape photography. [5]

 Charles Marville,  Rue de Constantine , ca. 1865 [4]

Charles Marville, Rue de Constantine, ca. 1865 [4]

But along with all of these changes have been changes in my own point of view and preferences, and this alone might account for my newly minted agnosticism towards such a narrow definition of the genre. Perhaps all of this work can rightly be considered landscape, but the genre has become so broad and so encompassing that it can comprise images of great variety in both appearance and interpretation. If I were to return to the Isle of Skye (which I hope I do) would I even be interested in Gesto Bay as a subject? Perhaps my own attitudes towards what types of subjects I consider interesting, as well as the sorts of things I want to say about a particular place have changed. Under such a scenario, such a landscape-like interpretation of Gesto Bay might not even be possible since I would looking to say something else about that place or might perhaps pass it up as a subject to photograph altogether. Maybe I need to have a Landscape category, or gallery or portfolio, but maybe this time the kinds of images I would include now would be so different from what I included in the same category previously, reflecting nothing more than my own evolving sense of what this particular genre is really about.

Sources:

[1] Susan Sontag, On Photography, Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

[2] John Beck, The Purloined Landscape: Photography and Power in the American West, Tate Papers, No. 21, Spring 2015, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/21/the-purloined-landscape-photography-and-power-in-the-american-west

[3] Charles Marville, Rue de Constantine, ca. 1865, Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/view?exhibitionId=%7b21968755-5ddd-4fea-81c5-000d8aaaf6b3%7d&oid=264863&pkgids=236&pg=1&rpp=4&pos=3&ft=*

[4] Peta Pixel, 19th Century London Street Photography by John Thomson, August 14, 2013, https://petapixel.com/2013/08/14/19th-century-london-street-photography-by-john-thomson/

[5] John Brinckeroff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, Yale University Press, 1998.