Landscape photography might be my favorite material mode of artistic expression. Thought I love old Japanese haiku, short stories, creative nonfiction (a silly term), Rembrandt and Renoir, nothing has the visceral draw of a well done landscape photograph. The problem is that landscape photography has gone beyond boring in recent years, deep enough into the realm of cliche as to too often become a sadly unselfconscious act of parody.
Why is this?
Any answer I can give must take into account practical and mechanical aspects of this phenomenon as well as philosophical ones. Landscape photography being an artistic practice, belief and intention are revealed in and influenced by the minutia of the craft and its practicioner. A photographer chooses equipment, subjects, and compositions based on their subjectivity, and thus details of their personhood and all that has influenced it inevitably determine the artistic process, and are inexorably expressed by the artistic product. A work of art is an encapsulation of a person in the act of interpretation, a bit of history partially frozen and put out into the world.
That is my thesis, and the point around which my thoughts on landscape photography currently pivot. Photograph is interpretation of a landscape of and by a given person, and the interaction between the two is mutual. Interpreting interpretation is also, due to the extent to which we are more complex being than we can ever ourselves understand, necessarily a never-finished and uncertain process.
Two brief and essential digressions are here necessary. First, that the mutuality inherent in artistic creation points to the ways in which subjective boundaries, the lines we draw around ourselves to delineate us from the rest of the world, are porous. It’s a discomforting, even partially unthinkable idea that we are not discrete entitities, but it is more accurate than anything else I can think of on the subject. Second, that while on an abstract level a “reality” or “thing” may exist that was the subject of the photograph and gave an occasion for interpretation, discussing that thing as static and imbued with a Truth to which arguments can be references and referreed is, tempting though it is, not possible.
Folks don’t like this much. This thread on photo.net discusses the question of interpretation in art, and many posters came down on the side of Truth. For example: “In making my own photographs, I am strongly content-driven. I photograph my subjects. And I photograph my subjects in situations. That, to me, is content. That’s what I encounter and what I hope viewers encounter. I don’t interpret and don’t necessarily hope for viewers to interpret that content.” For reasons already stated, I think that any contention that artistic reproduction is not an act of interpretation is absurd. I will leave that issue right there, without discussing the wild tangents of the thread in question, or the Susan Sontag article to which the thread makes reference, which itself has a rather uneven understanding of the history of western aesthetics.
So then, art is interpretation. Art is about communicating certain interpretations to others, who then intrepret the interpretations themselves. Good art creates distinct, resonant interpretations which provide subtantial, meaty material to viewers, for their interpretive processes. An especially evocative painting (one of my favorites for example; Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, which is knee-shaking to view in person), does not speak clearly forth a Truth, but evokes many truths (interpretations) which in the Venn diagram of human experience are likely to overlap. Photography, because the interpretive aspects are more technical and less visceral than painting or writing, has been prone to protesting that it is more privy to the Truth, or as the poster said above, to presenting content absent interpretation.
Perhaps because landscape photographers are in active or passive denial about this aspect of aesthetics, or perhaps because of the human love of gadgets and the law of large numbers, landscape photography has become more and more familiar. Let me use two examples, the first concrete, the second theoretical.
First, examine this post, or at least the photo at its head. Then, google “mesa arch” and select for images.
Second, read the following passage, from Don Delillo’s novel White Noise. (More of the passage can be found here.)
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
Just to twist the knife, note that a photo of Mesa Arch won the grand prize in Backpackinglight’s reader photo contest last year. Mesa Arch is on the eastern rim of Island-in-the-Sky in Canyonlands National Park. The trail out to it is perhaps 1/2 mile from the paved road, on a trail that until the last 100 yards is basically flat. I protested gently at the BPL results, as that photo had nothing to do with backpacking, and I protest now because so few actual photos of Mesa Arch and the stunning view around it can be found. Only pictures of pictures of pictures. It would be an interesting project to do an archeology of published photos of Mesa Arch. Which was the first in color to be widely published? How has the dominant composition evovled as interpretations have become more layered? Have any specific photos been especially influential in this regard?
Too many landscape photographs have become like this. Thumb through the sample gallery of Craig Wolf’s website (the first link to Mesa Arch, above), but only if you’re prepared to be inundated with nice, Rowellianly saturated compositions of things you’ve already seen before. The sites of the photos read like a National Geographic Traveler magazine bucket list of vacation destinations, and while all the compositions are technically solid, few if any are interesting or original. It’s a similar feeling to the one I got walking around an art fair in Rochester, NY earlier this month. The landscape photographers had their own photos of the same scenes with the same compositions, and especially out west the list was the height of predictable: Mesa Arch at sunrise, the Wave near sunset, Delicate Arch at sunset (ideally with a full moon rising), the Grand Canyon at sunset (looking NE from Hopi Point), the Subway in Zion, Double Falls in Glacier, etc. I’m quite sure I could have moved all the prints from one booth to another and the photographer would have been hard pressed to notice within the hour.
All of these destinations have three things in common: they’re really cool, they’re close to the road (the Subway is sort of an exception), and they’ve been photographed to death in the last thirty years. I think those three things might be related.
The problem is that landscape photographers are lazy. To be more specific, they seem to be photographers first, and with few exceptions, outdoor adventurers second at best. The result of this is that their understanding of and relationship with their subject is truncated and shallow, and this is reflected in their work. Their interpretations are weak, and thus their art does not resonate.
As a further case study, I offer up one of my favorite photographers who is working today: Boone Speed. The first five images in his “personal” gallery, all landscapes, are fantastic. Delving further into his work, its easy to see what he knows, and what he doesn’t. Speed was one of the best American rock climbers in the early 90s, and his intimate knowledge of the activity is why the TNF: Turkey gallery is as strong as it is. Contrast this with the Nike gallery to strengthen the point. If you know something well, you’ll make better art out of it, because your interpretation will be deeper, and thus of greater interest.
Galen Rowell is another case in point. Even though Rowell invented many of the cliches previously mentioned, his images pop. His compositions tend to be more original, both because he was an exceptional photographer, and because in many cases he got there first. It’s still possible to take good black and white images in the Tetons or Yosemite, but Ansel Adams has made doing so much harder.
In conclusion, make art and put it out into the world, but put in the hard work to do what speaks to you. You, it and us will be better off for it.