Why so much of contemporary landscape photography sucks, or is at best soporific

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. 

14 thoughts on “Why so much of contemporary landscape photography sucks, or is at best soporific

  1. You could have written this same essay about wildlife photography as well. I've long been of the opinion that no photograph is more boring than the one of grizzly bears standing above a waterfall with their mouths open as salmon leap toward them. It's because hundreds of photographers invest thousands of dollars to travel to Katmai National Park to get this exact photograph. They step out of planes and stand shoulder to shoulder along the banks of a river just to take the exact same photograph, which speaks nothing of their experience, and I just don't get it.Photograhy isn't always about artistic expression, however. For journalists, photography is an act of documentation, and the more accurately one can convey a story through a photograph, the better. Of course, an asthetically pleasing or compelling photo tells a better story than a poorly composed photograph, so artistic merits apply in journalism as well. Thinking back to famous photojournalism – the Afghan girl in National Geographic, or the man on fire who burned himself in protest – these images convey both powerful emotions and striking originality, and that's why they stand out in memory.I view my own photography as photo documentation of experience, and I generally value my own photos for the memories they preserve rather than the reaction they evoke, probably similar to most people who would not consider themselves photographers. So I try not to pass off my opinions as any kind of photography expertise. But the photography I value is the one that tells a true story of a photographer's experience, or of the experiences of his/her subjects, and that's why I'm in complete agreement with your essay. Thanks; it was an interesting read.

  2. http://plateauvisions.com/photo.php?q=0009This is a friend I have in Cedar City. He is trying to make a living at it while still getting the traditional shots using 4×5 film so the large prints come out crisp. The problem I have with landscape photo is that a lot of the time when enlarged they loose detail. This guys does not. Something to poke at.

  3. Maybe what landscape photography needs is less careful composition and an injection of spontaneity and looseness akin to what street photography brought to photographs of people.

  4. Jill, I suspect we could (and should) have a long conversation about the construct of accuracy in journalism. My understanding is that the overwhelming majority of stock photography of charismatic megavertebrates, particularly predatory ones, is taken of captive animals. Potentially unethical on many grounds, not the least of which is that it distorts the reality many people bring to places like Yellowstone, often with bad consequences.Adam, I wish your friend well (though he would do well to recall that Mesa Arch is not in Zion). The line of business has to be a tough row to hoe.Dan, welcome aboard, and nice blog. I like the homemade Larabar recipe, and will try it soon. I agree with you, though I tend to think of it with the potentially cringe-inducing word authenticity. If outdoor photography becomes more authentic, ie taken far from the road, and of passionate people doing actual activities, good things will show through. Unfortunately the marketing complex and fact that the majority of outdoor customers seem to be buying an ideal at least as much as they are buying things to use complicates this immensely.I've come to expect these posts to garner few if any comments, and am thus very thankful for the input thus far. May the conversation continue.

  5. Oh you, you, you……soporific!So terrific!Ed** edit ** so typical, I misspelled 'soporific' first go 'round. Have I misspelled 'misspell'? Good night!

  6. Fuck art. Photos are for remembering places.

  7. God, people are still talking about Susan Sontag….(*sigh*)? Better yet, fuck all the intellectualism heaped upon the work being pumped out of the world of photography now. It's the only thing that keeps so many people coming back to it, to engage in the discourse, even when an image warrants none. So much contemporary art, specifically photography, is tedious and self-serving more often than none and bores me to death. Jaded? Yes, I guess I am. That's just me. It seems the existence of the "photographer as artist" is slipping away or at least being reexamined, the digital SLR is quickly becoming the great tool of marginalization, every Jane Doe can snap a shutter, upload a card full of images, process, and project ideas on top of the imagery. A photograph that once took hours of meticulous setup, preconception, technical prowess, and ingenuity to capture a moment in time through the ground glass of a 4×5 can now be replicated a thousand times over in a matter of minutes with the digital camera. As Americans living in a media saturated society we're heavily, and sometimes unwillingly, bombarded with repetitious imagery and visual stimuli that we're becoming well versed in the language of photography, almost to the point of imitation. You bring up so many good points it's sickening Dave, where were you during my BFA undergraduate studies!? Lovin' this post.

  8. I have been thinking about this post for a while yet very few ideas are concrete. I personally believe that those who live the lifestyle with passion and a desire for deep exploration tend to be the best landscape photographers. But I don't think either of those variables must be isolated to a backcountry definition. I believe you mentioned Adams, would be hard not to. What is so durable about his images, for me, is the devotion he had for the Zone System he created. It came from hours, days, weeks, months and years mastering each type of film (brand, make, and speed), camera and lens just as much as it came from his interest in the landscape. We can boohoo digital technology for diminishing that learning curve to hours instead of years but that would ignore the possibilities the technology does open up. But that is a side track. Those who live deeply within their backcountry passions are more likely to discover (and photography has historically been a process of discovery) an aspect of the landscape more "authentic" (fully understanding that word carries a larger bag behind it then most kids in treatment). Yet, I am not convinced that is the element that makes truly enjoyable landscape photography resonate with me.As far as the landscape as subject…I agree, most "fine art" landscape is cliche, or at best an unintentional (redundant) homage to an idea or photograph the artist respects (your examples do well to point that out). But the examples of better photography do that as well for me (though Speed's personal album is stunning, passionate and exploratory in personality). His shots of climbers in the backcountry do expose a familiarity with the subject but they have the same stamp of cliche in them as well. His angles are trendy and redundant and can be found in just about any outdoor magazine available. For me it comes down to the issues of modern publishing and the demands for images. Its hard to make art and be "original" when magazines come out weekly and anything successful is duplicated within weeks. Landscape and action photography have become another causality of our 24-7 media cycle. Originality may not be the only element that makes artistic efforts truly artistic but it is extremely important and seems to be suffering in the world of commercial reproduction. Once again though, I don't believe it takes getting further into the backcountry to break to find a subject more engaging. One of my favorite images is still an "intimate landscape" near the Colorado River during an inversion. There are plenty of emphemeral elements of nature to be documented still, they just aren't likely to found at Delicate Arch at sunset.All that said and I still must admit that there is something similar in this issue to the differences in experience I have in a front country National Park versus a long river trip in the heart of some "wilderness". Wild versus domestic images?Phillip (w/ a new email)

  9. Great, thoughtful post and why I am sort of done looking at stills.50 years from now stills will go the way of painting….Photography killed painting and video will kill stills.

  10. Video WILL kill stills, as in it hasn't yet. Holography will probably kill video someday as well. Does this mean we should give up on a art form/form of expression before it's run it's course?

  11. "Does this mean we should give up on a art form/form of expression before it's run it's course?"Nope, but it may mean that the momentum behind making landscapes fresh will be subsiding as it may be easier/more rewarding for creative people to try new media rather than struggle with new ways of dealing with old media.WRT wildlife photography, some of the really neat stills are now remote camera trapping shots — thinking here of Nick Nichols. In a sense, while still a "still", these remote shots have no actual photographer behind the lens other than when the camera is located. So, remote photography is a bit like a new medium.So, in a sense, is that "dynamic range imaging" where multiple shots of a landscape are used together to make a new, integrated synthetic shot. To me those are the freshest landscapes out there (although I am neither and expert nor an enthusiast), and while not video — they are multiple images stacked atop one another.

  12. Very thought provoking post, well written, raising interesting issues. Not reading any outdoor magazines, watching no TV and only consuming digital media in form of blogs, BPL and trekking-ultraleicht.de, and not living in the USA, I might not be able to grasp the complete argument, but I'll add my point of view nevertheless =)In the digital media which I consume I think there are only very few photographers, the majority of people are backpackers first, who use their point-and-clicks to produce some nice memories for themselves and to share on the internet. The photos might not be as stunning as the Mesa Arch, but one can see that something touched them on their trip and moved them enough to take out their camera to snap a photo.Roman & Sam, I agree, video might eventually kill photography, but we are not there yet. At the moment there's less than a handful of backpackers who produce high quality videos who are enjoyable to watch, so there is a long way still till we see high quality videos from the trail from the masses. Using a point-and-click however, produces quick and easy photos without much fuss, so I think at least in the near future we will continue to see more photos than videos.

  13. In light of this conversation, y'all might find this article interesting:http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/in-defense-of-naive-reading/My opinion: Take photos (or videos) you like, look at those that please you, and enjoy reading books without all the insufferable intellectual baggage.

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