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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why I Call Myself A Landscape Photographer

For as long as we know, humans have had an innate desire to classify everything. Despite modernism we have, since Linnaeus, rigidly set objects, ideas and things into neatly ordered boxes. Religions, world-views and beliefs have suffered much the same fate. It was one of my university professors, Chris de Wet (he went on to supervise me through my masters dissertation) who pointed out to me the human construct that is classification. There is nothing under the sun that we do not try to classify. So too, do we find ourselves dividing our photographic niches into this or that genre, ostensibly separating ourselves from other styles, movements and photographic specializations. Why on earth would I then throw my lot in with landscape photographers, one of the least likely groups to earn a sizeable living (when compared to some of the better paid niches of professional photography)?

I’ll start with the immediate draw that many photographers have to photographing landscapes. Some of the finest and best known photographers have spent time organising the elements of the landscape into a coherent image. Edward Weston, arguably better known for his still-lifes, photographed much of the American West through the gaze of a landscape photographer. Don McCullin, the celebrated conflict photographer, now spends much of his time photographing British landscapes. There is a draw to the land itself that initially inspires photographers to create imagery of it. Often this draw stems from an abiding love for the land itself. My best landscape images are of the Drakensberg. It’s no surprise considering my deep affection for these mountains. If I look at the works of photographers like Darwin Wigget, David Noton, Alain Briot and Jim Brandenburg (this list could go on for a long time), some of their finest work is of territories that they profess to love. This is not to say that they don’t create incredible imagery of other spaces. There is just something more to these spaces that they are intimate with. I suspect then that the emotional aesthetic is that much stronger with landscapes than with any other subject. I’m certain other people will see this differently. For many photographers though, the desire to photograph ‘a land’ is a desire to translate one’s own feelings towards that land.

Then there is the meditative, almost Zen like nature of landscape photography (see this post on the blog). The task of arranging the seeming chaos of nature into the ordered canvas that is an image forces the photographer to become more appreciative of the world around her. A skilled landscape photographer will look at a potential landscape with a far more fastidious eye than the casual strolling onlooker. The attention to detail ultimately equates to a greater appreciation. I can take a leaf from my studies as an anthropologist in this bent and see the similarities between ‘Thick Description’ (espoused by Clifford Geertz) as a way of describing a scene down to its finest nuance and the way that a landscape photographer casts their eye over the land. Photographers with a fastidious or meticulous nature tend to gravitate towards landscape photography for this reason. This is not the stuff of ‘run and gun’ street photography or of the ever popular ‘snapshot culture’. What’s more, this concentration on detail flows through into the rest of my work, and I suspect does the same for other professionals who play in the landscape genre.

Photographing landscapes has a meditative aspect that no other photographic field seems to afford. At least for myself this is the case. At the same time though there is an intrinsic challenge in creating good landscape images. I am not criticising wildlife photographers, but I find the technical and aesthetic challenge of landscape photography more stimulating than that of wildlife photography. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy wildlife photography either, but there is a very different energy when photographing wild animals to photographing wild spaces. There  is some truth to the muttered jealousy that all you need for wildlife photography is a deep pocket to get the toys and go to the places [where the animals are]. I don’t for a second look down on wildlife photography as a discipline, as professional wildlife photography is a whole lot trickier, gut wrenchingly more difficult than sitting on the back of a game viewer (read some of the ‘behind the scenes’ pieces in National Geographic or their acclaimed ‘The Photographs’(latest reprint 2008) for an idea of the difficulty of obtaining original meaningful images of wildlife).

Landscape photography isn’t something you can be taught. There are of course workshops that one can attend, and spending time in the company of a skilled landscape photographer is always beneficial, but regardless of how many workshops one attends, landscape photography is something one discovers on one’s own. It’s the alone part that has some of the appeal for me. Shooting a landscape location is very different to the commercial work that I do to pay the bills. In studio or on location for a client, the atmosphere is anything but relaxed. There is a tension in the air. Maybe the art director is leaning over your shoulder as you consider the placement of a light. Perhaps the model is antsy. Maybe there’s a deadline of yesterday for a product shot and you have retouch and graphic layout artists breathing down your neck for the shot. Landscape work is quiet in contrast, meditative - as I’ve suggested. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy the tension. Sometimes it’s necessary. I often thrive on it (a music buddy of mine would refer to the ‘energy’ of a shoot). Landscape photography is just so vastly different to the commercial work that I do that it feels like a release when I step behind a camera to contemplate a landscape in front of me. The learning aspect of landscape is in the doing, again, and again, and again....and again. The same could be said of any form of photography, but landscape work tends to be more self-learned and solo than others.

What is it that moves the photographer? What moves me as a photographer and as a person? This comes back to advice given when I was younger as to what to study. ‘Follow/Study’ whatever interests you was the basic premise. When you study something that fascinates you, chances are that it will never feel like a chore. An early mentor in photography described how he would be happy to stop taking photographs. Working with the camera had dulled his passion for photography. A colleague is going through a similar thought process at the moment (I hope to convince him otherwise as he is extraordinarily talented as a photographer).

Ultimately, I call myself a landscape photographer so that my love of photography is never dulled. I shoot everything from glass to models, industrial machinery to buildings. If, like all humans, I need to define myself, my place in the world, then doing so via something that drives me, moves me, ensures that I remain passionate about what I do. As a professional photographer I don’t have a hobby. I don’t need one. But I do need a release, and landscape photography, it’s praxis, methodology and philosophy fills that gap. It makes photographing everything else more worthwhile.

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