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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.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Lure of Landscape


Several years ago I wrote an article about why I call myself a landscape photographer. Paul Greenway wrote a really insightful response to this around why he felt a photographic label was unnecessary; we are photographers first and foremost. I agree with this, but (there is always a but isn't there), I still feel that there is something inherently different in the way that landscape photography can be pursued. Note that I say 'can' rather the way it is pursued by many. An invitation to speak at the Ballito camera club gave me the excuse to think a little harder about why I think this is so.

When I first became involved with photography I was naturally drawn to photographing landscapes. I didn't think much about it, but realize in hindsight that landscape is one of the first things that many people start photographing, since it is far easier to test one's abilities on a subject that doesn't ask you to put the camera away. Photographing another person requires so much more than camera skill; it requires interpersonal skills. There are also only so many times you can ask a family member to sit for a portrait before they get tired of the requests. So landscapes become the practice range for many.

From there, a natural affinity with the technical - or geek side of photography - keeps a great number of photographers chasing landscapes. In this regard I find that there are many more men amongst landscape photographers than women, probably because of the gear-oriented aspect of landscape photography (women actually make extraordinarily good landscape photographers but in my experience tend to gravitate towards other genres of photography over landscape, clearly less geeky than men). 

Landscape photography, far more so than any other form of nature photography, except perhaps macro, require a good deal level more actual technical skill. In my opinion this has always been the case. If you look back to the days of black and white photography, the landscape photographers were the ones carrying enormous packs with large format plate cameras, heavy tripods and well worn copies of books by Minor White and Ansel Adams on the zone system of metering. Other forms of photography tended to require less specialized knowledge in order to capture the image (in no way am I saying one needed less knowledge necessarily, just that the landscape genre required quite specialized knowledge and skills).

From the very beginning of landscape photography as a specific genre photographers would immerse themselves in minutia of the technical. Landscape photography in the days of film was not easy. Picture the heavily laden photographer carrying a large format field camera, studiously setting up and exposing a maximum of ten frames before calling it a day and heading home. Even today landscape photography, when done properly, can be extremely time consuming. The modern landscape photographer stills tends to throw technical use of the camera, filters and lenses at the creation of the image. Then there is the increasing reliance on post-production skills to polish the photograph into something exceptional, meaning that the average landscape photographer is also more likely to be conversant with a larger range of software programmes than other photographic genres require. As a result, landscape remains a also methodical form of photography.

Yet landscape photography it is also exciting. There is a genuine sense of adventure when you set out to a location to create an image. There is the chase as you try to get into the right location, hoping for the right light, planning ahead, but never actually knowing  what is going to unfold. there are scores of disappointing morning’s when the clouds just don’t cooperate, or the sun resolutely refuses to do anything interesting. Then there are moments of sheer elation as everything fits into place and you know you have nailed the shot,
For most landscape photographers it isn't the inherently technical nature of the genre that keeps them interest in it though. Regardless of whether one is a photographer or not, we often end up with an abiding interest, even love of the surrounding territory or land that we find ourselves in. Don McCullin’s work of his rural home. Jo Cornish and his Yorkshire landscapes, Jim Brandenburg and his obvious love affair with the boreal forests of Minnesota, and of course the incredible and enduring work of Ansel Adams and his images of the Sierras and the moving imagery by Laura Gilpin of the American Mid West. These are all examples of photographers whose best work (arguably, but often self identified as such) is of territory that they profess to "love".

Personally I feel that some of my best my best photographs are of the Drakensberg mountains. This is not surprising as I have a strong relationship with this mountain range; to the point that I proposed to my wife on top of Cathedral Peak and my eldest daughter was christened by the banks of the Delmhlwazini River in the Injasuthi area. Photography of other places can also be powerful, and I would say that landscape photography tends to breed an affinity to land and space in and of itself, but landscape imagery of places that one is fond of tends to result in a much stronger emotive feel to the imagery I suspect. Jim Brandenburg's series of projects charting a season through a single image a day is a good examples of this. His strict and self-imposed rules around these projects whereby only one frame may be captured in a calendar day, is possible thanks to his intimate knowledge of the landscape in which he shoots. The same constraints in an unfamiliar location, or even one in which there isn't an abiding interest, would make these projects virtually impossible while still maintaining the quality and character of the images that he has created.

Walking behind Jo Cornish on a recce trip in the Drakensberg, I became aware of his apparent one-ness with the surrounding forest. When he moved along the path you could see this extraordinary concentration on his surroundings. He was constantly scouting for images, but not in a fervent way. It was this very peaceful but purposeful movement through his surroundings that made me first start to contemplate the way in which landscape photography heightens our sense of space. He never seemed to look at the path, yet had this amazing nimbleness through crannies and over roots and along muddy tracks. He was obviously watching the path, clearly, but he was also watching and looking purposely at everything else too. 

When you walk down a street, do you really look? 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 for her or his surroundings. Wildlife photographers can probably relate to this. When you are on a drive in the bush, or simply sitting in the bush camp itself do you get a more rewarding experience when you are able to identify the bird sitting in the tree across from you? Is there a stronger experience of the bush when you know what the plant or tree that you are passing is? Landscape photography is also like this. When you notice the details you become more aware of the space around you, the play of light on a branch, the interesting way that the folds of a mountain intersect when you stand just here, the pattern created by boulders and their mimesis to the background shoreline, or again the symmetry between the erosion of beach sand to the alto cumulus clouds above.

This of course leads on to the meditative aspect of landscape photography. Landscape photography is about experiencing place and space. In many ways it is an intensely personal form of photography. In workshops that I lead it is not uncommon for photographers to wander off on their own and become completely immersed in what they are doing. You can do this in landscape, but not necessarily in wildlife photography, or certainly not wildlife photography in a group. Sitting several photographers to a game viewer is a very different experience to immersing oneself in a landscape. In landscape photography it is possible to be alone, while still in a group. A small amount of physical distance between photographers can make for a very different feel to a shoot, one which I think I prefer.

Finally, I personally believe that the practice of landscape photography makes you a better photographer overall. I have mentioned the technical aspect of landscape photography, but there is also the aesthetic requirement involved in the creation of compositions. I spent 5 years teaching basic wildlife photography at African Impact, and although there was a great diversity of images that were created by the students, invariably the same images would crop up from particular game drives. In fact, the same images would crop up between game-drives, as if they had been created at the same moment and not days apart. The best experience I have had to date with a leopard was one that happened quite by luck. We came across a young adult male as he crossed the road in front of the game viewer (another vehicle had called us into the area on sighting him, but had lost sight of the animal). The leopard was really relaxed and allowed our vehicle to follow him. He leisurely climbed a tree and watched us as we tried to nudge closer. We sat for the next twenty minutes watching him and him watching us. It was fantastic. Then, two years ago and I spotted an image of mine on Facebook…except it was’t. It was shot by one of the photographer guests on the workshop. It is genuinely hard to tell the difference between the two images. There is even the possibility that they were taken literally seconds, if not a second apart. They are that similar. The thing is this happened relatively regularly. Not so when it comes to landscape. I can take a full workshop full of students to somewhere like Dead Vlei and they will all return with completely different photographs of the same trees, even if they happen to be standing next to each other at the same time. In fact I have only once taken a photograph that is near identical to another one of the photographers on a workshop, and that is because the photographer saw my image on the back of my LCD screen and used it to influence his own image.

Landscape photography affords us the opportunity create a unique vision of the world. Much like street photography, how we see the world comes across in the imagery we produce. This is possibly one of the reasons why it is possible to produce extraordinary landscape imagery without extraordinary equipment. Although there is a high level of technical knowledge often inherent in landscape photography, it is also possible to produce masterful images with the most basic of equipment. This is something that is very hard to do in some other forms of nature photography (don't believe me, try some bird photography with nothing but a camera and its kit lens). The trick is to know your equipment and technique intimately to be able to produce excellent imagery. Don't have the filters, try HDR or exposure blending. Lacking an expensive tripod, then learn all the tricks to stabilizing a cheap flimsy one. Don't have an expensive ND filter? Learn how to use multiple exposures to mimic one. The entry point to landscape photography as a serious pursuit is actually very low. This is again why it is probably one of the first things that the novice photographer practices on. The real skill, the thing that takes years of practice, is the ability to order the elements within the frame so that the incoherent whole that is the landscape suddenly makes perfect sense to the viewer. More than this, the image tells a story or conveys an emotion. That is the mark of a great landscape image, and the hit that landscape photographers chase.

Ultimately there is something about landscape photography that harkens back to photography being a craft. It's more than throwing money at equipment and expecting it to do the job for you. It's about searching for a location and and working to create the shot. It's about waiting for the right light and imprinting your impression of a space onto a two dimensional plane through the careful positioning of elements within the frame. It's about learning a space so that it becomes imprinted in your psyche.

Laura Gillian, famous for her images of the American Midwest wrote to a friend on in the 1950s that “"What I consider really fine landscapes are very few and far between... I consider this field one of the greatest challenges and it is the principal reason I live in the west. I . . . am willing to drive many miles, expose a lot of film, wait untold hours, camp out to be somewhere at sunrise, make many return trips to get what I am after.” It's that devotion and dedication to the subject that defines those who find themselves lured by the landscape into  introducing it as an image to the rest of the world.

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