In reviewing other amateur or student photographers’ work, I have discovered that I really hate landscapes. I can see no obvious reason for such antipathy, so I hope to delve into my subconscious anger by thrashing it out on a keyboard and reading back what comes from it.
I would like to point out that I don’t hate all landscape work. There is a gallery which I frequently go to in Donegal, Ireland, which is full of paintings of the local landscape, which is a place I consider to be truly relaxing and rejuvenating. Nor do I hate the work of Ansell Adams or Edward Steichen, as both provide at least a sense of drama and international intrigue. The work I hate is the innocuous attempts at “doing photography” displayed by so many on websites such as flickr, tumblr and BlogSpot. Don’t think that I am arrogant enough to consider my own work to be a hundred times better, I know I am as flawed as they, if not more so, but it seems that I have set myself high standards in what I do and do not enjoy in both photographic and fine art, thanks to my early artistic education.
I think one of the main issues I have with landscape is the lack of humanity. In painting and photography, I am always drawn to the figure, the touch of life, the identifiable subject, THE PUNCTUM. Whilst the landscape can be a beautiful, surprising, overwhelming studium, for me it is only ever a backdrop. James Whale’s ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ became one of my favourite films from the way it dealt with its epic location shots of forests and mountains. The whole thing was shot completely in a studio, with lavish hand painted backdrops, a fantasy within a fantasy. The reason why I felt this was so effective was not just because of the beautiful visuals it produced, but the very ideas it resonated within me. Frankenstein was obviously a gothic fiction, a ghost story, and Whale didn’t dispute this, or try to meddle with it. He didn’t try to make it real or relatable, but kept it as a fiction. He didn’t try to stage the extraordinary in the ordinary, express the unreal in a relentlessly real world; he created a story within a painted box, a fiction within a fiction. The focus is the characters and the story, not the REALNESS of the production.
Another reason why I tend to shun ‘the outside’ in my own work is I can’t bear the lack of control that entails (a feeling I am sure was shared by Whale, as both Frankenstein films are ruled by his stylised lighting). I can’t order the sun to shine more or less; it’s all ready and waiting. Maybe it’s this ‘already done’ concept which prompts me to look down on landscape work. I almost feel as if the photographer has had to do no work, put none of himself into the image because he has just stumbled across an impressive vista. Yes, the clouds may be forming the perfect shape right now, the trees are in full bloom, blossoms trailing in the wind, a cobalt blue river cuts its way dramatically across a field, but none of that happened because you wanted it to. My photographs are born of my dreams, my thoughts and wishes, I create light, costume, poses, angles, props, text, emotion to express myself, and yet some people find that they can do it through something I feel that they had no part in. Taking credit for God’s work, one could argue. It often crosses my mind that anyone could have taken that image if they had been standing in the same place and had a camera.
Having written that, it then comes to my attention that this is a criticism I come across a lot from other people when they belittle the artistic value of photography.
“Taking a photograph is easy, I could have done that.”
I usually respond with “I’m sure you could have, but you didn’t.” People could do anything. We could destroy the entire world with a press of a button, or we could all pull together and stop global warming in its tracks, but whether we do or not is the key factor. When it comes to my work, I honestly think that anyone could do it, but I am the only one that chooses to. I suppose the same ideas can be applied to landscape work. Just because I don’t see the work and the thought process behind it doesn’t mean that it is invalid.
Art becomes a question of what you would and wouldn’t do. If I came across a beautiful vista, I would sit and admire it, but I wouldn’t photograph it (at least not for ‘artistic’ purposes). When it comes to taking pictures of things that are ‘real’, such as landscapes, cityscapes, unposed, unsuspecting people, ‘documentary’ type situations, I just wouldn’t want to capture it. For me, an image I create becomes sacred, something to covet, a dream caught on paper. Why would I want to photography reality? If I did, all I would have is the ‘real’ subject and then a poor paper representation of it. Pedestrian item times two.
As I go through literally hundreds of landscape photographs (for the purpose of this investigation I sat down and looked at an online album of amateur or student landscapes of about 450 images, spending on average 20 seconds per image), it occurs to me that I don’t quite know what makes a good landscape picture. Obviously, there are photographers with a better sense of composition than others, but even of the well composed ones, I don’t know how to look at it. Should I view it as somewhere I want to be? Somewhere I have been and am remembering? Somewhere that I dreamt of many years ago? Many are vapid. Some are beautiful. None wounded or touched me.
One of the traits I have picked up from my parents is that I enjoy reading books set in places that I have been. I enjoy reading a lot of trashy American crime novels, but the ones that I enjoy most are the ones set in New York, or San Francisco because I have physical memories of those places and can visualise myself there. On the other hand, I dislike seeing some of my favourite places featured in films. The example of this that springs to mind most readily is Indianna Jones: The Last Crusade. Early on there is a scene on the streets of Venice that was obviously picked for its aesthetic quality by the producers, but defies the physical realities of the city. One minute they are walking along the Fondamente Nuovo, and then they turn a corner and are walking down an alley on the other side of the city in the Jewish Ghetto. They turn another corner and arrive at a church which I happen to know is a two minutes walk from San Marco. I have no problems with the twisting of reality; I think I just dislike it when things that have personal resonance with me get drawn into it. The warping of Venice (a place where I spent much of my childhood) felt like someone was stirring up my own memories and disturbing them. Location work has unforeseen impact on the viewer, and I feel should not be entered into lightly.
Landscape photographs continue to mystify me, but perhaps I now feel that I am starting to understand why people want to take them. I was so caught up in my own dreams and ideas that I forgot that other people have memories too. Other people have resonances that I don’t understand, and have no right to expect to. Who am I to demand reasoning for work? I have enjoyed these reflections on work, and I now feel that perhaps I am a little more open to work that is unlike my own.
Dreaming is important, but nothing can destroy the majesty of memory.