Some landscapes were, in my preconceptions of one, a completely natural scene, i.e. countryside settings, whereas urban landscapes are heavily reliant on man (for better or worse) to take their form. This was my prior understanding of these contrasting ‘styles’ of landscape.
It was this contrast that made me question man’s fascination with the landscape around them. Specifically their need to ‘conquer’ the urban landscape by making it picturesque and ‘master’ the natural landscape by moulding it to their own ideals within a photograph.
However, upon reading part of the introduction to ‘Land Matters’ – Wells (2011): ‘Landscape results from human intervention to shape or transform natural phenomena.’, I started to see that seemingly innocuous parts of the countryside settings I mentioned before were also sculpted on a certain level by man as well. For example a cluster of trees planted by man or more obviously fences and paths had in some way transformed the natural world.
This made me me think about man as part of nature anyway. While it’s true there’s a difference between a cluster of man-planted trees and a sprawling metropolis, because one is ‘made’ by a much smaller group or single person, compared to all the people who contributed to making a city, both share the same dilemma of whether to perceive them as ‘synthetic’ or simply a part of an evolving nature.
This questioning seemed somewhat validated when I read a few lines later: ‘bear in mind that, biologically, we are an integral element within the ecosystem.’
So I started to wonder how this realisation might affect my photography.
I decided to reread Bate’s Photography: The Key Concepts (2009) – Chapter 5 (In the Landscape) about landscapes/beauty and sublime for some pointers.
I was particularly interested in city landscapes and so tried to relate what I read back to cities specifically.
Maybe man was trying to prove they have some control over the craziness of these massive synthetic ‘beasts’?
Two quotes within the chapter seemed to resonate best with this line of thinking.
The first was about a landscape gardener called ‘Capability Brown’. Brown was renowned for his ability to design and therefore ‘to give ‘philosophical thoughts’ when you looked at it [it being one of his landscape gardens]’ – Page 91. So these designed landscape gardens had strong order, being designed by a human. By deliberately creating signifiers in his landscape gardens he thereby produced a semantic sign because of the design. The sign was order.
This could suggest the ‘craziness’ of the city also has the potential for at least some structure and being designed by man, a system. Whether this system could provide cohesion in its size and complexity was another matter but it showed natural and maybe urban landscapes could have this element of order. However, I felt it was important to note that of course any city with much history was built practically; primarily to be functional to its citizens. Also I would hasten to add it was not just one person who was archetypal in designing the city but a collective force of people. Even if there was no feasible order within a massive city, the minds of tourists and citizens of the city alike attempted to bring order to the city; one avenue being notably through photographs.
The second was concerning composition. Here Bate states: ‘the beauty spot gives the viewer an imaginary command of the scene’ – Page 103. As well as making me more confident in my assertion that landscapes helped on a subconscious level to fuel man’s ego it made me think about choosing certain compositions to reflect what our minds tell us when we are naturally rationalising and reordering each landscape photo we see within our minds.
While we were busy living our respective lives maybe there was a (subconscious at least) need for us – a kind of reassurance – to look at the aesthetic ordered beauty of a city in a photograph or other art medium in order to be assured that we had control over such a large product of our evolving species, which again is only part of a much bigger ecosystem.
Choosing the composition could easily be seen as somewhat of a lie, depending what type of landscape photography you adhered to. As Bate eluded to: even photographers aiming to show photographic vision, where the idea of ‘pure fact’ … a visual description devoid of any ‘human soul’ – Page 97, could easily succumb to the picturesque: ’the temptation to make any scene picturesque was hard to resist’ – Page 101. It could also be seen as a tool to produce a body of work that reflected not only what the designers of the city (whoever they may or may not be (city architects/designers or humans as a collective)) had come to perceive but also what the public/tourists want to see.
By carefully choosing the composition in a series of images it might be feasible to show the city how the designer(s)/well versed perceived it as it ‘really’ was: sublime – without order and only beast within the beast. This would be in stark contrast to how the tourist wanted to see it: beautiful – only with eyes for the beauty within the beast. How the photographer themselves interpreted the city could be far from how they eventually chose to display it; beautiful or sublime, through using different techniques in order to create malleable codes the viewer interpreted accordingly.
Bate, D. (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts, Bloomsbury Academic, 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP UK, Pages 91, 97, 101 and 103.
Wells, L. (2011). Land Matters. 1st ed. London: I.B. Tauris.