My lasting concern with landscape photography has been that the landscape remains largely unchanged and so the landscape photographer has to ‘make do’ with what they are finding in these settings. This is regardless sometimes of how ‘clever’ the photographer has been with composition and lighting.
The Bechers utilised a typographical approach a as way of altering our concept of the landscape without actually altering the land itself through photomontages. This had the effect of conveying effectively how the landscape changed over time, because of man’s intervention, from an impassive point of view. The Bechers didn’t actually change the landscape themselves but rather recorded it in a way: carried out with ‘deadpan, rigorously systematic handling’ – British Journal of Photography (2015), that showed objectively how quickly the landscape potentially changes because of man’s influence. Meanwhile, although the means of photographing the land’s changing aesthetics typographically was an ingenious method, it still relied upon the land having fairly uniform features.
I think I was largely successful at subverting the ‘problem’ of the landscape itself largely dictating how the final photograph appears to the viewer, when I came up with the ’t-shirt idea’ for Assignment 2, on my landscape course. In a way, not dissimilar to my ’t-shirt idea’, there exists the work of Richard Long, with his Earth Art. My t-shirt idea was not dissimilar because it was a form of Earth Art in its loosest sense. Long installs his own art, in the from of abstract sculptures and structures onto the usually natural landscape itself; thus changing how it appears before the photographs are taken. Whether the eventual photograph of the Earth Art is paramount to Long as Art is another matter. Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art (n.d.) – available at: http://www.ngca.co.uk/home/default.asp?id=189 suggests: ‘the walk undertaken is itself the artwork – as a kind of performance over time – and anything else only evidence or documentation.’ However, I would propose a type of interesting paradox is formed nevertheless, whenever Long (or another person) photographs his Earth Art. This is where, in my opinion, the Earth Art takes the role of Art within Art within the eventual photograph. This is because the photograph is naturally indexical to the environment it was made in and by simultaneously including something within the landscape (the Earth Art), Long thereby creates an indice of the indexical, each time he records it in a photograph. I suppose my t-shirt idea worked as a portable version of these installations on the landscape but I wanted to explore this avenue of landscape further for myself.
The problem with directly altering the landscape, for me, has been integrating this usually obvious discrepancy in the landscape (the altered parts), as realistically part of their surrounding environment, without it appearing forced or pointless to the eventual viewer. This natural inclination to perceive the landscape ideologically simultaneously implies the landscape is similar to a photograph itself because it is decreeing the same treatment by the user as that of a traditional photograph. Whether keeping the altered parts of the landscape appearing realistic defeats the point of altering the landscape in the first place, depends upon what the photographer aims to achieve. However, by keeping the landscape realistic and yet altered, I would suggest could make the indexical bond between land and photograph stronger. This would be while adding potential meaning to the landscape/photograph through conceptualism. For example, by placing a group of buoys in an urban park, meaning could be implied about this juxtaposition but also it might seem rather contrived, while placing the same group of buoys on a beach in a certain manner, (a different, albeit less profound) meaning could be gathered by the viewer but without losing visual credibility. Perhaps getting the balance right between implied meaning and credibility is paramount in achieving a ’successful’ photograph via altered landscape. Here, conceptualism would be key, for the reason that the concept would have to be strong, in order for the landscape and the meaning implied by the alterations to make visual sense.
The degree to which the landscape is altered also affects meaning, although not necessarily in correlation that the larger the earthwork, the more profound the meaning. The visual impact and how permanent an effect the alteration has upon the eventual landscape would be two factors to take into consideration, when comparing the work of Long and Smithson, for example. The typical scale of the alterations to the landscape and their permanence on the landscape between the two artists, I would consider major; however both instil powerful, if different meanings. Concerning ‘Spiral Jetty’ – Smithson (1970): ‘the fact that it is done at all is often what constitutes its significance’ – Chianese (n.d.) – available at: http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/spiral-jetty. In contrast, because Long’s work is in such a state of transience, where the earthwork usually isn’t very durable, the question would seem to be: in which way does his work exist to the viewer, when according to Long: ‘It [his art] is simply about making a line of stone in a particular place at a particular time.’ – Long (2009), In. The Guardian – O’Hagan (2009) – available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/may/10/art-richard-long.
There are admittedly, arguably subtler ways of altering the landscape from a human perspective. These include long exposures to direct the viewer’s attention to certain objects in the scene through composition and the composition itself. While these methods do indeed alter the landscape in a sense, they have been used profusely in landscape photography and I wanted to research looking at changing the landscape in a more direct and potentially innovative way or perhaps in combination with these techniques. With clouds moving overhead in a long exposure for example, the sky is always altered, while instilling some sort of order to the photograph.
The reason I have become a bit preoccupied with changing the landscape in a way more intrinsic than composition and lighting, I would say, is because this allows for finer meaning to be applied to the photograph before the photograph has been taken and potentially easier application of this meaning.
Of course, by ‘interfering’ with the natural landscape like this before the exposure, the photographer is starting a whole other topic of debate, concerning ethics of altering Nature. This can be applied to earthwork artists, utilising photographs as the way of documenting their work. Notably, Gussow (1972) remarked that: ‘earth-work artists … cut and gouge the land like Army engineers’, to which Smithson, a prominent earthwork artist, responded Gussow: ‘fails to recognise the possibility of a direct organic manipulation of the land devoid of violence and macho aggressiveness.’ – (Smithson, 1973). This implies that Smithson saw the implementation of Earth Art as potentially harmless to our perception of reality, because it could be part of Nature. However, in response to the vantage point that ‘photographs should depict reality’; illustrated by Barthes (1980) in Camera Lucida: ‘The necessarily real thing placed before the lens, without this there would be no photograph.’, I would argue that photographs are like an alternate reality anyway and at the very least, give an inaccurate rendering of reality. For instance, Szarkowski (1966) indicates: ‘the factuality of his pictures, no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself’. By having a subject, which has altered reality within the photograph itself, I might in turn subvert these ethics of altering Nature, because of the inherent implications of reality surrounding photographs.
While the effects of directly intervening with the landscape and its ethics are likely contentious, this is rarely carried out in a disruptive manner. Meanwhile, photography popularly concentrates on the picturesque or even more mainstream: the beautiful. This, I would argue can also have (less obvious) ramifications for the environment, because this type of photography is so oversaturated, especially nowadays. Side-effects of this include inadvertent damage to the environment because of erosion – the ‘most worthy’ picturesque locations are revisited so many times nowadays – ‘[new ‘leisure’ time] was an industry whose very success in encouraging masses to visit these places, in turn, became precisely the activity that threatens to ruin the picturesque quality of those views.’ – Bate (2009). Conceptually too; the direct altering of the landscape beforehand conflicts modernist approaches to photography because of photography’s inherent indexicality. However this postmodernist approach provides meaningful discourse, whereas only photographing the beautiful can lead to less meaningful discourse or less well-documented important landscape occurrences. By directly interfering with order, altering the landscape disrupts photography conventions.
A contentious debate has been whether photography is an Art form until quite recently. Historically; Greenberg in the 1960s asserted that ‘painting, was the salvation from a culture that was contaminated with, as he saw it, the lowly ‘kitsch’ values of the marketplace – including photography.’ – as suggested by Praz (1966) in Photography: The Key Concepts – Bate (2009). I would say this ‘not-being-able-to-change-the-landscape-before-the-photograph-has-been-taken-at-risk-of-being-unrealistic’ is a central factor behind this feud. Paintings, for instance, can be altered and modified (which is often painstakingly carefully the case) to suit the artist’s desires/mood. This is a reason why painting has always been seen as an Art form. It seems to me photography has to contradict its very nature – that of a rendition of reality – in order to be considered as Art. This may be because photography came after painting in time (scientifically) and so photography is often associated with imitating painterly traditions in landscapes. Ironically for me, painting, while possessing the innate ability to be whatever the painter’s imagination wants it to look like – that is; no clear restraints on depicting reality – often does depict reality anyway – ‘painters usually included in the Surrealist canon, who seldom imagined the canvas as other than figurative’ – Sontag (1977), Chapter 3. Perhaps the reason paintings often depict reality, even though they could feasibly depict whatever, is because the subconscious (at least the subconscious for the majority of viewers) needs for paintings (and indeed Art) to have some attachment to humanity apparent. This could be to familiarise the viewer or let them see into the artist’s eye or even (or as well as) to prevent the artwork from becoming ‘boring’ because there is no human element to relate to. I would say this is very true of photography as well; if not more pertinent.
It is possible to observe this from the viewpoint of the sublime. The sublime tends to play upon our notions of reality – ’the harmony of the sensus communis is structured, that is, around … a Sublime idea that can never occur in reality but which must be presupposed if reality is to cohere’ – Zizek (1989) in The Sublime (The New Critical Idiom) – Shaw (2005). I believe this is why its relationship with photography can be so powerful and yet fragile. If a photograph needs some semblance of reality, even if it is from the past to function as a photograph within the viewer’s mind, then the sublime being present in a photograph naturally twists this concept to breaking point.
Therefore, one way of challenging the notion that the landscape largely remains unchanged, could be to approach it from the perspective of photography having little boundaries on what is included in the frame, similar to paintings and the work of John Pfahl, with his twist on photographing the American West. Pfahl ‘intervened in the actual landscape … drawing attention to pictorial geometry, and thereby disrupting it.’ – Wells (2011). He cleverly admits one thing (the landscape changes so little usually that he can carry out these interventions) but simultaneously introduces another (the optical illusion (as direct consequence of his changing of the landscape) altering our perceptions of reality) – ‘Pfahl comments that through his work he realised that you could show one thing (optical illusion) in dealing with another (landscape pictorial). One element Pfahl presumably intentionally leaves out of his landscapes, is the inclusion of people within the photographs, although there are traces (his own traces) evident within the frame. I would suggest he left people themselves out intentionally in order to keep his concept simple: altering landscapes also alters reality. However, Pfahl could have conceivably used people instead of or as well as objects and in a more natural way to alter the landscape without altering reality.
People interact with the landscape and indeed photographs so it seems clear to me that they could be seen as part of the landscape and therefore are transient as intrinsic components of an altered landscape. Moving forwards with my own photography, I could see myself incorporating people into landscapes as a sort of non-permanent way of altering the landscape but one that is permanent within the photograph. Semiotically, this suggests an indexical mode of relationship between land and photograph as always but also an indexical mode between people included in the frame and the photograph itself. However this indexical relationship wouldn’t transfer directly over to the landscape as well with the people, for the reason that these people would typically leave no trace on the land because it would be on such a small scale. Therefore, the people exist temporally on the mostly impassive landscape, although paradoxically altering it for the duration of the photograph. This relationship, I would say runs parallel to the transient state of photographs themselves nowadays, where they are rarely material objects but instead constantly changing – ‘transient photography centres on virtual, changeable elements … not printed, but viewed on screens’ – Bull (2010). Therefore, photographs only appear in the landscape for the duration of the gallery exhibition and potentially mimic the transient state of people in photographs.
With quotes: 2295 words
Without quotes: 1939 words
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