Contemporary landscape photography seems, by large, unrepresentative of the Land. We are drawn to the scenic, the pretty sunrises and sunsets, the tourist honeypots, carefully editing out, or at least framing out, the ‘distractions’, not least those that arise from human existence and activity.
The justification for this trend is typically two-fold. On the one hand it is said that photography is nothing more than the product of artistic creativity, and hence its value resides purely in aesthetics. This is at best a naive, or perhaps just lazy, application of post-modern insights to photography that I have no time for: a photograph always has the capacity to be a faithful representation of an external reality, even if never a perfect one (as millions of passport photographs show).
The other justification is simply that the photographer desires to present the unspoilt beauty of nature. For a long time this was my own approach to landscape photography, and it remains compelling on an emotional level. Unfortunately it is invariably underpinned by an understanding of nature as an ideal state of affairs which exists in the absence of human activity. This perspective, which can be traced back to the 19th romantic conservationists, too doesn’t withstand scrutiny. More so, such an artificial separation between nature and humans has in my view provided an easy justification for the modern day wholesale exploitation of Earth’s resources by merely setting aside some land for nature.
Whatever the justification for this overall trend in contemporary landscape photography, the wholesale exclusion of the unwanted amounts to misrepresentation of the Land as it is. Doing so makes us complicit in the unfolding environmental catastrophe, for the landscape photographer should never lose the sight of the fact that she is in a privileged position of experiencing the Land at first hand. Many will never have the chance for such a first hand experience, and photography has an important role in filling in that gap.
The attentive reader will undoubtedly, and rightly, observe that there are very few of my own photographs that are immune to the above criticism. The thing is, making a visually compelling photograph of what we perceive to be unsightly is very hard, and not many succeed at it.
It is not my assertion that we should photograph nothing but the unsightly, nor necessarily that we should wholeheartedly celebrate human impact on the land. But I have set myself the challenge of finding ways of presenting a more balanced view of the Land as it is, rather than as I’d prefer it to be. It’s work in progress.