Saturday, June 11, 2011

Photography 2: Landscape

A few days ago I sent assignment 5 of "Photography 1:Digital Photographic Processing" to my tutor, thus completing the last work associated with the Year 1 courses in a Photography BA with the Open College of Arts.  I am both surprised and very satisfied to have made it this far into the program. Since those first tentative steps with "Photography 1: The Art of Photography", my confidence and sense of purpose has grown with each course.

Now I move to the next level, with this blog entry I begin my studies for "Photography 2: Landscape" the first of two Year 2 courses, the second is planned to be "Photography 2: Social Documentary". I am aware that with a new "Academic Year" comes an increase in the challenge and a need to increase the rigor in both my photography and written work.  A particular challenge will be to make this blog more than simply a technical record of my activities, but a reflection on my ongoing understanding and appreciation of the art form that I am studying.

The first question I have asked myself, is very much a philiosphical one. "What is a Landscape"?  Many years ago my answer would have been simple; something pretty, rugged, or dramatic, plus any number of other superlatives.  Springing to mind would have been images capturing the beauty of the upland fells of Northern England, the grandeur of  the Messa's and Canyons of the Southern USA, or the soft pastoral countryside of Tuscany.  All would have been correct, but all would have been very trite.  Don't get me wrong I have been to all of these places and marveled at the scenic beauty they offer, but they are simply an element of the landscape and a very conventional one at that.  I am currently reading Landscape and Western Art (Malcolm Andrews 1999), in which the development of the concept of Landscape art is chronicled and explored. Combining my reading of about half of this book and a recent BBC documentary on Landscape art it becomes clear that as with all genres taste and acceptability have changed markedly over time.  What is perhaps surprising is that this taste is additive, not substitutional, in other words once something is accepted as a worthy Landscape it remains so in the public mind.  Landscapes that impressed in the 15th century still do so today (perhaps even more so), however back then paintings of inner city scenes would have been rejected, whilst today Lowries paintings of the inner cities of Northern England sell for substantial sums. 

What is accepted as an attractive Landscape is in the eye of the beholder, but is also very much driven by convention, i.e. what other people say is worthy.  Would we find the bleak moorland of Northern England beautiful, if we had not been informed since birth in film and television that this is so?  Following the broadcast of All Creatures Great and Small, property prices in the Yorkshire moors jumped upwards.  Nostalgia also plays a part, images that invoke childhood memories of holidays or even the streets we grew up on all drive an emotional response.  I can accept that any genre in art is driven by what it is accepted to be rather than what it intrinsically is.  The word Landscape is simply a human label for something intangible, it has no absolute defintion, such as the words Silicon, Carbon, or Oxygen, all of which have absolute scientific meanings, and yet combined through the serendipity of nature constitute the bulk of what we call Landscape.

My point is that Landscape is defined by convention and changes with time as peoples taste changes.  Given that this is the case, Landscape can be pretty much anything we want it to be provided others can also buy into that concept.  It need not be too many people, perhaps just a small group, when the impressionists turned landscape painting on its head, few people accepted it at first, time had to pass for these paintings to climb to the heights of value and acceptance they have today.  I am not suggesting that I can simply point my camera at anything and state that this is Landscape, however, I do propose that Landscape photography is far broader in subject potential than a simple read would suggest.

Have I answered my question? What is Landscape?  No, I have not.  However, I do conclude that there is no simple answer to this question, as with all artistic pursuits and genres the boundaries are set by the participants and change continually.  I would even contend that the question probably cannot be answered.  Still, this leaves me in a conundrum about what to photograph and where to photograph it, so I have developed a proxy defintion of my own for landscape and juxtapose this with a defintion for Social Documentary.

Landscape is the study of the impact of human kind on the environment 
Social Documentary is the study of the impact of the environment on human kind
My goal in this course will be to explore those boundaries through my camera and via the advice and feedback of my tutor develop my own understanding of the word landscape.

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