Understanding Landscapes: It’s in the (autobiographical) detail.

The Tradition

The majority of landscape photography documents the play of light on a known landscape – a ‘wide angle’ capture of the terrains principle features. This style of imagery is an opening, a doorway, a location pointer, to be read like a map. These images are technically competent but emotionally slight, and they never reveal, or provide insight to the inquiring mind. They are a product of the copyists paradigm that landscape photography practitioners struggle to leave behind.

The Vale of York © Ken Harrison

The images offer a window to observe, but never an invite to ingress. This type of photography rarely deliberates or reflects on the qualities of the subject. The photographer is often only interested in how the light falls on the scene – certainly creating something unique but within the confines of a recognisable and common viewpoint. ‘Planting the flag’ becomes the challenge, not the journey ‘through’ the mountain. 1

The Emotional Landscape

The land can reveal information about itself; its history and its condition – it also helps us reflect on ourselves and our psyche. The academic study of the landscape has grown in recent years, reflected in the writings of J.Thirsk, F.Pryor, A Raistrick and W.G. Hoskins; but our emotional relationship with the landscape is also subject to a rapid overhaul. Topophilia, the love of place, asks important questions about our relationship with a specific topography. Where a place is occupied or unoccupied, and can be real or perceived, it is the lands benefit or drawbacks which are logged within our mental map.2

Approaching Whitestone Cliffs © Ken Harrison

It is through the practice of Psychogeography, where its many practitioners take different approaches, but all are concerned with the perceived detail of the place. Peter Ackroyd introduced the personality of an individual area; what we understand to be the persistent spiritual temperament of the site. Documenting this understanding, Nick Papadimitriou describes his activity as deep topology; the absorption and capture in the memory of the detail, to the point where an impression emerges. Will Self recognised that many would see these ‘discoverers’ as amateur historians with an attitude problem3, but recognising his own search for identity he extracted a key element in the land, the autobiographical nature of its attraction and discovery. The need to understand ourselves is present in our digestion and interpretation of place.

Hedge Poking

Accessing the land can only be achieved through walking4, all other approaches are responsible for removing the critical senses which help us absorb the experience. It is a heuristic approach to landscape photography, where observation and reflection take place within the site, not at an observable distance. It is not about technical finesse, the perfect shot – it is about being there, where the senses guide the capture. As C S Lewis described, when the senses are exposed it brings back fleeting glimpses of a past, often we know not from where.

Pre History Dyke © Ken Harrison

Walking can be the challenge of surmounting the great vistas, but it can be as John Folwes described it, ‘hedge-poking’…. “never more than a field or one hillside, and usually much smaller still”5. For an active mind, the vistas might beckon, but the country lane also provides plenty of detail to be resolved. It becomes the perfect opportunity for the photographer to combine the forensic technique of discovery with a lyrical style of interpretation.

1  Nan Shepherd (2011). The Living Mountain. : Canons Imprint Re-issue edition . A different way of exploring a mountain.

The notion that place is capable of imparting its qualities to people may sound a little fanciful, so let me say, first, something that is merely common sense, namely, good soil yields good crops, bad soil poor crops”.Dr Yi-Fu Tuan. (2014). Space, Place, and Nature: The Farewell Lecture. Available: http://www.yifutuan.org/dear_colleague.htm. Last accessed 20th April 2015.

3  “in so doing, I hope to suture up one of my wounds in my own, divided psyche: to sew together my american and my english flesh” Will Self (2007). Psychogeography. London: Bloomsbury. p12-13.


4   “The manner in which the contemporary world warps the relationship between psyche and place, the ways in which we go about the task, are various”.Will Self (2007). Psychogeography. London: Bloomsbury. p11.

Fay Godwin (1985). Land. London: William Heinemann Ltd. p ix. Essay by John Fowles.


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