For a while I have been deliberating on why landscape photography concentrates on the comfortable, rarely deviating from the grand and dramatic. We have a long history of photographing the majestic places people no longer live, or not anymore. Jesse Alexander covers aspects of this, and offers alternative views in his book Perspectives on Place, which I recommend.
However in considering these questions I am still restless over something that rarely gets touched upon, the contention of land ownership itself – and should the photographer accept some responsibility for the content and approach they take in documenting this muted quagmire.
To the diligent observer, (which every photographer should be), everything we see is a product of our human activity. It is misguided to believe that anywhere exists that has not been impacted by our presence. The arcadian idyll is a popular myth or a political deception, depending on your viewpoint; but it is within this environment that landscape photography has to operate. It is understanding our output that photographers need to deliberate on, not only why we recorded a particular situation, but also, what are we capturing, and importantly who or what does it represent.
We capture what we are
Simon Schama in Landscape & Memory (p9) stated: “Even the landscapes we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out on closer inspection, to be its product.” Developing this statement for the photographer – even the landscapes we choose to capture are the product of our culture, not just the view but how we present it.
For example ‘natural’ moorland and abandoned farmsteads, forever associated with nostalgia – where a past freedom to roam is formed in our memory, but only recently granted – has become an attractive tax investment and ecological disaster combined. This land is depleted of diverse wildlife, increasingly covered by invasive species – where ‘grouse beating’ has become the only employment. The land has been exploited, (and managed to the point of low fertility), but it still has the ability to recover. Are we as photographers capturing its potential or its continuing demise, as metamorphosis creates a desert.
Power and Politics
The landscape is a longstanding political terrain, where owners compete with the dispossessed to control its benefit. The writings of George Monbiot cover many aspects of the power and politics behind land management, and I recommend bookmarking his site. He easily exposes the contradiction and corruption emanating from the ‘guardians of our environment’. Where scientific and environmental knowledge is blindly discarded for ‘homespun’ remedies and manorial rights. He recognises the ‘custodians’ whose purpose is to ensure the status quo in land ownership; alongside developing schemes to further increase grants and incentives – to the largest subsided industry we possess, Agriculture. Many recognise the problems agriculture face, but few are prepared to challenge its current stewardship, a notable exception being the current Scottish government.
A Personal Perspective
The politics beyond the frame will always dominate, but their influence within the frame is enormous. When photographers capture, then enhance areas of outstanding natural beauty, do we become responsible for validating that our land is in good hands. The continual provision of reassuring images surely sustain a belief that a ‘natural beauty’ can be accessed somehow, somewhere, but maybe not around here. What suppresses our innate curiosity to seek out an understanding of what we see? Thereby, can we conclude that the ‘traditional’ landscape photographer is guilty of aiding and abetting forces that primarily seek landscape exploitation over increasing calls for environmental harmony?
As Professor Paul Hill stated, “In my opinion, the majority of Landscape Photographs I see rarely challenge or surprise. They are predictable and formulaic and pose few philosophical or visual questions. They often appear to be conservative artefacts celebrating the status quo.”
Therefore do practitioners of Landscape Photography needs to take responsibility for the images it creates; while seeking the enhanced picturesque might provide some limited income, in doing so, do we become complicit agents in widespread land abuse and destruction.