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Looking at Landscape

March 2010
Whether we think about The landscape, A landscape or simply the unprepostioned word landscape, we enter a territory that encompasses such diverse discourses as art history, cultural geography, anthropology, ecology and politics. Our relationship with our lived-in landscapes and to our viewed landscapes is a complex one which may mirror our ambivalence about land that becomes transformed into landscape that itself becomes transfigured into Art [1] .

How to look at landscape, what to look at within the totality of the visual space available, are questions driving my visual exploration and recording of elements of Landscape. As with other media, a photographer has to contend with the historical burden of what has gone before, particularly as landscape photography is as old as photography itself - “...the most enduring activity in the history of the medium...” [2] . The genre’s historical trajectory in painting has been different: both Ian Biggs [3] and John Ross [4] note that landscape has been assumed to be an “...anachronistic genre, part of an old, privileged tradition...” (Biggs) or that it is “...seen now as being akin to flower arranging...” (Ross), although both argue very strongly for its contemporary importance both visually, theoretically and politically.

There is an inherent contradiction in any mediated representation of landscape. However a landscape is defined and delineated, the total sensory experience of ‘being in’ a space and the active selection and integration of visual elements to create a coherent internal image cannot be reproduced in a two-dimensional form such as a photographic print. What such images can do is to trigger personal memories of places we have been to (itself a creative, synthetic, integrative, active process) to re-create our experience: or, in the case of places unvisited, we can project ourselves into that imagined space on the basis of these same previous experiences. In that sense, photography, “...takes the viewer to places...” [5]; but for many people, the image of a place (often a ‘landscape’) precedes the lived, actual experience of place and shapes and conditions our perceptions of what a landscape ‘ought’ to be like [6].

Many artists, critics and writers argue that the concept of Landscape is a created, culturally contingent one. Gerry Badger goes so far as to state that for contemporary landscape photography “...In photographing place, we are never just photographing nature. We are always photographing culture...” [7] . Contemporary photographers are just as likely likely to include industrial wastelands as rural idylls and clear evidence of human impact as bucolic, idealized farming scenes. Edward Burtynski, for example, verges towards the sublime in his large scale images of equally large scale human inscription on the land left scarred by mining or the waste of a conspicuously consuming section of our world. In his own words, a predominant theme in his work is “...nature transformed through industry...” images of which “...are meant as metaphors for modern society...” [8]. Stuart Franklin’s photographs of recent European landscapes set out to “..capture both beauty and menace at the same time...” [9]. It is difficult now to be a landscape photographer without referencing what we now chose to call The Environment and become more than passive recorders of space and place.

The photographs shown in the various ionarts exhibitions sample a variety of themes and concerns. The fundamental questions for me are about how we look at landscape and what choices we make in delineating and framing our view. I am also interested in the idea of challenging the concept of the ‘natural’ landscape inasmuch as the surface scene represents a multilayered summary of changes, both as a consequence of human activity as well as of seasonal, climatic and geological changes. In one of his most respected works [10], the geographical historian W. G. Hoskins borrows the metaphor of the English landscape being a palimpsest ‘...on which successive generations have inscribed their way of life, whilst half erasing that of their predecessors...’ and argues that we need to add the dimension of time to the usual physical elements of land topography to understand and appreciate landscape as something more than mere scenery.

Looking at how we look at landscape has helped to make me a more active and engaged observer of the landscapes that I see. I hope that it may do the same for you.

1. M. Andrews, Landscape and Western Art, Oxford University Press, 1999: p.3.
2. C. B. Schulz, Landscape Photography in R. Lenman (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, Oxford University Press, 2005: p. 347.
3. I. Biggs, Contested terms - rethinking ‘landscape and nature’, LAND2 Texts, 1992 (www.land2.uwe.ac.uk).
4. J Ross, Artist's Statement at the exhibition Song of the earth, Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax, September 2009.
5. G. Badger, The Genius of Photography, Quadrille, 2007: p.131.
6. In his introduction to the booklet Early prints of the Lake District, Kenneth Smith (1973) makes the observation that easily available prints of the Lake District were current well before stage coaches were able to travel over Shap Fell.
7. G Badger, op cit: p. 154.
8. E. Burtynski, Artist’s statement www.edwardburtynsky.com/ (accessed January 2010).
9. S. Franklin, Footprint: our landscape in flux,Thames & Hudson, 2008: p. 7.
10. W. G. Hoskins, The making of the English landscape, Hodder & Stoughton, 1955 (revised edition 2005): p. xvii.
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