What is landscape photography?

Landscape photography is very popular with an ever increasing number of books, web sites and magazines devoted to the subject. In the UK the photographs generally depict pristine ‘natural’ landscape without people and without any signs of the marks they make. It is as if people have never walked the ground, tilled the soil or found rocks for tools or minerals. There is no history.

No part of this small island is untouched by a human hand, even in the remotest parts of Scotland flocks of farmed sheep keep the hills free of scrub. None of the land is pristine or natural, it has been formed by the actions of human beings. That means there are no truly wild places left and when I hear talk of trips to the ‘wilderness’, a term mistakenly borrowed from the US, I think more of large shopping centres than any part of the British countryside.

The usual landscape images share a particular, stylised view conforming to certain expected norms. Rebecca Solnit sums this up very eloquently when she listed the desirable attributes of a traditional landscape photograph:

    Somewhere in the 1970s the genre stopped (lead in its evolutionary tracks, to the point that its rules can now be spelled out:

    1. No human beings or their traces that is to say, no history.
    2. Nothing dead, sick, rutting, (lying, or in a state of decay—-that is to say, no natural history. Though fallen leaves are one of the staples of this genre, even they must not have begun to decay; the loam into which they are dis-solving must remain invisible: this is landscape without dirt, literally and figuratively.
    3. Water’s main purpose is to mirror, with glasslike perfection, the landscape looming above it, except when flowing over a waterfall or seen close up as dewdrops, preferably refracting a flower field, or dangling from a cobweb.
    4. Repetition and pattern are good; fifty maple leaves or dewdrops or lilies are better than one. This, along with color, may be Eliot Porter’s most important contribution to the genre nature’s Busby Berkeley turn.
    5. Colors should be bright, though there is an apparent split between those who simply push the colors as far as they’ll go in the darkroom and those who used colored lenses to give us a hotrod-bright purple and orange world. (The latter photographers may be the true descendants of Adams, whose Yosemite pictures often feature the black skies of an atmosphereless planet, thanks to his red filter and darkroom expertise.)
    6. All animals are loveable and attractive, and unlike humans, they may appear either in the landscape or up close like flowers. The fact that they don’t do anything helps; the haunting eyes of wolves look different accompanied by a mouthful of elk calf guts, but see rule number two. If this is nature as vacationland, even the animals are on holiday from biology and the labors of survival.
    7. The photograph itself should be so clean as to never call attention to its own creation, but rather to Creation. Dodging, burning, filtering, retouching, and super fancy lenses, yes. But no evidence of handicraft no negative edges, no tripod shadows, no grain, no diptychs, and no inscriptions, which might call attention to the highly technological and toxic medium itself only a seamlessly transparent presentation. The merit of such photographs is not supposed to be the merit of Art but of Nature, and so they compete unfairly in many ways with their subject.

      [Solnit, R., 2003 p.201-2]

In the US the New Topographics group countered the idyllic by photographing what was there rather what people expected to see. In the UK there is no such tradition of challenging the status quo. We are left with a very developed and commercialised visual style based on a notion of an idyllic countryside that leaves out more than it includes.

Having lived in the Peak District for a while it is evident that there are any number of prints of pristine, natural landscape for sale all conforming to the landscape norm. What they ignore is that ‘the Peak’ has been shaped by human activity for thousands of years, particularly so in the last few hundred, yet there is no reference to this. The land is still being used and is constantly changing; it is not, and never has been, the static rural idyll that many seemingly want it to be.

It is no coincidence that the rocks that make spectacular landscape contain an abundance of the minerals necessary for modern life. Here it is mainly limestone used for aggregates and the production of lime and cement. Mineral extraction is a big industry and the quarries and processing plants are huge sites. Industrial incursions into the landscape are as much part of what makes the area what it is yet they are at best ignored and worst seen as scars on the landscape spoiling the natural, or worse still, spoiling the view. The truth is that for every new road or new building there is a corresponding hole in the ground to provide the minerals.

The tension between what is perceived as natural countryside and the industrial incursion of mineral extraction is what interests me as a photographer. That might be seen as heresy by some but like it or not it is what makes Derbyshire what it is. Of course there are ‘nice views’ but they often sit beside sites that are not considered to be beautiful in the accepted sense.

My current project aims to show a more complete view of the land by including images of active quarries, cement works and other aspects of mineral extraction. The purpose is not to glorify or promote the industry but to say that it is here and is an integral part of this area. I hope that presenting a more inclusive view might lead to a better understanding of what makes Derbyshire what it is and also challenge the myopic view of most British landscape photography.

Solnit, R., 2003, “Uplift and separate: the aesthetics of nature calendars”, in As Eve Said to the Serpent: in Landscape, Gender, and Art, Athens, University of Georgia

© Colin Shaw 2015. All rights reserved, written permission MUST be obtained before reproduction or copying in any form including copying of material to other web sites, blogs, email lists or any other electronic media by whatever means. crs@colinshaw.co.uk