Man altered landscape

I have never really understood what the term “man altered landscape” means. Does it suggest that there is a landscape that has not been altered by man? If so where is it?

The idea that there is landscape out there and that man interacts with it obscures crucial issues and promotes the idea of the existence of a mythical, pristine and natural landscape that is untouched by human intervention.

Human beings have been on the Earth for around 200,000 years and ‘civilisation’ is about 6,000 years old. Industrialisation started 200-300 years ago. Considering the Planet is reputed to be 4.5 billion years old humans have only lived here for 0.004% of that time. During that time the Planet has evolved to support life and will continue to do so.

It easy to think that the poor old Earth was better off before we arrived especially when it is plain to see how we are treating our home. Some suggest that it would be best if we left so that the World could revert to its ‘natural’ state. They never really elaborate on that but the suggestion is that the flora and fauna would be better off without us.

The argument that we have no right to be here because we are destroying the environment reinforces the view that there is the Earth and then there are humans, two separate entities. Human occupation is part of the evolution of the planet, it is not something separate from it. We have not been transplanted onto the Earth but have evolved to live here.

Separating us from the Earth is also dangerous because it denies the fact that we are an integral part of it; we come from and return to it. Suggesting otherwise fractures our link to the Earth and at the same time absolves us of the responsibility of looking after it. The real danger is that it also cuts any emotional or spiritual ties which adds to the idea that the Planet is there to be exploited solely for our needs.

Thinking about the state of contemporary landscape practice and it is easy to see the disassociation of the majority from what they are photographing. Here I am talking about camera club competitions and popular landscape photography magazines. The approach seems to be that ‘nature’ is out there to be photographed in a way that completely hides and ignores how the land has been formed by human interaction. It seems that the norm is to travel to the ‘honey spots’ and wait for the right weather/light to create the ‘masterpiece’ that will win prizes and generate recognition within the landscape photographic community.

Finding the required location can mean travelling long distances within the UK or taking flights to popular destinations like Iceland and the US. There seems to be little thought about what such activities do to the Planet or why it is a requirement of success. Pursuing this type of activity works against any sort of relationship with the landscape other than seeing it as a something to be used, a commodity.

Conventional landscape photographs tend to be very formulaic using a set of rules for composition, lighting and even the exact focal length lens to use. It goes something like this; you need at wide angle f2.8 zoom, there must be foreground interest in the form of a large rock preferably covered with moss or lichen. The middle ground should also have some interest and in the distance should be hills or mountains, mist is optional. If there is water then is there to reflect the view. A low sun is also good as the photo will have been taken in the ‘golden hour’, the hour around before sunrise or at sunset. That helps to produce the warm glow but if it is not enough then graduated filters are used to enhance the scene. There should be no obvious signs of human habitation save from the odd romantic, bucolic figure. In terms of post image processing saturation is usually high, colours bold and golden and sharpness is on the highest practical setting. The end result is that images all tend to look very similar, once you have seen a few you know exactly what to expect.

Rebecca Solnit takes this a stage further and call it landscape porn:
Somewhere in the 1970s the genre stopped dead 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, “Uplift and separate: the aesthetics of nature calendars”, in As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, Athens, University of Georgia.)

These sort of images sell to a large proportion of the population who want to see pristine natural landscape devoid of human activity. They also perpetuate a mythical view of the countryside and promote and maintain the notion that land is pristine and natural when it clearly is not.

Worse still is the ongoing idea that the landscape is out there for us to use in any way we want and that increasingly means as a leisure space. It denies the fact that we totally depend on a few centimetres of the Earth’s crust for every aspect of our survival.

To me the way forward is to engage with our immediate landscape whatever that might be. To see it as what it is not just as the next competition winning entry. Most importantly to accept that we need the Earth for our survival and start treating it with some respect.

In terms of a better, more realistic photograph practice photographers need to engage with landscape in a more emotional way, to think and feel what it is like to be out there. To see beyond the formulaic and mythicised view of land and the need to create the ‘masterpiece’. In short to THINK about what we are doing rather than being driven by a desire to score points over our colleagues.

© Colin Shaw 2015


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