Landscape pictures are what, exactly?

Landscape as natural beauty

Well, that’s an easy question to answer, isn’t it?  A landscape is a picture of natural beauty somewhere in the countryside. There, done. We’ve put that in its box, move on.

But not so fast. That just raises more questions than it answers. You really need to tell me what “natural”, “beauty” and “countryside” are. In the UK for example, you’d be hard pushed to find a landscape that hasn’t felt the touch of human influence. “Natural” takes on a different meaning than it might do in the deserts of western USA for example.

“Natural” beauty? The sticky fingerprints of man are all over this landscape.

This picture for example. A Scottish lane with fences – is that natural beauty? It depends where you’re coming from. Pretty much everything in the picture has been mediated by humans – the lane, fences, field crops, hedges, trees, wheel ruts have all been put there by someone.

Landscape as Beauty?

But undeniably it’s pretty, and a satisfying composition which most Europeans would recognise as a landscape photograph. Not everyone would though.

Safe homecomings

“Beauty” is a fraught word. Why does a landscape picture have to be beautiful? Doesn’t that depend on why you’re photographing it? If you’re making unchallenging pictures as wallpaper for someone’s living room, prettiness more or less covers it. “You wouldn’t want to hang THAT in your lounge!” is a common response to anything even slightly unpretty. But that really begs the question – what’s the reason for the picture?

Landscape as safe Countryside?

“Countryside” is even more loaded. It sounds like a green (there, I’ve said it!) and pleasant land that is neither a town nor industrialised. Somewhere like rural Surrey perhaps. Somewhere nice. Even safe perhaps.

That brings us nicely to consider the “land” aspect of landscapes. Many folk latch onto the words “land” and “scape” and as a result discard anything that isn’t land: no water especially seas, no skies especially those hi-falutin’ clouds, and as for people and buildings – forget it!

What scale of landscape?

Then “scape” – for some, using anything other than a wide angle lens means the picture is hopelessly compromised. Get too close and it becomes a picture of a rock. Closer still, it becomes a picture of crystals. At what point does zooming in to a scene stop being a landscape? Ideas from fractal theory don’t hold much sway – the idea that some things look the same whether seen from a distance or from extreme close up.

Why ISN’T this a landscape picture?

Landscape as “somewhere”

OK, so these are really straw man arguments. Maybe the worst word in my original definition is that “somewhere”. Pictures of something “real” that you can stick a label on and say “That’s what it was like THERE.” In a particular (named) place. The sort of thing you buy on a postcard to send home with wishes for the recipient’s presence wherever you find yourself.

That’s not to say these sort of definitions or pictures are NOT landscapes. It’s just that a landscape photograph can and should be considered much more widely. Rather than describing a type of photograph, it may be better to consider landscape photography as a frame of mind, or as an approach to photography rather than simply a description of the final product.

Landscape as an idea

I like to think it’s just as much a process of using a physical location (everywhere is somewhere, after all) to reflect on thoughts and ideas as it is a means to represent a scene for its own sake.  So for example, the picture of the Pier above is for me the opportunity to consider the ideas of risks and safe homecomings, not just a representation of a river mouth on a misty day.

It’s so easy for us to get hung up on the literal in photography, and landscapes are no exception. The camera cannot lie but thankfully it can also be somewhat selective in what it records, and in that selection lies a multitude of possibilities.

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