PROJECTING PHOTOGRAPHY’S FAVOURITE GENRE
By Isobel Taylor
Once considered a secondary subject in painting, landscape imagery now dominates our visual media as a vista of its own. Often the word ‘landscape’ is interchanged for words such as nature, place or space. Each concept is duplicitous and makes engaging with landscapes on a critical level all the more challenging. Landscapes in photography are mostly considered to be factual and therefore ideas about realism must be considered too.
'Nature’, as a concept, has now become alien to us and even our understanding of the landscape genres (romanticism, picturesque imagery, etc) has become a managed and manicured version of nature. Representations of the landscape have changed throughout history and are now influenced not just by art movements but the way we have changed our external world through urbanisation and virtual reality.
In particular European landscape photography, which in the shadow of American landscape photography, is often overlooked. The legacy of colonialism is present in both the European depiction and understanding of landscapes as a whole. Practitioners of the genre in Europe today are often pigeonholed as those who explore identity, for example in ‘Sense of Place: European Landscape Photography’, an exhibition curated by Liz Wells at Bozar. Photography is used to understand the external world, to control it and also to place ourselves within it. By taking a photograph we provide a solid viewpoint from which we can take information. This approach is also used to handle the devastating loss of the natural world.
As previously mentioned romanticism, picturesque and nostalgia are unfashionable in postmodernist landscape photography so taking a critical and balanced view of environmental problems is popular. Instead the sublime, a concept that is constantly developing is often used in contemporary practice.
An untraditional use of the sublime is seen in the work of Mishka Henner [’Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas’, pictured top]. He uses Google Maps to reveal the not so hidden corners of the world through appropriation. Areas that are meant to be secret or classified may not be accessible physically but aerial images of it are often readily available. This is a uniquely flat form of landscape photography. It still holds true to traditional ideas that demonstrate our dominion over nature but the structure of the image has changed.
European power has left its remnants not just over nature but people too in Corinne Silva’s ‘Imported Landscapes’ [pictured bottom left] and this demonstrates the similarity of fauna and flora on both sides of the Mediterranean; Spain and Morocco. Our expectations of these countries are contrasted to create multi-platform conversations on how to deal with attitudes, in particular, to migration.
These three artists approach landscapes differently not only in the content of their images but also the way they work. At a time where we are constantly overloaded with images, to be able to distinguish themes and make sense of it all is crucial. To make a coherent and meaningful exhibition can be more challenging with the amount of artists and images available. Wells work with ‘Sense of Place’ is a pinnacle exhibition, cementing this as a topic within landscape photography, allowing for critical debate and the continued wave of artist focusing on these ideas.
Much like Henner and Silva, Wells too can create political conflict within the image. She mentioned in a talk that she had chosen a photographer from Latvia, Alexander Gronsky [’The Edge’, pictured bottom right], that was actually considered an immigrant as part of Russian influence and she was confronted by a Latvian student who felt offended that Wells suggested this man could represent her country. Wells acknowledged this but also said this conflict was part of the debate she wanted to create with this exhibition.
It is said in photography that by being specific, taking a very personal or unique situation is often a key to helping a wider audience empathize or connect with the image. Landscape photography does this very well, Gronsky’s work being one example. However, the landscape also causes us to think about ourselves not just about our personal lives but about ourselves as a species. The future of landscape photography may not just be to acknowledge that nature constantly threatens our existence and present to the world but explore solutions to our rapid growth in both technology and population that causes us to doubt identity, nature and our humanity.