Viewpoints

A Sense of Place - Connecting with the Landscape

'Red Rock and Water'
'Red Rock and Water'
Workshops have been critical in my own development as a photographer. As well as providing an opportunity to learn and refine the craft from great teachers, they have also provided the time and space to reflect on or even re-think particular aspects of my approach to photography and art.

I recently attended the Light and Land Advanced Large Format workshop led by Joe Cornish and David Ward. As usually happens at such events, I presented a selection of my pictures in transparency form. Without thinking, I arranged them into two groups and presented 5 images that I had made in the last 12 months or so in each group – the two groups being what might be called ‘inner landscapes’ or ‘details’ on one hand and ‘vistas’ or ‘scenic images’ on the other.

Afterwards, this got me thinking. Why had I done this? Does this mean that in any location I basically make two distinct and separate types of images? Do I do this consciously? How do I decide which to do? Are they so very different? Is one more ‘art’ than the other? Is one more personal than the other?

'Curls of Grass'
'Curls of Grass'
This thought process was further stimulated by seeing the inspiring ‘inner landscape’ work of Anna Booth and Melanie Foster. Anna displayed images that took abstract expressionism in landscape photography to a level I had never seen before. Frankly it was hard to believe I was looking at a photograph, the images were so formal, intricate and profound. I could have been looking at a painting by Rothko. Seeing her images was like a window opening in my own personal vision: I had thought I ‘knew’ how far it was possible to go in this art form but in reality I had never really ‘seen’.

Mel put up a sequence of images that took ‘balance’ to a level I had not considered possible. Or rather, it might be more accurate to say I had never personally set the bar quite so high when I made images. I have long recognised the power of compositional balance in photography and my approach seeks to create what I have previously described as a sense of ‘dynamic balance’ in the image. In fact I won’t press the shutter unless I feel the image has the compositional balance and energy I look for. Great light or an interesting subject is never enough for me.

However, Mel’s images not only had exquisite compositional balance, they also had perfect and visible tonal and colour balance in a way I had not considered before.

'Living Fossil'
'Living Fossil'
Mel and Anna’s images had shown me how much further my photography could develop and how much potential there is for further self expression through photography. And this got me thinking. Could I ever develop these aspects if I continue to make both types of image? Do I need to specialise in making inner landsape images to keep developing? Is the “vista” a shallow cousin to this more profound “inner landscape” art form?

It was not a comfortable question, partly because about 15 months earlier I had made the significant step of consciously introducing (actually re-introducing) ‘vistas’ or ‘scenics’ into my repertoire. At that stage I had become a victim of what I call the ‘lightening bolt’ thing. I would wander about a location looking for subjects and flashes of inspiration that would allow me to make an image that would live up to my personal image standards. It was getting rarer and rarer. I was making fewer and fewer images, despite experiencing fantastic light in fantastic locations that I knew and loved. It took a conversation with Joe Cornish to help me realise that I had been hiding from ‘vista’ images – most particularly his. Joe has made many fabulous images in Yorkshire, an area of the country I was brought up in and know and love. I was frightened to tackle the same subjects as him mostly because I felt I couldn’t be different, be original with a ‘vista’ in a location Joe had photographed. I watched him systematically re-interpret his own famous Whitby Steps picture and I realised that this was complete nonsense.

'Zigs and Zags'
'Zigs and Zags'
So back to the main point. I began to reflect on when and why I might make ‘Vista’ images rather than ‘Details’ and whether I approach these types of image differently.

The first factor I considered is the pragmatic one of working the light. I am more likely to make detail/inner landscape images in cloudy/rainy/windy conditions simply because such conditions tend to favour this type of picture. But it is not quite as black and white as that as I have made (successful) vista’s in sunny/cloudy conditions during the middle of the day and details in classical sunrise/sunset light.

One of the things that is most important to me in scenic images is creating a sense of depth and light plays a key part in that process. We see and experience the world very differently from a picture. When we stand in the landscape we experience the full range of senses giving us information: sound, touch, taste, smell, sight. Most of this is stripped out when we view a picture. To understand this, just try watching a movie without the sound track (music, sound effects etc,). The use of music can dramatically alter the film’s atmosphere and the perspective of the viewer and it is used to great effect by experienced film makers.

'Falls of Light'
'Falls of Light'
Furthermore our eyesight gives us a three dimensional perspective. A picture is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional scene. In other words a picture starts out being a crippled, shallow representation of what we experience when we stand next to the camera. This is one of the reasons why successful ‘scenic’ images are in practice so difficult.

Depth in a photograph has to be re-created either through compositional devices or through the use of light to ‘paint the scene’ in such a way that depth is suggested: for example arranging the foreground, mid ground and background elements of the scene in a configuration that suggests depth is one approach. Another is the use of alternate dark/light/dark/light tonal variation to help suggest a sense of depth and often cloudy/bright conditions in the middle of the day are ideal conditions for recreating this sense of depth. In certain circumstances, even, quiet lighting can make wonderful vista images.

'Saltwick Nab'
'Saltwick Nab'
As an aside, I have never understood the association of landscape images with the ‘longways’ or so called ‘landscape’ format. It is much harder to create a sense of compositional depth in a ‘longways’ rather than ‘upright’ or ‘portrait’ shape. There is so much less space to work with. I think this is why I am addicted to the 5x4 aspect ratio for photography. It works with both upright and longways images. To my eyes, an upright 3x2 35mm image looks slightly odd and an upright panoramic image looks downright comical.

So, whilst lighting is a factor in understanding how I might want to ‘paint the scene’ and influences the opportunity for the kind of image I might attempt, it does not fully explain why I choose to tackle either a ‘scenic’ or ‘inner landscape’ image.

The clue for me was in the location – the Lakes. One of the things I have noticed is that I still find it very difficult to make scenic/vista images in places I don’t know well, particularly on first visits. This is more than the difficulty of coming to terms with a location on a first visit, needing to learn what is there – it is more like a lack of motivation or desire to make a scenic image. On reflection, I think it is because I haven’t connected with the place, it holds no interest. The lakes is a place I know and love and it was a place that I found it very easy to make scenic images, in fact it felt almost like I was compelled to seek a wider view – I even made one dreadful vista image on a misty morning that was clearly not ideal for it! I made virtually no ‘details’ images.

'Bamburgh Castle'
'Bamburgh Castle'
This has interesting implications. I have had a couple of conversations with David Ward about ‘what is the subject’ and ‘can the location be the subject?’. I know David is of the view that a location is a place he visits where there is a variety of potential subject matter. His approach is to find a subject of interest to him and imagine a (hopefully) unique way of representing that subject. He is motivated by a personal exploration of the potential and boundaries of what can be achieved with a camera. For him the location is not the subject and he seeks to make images in many cases in places that are anonymous or relatively less well known.

In contrast, it seems clear to me that I am motivated to tackle the wider view only when I feel a genuine interest, commitment and connection to a place. The place has become my subject.

A couple of weeks after I made my recent ‘Newlands’ image from the top of Catbells, there was another Catbells/Newlands image published in a Sunday Newspaper. When I saw it, I admit it didn’t do anything for me. It had a walker in the foreground, several in the mid ground and the light/atmosphere felt “nice” rather than “evocative”. But as I looked at it, it struck me that this was a picture that might appeal to any walker who had previously walked or intended to walk the ridge and hoped for good visibility and good weather. It would certainly appeal to the editor of a walking magazine and if that was the photographer’s intention, it is an image that achieved this admirably. It was another way of interpreting the same subject I had tackled – Catbells and Newlands Valley – not in a way I would aspire to but interestingly with a similar intention to mine, to communicate, celebrate or “sell” the idea of what a wonderful place it is.

'Storm at Dawn over Scoar Dale'
'Storm at Dawn over Scoar Dale'
I realised that tackling a “scenic” image for me is in many ways as deeply personal a process as tackling an ‘inner landscape’ image. It is a form of self expression; I am deploying the experience, skills, craft (interestingly the original meaning of the word art), technique, vision, inspiration I have developed over many years to communicate what I think and feel about the subject. There has to be a connection to the subject, the “place” for this process to work. For example, it has taken me more than 12 months to come to terms with photographing in the Yorkshire Wolds. Part of that has been the need to adapt and develop my technique and vision to find an interpretative approach that works for me in a difficult landscape. But a significant reason has been that it has taken me that length of time to begin to know and like the area. And I have barely scratched the surface.

'Dawn light in the Dales'
'Dawn light in the Dales'
Depth is what I strive to achieve above everything else in my scenic images. This means the more I get to know and understand a subject, a place, the more I am interested by it, the better images I seem to make. It matters not to me how often other people have tackled the same subject. It is no surprise that the two scenic images I most enjoyed in the last 12 months are in places I have been visiting and working for many years and are locations that seem to act as magnets for photographers – Saltwick and Bamburgh.

At one stage in the Lakes workshop I joked to David Ward that the Lakes inspires me to make “elaborate record shots”. This is true but only in the sense that every photograph is a ‘record’ of light striking a particular subject. There seems to be much more behind my motivation and personal process for making ‘scenic’ images then I previously understood.

© Jon Brock 2009