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Wednesday, 06 May 2009


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"To make a gross generalization, British landscape photography displays a gentler, human-scale vision compared with the typically spectacular, bombastic American idiom."

Being a Brit, I'm not sure I totally agree there. The photographers mentioned all seem to tend towards a huge depth of field, dramatic light, high contrast, high saturation view of the landscape that is far removed from my own experiences. The scenery may be smaller but I feel the work is just as bombastic.

Noted your comment about "strings and woodwinds" vs the "trumpets and bugles" of American landscape photography.

However, I would say the American landscape INSPIRES "bugles and trumpets"--at least out here in the West, where much of the landscape is vast, stark, and spectacular. After all, America has always been about big dreams, and the landscape has a lot to do with that.

So in some ways, it may not only be the photographers involved, but the differing natures of English and American landscapes which contribute to the difference in style.

Geoff, Thanks for this post. Nicely written. I will seek out these books. Are there books that take a similar approach to other types of photography that you would recommend?

Thanks for the tip. Bought them via your link

All right, I'll bite; I took the link to Amazon.

I agree, in general, with your perspective on American and British photography. Americans have always posed themselves against the idea of the wilderness or the frontier, and the first large-scale nature paintings in the US were pretty bombastic, as well. The British have always gone more for the "Hay Wain" style, land as a garden. I don't think it has much to do with available landscapes - the Shenandoah is as beautiful as Surrey, and in much the same way, and there's plenty of rugged country in Scotland.

I've been waiting for a chance to say this, and your mention of books as galleries gives me a chance: Barnes and Noble has been selling in their discount books a collection of Ansel Adams photos, and I found a very large number of them to be...pedestrian. No artist, at any point in his career, exclusively creates masterpieces, of course. That's really brought home by this book...I mean, *I* could have taken some of those photos.


You've got me thinking now. Landscape photography's my main passion so I know it best, but there's a pretty extensive literature on perception and aesthetic theory in photography as a whole. Much of it seems absurdly abstract or pretentious to me as a devoted amateur; I struggled mightily to get through Sontag without throwing the book across the room. Yet there's some good stuff out there. I'll see if I can come up with anything worthwhile for a future review.


A short BBC video clip of David Ward & Joe Cornish photographing just up the coast from me in Whitby

Color Landscapes are very difficult, both to make and to appriciate. There are many which I enjoy, but few I would want to hang on my wall, much less purchase.
Clyde Butcher, (who was a moderately successful color landscaper before carting $100,000 worth of his color prints to the landfill and switching to pure B&W), says that color landscape photographs are not sold on their artistic content, but how well they go "Over The Couch" to match the decor.

My instinct is to defer to your local knowledge and experience. My ignorance regarding European photography is both wide and deep. I try to keep up with most published landscape photography books, and from what I've seen the prevailing British landscape idiom is gentler and less garish than the American equivalent. The work of David Ward and Joe Cornish does appear to reflect the 'Velvia straightjacket' a bit, but certainly less so to my eye than contemporaries this side of the pond. But that may just reflect my narrow sampling of their work.

Freeman Patterson has a number of books all seeking to convey something about the photographer's inner process rather than the gear. Most are quite good. Some of his photographs are very deeply felt. (They are mostly landscapes as it happens.)

I would love to find out about others who have written well specifically about the creative and deeply felt side of photography.

As someone who grew up in the West, and who has been trying to get the feel of the Midwest, where I now live, I rather like the idea of a book dedicated to "strings and woodwinds" - hopefully it will help me learn to "see" the photographs in the landscapes here. I'm still struggling, and I can use all the help I can get!

Many thanks for the eloquence and sense of reflection I felt from your review.

I take note also of the post from Martin, concerning the tendency towards "...a huge depth of field, dramatic light, high contrast, high saturation view of the landscape...."

Living in some of this "smaller scenery" (West Yorkshire) I have a similar sense about the photographic portrayal tending towards the "Majestic", and by implication the presence of the photographer.

Now, because your review and Martins point have got me involved, I'm asking myself the question, so what of 'subtle expression?, of impressionistic landscape? Where and how can I find that? Is there a landscape photographer equivalent of Cartier-Bresson?

Interestingly the one photograph I had an immediate and strong pull towards in my recently bought copy of "Looking At Photographs" was page 40 "Poling The Marsh Hay" by Peter Henry Emerson, set in the flat English landscape of Norfolk, and with figures.

Thanks for the work.

Having sparked that off - I would offer Jem Southam as a counter to Cornish & co. His work looks much more like the Britain I know.

Find some of his work here:

I have both of David's books, Landscapes within I found an interesting read and an eye opener onto other ways of looking at the landscape, not just the big grand vista. And yes in may ways I think the approach suits the UK as weather plays a large part.

Is he a slave to Velvia?, probably, but interestingly much of his 1st book is not shot in the UK. But in his 2nd book is he guilty of using far too many words???

Certainly I believe the photography in the 2nd book is of a higher standard.

What I will say as a person who lives in the UK and dabbles in landscapes, we have all come to recognise the use of a JCB in composition.

That is the Joe Cornish Boulder, not the digger :-)

Many thanks for the review. For folks posting questions here, I would also highly recommend Working the Light: A Photography Master Class and First Light: A Landscape Photographer's Journey. Joe Cornish, who intro'd the book highlighted in the article above, contributes to both of these titles. They are very thoughtful and thought-provoking books, and yes, promote a subtler, quieter approach to landscape photography than what characterizes much of U.S. landscape photography.

I've seen the remaindered Ansel Adams books you're talking about. They contain a motley group of images that I believe were chosen because they were "public domain" and didn't require approval from the Adams publishing rights trust. Furthermore, the reproduction quality is dismal. D-max is weak, there are dust spots & artifacts, and the tonal scale is badly distorted. Any black & white landscapes subjected to the same degradation would look pretty bad. Technique and print quality were essential to what Ansel Adams was trying to 'say'. He went to extraordinary lengths to make sure book reproductions of his photos were as good as printing technology allowed, hence the uniformly high quality of the Little, Brown books. The book in your local B&N bargain bin is essentially a low quality bootleg.
Which is not to say that Adams never did any mediocre work; he surely did. (All of his color work comes to mind.)


You're certainly right about the reproduction -- it's awful, about as bad as it gets. I tried to filter that out as I paged through the book (perhaps unsuccessfully.) But what I've noticed about the very best of Adams photos -- the half dozen or so that I would consider real masterpieces -- is that there's a sense of magic about them. But some of his work is not magical; it's just landscape, even when well-composed and exposed. I think even Adams' knew that; there's that quote from him about showing up when God wanted a picture taken. That's somehow different than showing up when you want to take a picture. This book emphasized that for me...

As for color, I don't think Adams saw in color. Or if he did, he was attracted to a kind of muddy ochre...referred to in your better literary guides as dog-shit yellow.


Admittedly inspired by this book, which I do not yet own, I took my tripod out with the themes in mind...


The first three are from today.

Much as I admire a lot of Joe Cornish's work some of it is to my eyes a little "Chocolate Boxey", too saccharine.

Paul Mc Cann

I am thinking about a western Canadian Francophobe that could be enticed into buying your "cuisines" weapon. Will it work in Quebec?


If they can survive exposure to their own accent, they need have no fear of British Regional Nutrition*.


*Stilton: whisky: clotted cream: rowies: apple pie: cumberland sausage: Cheddar: Gressingham duck: Arbroath smokies: chicken balti: black pudding: white pudding: the Victorian Nursery puddings: Bakewell tart: cullen skink: cranachan...

A response to add to JC's and Geoff's comments about Ansel Adams books. Yes, there are too many crappy productions of his work in print. But another point -- I don't think Adams' work can be really appreciated when you're looking at it in a book. I realized this when viewing an Adams' print in a Santa Fe gallery. It was Tetons At The Snake River and measured at least 6-7 feet wide. It was massive and beautifully printed, probably not by Adams but certainly by one of his assistants. The price tag was about $38,000. Until that time, I had only seen Adams' work in books, and it did not do much for me. Looking at that print was an entirely different experience.

One problem that British Landscape photography suffers from is lack of originality. The scene on the front of the book, of the streams running across Rannoch Moor and the mountain Buachaille Etive Mor at the start of Glen Coe in the background has been photographed ad-nauseum and appears again and again in publications and on web sites. And that tree features in a lot of them! The vantage point is just off the A82 so although it looks like wilderness it's really easy to get to. Honestly you must have to queue up to take it. It's the British equivalent of Half Dome. What I don't understand is the attraction in taking the exact same photograph as everybody else. The fact that it's on the cover of a book by one of the pre-eminent British landscape photographers shows how endemic this problem is.

I agree with the Jem Southam mention and feel I also must say I always kind of liked Harry Cory-Wright's andscape work.

His book "Journey Through the British Isles" is rather lovely, and a good antidote to the calender photography we normally see over here.



One more "advanced" book that I really like is "The Art of Photographing Nature" by Martha Hill with photographs by Art Wolfe. In it, Ms. Hill and Mr. Wolfe use multiple images of the same scene with slightly different lighting or different compositions and discuss what works, what doesn't, what's better, etc. It's worth checking out....

I can safely say I liked David's *philosophy* when I first read it, in _Landscape Within_. It may be that I've superseded it by now, I'm not sure; but I'd still turn to Ward for enlightening comment. Arguably if the commentary makes you go out and *not* just take LF+Velvia stuff, but still develop an appealing consistent appearance of your own, then all to the good.

I've not read the new David Ward book but I have to say that I was far from impressed with "Landscape Within" It seemed to me to be an exercise in re-hashing other writers ideas with very little insight or original thought. He is the most interesting, as a writer, of the Waite/Cornish/Ward trio though.

All have influenced the photography of the UK, mainly Charlie Waite through the Light and Land tours on which all three are tour leaders, and the "Take A View" competition.

For me the most interesting British landscape photographer working now is Simon Norfolk, unfortunately he rarely shoots in the UK. I'd also recommend some of Jem Southam's work, particularly the Rockfalls and John Davies book British Landscapes is worth a look.

I've had the privilege of attending some of David's landscape photography workshops, and discussing with him at length his philosophy and approach to photography. As a photographer, he's totally unpretentious and has shied away from commercial success for much of his career, preferring to concentrate on photography while not worrying too much about making any money from it.

What distinguishes David's photography from that of others in the British 'school' is his creation of abstracts and miniature landscapes. Unfortunately, his book covers are chosen by the publishers, not David, from a commercial (selling) POV, so you wouldn't realise this without exploring his photography further.

If you explore the galleries on David's web site, you'll see more of his subtle compositions, many of which, for me at least, have a Zen-like quality to them.

Some of his photos remind me of Michael Kenna's (except for being in colour); conversely, some of Michael Kenna's photos now remind me of David's (except for being in B&W).

I would strongly recommend David's second book, Landscape Beyond, because you don't often find such an eloquent collection of essays about the art of photography within one set of covers.

Photography blog enthusiasts should also visit David's blog.



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