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Tuesday, 20 January 2015


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I love Rondal Partiridge's sense of irony. But where do you place Bruce Davidson's Yosemite campground pictures along the spectrum of responses to natural wonders?


Years ago, when I was a young 20-something and getting into photography as a semi-serious hobby, I loved scenic landscape photography; the stuff portrayed in Outdoor Photographer. Pretty calendar pictures. I wanted no sign of the "hand of man" in my photos. Golden hour, magic light, blurred water, etc.
I don't find that type of photography all that interesting any more. It's still pretty and still catches my eye and I can appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into it, but it's like pop music - I can enjoy it in the car on the radio until it wears itself out within a couple weeks.
One thread I can think of that touches on this subject is Galen Rowell's writing on familiarity. He wrote about how interesting the unfamiliar is, whether it's exotic or photographing something common in a new way. This genre is so popular, though, that nothing new stays new for long. Tom Till has refused to disclose the locations of some of his photos for fear that they'll be trampled by an army of followers.
I think that the controversy over Peter Lik's recent alleged sale is simply that he is widely viewed as a scenic photographer; someone who crafts pretty pictures.

A counterpoint to the "information" comment you recieved yesterday:

Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, commented: to paraphrase "once I became a riverboat pilot, the river lost some of its enchanting power over me. I never saw the beauty of the river in the same way."

My impression of this comment by the great writer is,he was not stating that one view was more valuable than the other, but that it was virtually impossible to regain the former, in whole, once the second was acquired.

It is possible that Ansel Adams, in creating his great lanscape photographs, sacrificed not only in a physical sense, but also in his capacity to just enjoy the scenery he so faithfully brought to our eyes.

It is possible, an individual's failure to extract "information" from a work of art may be rooted in his/her satisfaction with the whole, rather than the specifics. There may not be any drive to uderstand. The art may simply provide an escape, a chance to wander.

For me, the "geological" aspect of Adam's photographs bring meaning not even related to the features themselves. As a boy, my father, a geologist, would request that I accompany him as he led groups of graduate students from Texas A&M on geological field trips/lectures. I was going to learn a thing or two about geology (and paleontology) "whether I liked it not." When I look at an Adams landscape that includes mountains or rocks, I always find myself drifing away to my boyhood, in Texas, with my father.

I wish that I could say my lack of initiative to improve my landscape photography skill is related to so noble a cause as preserving my capacity to appreciate the gift of nature's beauty, but I am not sure. Maybe it is laziness. There IS something about being in the presence of a beautiful landscape that stifles my desire to break out equipment and photograph.

At 55, my homage to the great landscape photographers, such as Ansel Adams, is to admit that I will never be able to mimic, or even understand, their work. I will have to be satisfied with being mesmerized by their photographs. Yet, I do not feel wanting.

Not having a particularly firm grasp on reality and failing as a student, I'm curious, are any of them 'scenic' or 'landscape'?

Mike said of the barn photograph that it "demonstrates the way scenic photography differs from landscape or documentary photography. ...the representation of it is highly romanticized and carefully idealized."

In parallel, this is also why I prefer candid portraits to highly stylized -- one might even say "contrived" -- studio portraits.

Most waterfalls look and and sound alike to me. I don't know if that is due to my tin ear, or more appreciation for city life.

I remember the barn photo from my skiing days in the 60's and had never seen the half dome/parking lot photo and it made me laugh out loud. I enjoy doing that. The big difference here, in my opinion, is that the barn photo was staged (and very effective) whereas the half dome photo is candid yes also very effective.

I think it would be a great help to give your definitions of a couple of terms: Scenic and Information, and differentiate Scenic from Landscape. No matter how you define them, there are many 'excellent' examples of lousy photos-more than good ones. I also wonder what your position is on abstract art in general-both photographic and other media? And what information you derive from them-if any.

As a landscape photographer, your way of looking at photography feels so foreign to me. I've never bought into the idea that photography has to tell a story, or have greater meaning, or even needs to capture the essence of an area to work, or that documentary honesty, informational content, or accurate meaning need to be included. To me, a good photo is one that evokes an emotional response and that emotional response could be as simple as "Wow! That's a pretty photo." Photography is an illusion of reality and the photographer always manipulates the final image through the equipment choices, composition, lighting, etc... There's no difference between street photography, documentary photography, landscape photography or scenic photography. Everyone does the same thing. They use reality to create an illusion.

On a second note:

I can't grok the difference between how you define a landscape shot and a scenic shot. Everything that you say is done in scenic shots is also done in landscape photography. Maybe in your view the majority of landscape photographers are actually scenic photographers?

"...an idea of landscape rather than an actual place with distinctive aspects...

"...the representation of it is highly romanticized and carefully idealized."

That's the nugget, I feel. These images are meant to appeal to our ideas, ideals and sentiments, as opposed to, say, satisfying our curiosity about the world, or informing.

I think this is what Francis E (no relation) was getting at by his 'muzak' analogy, but Mike goes further, rightly, and calls out these images for their active and intentional denial of knowledge and truth, the better to appeal to ideals, fantasies and desires. Their purpose is titillation and gratification, not information.

In other words, their intent is similar to that of other idealized normative images that permeate advertising and much "decorative art".

In Mike's example, there happens to be a strong streak of pastoralism, and in his links an anti-pastoralism, but I'm not sure that's the only type of idealized scenic.

(For me, the classic anti-pastoral example is Robert Adams' The New West.)

read through all the way to the end.


[Yeah, that's a wonderful story and it's actually one thing I had in mind when I titled the post...also "moar cowbell" of course. It's too great that that barn is called More Barn. --Mike]

Seems to me the real question is: what is the story the photographer is trying to tell? What genre are they working in for that particular photograph? Fiction? Nonfiction? Fairy tale? Horror story? Crime story? Reportage? Etc. Once that question is answered, the the angle (literal and metaphorical) the photographer chooses and context of the principal subject (more vs less surrounding context and scene framing) will be chosen for the photographer.

is it just me, or is there a touch of the old insider/outsider photography debate in this too?

I've been a conflicted landscape photographer since I first picked up a dslr. My wife and I used to make fun of all the look-alike landscapes shots one could see in photo magazines, the perfect reflections, the perfect sunsets, the single maple leaf placed on the rock.... but over the years of course I've taken some of those.


The above shot of the Lemon Creek Valley in Juneau, AK, one of my more popular ones, illustrates the "what lies behind" potential of this type of shot. Other than the freeway it looks fairly pristine. One misses the landfill, the state prison, the Costco, the Alaska Brewery (good beer!) and the highest density of sexual predators among the few thousand who make a home there. It's also an amazing, diverse ecosystem, with some incredible old growth forest. Would have been wonderful to see it 150 years ago. As is you worry about that landfill for 30,000 people leaking toxins into the estuary. It's a rainforest, after all. Things leak, leach, and filter over the years.

Is it possible for a "landscape" photograph to become "scenic?" If a technically able photographer sets up a large format camera in Ansel Adam's tripod holes, and shoots Half Dome in similar light, is it still "landscape" or has it become "scenic?" Does being first have aesthetic implications?

I suppose I've been a professional "scenic photographer" ever since I started shooting weddings. Most require highly editorialized content in both story and visual content. No bride wants to have a photographic record of the massive argument she had with her sister before the wedding even though that's part of the story. Likewise, most want the photos to look like they are standing alone on a beautiful hillside at sunset when actually half the wedding party are just out of frame.

I hadn't really thought about a distinction between landscape and scenery like that before. It's got the wheels spinning on a subject I've been thinking more about recently.

I captured this image one morning last week. It falls squarely into the "More Barn" category of images. Also, scenery, but that's fine.

I'm happy with it because it 'feels' like the foggy winter walk I took that morning, where the 30 or so other photos I took that morning did not. I took a first shot at making a print, and I'm living with it for a couple of weeks before attempting a second draft.

As a document, it's a complete lie. I'm standing in the middle of a neighborhood. This view of the wild, open field is only available in this one spot, and only if you can ignore the houses to the left and right. Here's a google map view of the approximate area that I was standing. It's certainly not the peaceful meadow that I can imagine in the photo.


For now, it seems challenging enough to create an image I want to look at more than once, and that evokes some kind of emotion. Maybe the next step is doing that while ALSO honestly/fairly representing my surroundings?

TOP is BACK! I'm glad "we" are reading your thoughts on the ideas in photography, Mike. This is the best of the site, in my opinion.

A related distinction to that between scenic and landscape photograph might be the difference between stock and editorial photography. Good stock photography (by that I mean stock photography that sells well) has an intentional emptiness to it, a lack of specific reference, that makes it work across a lot of situations. It also makes it fairly boring.

Similarly, scenic photography omits to mention any actual details of a place in its attempt to convey something like an archetype (or, perhaps, a cliche) -- giving it the same lack of personality.

I'm a landscape photographer. Every photograph I make, just like every other photograph ever made is separated from reality by the act of framing only a portion of the 360° horizontal and 180° vertical that surrounds me. And that's not to mention leaving out the scents, sounds, the feel of the sun, rain, snow or wind on my skin. It is also separated from reality by removing or altering the color, brightening/darkening all or portions of the image in post exposure processing.

I have photographed a number of barns in my day and I confess to always choosing the viewpoint which I feel conveys what I want to show my audience about the barn, or any other subject for that matter and leave out anything that detracts from what i want to show. Just like every other photographer worth his/her salt does. Why this decision on the part of the photographer makes the image any less meaningful or accurate escapes me.

So landscapes, especially those you define as scenic, don't appeal to you. That's fine. I, being one who has a different view of the world, am left wondering what all the fuss is about most photography of people and their activities, most especially sports photography. To each his own but the landscape nourishes me both physically and spiritually and that makes it very interesting to me.

[I like landscapes a lot, and have many books of landscape photographs...and does it really escape you how framing could change the meaning or accuracy of a picture?? I don't think it would escape you if you thought about it very long. I'll give you just one single example: a politician draws smaller crowds than his rival. One photographer uses the same framing for both, showing empty seats in the back of the less popular politician's rally. Another photographer narrows the angle of view of his lens so his picture of the smaller crowd is also completely filled with faces. Same meaning? Changed meaning? --Mike]

For me landscape photography isn't really about the landscape. In fact, nothing I photograph is really about the subject. To me the subject is merely a collection of convenient lines, curves, patterns, tones, colours and textures that can be carefully arranged into an aesthetically appealing composition. I have no information to convey or story to tell beyond positioning visual elements graphically into an arrangement that will make the viewer's neurons zing with excitement.

Not very intellectual, I'm afraid but I see photography as visual emotion not information.

I'm not my near namesake whose post is the featured section posting again in the excitement of it all!

I think Mike you've forgotten something very important. A lot of photos are made because the photographer enjoys the process. There are times when I'llheadout to a location and set up and just enjoy the whole experience of being outside doing something I enjoy. The photo is just a by product. It reminds me of when I was a kid and started to fish. I would go to these lakes which were old flooded gravel pits and there would be loads of of blokes on the banks just enjoying being there it didn't matter whether anyone caught anything.

This whole discussion reminds me of a lecture on landscape photography given by two very prominent photographers who were both very academic in their approach. The hall was packed as their work is very popular herein Australia. The two speakers got caught up in their discussion and started expressing their disdain for hobbyist landscape photographers. They were so elitist and condescending that they couldn't understand why the audience walked out on them even though they'd all paid good money to be there.

I never understood photographic categories. All of photography can be reduced down to one basic concern: what do you put inside the frame? I don't care if it's called commercial, editorial, scenic, or landscape. All of photography lies by omission. My personal taste, no matter the category, prefers clever, playful,and beautiful lies over the saccharin, obvious, and cliche.

Great post and thought provoker. I agree with you here Mike, but maybe from a different angle? I too want the who, what, when, where and why.

I love a cityscape that documents a particular place at a certain moment in time - that view will almost certainly look very different in 20 years because some structures will be gone and new things will emerge. The same can be said of certain landscapes. That is the moment it becomes interesting to me as a photographer - the moment I am capturing something that won't necessarily be available again.

For this reason, I gravitate more towards candidly photographing people. It is the same reason that I personally do not find most advertising or "contrived" photography very interesting. I would prefer to document something or someone in an actual place and moment in time - something that actually happened. To me, the "contrived" image has close to zero shelf life, where photographs of actual moments of people or things grow in value as time passes.

John Gillooly

I find myself obscurely disappointed that the barn was indeed 'the More barn': I had visions of advertising directors ordering their minions 'we need more barn in this campaign, slaves', in the same way record priducers call for 'more cowbell', resulting in endless pictures of, well, scenic barns.

Very interesting debate - and one in which no single truth exists needless to say. I consider myself a landscape photographer more than anything else and certainly my motivation in taking the pictures I do is to convey a mood and much more rarely to convey a message or information. A friend of mine once commented, looking through my website, that my pictures were 'quiet' and I suppose that as a city-dweller for all the 45 years of my life it is that solitude I crave. This is achieved either by photographing in remoter locations or photographing in more urban settings at times when nobody is about.

What I also find, as a keen musician, is that I am much more attracted to listening to music that I equate to that sort of photography, and that sort of mood, as well. Bruckner symphonies tend to resonate very well with me, Brahms 1, Schumann 3, Mahler 1, 2, 4 & 5, some Shostakovich symphonies and so forth not to mention select bits of electronica too. Photography (and music) for escapism I suppose.

I think form is everything in landscape photography. There is rarely much content. Frankly, I don't think knowing where it is adds that much more than a thought that I wish I could be there at such a moment....It, in my humble opinion, is about beauty, about a moment when the light and the shadow are just right, and your eyes place the objects at just the right juxtaposition. On that last point hinges its success...the form within the bounds of the frame. And of course the light and its rendition on the printed paper or the luminous screen.

I'm not really comfortable with the distinction you're making, Mike. It seems like "scenic" means "landscape-slash-travel photos that don't give Mike Johnston what he wants."

I don't take issue with you not liking certain kinds of landscape photo because they don't scratch your intellectual itches, but making an arbitrary category into which you can shovel them strikes me as being wrong.

Just finished reading Robert Adams'"Beauty in Photography" Certainly the most concise and effective writing on the photographer/artists' responsibility.

While this subject can be parsed and dissected in almost endless ways, as a landscape photographer, I think all meaning will be in the eyes of the beholder, If any meaning is found at all. The photographer is attracted to the subject and presents it as a photograph and then it is taken to be found or ignored, praised or scorned. Will we really know what the photographer was saying, or attracted to? Only if he or she reveals the intention. The beholder finds their own meaning, or not. I don't think any thing else needs to be said.

There is a hoary old joke that's based around a comedian in a club reciting numbers, " 43" and the crown roars with laughter. "19", more laughter. "57", the crowd is now howling.
A newcomer leans over to his friend and asks, what is going on here?
"Well", he says, " the local comedians found it far more efficient to number their jokes to save time. All the patrons are regulars so when the number is called out, they recall the joke and fall about laughing".
"Huh"! says the newcomer, "Can I have a go"? The arrangements are made and he goes out with his friend on to the stage to polite applause.
"So", he says. "37"!
Silence. The audience's faces remain impassive.
He turns to his friends and asks, "What did I do wrong"?
"Ah well, they haven't heard that one before".

So, hands up you photographers who are taking photographs you've seen many times before. Congratulations! You will be rewarded with ecstatic praise of your perfectly composed slot canyons, your majestic mountains reflected in conifer-lined streams, your blurry waterfalls, your star trails behind geriatric trees, your Half Domes from the same spot where Ansel stood, any sunset anywhere, and so on ad nauseam.
Or are you using photography to tell me something about a place, about being, people, society, culture, the human condition, the environment, our relationship with it, and much more?
If so, you are taking a huge risk, you are unlikely to be understood and you may keep doing this for years without positive feedback.
Congratulations! You are an artist.


As a person who spends a good deal of time in the kind of "wild and scenic" places that are frequently the subject of landscape photography (and who went through a phase long ago where I hauled around 40 pounds of camera equipment trying to capture those kinds of places on film before I turned to other pursuits) I would like to raise another issue. During the 90's when I did this Velvia film took the nature and landscape community by storm and most of the photographs you saw in galleries, Sierra Club Calendars, and books had (and still have) and extremely saturated color palette. That look (which some of us came to call "Disneychrome") is what apparently sold photographs. It became nearly universal. I still think it is largely the norm, but is now achieved by cranking up certain Photoshop settings.

As a person who actually lives in and spends a great deal of time in those landscapes I could never really relate to those photographs because they don't look anything like the places I have come to know and love so well. I have a viscerally negative reaction to many of those photographs. It is not that I think that every photograph has to be completely "realistic" or cannot display a set of artistic choices. It is that those places are so naturally off the scale of normal human experience, are so majestic and stunningly beautiful, that the effort to make them appear hyper-real (or perhaps surrreal) seems ridiculous to me. So I would argue that sometimes an intimate knowledge of the actual landscape instead of increasing the appreciation of a landscape or scenic photograph, may diminish it.

I can't help but think it would be easier if instead of trying to put landscape images into separate boxes(such as one for 'scenic')you realised they were all the same in literal terms(all are 'pictures of the landscape')and only the narrative changes. You are trying to investigate the wrong thing.

The narrative of the barn is driven by commerce, the narrative of a Bresson landscape is driven by his reportage project, the narrative of an Adams depending on the year is driven by Sierra Club politics, etc. But they are all landscapes, not one a scenic, another a social documentary and the last a nature shot.

You can easily test that it is narrative that is the lead to understanding 'the landscape' by reassigning the narrative. The barn is a social reportage photograph/collage about the hard life of a modern cowboy after his skidoo broke down. It still makes sense of the image but the image hasn't changed, so it can't be the image that needs compartmentalising as 'scenic', it is the narrative that needs defining. Adams photograph of straight white aspens is really a subliminal message to smoke Marlboro, a cool outdoor cigarette for cool guys. It still makes(some sort of)sense if you look at the elements within the picture and think of advertising and the type of image an ad exec would ask for. So this would now make the same Adams landscape photo of aspens a scenic picture, but it is the same photo.

So I think trying to define a photograph by what it generally looks like is at the very best only a part of the story, sometimes it causes the story to be missed altogether. It is why so much amateur criticism revolves around 'I don't like it', because the critic hasn't dug any deeper than the surface of the image and may even be applying their own narrative interests on other peoples photographs.

I may be wrong, but wasn't Ansel Adams trying to "sell" the idea of the importance of preservation of natural areas ? So his landscapes were also scenic. I think I see a difference,but it's not clear yet. Mike, you make me think too much.

Mike, you came so close on the the headline, it could have been
More Cow Barn
What are the odds of that opportunity coming up again?

Many of my favorite photos are landscapes, but I don't think any of their creators would self identify as landscape photographers unless they were being ironic.

Well most of them are ironic, but only in their photography.

For me, the classic anti-pastoral example is Robert Adams' The New West.

I think this is a good example of how the same photographs can have a different effect on different people. I grew up in the part of Colorado that Adams was documenting at about the time he started his work. To me, his pictures aren't idealized and normative; they're quite specific and documentary. I can recognize the places and the process he was documenting because I was there, too.

The More Barn Syndrome certainly plays out over and over again in photography, and I certainly work those angles all the time. But all great art must deal with the same problem of the "frame." What to include and what to exclude? And why? But when we encounter great art we rarely feel that we are missing part of the picture. When we read War and Peace (and I really am going to read it, one of these days) we don't spend much time wondering why Tolstoy didn't include events in other parts of the world, we don't feel that the world he has created is somehow pandering to our emotions. The More Barn pictures says volumes about our inner landscape of fantasy longings than it does about Colorado, cowboys, or barns.

Does being first have aesthetic implications?

I think it does, at least when a photograph has been copied to the point of being a cliche. It seems to me that a photographic cliche would inevitably fall into the category of scenic rather than landscape because it's an idealized image. In this case, it's an idealized image whose target is another photograph rather than an abstract idea, but it's still about targeting an ideal image. The same would obviously not apply to the original you're copying, unless you're making a copy of a copy.

Re "What a picture is made for and how its makers want it to function is a very important constellation of issues, but it doesn't describe what the picture is categorically." I take your point about categories, but it is possible to argue that there are two over-arching categories, of which all others are sub-divisions. The two are: commercial photographs made for money; and photographs made for their own sake, ie. to satisfy the photographer's creative instincts.

In my scenic photographs I am interested in making a viewer of my image feel something. I want the viewer to build up as much of an emotional connection as possible with the image. I don't want details and facts to get in the way of that connection. If the viewer is confronted with the location details or any other information that might make them feel connected to the image.

In my landscape work I am trying to get the person to connect to the landscape pictured. I hope the information helps to create that bond.

Scenic a for me can be landscapes and vice versa. In the end it is about the context they are being used. Maybe this would be greeting cards and postcards. On a greeting card, you may have stock photography at its finest; the emotion felt matters most. On a postcard, we need the proof. We need to share all of the details. I was here, and this is what and where here is.

Mike, certainly context affects meaning but in terms of what my meaning as the one choosing the framing of an image, that is precisely whey I choose the framing I do. You or someone else might choose a different framing because the subject means something different to you. That doesn't make my intent less meaningful than yours or yours less meaningful than mine. They are just different takes on the same subject. I frame to show what I want the viewer to see in the subject. We all do. That was my point.

Does being first have aesthetic implications? Yes. I liked the first decent photo of Maroon Bells I happened to see - now, everybody and his brother uses the same dam' tripod holes. Now, a "good" photo of Maroon Bells must have amazing light and cloud patterns such that Maroon Bells is no longer the subject of the photograph.
Struan's point about the history of "wilderness" places being important subjects in themselves is good. Most of the Ozarks "wilderness" that I photograph is of recent origin, because the region was very heavily clear-cut in the early 1900s to the point of erosion (hills with no trees or undergrowth = erosion). An effort was made early on in the CCC era (1930s) to replant forest in this agriculturally not-very-productive soil in hilly terrain. Now the forests look like never-touched forests to 99% of visitors - I only realized their second-growth status after reading a history of Missouri conservation efforts. So is this scenery or landscape "authentic"? The rocks certainly are authentic, but the forests are "curated" by hand-of-man, strictly speaking.

"To me, his pictures aren't idealized and normative; they're quite specific and documentary."

Roger, That's exactly what I meant by anti-pastoral. It's how I felt about those pictures as well, despite not having been in the majority of those places.

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