The appeal of landscape

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Meiji Shrine garden, Tokyo

I admit to being very late to the game in landscape photography – it’s something I’ve not really done seriously until pretty much this year; I suppose the main reason was a solid lack of opportunity. When you live in the tropics, then your shooting hours are limited: light is great in the morning and evening, but weather usually conspires against you with pollution, convection rain, or just general haze. Travel opportunities have changed that somewhat, however I think my quest to create images that are the kind of art you’d want to hang has lead me to look at new subject matter. This of course in conjunction with the ongoing quest to find subject matter that makes the most of the immersive experience of the Ultraprints and vice versa.

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Somewhere near Pantai Morib, Malaysia

On a more general level, I’ve noticed that landscapes tend to get a generate a strongly positive response in general from a typical audience; I can’t blame them, since I too must feel quite drawn to these kinds of scenes in the first place to have the desire to photograph them – and keep photographing them. The question is of course, why? I suspect we must go back to look at human psychology again to understand what drives emotional response.

There is of course also an answer at a very superficially obvious level: visually, they appear different. If you live on a farm, a big sky landscape is probably not going to be quite as appealing as if you live in a downtown apartment. (This may of course be different if you’re talking about a tropical rainforest, or something totally different to the usual environment of the farmer.) My audience is increasingly urbanised, which tends to explain the bias towards landscape images over urban ones.

The current environment for most people – the city – is an unnatural one, existing only in the last few hundred years, and certainly not even in the same form it does today; it’s quite possible to visit any major city in the world and find that nature of any sort – even a solitary tree – is a fairly rare occurrence. There are some cities which integrate greenery better than others into their plan, but for the most part, the concrete chaos dominates. At an immediately conscious level, we may be used to it – we may feel out of place in nature, even – but I suspect at a deeper, evolutionary level – we miss our trees. It’s why people still actively seek parks and other (somewhat) natural spaces to pass the time and relax; and we still keep plants in our homes*.

*Or try to; we managed to kill an Ikea houseplant that lived happily with no watering in a warehouse, and gave up after that.

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Arboreal window

We need our nature fix, then. And it’s clear that a landscape photograph gives us a way to get this vicariously; the ability to travel to another place – and possibly time, though most landscapes may be time of day dependent, they are era/year/epoch independent – and if nothing else, experience a little vicarious escapism. I don’t think this necessarily requires living nature, since landscapes that are predominantly mountains or water or canyons or rocks tend to have a similar effect; perhaps we just get bored of human-derived faux-order and need to find something fractal after a while to satisfy our inner caveman. It of course no coincidence that most landscapes tend to lack the frenetic chaos and energy in the constructed world, and as a consequence leave us feeling calm and relaxed after viewing them. Even a small slice of green that may be perceived as ‘natural’ is enough – the previous image, for instance, evokes a summer wood in England; it was in fact shot in Regent’s Park, in the centre of London.

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Untitled mountain, Queenstown, New Zealand

It comes back to the experience again: the more immersive and different it is, the more likely it is to be positively received. I did a little experiment a few weeks back where some people saw my landscape images first digitally, and then in print; there’s no question that the printed image had much greater impact because it was both a stronger experience, and because looking at an Ultraprint conveys far more information than a reduced resolution version of a digital file, that probably carries no more than 1% of the information of the original scene. A photograph or print will never be able to reproduce the entire experience of being there – it is limited to affecting a single sense after all – but fortunately that visual one is perhaps the most dominant, assuming of course that there is no physical pain associate with viewing the scene (perhaps you needed to climb a cactus to see it, for example).

The more realistic the image, the better the print, the closer we get to that immersive escapism – you can view the scene at a comfortable distance and get lost in it, like another little world. I suspect that the Ultraprint’s ability to provide this experience is its strength and weakness: I need to find subjects that are actually interesting enough to for the audience to want to get lost in, and soothing/ comfortable enough that subconsciously they are willing to let go and suspend disbelief – if only for a moment – to feel as though you’ve exited the print and are looking at the scene instead of looking at an image of the scene. There is a subtle but critical difference there: for instance, no matter how high the resolution and printing ability, if the content of the image itself is not easily believable or feasible – e.g. highly tone mapped false-color HDR, or even black and white in many cases – the experience breaks down. The image is no longer at transparent window into another world where the audience can escape.

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Sunset shadow, Queenstown, New Zealand

Personally, I’m still at the point in both my photographic journey and personal one that the appeal of a forest, or canyon, or mountains, or trees, or a nice little corner of a stream is still strong because it’s not something I experience often. I don’t tend to see many snowy mountains or alpine forests in my part of the world, for obvious reasons. Rainforests are more common but still enjoyable (one good thing about prints it that no matter how immersive the experience, you don’t ge the same irritating insects). I do wonder if and how long it will take before I get bored of this and no longer experience that sensation of visual saturation and inspiration when visiting one of these locations; the kind of feeling that pathologically compels me to make an image or ten. Do lifetime landscape photographers experience a certain sort of over saturation or jadedness? Or is it something that never loses its appeal because the infinite possibilities in varied light, weather, living elements etc. Perhaps somebody in the audience who has shot a lot of landscape can weigh in.

Some of you may of course question my constant desire to deconstruct things and understand why; to which I respond that this understanding is absolutely necessary in order to produce a better, stronger image. We must understand ourselves and our vision before we can seek to consistently make things that use that vision to touch us emotionally, or even at a much simpler level, to know what we enjoy shooting – and why. What this means is that for the foreseeable future, you’ll be seeing quite a bit more landscape work from me; at least until I get bored of it or find something else more interesting to photograph. Now, I’m going to turn it over to the audience now: if landscapes appeal to you, why do you think that is? MT

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Comments

  1. Photographing landscapes is like taking it all in – visual and all thoughts that go along with it. Great skill to capture such sight as close to reality is like a powerful feeling

  2. Many of us im sure have taken shots of what at the time were breathtaking landscapes only to find that when viewed later simply didn’t convey the perspective scale and depth of what we saw on the day. (e.g standing on a hill looking at a wooded valley unfold in front of you) It would be good to hear from a technical point of view the process and steps required to achieve this

  3. Reblogged this on borntofish3.

  4. Arboreal window. Stunning. Tried so many of these myself but I just end up with a mess that later on doesn’t look remotely like anything there at the time. In this one, you can almost smell the greenery and imagine the silence of that moment.

    I’ve found that some of my fondest photographic experiences and memories stemmed from attempting landscape. Standing on a little green hill in the Lake District, UK, and watching and waiting as waves of warm sunlight bathed the little valley in front me with fluffy white clouds moving overhead. That was almost 10 years ago, and I still remember it today like it was yesterday.. ok maybe like last week ! I’ve not had such a similar feeling since in street / urban photography.

    Finally, as you hinted at, I’ve always thought people would rather hang up a landscape photo than a street photo in their living room. Maybe that’s because I live in an urban area. It would be interesting to see if those who live in the country would rather hang a street / urban architecture photograph in their living room. Perhaps a room itself and the four walls is sufficiently “urban” that everyone would rather display a picture of trees and mountains on the wall to offset that. Just a thought.

    • I’m convinced two things need to happen:
      1. You have to be in the location long enough to ‘feel it’, so you know (at least subconsciously) what you’re looking for compositionally;
      2. All-in-focus is wrong. You need a tiny bit of background/foreground blur to make it work the way your eyes see it in reality – and to provide a little separation between subject planes.

      Arboreal Window is better at full resolution, and much better in print 😉

  5. ‘Scapes (land, sea, or city) appeal to me simply because they’re transporting and I like going places – even if it’s just in my mind. A good ‘scape will transport me to that time and place where the photographer made the image, and communicate to me what it was like had I been there myself.

    Great candid portraiture and event photography (in the broad sense, including news event, wedding, sports, concert, or just photos made at a party) does the same for me: successful images tell the story of what it was like to be there.

    I juxtapose that against general street photography, which I have a tough time caring about. I recognize the genre as a great form of art, and I can understand why others are interested in it, but it’s rare that a single street photo can transport me, or for me to care about the story that’s being told.

    It’s little wonder, then, that I rarely do street photography and concentrate on ‘scapes and events: I can understand the stories those genres can tell more easily, and want to tell them myself.

  6. Ming, I can’t wait for your landscape workshop. When you get back to the US, I am sure many of us here would love to share our favorite haunts…whether that be the canyons of the Southwest, the Rocky Mountains, the coast of Big Sur, the changing beauty of Yosemite, or the rain forests of the Northwest. What is it about landscape… how about the changing light on fractal subjects; the impact of moisture in the air (fog, mist , clouds); the thrill of capturing the occasional wild animal? My friend and I planned out a specific shot for three months (Milky Way over Mt. Rainier), picking the right night, location and even time to get the shot we wanted. We got there and it was raining. The clouds parted at 1am, and we both took images we will treasure forever. My wife and I use our love of photography and travel to continue to fuel our love for each other. There are many ways that landscape photography is a joy to those who have discovered it. Welcome. As I said earlier… I can’t wait to have you apply your skills to more landscape photography.

    • Thanks Rudy – in the planning! I would like to do Queenstown, New Zealand, but it seems that it’s too much of a trek for most (though oddly, Iceland isn’t). We’ll have to see…unfortunately the best stuff is also usually the most difficult to get to.

  7. I believe you’ve added to the life list of unique views with “Sunset shadow”. Marvelous! And, to me, never before seen. That’s hard to achieve in landscape photography.

    • Thank you! Requires the right atmospheric conditions, clouds and light…I’m sure it must have happened somewhere else before. I actually saw something similar on the side of the Transamerica Pyramid in SF once, too. It was casting just enough of a penumbra on just enough atmospheric mist (?) to create a similar delineation between light and shadow.

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Ming,

    in “Somewhere near Pantai Morib, Malaysia” the horizon is slightly non-horizontal.
    And that somehow makes the pattern of the naked trees more alive. (I tried righting it.)
    So I’ll have to unlearn my indoctrinated non-straight-horizon allergy.

    ( I’ve occasionally seen very skewed horizons used to good effect, that is not what I mean.)

    And I have noticed the same effect in a couple of your city photos, which did surprise me a bit as a lot of lines get slightly strange directions.
    Interesting!

    • It looks like Ming either consciously or unconsciously aligned the trees with the vertical instead of following the general rule. I totally ignored the horizon-it’s too far in the background. I see the picture as about the rhythm of the tree trunks and not the landscape per se.

      In taking pictures involving architecture, one often strives to make vertical the lines of the buildings, though not all the time. If they are acting as backdrop to peoples’ actions, it often makes good compositional sense to make the buildings vertical as that’s how we read buildings in a normal streetscape. If the horizon in the dead trees scene were to be straightened, the trees would not form a strong enough angle with the frame to lead your eye. With the trees vertical, you get two strong patterns emerging – the line of trees marching from lower left to upper right leading your eye, and the alignment of the tree trunks with the edges of the frame. This makes for a stronger composition, even though from a landscape “recording” perspective the composition is slightly skewed.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        “I see the picture as about the rhythm of the tree trunks and not the landscape per se.”

        Exactly, I chose to call it “more alive”.

        But if you use a ruler you will see that the trees are less vertical than with a horizontal horizon, at least it looks that way to me.

        As for houses in photos,
        I don’t mean when the photographer chooses a certain vertical to be vertical, regardless of a visible horizon; and I don’t mean larger effects, the speak more obviously for themselves.

        I mean photos that are a little non-horizontal and have no vertical verticals (or also with a rather surpriaing choice of a vertical), where the scene in the street is more alive than if the photo had been horizontal.
        And I find the result a bit more surprising when the “twist” is just noticeable.

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Edit:
          I helped a friend amateur artist to frame some abstract drawings for an exhibition.
          One of them (without any horizontal or vertical elements) took a long time;
          hardly noticeable changes in the angular positition had a large influence on the impact of the picture.

        • I looked again at that photo and noticed that the primary horizon line is the sand running at the 1/3 point across the frame, which of course is gently angling down towards the sea. The trunks are curved, so what one takes as “vertical” is a bit open to interpretation, but it does cause the image to be more dynamic. In any case, Ming is drawing us to the foreground and the pattern of the trees.

          Incidentally, Ming, The Meiji Gardens shot is wonderful, and the Sunset Shadow is gorgeous with the mountain-induced cloud formation looking like a flagpole or beacon.

          • Thanks!

            The trees have a bit of a lean to them in real life from prolonged exposure to the prevailing wind coming in off the sea. Aside from the previously mentioned slope counteracting the background tree line, this was about as accurate as I remember it to be…

      • That was deliberate. I’m normally in the straight horizon camp too, but in this case it just looked odd because of the lean of the trees and the line following the rear trees downwards to the water; a little correction was required to retain the impression I had in person at that location.

        Architecture: yes, we read them as vertical because they almost always are. Trees…are not so much so; sometimes the lean conveys plenty in itself (implication of wind, terrain slope etc.)

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          I just find it fascinating how sometimes very small twists, that make the pattern of the real horizontals and verticals just a little bit strange, make the whole image much more alive!

          The trees here is just the kind of image I mean,
          except that I had not seen that there is a horizontal line behind the rear trees!

    • That was deliberate. I’m normally in the straight horizon camp too, but in this case it just looked odd because of the lean of the trees and the line following the rear trees downwards to the water; a little correction was required to retain the impression I had in person at that location.

  9. Note to bucket list file, Queenstown. A study done at MIT concluded landscapes were the lease memorable photos, pictures of people, interiors and familiar objects the most memorable. Note, these results have not been duplicated anywhere else.

    • Not surprised by the results of that study – there’s a lot of bias inherent too because you’re basically comparing images that were of known objects vs ones that weren’t; things people are already familiar with already have memory pathways embedded. And then there’s the question of how do you evaluate images of all of those things for equal artistic impact…you simply can’t. Too many variables making it rather meaningless.

  10. Landscapes can contain unique scenarios. There are some areas that have a special atmosphere. A special magic. It’s great when one managed to reproduce the atmosphere. The hike to the place, find the right angle, time of day and the light. It is a wonderful challenge ❤ 🙂
    All the best,
    Hanna
    PS Thank you for your informative blog

  11. Ming in Iceland – that would be a massive temptation!

    • Okay, that looks like three votes…anybody else for Iceland? I’ll need another two to make it happen.

      • Iceland sounds very intriguing if for nothing more than the totally different kind of landscape, so yes for me, subject to the usual scheduling constraints. Stockholm or Oslo would also be very interesting for me, too. Maybe it’s time for another workshop poll article?

        • Thanks Andre. I’m starting to think those polls are pointless – people who ask for something never reflect the actual numbers signing up, so getting commitment directly makes more sense. I’m going to start an Iceland list…

  12. As living creatures, being immersed in nature or even visiting a greenhouse provokes positive responses in us because the essence of nature is alive and changing as are we. We can appreciate great architecture or a city plan, but we fall in love with a river and feel swallowed up by the ocean and never tire of looking up at the sky. Perhaps it is good to be reminded no matter how clever we are, we can’t top Mother Nature. Are we responding to something of our essential selves in a landscape?

    • Almost certainly – we’re responding to the way life was not so long ago. In evolutionary terms, urban living is very, very new – the last couple of thousand years, which is a mere few percent of the existence of humans, and even less on a larger scale.

  13. For me there is no better way to spend a day than rambling through the woods with my camera and my mp3 player…assuming the weather is playing along! Just to feel removed from the rest of the human world, but still being surrounded by life is intoxicating, exhilarating, mesmerising…great for recharging the soul and putting a bit of perspective on whatever problems I may be going through. The experience is also multi-sensory, engaging eyes, ears, nose, and touch. Making a frame that captures it all and distills it into the essence…that is very tough. So few manage it, particularly when light isn’t obviously magical, or the atmospherics such as mist are absent, and you as the photographer have to make the atmosphere in the image. Partly I think this is due to the sheer amount of visual bombardment that can occur in these environments…so much structure and detail that it becomes chaotic, and can be hard to capture the spatial relationships in a way that transcends the 2D nature of the medium. Challenging light, subtle, but important colour variations, it is a photographically difficult environment So, when someone manages it, and I feel transported to such a place, then intellectually I can admire their success, and enjoy it on the more primitive level that has already been discussed.

    • I’ve always been on the fence about music: it transports you to your own world and creates a reinforcing memory that comes to the fore whenever you hear that piece again, but then you lose the birdsong, rustle of leaves, whisper of flowing water, etc…tough call. 🙂

  14. Even I live in the quite open and in the very middle of nature untouched by man, I have a strong desire to surround myself indoor with *landscape* art. It has become an almost addiction the scapes are Ultraprinted since the fidelity and great feeling of being there is astounding and drags you in in a way no other form of excellent printing work. I have a need to relate to Mother Earth unplugged when surrounded by man made structures, that’d be cities down to ones own home.
    Ming, this set of images are art at it’s best. Thank you. And I do hope you will show us much more of the kind.

    • Thanks Gerner – yes, more to come. They’re a lot harder to make since I’ve got to get out of Malaysia to make them though…light in the tropics is pretty terrible for this kind of thing because the sun just describes an arc directly overhead.

  15. Guy Incognito says:

    A while back you posted a photoessay of Melbourne. In the comments section, the difference in reaction between locals and foreigners was interesting. Locals largely identifying with the images and foreigners ascribing American, European or “international” qualities to the images. Globalization can make places tend towards looking culturally ‘flat’. Salient aspects of a culture such as local customs, language, humor and attitudes can be near impossible to capture visually.

    One thing that globalization does not tend to affect are the natural resources of a country. Had you posted landscapes taken in Australia, I bet there would have been a stronger recognition of ‘Australiana’ in the images, particularly from the international community. Your recent landscape images of New Zealand, California and Japan, to me, are unmistakably New Zealand, California and Japan!

    Why do landscapes appeal to me? I love nature! Primitive circuits spark visual analogies for life (lush, green), death (arid, brown), hope (new growth, shafts of light) and the passage of time (weathering, erosion, autumn ‘fall’). These images and concepts don’t require an appreciation of art to resonate with. For me landscapes are also a surrogate for visiting places/ecosystems I am unlikely to experience in my lifetime.

    Why does taking landscape photos appeal to me? As an amateur, it is partially the process and not entirely the product. Hiking is a good excuse for taking photos. The will to take photos is a good excuse for going hiking. Time spent somewhere beautiful that resulted in no keepers, is still time well spent!

    • Bingo. It’s not just our subconscious ‘species memory’, but also the effect of color on our psyche – or the expectation of color and palette from a certain physical location.

    • BIngo, Guy. More so than ever, human cities are globalized and very familiar, although the signs may look different as well as the peoples. It is fun and exciting to go to these different locations, but much of the expeience will be the same as your familiar haunts.

      Urban environments because of their density offer an intensity and micro-scale variety that provides for continuous photographic opportunities, and the obvious patterns in those environments trigger basic mechanisms in our brains – I find looking at architecture fascinating because of its regularity and purity, for example – but at a macro level the experience across the world is fundamentally the same.

      Landscapes indeed introduce a fractal-ness that stimulates us as well as calms us. That pattern-matching that is so overstimulated in the urban environment relaxes to its evolutionary level – of detecting useful patterns within the environment – and we slow down. Landscape photography is a lot like fishing – you have to be willing to wait for the right moment, the right light, the right season, and to return time after time to a favored location to capture something exceptional. The cost of doing this is quite high – time, effort, equipment, discomfort, risk. Those who excel at it are drawn to this acquiescence to natural rhythms.

      As I write this I am looking at your image of the snags in the Malaysian lake. This is an interesting synthesis of the architectural and the natural – architecturally stark and regular, but still organic. It will be interesting to see how your seeing evolves to perceive the more subtle patterns in the natural environment, Ming. There have been tantalizing glimpses of it heretofore.

      • I think there is a form of street photography that is like the landscape too: you have to return to a scene many times, and perhaps take many pictures of it before you find that one true picture. It may not look or feel like classic street photography, though …

      • What I’m finding is that the built environment is rather predictable, as you say. There’s nothing very fractal about it until you get to much, much larger scales; and even then it’s usually got something to do with how it interacts with its surroundings.

        Seeing the subtlety is one thing. Translating it is another – that’s been the main challenge up to this point; forget web images. Print is getting there (Ultraprinting, specifically) and higher resolution helps, but there’s still a bit of something missing that either requires a bit too much postprocessing enhancement for my liking, or just doesn’t quite translate the way we see it. I need more mountains and more paper…

  16. Ming, please do a workshop in Iceland 🙂

  17. Stunning work and I like the new direction as I appreciate the landscape inspiration. The cities are a bit of a drive for me…

  18. Kristian Wannebo says:

    … And, without saying anything more, I looked across the ridges of sand that were stretched out before us in the moonlight.
    “The desert is beautiful,” the little prince added.
    And that was true. I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams . . .
    “What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well . . .”
    I was astonished by a sudden understanding of that mysterious radiation of the sands.
    . . .
    “Yes,” I said to the little prince. “The house, the stars, the desert–what gives them their beauty is something that is invisible!”
    “I am glad,” he said, “that you agree with my fox.”

    ( de Saint Exupéry from The Little Prince )

  19. Not everybody “escapes” into “reality”. Some lucky ones live in it. Great images as always.

  20. Gary Morris says:

    If you get back to the US and want to take a few days off from your sessions, I’d be happy to load you and your gear into my oversize, gas guzzling truck (Ford Raptor) and drive you into the mountains of northern New Mexico (where I live) and southern Colorado for some Sangre de Cristo and southern Rocky Mountains scenery. Bring your 645Z!

  21. I had a hard time reading through all the words but Holy Jesus your images are super special

    You have a great eye

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