From the archives: The appeal of landscape

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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. Of late, however, I’ve found the process meditative (if frantic when light serves) and challenging in a good way: a successful image must parse a very three-dimensional and fractal subject into a limited reproduction medium, which forces you to carefully visualise the result and output medium.


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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.

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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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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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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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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.

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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. Excellent work! I think working within your own geographic boundaries can be the most rewarding because we can be there when the conditions are right.

  2. My favorite photos of yours are the nature-scapes, either landscapes, tree-scapes, or cloud-scapes, or those lovely (like photo 3) airplane-window-scapes. I’m excited to see where these go. Your post on Australian sunsets was also gorgeous – my wife loves them too, to the point where she asked about a print. I demurred. I just bought a high-quality at home printer so I’m worried your Ultraprints will make my new toy look so obsolete I’ll stop using it!

    Anyway, I agree about landscapes, the therapeutic benefits and beauty and mental-transportation they allow. I’m still a neophyte but I’ve had good luck with animals, wild, semi-wild (wildlife refuge), or captive and I’m enjoying them. I’ve had less luck with landscapes. Part of that is where I live (the Great Plains of North America), which doesn’t have forests, few many lakes/ponds, no mountains, and almost no elevation changes. What we do have is the endless sky and the occasionally fabulous sunrise or sunset to set them off. I just need the time (and foreknowledge!) to be able to shoot them how I’d like. I’m trying to convince my wife to go on a family vacation to Rocky Mountain National Park next year so I can slake my thirst for mountain-scapes.

    My other issue is my wonderful little toddler – the best times to get landscapes are when he’s waking up or going to bed. I don’t want to miss that time with him.

    • Well, we all have to start somewhere. You can always blame it on your camera 😛

      Lots of variables involved in nature; you can’t light the scene, but fortunately I think lousy weather actually has a charm and mood of its own.

  3. Richard P. says:

    Hi Ming,
    Landscape is my preferred genre and I am happy to read you are considering this more and more. I agree with you and your readers that tastes can be influenced on where you grew up or currently live – but there are infinite possibilities of landscape compositions available. I can enjoy a good landscape shot if it shows me something outside of my regular life or if the photographer presents the landscape in a very interesting, unique perspective. In all cases the your criteria for excellent images apply.
    Keep shooting your amazing landscapes!
    Thanks,
    Richard

  4. MIng

    I agree with your natural reaction to natural looking photographs. Looking at presentations on the web and in print I’ve not seen a propensity toward literal (or at least literal feeling) rendering. I would also probably agree that ultra prints are a wonderful print medium. I’ve looked at hundreds of carbro, dye transfer, C, Cibachrome, contact, Ultrastable, Lightjet, inkjet prints…. Regardless of the medium the first thing I notice is the seeing of the photographer. For me if the element of personal vision is not there it does not matter much what the presentation is. It’s not likely that a convincing artistic statement can be made if the original is lacking.

    Having spent the larger portion of my life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains (my family and I live at 7,200 feet on the east side of the range) I can say that my involvement with this place was a prerequisite for any hope of good work to evolve. The other place in my mountain life is the Brooks Range of Alaska. It’s taken me many trips over twelve years to make what I consider to be pictures of the place. The light in the Brooks is beyond anything I have seen or imagined. It took me ten days to make a 4×5 chrome on my first trip. What I saw and felt when we first landed in the arctic did not translate into a picture. And I’d been through the exercise of trying to force a composition in my initial excitement with a new place. I’ve learned to stop, put the camera away, and walk, and walk, and walk. And watch the light, and calm myself down.

    In your landscape (outdoor and not in a city) photographs I see someone who is sensitive and skilled at their craft. But I don’t see a deep involvement with the landscape. I imagine you walking around, constrained by commitments, and doing what you can given the time you have. This might work if many years of practice, travel, etc. concentrated your effort on landscapes. But I think the very best work comes from artists who have experienced the place. Adams, Porter, Misrach, Meyerowitz, Wawrzonek,….. are examples. Practitioners that can walk onto scene and nail it like Bresson, in my book, are few and far between.

    I also see that a number of your pictures have human (pathways, second growth forest, roads) element. The feeling of being somewhere that has a human construction is fine if that is what you’re after. For me like Chris Burkett I need to be where the human touch isn’t interrupting my revelry. Perhaps leaving the essay format behind on one of your outdoor outings might be a way to feel something different.

    Sorry that this isn’t a gush about your photos. But as you said you’ve only been at landscapes for a year or so. As you probably know, marriages take a long time.

    Claude

    • Marriages often fail, too – and we have the benefit or limitation of personal bias, which I suppose sort of translates into being able to have a much larger pool to curate from if you’ve done it often. More time, more locations, and probably less time spent here might translate into better results.

  5. This helped me appreciate nature..you are awesome

  6. I forgot to mention that I find these landscapes very meditative and much more appealing that the hyper-saturated, cinematically lit attempts to recapture the Hudson River School paintings that dominate so much of landscape photography.

  7. These pics are gorgeous! I especially loved the third one!!

  8. I live in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales in the UK and I am surrounded by mountains,lakes and crystal clear rivers right out of my door, but I am greatly inspired by your street and architechtural photography. I am therefore on the opposite journey looking to capture everyday life and the beauty of a cityscape.

    • I think we should swap locations for a couple of months!

    • I understand where Rob is coming from. I grew up in the rural American west and now live in a small city about 50 miles NW of Seattle. The out-of-doors has always been part of my life. Photos of wild or rural places are so ho-hum for me. I’ve made them, even sold many but finally gave it up because I was bored. I’m more interested in the landscapes of Robert Adams than Ansel Adams. It’s probably true that opposites attract.
      OTH, there is a good deal of research that shows that being outside in nature, even the bit of nature in a rooftop garden, has positive effects on mood. We’re probably genetically hardwired to need natural environments to thrive. If you’re missing that, landscape photos can be therapeutic.

      • I think for a large portion of the population that’s the case these days – in big cities it’s possible to live there your entire life and hardly see anything other than tiny and contrived slices of nature…

  9. Don’t feel too bad about the houseplant situation: from my direct experience of the horticulture industry, these plants are grown originally in very dedicated environments by suppliers: by the time they receach the warehouse multiples (and the unsuspecting general public are tempted to make a purchase) it’s already very much downhill for them!

    As for landscapes, it is so much about the emotional aspect of photography I think: it needs to be a about a feeling and a sense of connection with a place, and all other aspects, while important, are subsidiary to that. My other comment on your landscape shots is that when photographing greens you tend to have a lot of glare in the images – I would have been tempted to add a bit of polarisation (at least on digital – perhaps Velvia is getting the better of me in a good way) to saturate those colours a bit more.

    • Well, at least I know I can always make potpourri 🙂

      I’ve experimented with polarisation before (presumably for leaves) and never quite liked the resulting ‘matte’ feel – somehow the foliage doesn’t feel as alive, fresh or crisp. I suppose it’s the association with (perceived) moisture…

  10. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I’m dying to see where this goes next, Ming. I love your work.

    My excuse for loving landscape photography is no different from my excuses for all the rest of my photography – I love the study of light, shapes, colours. Perhaps with landscape that provides more variety – is that the reason it attracts me? Reflecting on that question, I think not – because I love the challenge of something simpler – but then, hey, I can do “simpler” with landscape too, and doing THAT is a challenge too. I give up – I’ll read your version instead – LOL

    Now that you are a changeling, can I heave a suggestion your way? I once went to Genting Highlands Casino as a guest of management (don’t ask – it’s a long story!) and was struck by the “low lying clouds”. Actually I think it’s more a case of “high rising mountains”, but the outcome is much the same either way. From my bedroom window in the main tower block, I could look DOWN on the clouds. Can’t do that in this country, what we call “mountains” here are barely even “hills”. It suggested a wide range of possibilities for photography, but I didn’t have my camera[s] with me at the time. Since Genting is almost next door to you, would you like to pursue the thought and do a shoot there?

    • Thanks – yes, landscape works everywhere along the spectrum from wimmelbild to minimalist – though rarely in the same location, given the nature of organic objects. Fortunately, we have the ability to average out motion in a living, moving scene – long exposures help with the minimalism…

      Genting: been on many occasions, but the weather almost never cooperates (and vantage points are tricky). I’ve actually had much better luck from airplanes outbound of KL…

  11. I think you have nailed it….it’s escapism and a sense of calm and wonder.

    Perhaps cavemen DNA as you eluded to…..we all need our tree fix or mountain fix or sunset fix….it roots us.

    I live in Alaska….arguably a pretty photogenic location like Iceland or New Zealand…and I never tire of all Alaska offers! It always changes and is never the same.

    No one does street, architectural, cityscapes, and so many other facets of photography as you do….I look forward to your journey (and pics) and hope you never tire of it!

    Keith Confer
    Anchorage, Alaska

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