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image shows photographer sat in the countryside holding his camera. The view of the country behind is blurred.

Is landscape photography about the land - or the photographer?

Posted on: February 24, 2021

Paul Hill, author of Approaching Photography, discusses, from a personal point of view, how and why he photographs the countryside where he lives

Do you ever consider what motivates your choice of location when setting out to do landscape photography? Why did you go there in the first place?
What are you looking at? Is it what confronts you, or are you trying to find the type of photograph you admire - and just replicate it? In other words, would you like to be original, or just a copyist?

Our social, educational, cultural background establishes our visual literacy, and how we interpret photographs. We inevitably see in them what we want to see. In my opinion, the majority of landscape photographs I see rarely challenge or surprise. They are predictable and formulaic and pose few philosophical or visual questions.

In 1982 I wrote the first edition of Approaching Photography. It challenged the facile categorisation of photographic genres, by advocating that photographers should make work that was driven by the desire to say something, rather than to show something. What you point your camera at is, of course, crucial, but it is only the starting point on what could be a journey of self discovery, rather than an exercise in making decorative clichés. It appears that sadly little has changed, although one should always remember, however, that today’s clichés were yesterday’s visual breakthroughs!

The camera can anchor us to a specific place, or to an idea, which enables us to explore, observe, and re-present both the external world and our
internal reactions to it. So why is it that most camera owners seem to select the same scenic formulae? You know what I mean - waterfalls using a slow shutter speed, shafts of light descending though gaps in the clouds, wet stones on the foreshore of lakes with towering mountains behind, and the trusty old wooden jetty thrusting its way towards some watery infinity. But photography can offer so much more, even to the novice, than that. Photography can be a formidable tool of investigation for the curious and adventuresome as it offers firsthand experience of the many mysteries around us: the mysteries of nature and society – and of our own selves. It combines the real world and the world of the imagination.

Whenever landscape photography comes up the words ‘beautiful’ and  ‘beauty’ are often used. What moves us to call something like a sunset beautiful? We put the word ‘beauty’ on certain subject matter, but what makes it often confusing is that there is no clear consensus on what beauty actually is. Maybe we feel a sense of harmony, a soothing sensation, or a gut feeling, when we contemplate what are for us ‘beautiful’ things. Beauty is a thing you have to feel inwardly, but never assume that what you think of as beautiful is going to be appreciated as beautiful by other people. And never let people brainwash you into accepting their definition of beauty as the only valid one.

‘Beautiful’ is also a convenient word frequently used to describe pictures, but it is an imprecise one, like ‘nice’. Photographs that promote the picturesque may be pleasant and soothing, but they confirm an idea of pastoral bliss, which may not be accurate. Is there a cement factory or opencast mine lurking just out of frame beyond the leafy bower and the twinkling stream? And if there are such things there, is it not more honest to include them in the picture too? Would the juxtaposition of the  ‘ugly’ and the ‘beautiful’ not make the viewer more aware of what man is doing to the natural landscape we so love?

When we think of places to photograph we rarely think of our own immediate environment, probably because we cannot see any interest in what is closest to us. We feel that the interesting and unusual lie in designated areas of outstanding beauty instead of under our noses. Like with all photographs, the aim should be to illuminate and excite, not reinforce a stereotyped vision of the world that we are often in danger of receiving from commerce and the media, as well as from ‘instructors’. For example, there could be as much grandeur in a photograph of forms made by light and shade on the back wall of your house as there is in a picture of a distant mountain range.

With the availability of air travel and relatively cheap package tours in the second half of the 20th century, exotic locations became accessible, and as we are all aware photographs are used to help sell the ‘magic carpet’ dream. This is why we always get a favourable and idealised impression of tourist destinations from travel brochures and photographic holiday websites. But many contemporary photographers wish to follow the subjective, more personal pathway, believing that they can reveal, through photography, or camera vision, the otherness of existence – the spirit, or essence. Visual metaphors, in other words. With these practitioners, the ambition is to make work that only uses the real world as the starting point, and to end up with images that transcend the physical nature of things. They quite often use the landscape as their motif, as I often do.

I started photographing fields and walls, paths and trackways, dead hares, foxes and badgers because they are what I see most days, as I live a mile away from the southern edge of the Peak National Park. Half the population of Britain lives within one hour’s drive of the borders of the Park. Tourism is our area’s biggest employer and reliant on the partial and persuasive use of photography to attract visitors, in order to maintain economic stability for the inhabitants of this mostly rural community. Whilst enjoying being amongst the hills and dales visitors indulge in the largest creative pastime in the world – photography. And they nearly always attempt to re-create the images that persuaded them to visit the area in the first place. To do ‘something different’ is rarely a considered option. Why?

Despite what the ‘experts’ say, you also don’t have to go to remote or exotic places, national parks or mountain ranges to make landscape photographs either. The land is the stuff under your feet, and is everywhere. In your backyard and garden, in retail parks and industrial estates, as well as in picturesque dingles and glens.

Because I walk a lot, I prefer to travel light. This is useful as I believe vantage point is the most important part of photography, and if I am scrambling up crags or trees to improve and experiment with my field of view, I don’t want to be constricted by a big camera and several lenses, not to mention a tripod. It’s difficult enough contending with the vagaries of our climate, plowing through bogs, leaping over streams, negotiating access, and contending with snarling dogs without having to be a Sherpa too! Less, in this regard, is definitely more, as it gives me more visual options – and being a bit of a rock climber, I also like the tactile contact with the land. I have almost always used a 35mm camera, but nowadays I mostly use a smartphone.

Landscape photography is not about composing to 'the rule of thirds’, or the conjunction of the horizon with the azure blue sky, or sunsets, or grand vistas. It is about much, much more than that. Always consider where you are, what you are looking at, how you feel, and what are you trying to convey. You may be in the countryside because you have an interest in ecology, wildlife, health and fitness, topography, history, plants, or like me, you are already a rural dweller. And all these factors should influence the way you photograph the land - from a personal and original perspective.

Copyright @ Paul Hill