Stretching The Landscape

Where is landscape photography going today? How might we as photographers find new inspiration and approaches to this classic subject?


Stretching The Landscape

When it comes to tradition, landscape photography ranks up there with mom and apple pie. Photography got its start with landscapes as subjects since they remained motionless during the long exposures needed. As exploration of places like the American West began, landscape photography showed the world what these regions looked like. It was landscape photography that helped stimulate the formation of our national park system. Talk about traditional values!

What about today, though? Is landscape photography a remnant of the past as some critics have complained? Is our world over-photographed so that there’s nothing new to capture with our cameras as certain social critics have written? Where is landscape photography going and can it still make a difference for photographers and even our world like it did in the past?

Dewitt Jones and I have discussed these and other photography issues over the years. We believe that landscape photography definitely has a great future for our readers and there are many opportunities to create fresh and compelling imagery. Recently, we took some time to specifically talk about landscape photography today for this landscape issue of Outdoor Photographer.

Rob Sheppard: Dewitt, there has been a lot of discussion about landscape photography not changing, how it might not be adapting to new needs of our world. How do you respond to that?

Dewitt Jones: Obviously, landscapes don’t change much from year to year. The Tunnel View at Yosemite will always be Tunnel View at Yosemite, short of some huge earthquake. Then there’s a tendency among many photographers to endlessly copy the traditional masters of landscape photography simply because the landscape Ansel Adams photographed can be photographed again today.

Yet I believe we live in a time with more creative possibilities due to many technological changes. We can do much more than be visual scriveners who just copy the scene with our cameras if we allow ourselves to play in the creative realm. That can lead to both new ways of seeing as well as enriching our traditional work.

Sheppard: I think it’s interesting to look at the history of photography and note that a lot of creative experimenting occurred early on simply because when photography was new, photographers had to be creative to overcome some of its limitations. Gustave Le Gray, for example, made a well-known photograph of a seascape with a ship leaving port in 1857 by making two exposures, one for the sea and one for the sky, and combined them in the darkroom—a very creative approach to the limitations of the medium at the time, which we take for granted today. Multiple exposures became common, and even William Henry Fox Talbot tried multi-shot panoramas as early as the mid-1840s.

Yet that also points to a very real limitation photographers had for a long time. Learning this craft used to be hard. Being a photographer 100 years ago took a lot of effort to master everything from exposure to printing, so only a few photographers could conquer that playing field at the highest levels. That’s no longer true. Automatic focus, auto-exposure and so much more cut out that learning curve so anyone can get technically good photos.

Sheppard: In a way, that’s a problem. Equipment today is so excellent that it’s easy to get a good picture. Perhaps there’s less incentive to take the extra step to get a better photo. It’s easy to get a photo that looks a lot like something the traditional masters did.

It comes down to how can we see the world differently. This isn’t simply an exercise in creativity, but really about changing the way we think about ourselves, in growing as a photographer and an individual. You might compare the automation in cameras today to cars and look at a stick shift versus automatic transmission. The automatic makes a lot of things easier about driving, but it can’t find a destination for you. You have to decide what you want and where you want to go. The same, old boring destination is easy. You don’t have to think about that. But to find a new place to go with your car has nothing to do with automatic or stick transmissions and everything to do with yourself.

Let’s get a little more specific. You’ve been experimenting with a number of things, including coloring black-and-white infrared images, something not in the usual repertoire of a nature photographer. I have a feeling that if many photographers tried this, it would be being different for different’s sake, which wouldn’t have so much to do with the photographer’s “self.”

Jones: Absolutely true. But sometimes we don’t have the answer as to what will break open our creativity. Sometimes we have to push it, including using new techniques you’ve never tried before just for their own sake. Sometimes when we do that, we start to see the landscape in a different way, even if at first it’s just for oneself. When I first started my infrared work, my watercolor effects, it wasn’t all good. Some of it was pretty bad. But it made me look at the world differently.

This is what has excited me about many of the new techniques I’ve experimented with, making me see nature and the landscape in a new way. You start with something that isn’t necessarily what you even like, but the process can transform you and your experience.

I’ve found Photoshop to be like that as well. It can allow you to evolve what you see in a photograph. You don’t have to stop the creative juices when you finish pushing the shutter button. Photoshop is more than a digital darkroom.

Sheppard: I also find that work in Photoshop, even somewhat traditional work, can help you see in different ways. You experiment and play. Not everything is useful, but it can influence what you do later. I’ve found that I see skies differently because of Photoshop, for example. I’d work on an image and say to myself that the colors in the sky weren’t real, something had gone wrong. But then I’d be outside and see those colors in the sky and realize that skies were far greater than the “box” the photo frame I had put them into.

Jones: In many ways, it comes down to expanding our visual acumen. By experimenting, trying new things and opening ourselves to new photographic experiences, it helps us to enjoy the world more, it affects how we photograph and, frankly, it can just make the whole process more fun.

Sheppard: It affects how we frame the world. If we see possibilities, if we open ourselves to new approaches, to new visions, it can open us to seeing new and special things in our world. If we just see a scene that has to be captured, the answer is reduced to getting a new camera, lens or technology.

The hard part, I think, is avoiding being too quick to judge what’s new or different. Sometimes, we want to judge how a familiar scene is captured, did we follow the rules, rather than something deeper that can really connect us with the scene.

How involved are we with shooting that scene? By experimenting, by working that scene in new ways, we gain more involvement. Let’s face it, modern cameras have removed the drudgery of things like focus and exposure. Now we can be free to find new ways of looking at a landscape. Now we can question our landscape photos: Why this shot and not another? Why is there beauty in this framing and not another? This process is important.

Sheppard: I think new ways of shooting can make a difference. A lot of workshop leaders will tell you that so many students bring in the same sort of images; I can tell you that while many of the submissions to OP are technically great, the photos look a lot the same. They offer little that’s special to an individual photographer. I don’t think every photo a photographer makes has to be radically new and different; in fact, that would be counterproductive for most pros. But having something new, something fresh that will enliven and enrich any photographer’s work—I can tell you, it will gain more attention.

Jones: Ultimately, I think, there’s a blending of the traditional and the new that’s important. There are so very, very many landscape images out there today; something fresh will rise above the rest of the images. If this wasn’t true, we might as well be punch-press operators stamping out the same photographs; the only difference is that they will be cheaper when the work goes offshore.

When a photographer finds a fresh voice, shows off distinctive ways of seeing, he or she stands out. Truly, such photographers have no competition. They’re different, unique, themselves, and therefore not in competition with others in those areas.

Every person has the potential of seeing the world through his or her own eyes and finding a unique view of the world. That takes study, training, experimenting and a willingness to celebrate new ways of seeing. We should see photography with its potential of celebration, of sharing the world we see, not of competition with other photographers. Yet when images stick to the shots, the compositions, the techniques that everyone uses, then they must compete because they’re not unique.

Sometimes photographers do want to get the shot just like the pro’s work they have seen, yet that can be a disappointing route to take. A copy can never capture the life of the original vision. In addition, in nature photography, a photo often is the culmination of a special trip, the unique weather at the time, what was going on inside the photographer’s head and so forth.

Jones: Exactly. As soon as you play the game of matching a particular landscape photographer, you have some difficult challenges. You have to be there in the same conditions and hope God favors you with the same light. That can be frustrating.

I believe it’s much better to go to the landscape and start playing, finding things that delight your eye. Maybe nothing good comes from that day of photography, but it will influence other images later. Copying is okay as a beginning photographer, but then you have to step out and go beyond that. If you don’t keep playing with your lens and landscape, life just goes out of the photos. Longtime shooters can face something similar if they don’t push themselves beyond doing the same things with their shots.

I think it comes down to this: Do we get lost in the same photographic things, whether that’s a particular favorite composition or technique? Or do we relax and simply fall in love with the landscape and what’s there? To do that, it’s worth loosening up and playing a little with your photography. You’ll create new work that will find that special element in both the landscape and in you.