Monday, 4 February 2013

Nothing But Blue Skies

Ever since Mike Johnston fingered me as a prime example of "a photographer who doesn't put horizons in his pictures" (in front of 30,000 people on TOP) I've been thinking about that observation.

Of course, we all walk around covered in labels that other people -- with varying degrees of justification -- insist on hanging on us. As an instinctive contrarian, I've spent most of my life rejecting them, though I do suspect this means it's easy to practise cunning Br'er Rabbit-style reverse psychology on me from time to time.  One day, I must ask the Prof how she inveigled me into doing all the cooking for the past 20 years, for example, though that may simply have been me reacting, contrarian-wise, to the labels hung on my gender.  "Real men don't cook"; oh, really?  Eat that, mate!

But Mike had a point.  I do have a problem with skies.  Several problems, in fact.

  1. One of the obvious disadvantages of being a photographer is that you have no control over the sky that happens to be happening over your chosen subject.  You can fake it in Photoshop, of course, or decide to wait and see, or come back later, but by and large you're stuck with that large area of over-bright randomness doing its own thing overhead, like some clown mooning from a passing car or making bunny ears at the back of the group.

  2. If you're going to include the sky, then unless it's pretty overcast you have to throw away some of your exposure range at one end or the other: either end up with "blocked" and noisy shadows or accept a white featureless blank up top.  Exclude (most of) the sky, and you have more creative options.

  3. Back in the early days of digital, with less well-designed sensors and software, the problem of ugly purple-fringing and other artefacts around branches seen against a bright sky used to drive me nuts.  I have spent entire afternoons carefully painting the edge of every damn twig in a tree.  It was a chore comparable to spotting out dust marks on darkroom prints.  I avoided trees against skies, which is easier said than done, and can form the basis of a whole aesthetic of horizonless images.

  4. Skies are generally pretty dull.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good sky, but they don't happen anywhere near as often as they should.  By and large, the sky is like expanses of featureless grass: ubiquitous, and not particularly interesting.

  5.  "Good" skies tend towards the tacky end of the aesthetic spectrum.  They're the province of the users of graduated filters, polarizers, and HDR software.  No sky was ever that blue, no cloud so pneumatic, no sunset quite so psychedelic.  Big skies and sunsets are nature's way of exposing your lack of taste.

  6. A pictured sky is never negligible.  You cannot ignore the compositional weight of clouds, vapour trails, and blue, pink and grey areas in a two-dimensional image.  You can use them, if you're lucky, but you cannot ignore them.  If they're all wrong, for your purposes, you have three choices:  wait, fake it, or cut them out. 

The problem, of course, is that landscape pictures without sky can feel claustrophobic and airless, and people may build entire theories about your personality or artistic "message" based on that.  I don't blame them -- I would, too -- but put those labels somewhere else, please.  And, who knows, I may be just about to start including lots of sky in all my photographs, though somehow I doubt it.  See 1-6 above, especially 5 and 6.




Subtle, but...  It's just the sky.

Addendum 5/2/2013:

I should mention two outstanding photobooks which take the sky as their subject:  Richard Misrach's The Sky Book (Arena, 2000) and the more recent Sunburn by Chris McCaw (Candela, 2012). Examples of artists who take the "problem" of the sky and work with it to produce something radical.


Jeff said...


I'm no great lover of skies either, and agree with you that 'Good skies tend towards the tacky end of the aesthetic spectrum' often. If I remember rightly the TOP comment came on the heels of a discussion about Eliot Porter. He must stand as the master of the skyless landscape.

Zouk Delors said...

There's a difference, isn't there, between "a photo with a horizon" and "a photo of the sky" or even "a photo with a lot of sky in it"?

A photo with a horizon only needs enough sky to frame the highest object on the horizon, and if the sky is bland then that serves all the more clearly to define that horizontal outline.

Perhaps the images you more typically create are indicative of a nature which seeks to approach and examine minutiae, while a more horizontally-oriented art speaks of a nature inclined to look beyond and to contextualise?

Or summink? No offence, Guv.

PS Your earlier post, "Dear Reader, I Didn't Marry Her" tells me that, as regards your cooking duties, you would be unable to plead "marital coercion", a legal concept I wasn't aware of until I heard news today of (the former?) Mrs Huhne advancing it in her defence. Even assuming it was ever a plea open to husbands, it's hard to imagine one (even, or especially, you) on the stand, pointing and screaming: "SHE MADE ME!".

Mike C. said...


I must admit, I'm not a fan of Eliot Porter -- horizons aside, I find his use of colour and choice of subject matter doesn't work for me -- I don't feel the necessary emotional connection. It always reminds me of guys whose sleeves are perfectly rolled, and who keep their tools in labelled drawers...


Yes, I agree -- I've simply re-cycled the terminology from the TOP post. I'd maybe characterise my work as "emphasising the two-dimensionality of the flat image", and not seeking to create illusions of depth and 3-D "presence". I like making a picture "out of" the shapes and the colours more than "of" them.

Ah, Chris Huhne... I'm going to have to post That Picture again, aren't I? And yes, "marital coercion" -- what an amazingly useful idea. Finally, a reason to get married...


Graham Dew said...

Nice pics Mike! Oops – sorry – didn’t mean it!

Yes, the sky too often works against you, for all the reasons you list. For me that the ground will often be just as problematic – it’s just too big to move around to get the composition you want, to have it lit correctly. Perhaps that’s why landscape paintings can be so much more compelling than landscape photos.


Mike C. said...


Yes, landscape photography is a very tricky genre to get right, and very few do. I've always had a problem with the "Charlie Waite" and even the "Ansel Adams" tendencies, which have a lot more in common with "glamour" photography than their practitioners might like to think.

On landscape painting, I've being very interested recently by the work shown on this blog:

The guy's very conservative in his views, but has terrific taste in landscape painting, and I'd love to know what his sources are.


Graham Dew said...

Landscape as glamour? I see your point. In both of these genres the output seems to be more determined by the process rather any artistic or intellectual imperative. So often it is photography-by-numbers – big cameras, big lenses, big tripods, big software. At one club where I was giving a lecture I overheard a couple of photographers teasing each other about their pictures. Looking at a coastal scene one said to the other “what you need here is a JCB”. I asked what he meant. “Joe Cornish Boulder” he chuckled!

BTW excellent link - thanks

Mike C. said...


Ha! JCB -- like it!

Yes, so much landscape work is simply an attempt to recreate the look and feel of already existing model photographs -- thinking about it, its other cousin is model railway building...


Jeff said...

Mike, I'd be interested to look at some landscape photography that you do like. I understand the comment on glamour. I also find that technique, level of difficulty and the print itself often seem to take precedence over straight composition. All of those are irrelevant to me if the image doesn't grab me.

Mike C. said...


Some random landscape names, with the books I like best, though you can probably see plenty on their websites or via Google:

Jem Southam -- "Red River", "Raft of Carrots"
Richard Misrach -- "Desert Cantos"
Thomas Joshua Cooper -- "Dreaming the Gokstadt", "Between Dark and Dark"
Pentti Sammallahti -- "Peninsula", "Here Far Away"
Susan Derges -- anything you can find
Mark Power -- "The Shipping Forecast"
Raymond Moore -- anything you can find
Peter Bialobrzeski -- "Heimat"
Andreas Gefeller -- "Supervisions"
Jamey Stillings -- "The Bridge at Hoover Dam"
Edward Burtynsky -- "Manufactured Landscapes"

I'd also throw in the names of two British "landscape artists" who use photography:

Hamish Fulton
Richard Long

And then there is Fay Godwin, perhaps the most influential English landscape photographer, whose book "Land" is a must-have, though her star has faded in this century.


Jeff said...

Thanks Mike. I'll take a look at their work. I must admit that Burtynsky is the only name on the list that I am familiar with so I have a bit of research to do.

Les Dix said...

Why do you feel the star of Fay Godwin has faded?

Mike C. said...

Les Dix,

I'm not sure whether you mean "why do I think this has happened?" or whether you are questioning my assertion that it has?

Despite the big show in Bradford in 2011, I'm fairly sure few serious photographers under 45 would cite Fay as an influence, or even recognise her name.

The game has moved on, and she is pretty firmly situated in the scene of the 1970s and 80s, associated with a pure pictorial black and white aesthetic, based in the hands-on darkroom and disseminated through workshops at Paul Hill's Photographers Place and Peter Goldfield's Duckspool, not to mention the journal Creative Camera.

See my post "Ray and Fay" at

I think her best work is still outstanding, but much of it does look dated and "illustrative" now, in the same way that, say, Ted Hughes' poems have started to look "of their time". As it's also my time, I'm still very fond of it, of course, but it was 30 years ago!


Gavin McL said...

Mike, I've bought a couple of Fay Godwin's books partly on your recommendation and I have one by my desk at work at when it all gets a bit stressful looking at her pictures takes the edge off it. I wonder however if the humour and politics in some of her photographs doesn't fit in with current landscape photography ethos. Photos like
Which was probably taken within walking distance of that poor Rannoch Moor tree.
Politics & Humour?:
She also did good sky:
Always enjoyable - but I'm late for work

Mike C. said...


My favourite Godwin title (though not book!) is "Tess: The Story of a Guide Dog" (with Peter Purves) from 1981, which will cause British readers of a certain age to smile. You wouldn't catch Richard Misrach illustrating a children's TV spinoff!

Fay was a working photographer in the 1960s mode, first and foremost, probably originally best known for her portraiture, and her illustrative work in walking guides, etc. She was a very down-to-earth person, and I think she felt uncomfortable with the idea of herself as an "artist".

Her ability to photograph landscape in an insightful way was very connected to her desire to walk over it, not theorise about it or glamourize it.

Skies in monochrome are a different matter, of course! I don't even know where my red filter is, these days...


Zouk Delors said...

'"out of" the shapes and the colours more than "of" them'

Yes, I see that: in much the same way that the featured image in your recent post, Pond Water, was perhaps not really "of" pond life and would probably make a good, apparently abstract, fabric print.

I'm really struggling, however, to see what landscape has in common with glamour? Surely there's a lot more the photographer (or director?) can do to control the content in the latter than the former where, technicalities aside, all he can do is find the right place to stand and time* to stand there?

*Speaking of which, do you use The Photographer's Ephemeris?

Mike C. said...


That Pond Water image is actually the cover of the book "Coexistence" (variant 3).

The "glamour" comment is more of an aside than a theory, but I'm thinking of the whole "male gaze" thing (cf. John Berger "Ways of Seeing"), and the way landscapes (in the work of people like those mentioned) are shown in a hyped-up way that is not dissimilar to the way human bodies are portrayed in, say, advertising and magazine covers.

That "landscape photo look" is not just about technicalities, it's a mind-set. It's all about what choices are made, and for what reasons -- the photographer's politics come into it.

Is a landscape merely a "beautiful" view? / beautiful to whom? / is it a setting for leisure or a place of work? / what "ugly" things have been excluded (or removed) from the frame? / why is dramatic lighting preferred over "ordinary" lighting? / etc.

I don't use Photographer's Ephemeris, mainly because for me photography is not about that sort of forward planning, but also because the iPad app insists on using Apple Maps rather than Google Maps, and I'm not going to go there (mainly beause Apple Maps apparently often doesn't know where "there" is!).


Zouk Delors said...

You do seem to go for "found" images, although presumably you could easily enough construct your own "shapes and colours in the plane", couldn't you? Though only at the cost of a certain serendipitous magic of course - part of the charm of your pictures is the idea that those things were actually there for anyone to see who knew but how to look. In that limited sense, I suppose your works are to still life as landscape is to glamour?

I didn't realize you were using an ipad. I've heard a few funny stories about the Maps app. Do you reckon that might be David Bowie's problem?

Mike C. said...


Exactly so -- it's all about finding, not arranging, for me. Frederick Sommer put it best:

"I have five pebbles, not too different in size and weight, yet a randomness about them. If I drop them on the carpet they will scatter. Now we could run an experiment and we would find that we cannot put these pebbles in shapes that would be as elegant and as nicely related and with as great a variety as every time they fall. It is better than anything we could do. I have great respect for the way I find things."

Yep, bought a used iPad off someone who was moving up to the new model -- it's brilliant for what it does well (it's like a giant smartphone, minus the phone), useless for everything else...

Ha! You may be right about DB! Stuck somewhere in Berlin with Apple Maps...


Zouk Delors said...

Nice quote, Mike. I'm sure I've read it before somewhere - probably in an old post on this blog?

Does the ipad allow you to switch off 3G and GPS, because one thing I've heard it does well is track your every movement and record it all on a server somewhere in California.

Mike C. said...


Yes, I've used it before several times.

My iPad is the cheap "wifi only" version, so no 3G to worry about. If the Californians know where I am, so be it! I know where they are, after all.


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

Mike, can't agree more. Skies have many drawbacks. More they tend to become the dominant subject if carefully crafted unless they are dull blue (or some sort of that).