On St. Catherine's Hill
I'm reading the review section of Saturday's Guardian newspaper and, above a review of Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, a novel by Mick Jackson, there's a lovely photograph of, presumably, the North York Moors. Even on newsprint it's striking: a long vista over a craggy moor, alive with the russet and green tones of moorland in scudding sunlight. You can practically feel the wind tugging at your clothing. In the mid distance there's a crag that could be a house, or a house that could be a crag. So I look to see who made it; to do this I have to turn the paper sideways and squint at the truly tiny picture credit at the bottom right-hand edge. It reads ALAMY. Nothing else. This beautiful image has been sourced, merely for illustrative purposes, from a stock photo agency.
Later, looking through On Landscape, an intelligent online magazine dedicated to landscape photography, I find myself wondering, is landscape photography over? In one sense, clearly not: more and more people are producing more and more landscape photographs, and it has become both a major genre in its own right and an important ancillary to other activities, like walking, climbing, travelling and even spirituality and philosophy. But... sheer populousness is often a sign that something has peaked, and that its exciting, pioneering days are over. Given how varied the world is, and how different people are, I wondered: why do so many landscape photographs look exactly the same? Why are they so unregarded? To the extent they can be bought by the yard, and published uncredited?
When it comes to art, democratic inclusiveness is not usually a useful evaluative benchmark. Or rather, when it comes to art as outcome. If we regard art as a process which, regardless of the quality of the outcome, is capable of refining and advancing our civilised, aesthetic, and spiritual instincts and impulses, then clearly it's something that as many people as possible should be opening themselves to. Get out there with brushes, cameras, sketchbooks, whatever turns you on, and do it. Go on! The same can be said for sport and exercise. Yes, do yoga or zumba, play football or tennis, walk, cycle, jog, even train for a marathon; of course we should all be doing that. But the ultimate measure of anything is never democratic, but always elitist. Who will win the London Marathon? Will they break the record? Will "your" team win the Premiership? Whose photographs are giving you the thrill that motivates you to get out there and do it yourself?
Landscape photography is popular, of course. Both to do, and to look at. I would think no other self-consciously artistic genre of photograph is so widespread, with the exception of fashion. Since the advent of digital colour, there has been a tsunami of outstanding landscape images of every conceivable kind. From the highest, snowiest peaks to the grimmest, most litter-strewn edgelands, someone will have parked a high-resolution camera* on a tripod and composed something compellingly new. Followed by a thousand imitators, some of whom will have improved on the pioneering work, while some – a very few – will have gone on to forge new paths of their own. Until ... well... until pretty much everything has been photographed many times over, by this generation, at least. I mean, just enter "skye storr" into Google, and scroll through the images. Depressing, isn't it? Travel is easy, the world is finite, and so are the places to stand and look at it.
Winchester Road, Southampton
There's still scope for diversity, perhaps. Most landscape photographers do look strangely like me: male, late middle-aged, bearded, a bit weather-beaten and scruffy, and fond of solitary pursuits. But then these do tend to be the sort of people who find themselves out in the world at dawn or at dusk, having endured rain and cold or heat and thirst and lugged many pounds of expensive kit into the wilderness, just for the prospect of a photograph. Plus, landscape photography is one of few permissible outlets for sensitive masculine self-expression that combines nicely with a male obsession with gear and craft. In the end, there are many more people who like to look at landscape than are prepared to get it on their clothes. Perhaps landscape photographs look so similar simply because the people making them are so similar.
One obvious way past saturation point is gimmickry. It's clear from websites like On Landscape that intelligent landscapists have mainly got over any photo-purist objections to digital manipulation, or the use of closely-observed details in place of wide vistas, or any other such challenges to tradition. But these new approaches still have a tendency to converge on well-worn paths, on certain "looks". I was in our local hospital the other morning, and was struck by the long row of impressionistic landscape prints running down one corridor. These are now quite old – probably lithographs made in the 1980s – but they have more than a slight resemblance to a lot of "new" landscape photography being done, for example, with the liberal use of overlaid texture layers in Photoshop. Scratchy, spattered, blotchy, painterly – it's an old look, a cliché of art-school print-making, even when achieved by new means by a new demographic.
Sadly, getting somewhere new in image-making is even harder than finding somewhere new in the landscape to photograph, and really has more to do with sensibility than technique. But then landscape photography, despite the way it attracts the word "romantic" to itself, is classical at heart, in the sense it is largely about the imitation of established models and masters, and thus has a tendency to produce "school of" works. Like 19th century academic painting, it is polished, highly-wrought, rather rule-bound, and with a strong tendency to idealize. Proper landscape photographers don't simply document what happened to be there when they happened to be there, but study the times of sunrise and moonrise, wait for the right weather and time of day, think nothing of revisiting the same remote site on multiple occasions until conditions are just right. There's something almost priestly about it and, inevitably, the idealised rendition is usually a serious misrepresentation of the reality, especially when combined with a taste for over-saturated colours and apocalyptic skies. Have another look at those images of the Old Man of Storr: what planet were they made on?
True originality is not only hard, it is also often repellent, difficult, and unpopular. I've written before about the "Hendrix Moment". If you know your photo-history, you'll recognise the allusion in this post's title. Published in Tokyo in 1972, Daido Moriyama's Shashin yo Sayonara / Bye, Bye Photography, Dear is now regarded as a classic photo-book, one that takes the anarchic, political nihilism of the "Provoke" era of photography in Japan to its limit. The sad story of how I failed to hand over the fifty-five pounds for the signed copy I once held in my hands (because I found it, um, repellent and difficult) is probably irrelevant, but its current second-hand value of around £5,500 is not. By contrast, there are very few books of landscape photography that have come to be seen, in subsequent decades, as era-defining, must-have collector's items, with a value approaching that of a small car**. Which is curious, when you consider how popular the genre is.
Setting aside the kitschiness of what passes as "natural beauty" – I don't think this is a problem that bothers many people as much as it does me – my guess is that with landscape photography, in its classical form, the feeling is that if you missed one collection or image then another, similar, perhaps better one will be along soon enough. It doesn't really seem to matter who makes them. After all, their creators seem happy enough to drop their work, anonymously, into the stock-photo pot and, besides, namechecks and books and even originality are not everyone's goals, where photography is concerned.
In fact, "how to" books always figure more prominently in "best of" lists in this category than actual monographs. As with yoga or cycling, the point is to admire, to look and learn, and then go out and do it yourself, isn't it? Which is obviously healthier than becoming a couch-potato enthusiast for someone else's photographs of, say, Tokyo's prostitutes and tattooed criminals. Though I'm pretty sure you can do and be both. And I'll be damned if any photograph of mine is ever going to appear anonymously in a newspaper as column-filler in exchange for a cut of an agency fee.
* I notice the Sony A7R II is becoming the landscapist's camera of choice, these days. Damn sight lighter than a view camera, that's for sure.
** Though my hope is that others may yet be kicking themselves for not buying the early books of Raymond Moore, Richard Misrach, Susan Derges, Jem Southam or Thomas Joshua Cooper while they're currently enjoying unfashionability. You might want to keep an eye on Peter Bialobrzeski, Chris McCaw and Jamey Stillings, too.