Is Landscape Photography Thriving Or Dying?

October 7th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Leaf Drop, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz Mountains, California, 2009 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

It is a typical modern conceit to demand the maximum dimension and maximum power in any aspect of the world—whether men or mountains. The American mode of appreciation is dominantly theatrical—often oblivious of the subtle beauty in quiet, simple things.

—Ansel Adams

A landscape photography master’s commentary on our culture and our art…

Recently a comment on Guy Tal’s blog post, “Non-traditional Answers Part II, Pricing and Editioning” caused me to stop and think about the direction of landscape photography today. Is it degenerating or flourishing or both? In the comment by Mary Kay, first she quoted Guy Tal then followed with her comment:

“I want my work to promote an appreciation for the places and subjects I photograph, and I want it to further the acceptance of nature photography as a form of visual art.”

I’m keeping this among many other treasured words from you. Being such a novice in nature photography I’ve been blissfully ignorant about the opinion our “enlightened scholars” here in Greece hold about landscape photography. Until recently that is. I’ve been meaning to make a summary of most of those opinions and send them to you just to give you “food for journal” and I will at some point do it if you don’t mind. Just let me tell you that this kind of photography is not just ignored but heavily scorned and laughed at. And if someone dares to refer to it as “art” he becomes a target for heavy irony.

Has American landscape photography fallen so far that it is now the object of derision in other countries? On one hand it could be argued that in many ways landscape photography never gained the respect it deserves, but it could also be said that it did have a golden era in the mid 20th Century and has gone downhill since. Some people say it is better now than ever. For more on the controversy over the current era’s merits see the blog post, “Photography’s Golden Era 2” and comments on the blog post “Photography’s Golden Era 1.” Today I see a large quantity of what I would call in a judgmental moment, “derivative schlock,” but I also feel that the best images are getting better and better. For more on making images today that are unique see the blog posts, “Moving Past The Repertoire by Greg Russell” and “Make Your Own Tripod Tracks.” It is difficult in some ways to stack my father’s sometimes documentary, natural, straight photographs against photographs made now of natural wonders, wildlife, unusual weather, dramatic lighting, raging wild colors and other combinations, often highly enhanced in Photoshop. For more on the effects of Photoshop and the techniques of Photoshop see the blog post, “Monday Blog Blog: Photoshop For Pros.” For more on the history of “over-saturation” in landscape photography see the blog post, “Did Velvia Film Change Landscape Photography?” Sometimes I wonder if people will even notice Dad’s quiet, subtlety under the deafening din of the bright, powerful landscape photographs made today. For some reassurance on that score I just read an excellent re-post on Jim M. Goldstein’s Blog called, “The Subtlety of Greatness and Today’s Loss of Appreciation” that refutes the claim made somewhere else that the old masters’ landscape photography is not as good as even today’s amateurs’ work.

How does Ansel Adam’s assertion above apply today to the nature of landscape photographs being made? Are Americans able to learn a new way of being through landscape photography, either through making images or appreciating them? Are Europeans, Australians or Indonesians different?

Does the statement above relate to the nature of images we see in the stock photography market? Galleries? The media?

Does what Ansel Adams said have relevance to the way you select your own photographs?

Please share your thoughts…

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23 comments

  1. Guy Tal says:

    David,

    Thank you for this commentary. Having grown up and lived in other countries in the past, my impression of landscape/nature photography was not so much of derision but rather of ignorance. I first became a passionate photographer out of a desire to document my explorations and did not myself consider my work an expression of art until some years after I came to live in the US and being exposed to some of the writings and works of American photographers.

    If anything, Americans deserve to take pride in the rich history of fine art photography in this country. In particular, the great frontier of the American West contributed more to the mystique and appeal of natural images of wild (then largely unknown) places than any museum or art gallery or the so-called “art community” of the time.

    There’s no doubt photography is evolving rapidly and, like anything, is subject to the fashions of its day. Popularity at a given time should never be the measure of the value of any form of art. The fact that modern music consists of different rhythms, instruments, and elaborate productions not previously possible takes nothing from the subtleties and genius of the classics (and will surely some day be considered classic as well).

    If there is a common thread among arts that persist through the ages, it is not in the works themselves but in the passion and temperament of the artist behind them. Values such as originality, emotion, and role in the artist’s life are what distinguishes those who will become household names from those who will fade into oblivion.

    Obviously you can speak to your dad’s passion much better than I could but I always considered him one of the quintessential models for an artist (whether or not he even though of himself as one) consumed by his work and using it as a vehicle for his innermost thoughts and feelings. These are the hallmarks of a classic and those who appreciate true art will always take the time to explore and understand its subtleties to enrich their own experience.

    Guy

  2. Thank you, Guy for this generous contribution. I especially like what you say in the second paragraph about American photographers enhancing the mystique and draw of natural images. When I think small, I see the market glutted with landscape photography. However, you have helped me expand my thought process to perceive it differently. When I think about it, it is truly a wonderful thing that so many photographers are into photographing nature, and that this has caused landscape photography to spread all over the world. It is the greatest blessing to our future on the planet that views of wilderness and the outdoors in general are now becoming widely known and accepted. I have written to you about how Dad loved his work, even the tedious, mundane aspects of bookkeeping and filing. Now that I look back on his attitude toward work and life, being enmeshed in the myriad of tasks he used to do, I am blown away by his constant and continual enthusiasm and joy. He would sing or whistle while he worked many times in situations where I have noticed other photographers and myself groaning and struggling.

  3. pj says:

    Oh, man. So many questions, so much to think about here. I may have to revisit this a couple of times — there’s too much for one brief comment. First of all I’ll just say that your Leaf Drop is a fine photograph. It really strikes a chord with me.

    Adams chose the word theatrical in his commentary, and it’s very appropriate. Paul Strand once said that he was reluctant to exhibit because he didn’t like to provide free entertainment to the masses. Strand could be quite prickly and harsh, but there is some truth to that. There is a certain element of entertainment involved with showing art work.

    Entertainment has been growing increasingly loud and strident for some time now. Music concerts are less about the music than about the constant barrage of lights and visual effects. Watch a movie and you get worn out watching something blow up every five minutes.

    Much of what I see in photography follows in this vein to a certain degree, though certainly not as extreme. Much of it is becoming loud, garish, and theatrical. Not all of course, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems to be a growing trend in this age of Photoshop. Maybe it’s a reflection on our society. We’re running at an ungodly pace just to keep up with daily demands, and it seems our attention spans and our ability to slow down and appreciate what’s around us is being short-circuited. It takes bigger/brighter/louder to simply get our attention.

    Maybe this will swing back the other way, maybe not. Speaking for myself, when I come across subtle, understated photography, I find it very refreshing and stimulating.

  4. Hi PJ, thank you for this insight. I like how you have made the connection between the way our society seems to need more and more theatrical stimulation and SOME of the photography being produced. I think there is a lot of pressure in this regard from galleries and from magazines and the like. The “wow factor” that they talk about regularly helps them sell their publications and market the prints they carry. On the other hand, as you point out, there is a type of work that steers away from that. Also, do you, or anyone else reading, feel that getting out in nature and photographing in some cases can transform the photographer and cause him or her to appreciate less stimulation, a slower pace, a more subtle taste? Do you think this possible?

    A society entertained by spectacle soon becomes a circus…?

  5. Derrick says:

    Nice, thought provoking post. Like PJ said – your photo is great! At first, I thought it was one of your dad’s as it has that quality to it.

    In an indirect answer to your questions: I think the key question to ask is “who are you doing this for?” If you’re doing it for “the public” or critical acclaim then it matters very much how your “art” is viewed.

    Speaking for myself, I could care less if someone likes or dislikes my images. Don’t get me wrong, if I get a positive response or someone tells me that an image of mine has struck a chord – that is simply fantastic! But the fact of the matter is I took the image because for whatever reason I liked what I was seeing. As such, I could care less if someone in Greece thinks my photographs are silly.

    As stated way back when, I will continue to view our current era as a Golden One for photography as a direct result of affordable, quality gear that is readily available. And as has been stated, it’s obvious that as a result of that available equipment, there are a ton more folks who are venturing out of doors and into the wild.

  6. Thank you Derrick, I take it as the ultimate compliment if one of my photographs in any way has “a quality” like my Dad’s. Generally I am out there for fun, rarely with a tripod, often photographing in auto or aperture priority mode, thus my photographs are light years from Dad’s just on a technical level, let alone any other level. My equipment is good, but not professional and the main difference is that I didn’t go to school with Ansel Adams, Minor White, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Lisette Model and others. Still, it is exciting to find I can get some decent photographs and I do improve to the extent that I apply myself. I am discovering for myself the golden era you mention. I like your attitude about your photography. It’s probably important to listen to feedback, but have a thick skin too.

  7. pj says:

    Of course. Not only possible, but I think it would be a natural, inevitable shift.

    It may take longer for some than for others, but if we can get away from the constant bombardment of our society, that slower pace, that transformation, will come of it’s own.

  8. Hi PJ, I guess in some respects I asked a leading question, but I appreciate your answer. I suppose that landscape photographers have to balance the affinity they develop for nature and the ability to appreciate more subtlety with maintaining that “wow” factor to please the market. My contention is however, that the market’s demand for “wow” in landscape photography is counter-intuitive to capturing the essence of what it is like to be out in the natural scene. Surely there are “wow” moments in the wilderness all the time, but the vast majority of the time, and part of the wonder of spending time in a wild place is that the “wow” is in the small changes, the delicate, faint, fine and understated “wow” that an observer sinks into when he or she lets go of her pre-conceived agenda.

  9. Greg Russell says:

    This is a really timely post, David. I think PJ really hit a few nails right on their heads with his comments. I’m by no means an authority on any of this, but here’s my $0.02.

    So much is moving so quickly right now that we are simply unable to stop and appreciate things. If you look at photographers who post on Twitter or Flickr or Facebook (myself included), its like a competition of who can jump the highest saying, “look at me, look at me!” Instead, we need to slow down and enjoy the beauty in each scene, not mass process our images for the masses.

    I wouldn’t call what I’m in right now a mid-life crisis, but its a crisis nonetheless. You and I have discussed my desire to move past pretty pictures and toward something more meaningful, both for myself and the viewer. What I’m learning is that its a slower process than one might think, but in crystallizing my own artistic vision, its ultimately a more fulfilling path.

    -Greg

  10. Hi Greg, thank you for sharing some of your personal inner journey. I enjoy the way you do this too on your own blog. From the way you describe it, I wonder if Flickr is the best tool for a landscape photographer. Apparently, it has made the careers of some photographers, but does this boost have staying power? For example I know of a young lady who was launched to international stardom through Flickr but admits herself now that with all of her sudden success, she now feels a little lost, burned out, and blocked in regard to producing new work that has the same high level of impact as that which first made her. I think this can be the danger of anything done very quickly. Our culture places a high value on how fast you get to the top, but if you don’t really know why you are there once you get there, you will soon slump right back down again. Greg, it is clear that you value something more and you are in the process of finding it. Dad used to quote John Ruskin who said there is nothing to be gained by going fast. In a recent video by landscape photography master Jack Dykinga, he emphasizes what is to be gained by slowing down http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHBvf7DubTE. In another video he mentions the influence of Philip Hyde. You can get this one from the Philip Hyde Photography website under the tab PRESS/EVENTS under “YouTube & Other Online Video” or here http://www.philiphyde.com/#mi=1&pt=0&pi=20&p=-1&a=0&at=0.

  11. Greg Russell says:

    Thanks for the links to the videos, David. I think that although Flickr is a great way to share photos, it doesn’t really go too far beyond that. Although my website has several hundred images on it, I am coming more to the conclusion that one of the best venues to share landscape images (or any other type for that matter) is on a blog or some sort of journal where the artist can discuss what the image means to them, or relate it to some sort of inner musing.

    I’m not saying that’s the *only* way to present images–not by a longshot–but as a photographer who enjoys looking at other artists’ work on a regular basis, I enjoy that format the most.

    As far as speed of advancement in the field, I am happy to be gaining friends and fans in an organic, old-fashioned way. The pace may appear glacial to some, but I’m okay with that…

  12. Thank you, Greg for the discussion. The photography blogosphere is fun, isn’t it? I agree that blogging is one of the best ways for people to get to know you and your work. However, the effectiveness of the sharing depends on your goals. A living can be earned from photography many ways. The main two for my father’s work and the full-time landscape photographers I know are through stock licensing rights and fine art prints. I still get requests for Dad’s photographs, though this was impeded by confusion while publishers and buyers were contacting the University of California. Now that is over and all requests for Dad’s work come to Philip Hyde Photography. I handle specific requests here and there, but am not yet geared up to attract a significant flow of purchases of licensing rights. Many photographers who are set up to make a living from licensing rights have a link from their main website to a separate stock site, or to a stock agency. Art Wolfe’s and Carr Clifton’s websites are good examples. Of course print sales happen through many avenues but with Dad’s work for now I am sticking mainly to galleries and the Philip Hyde Photography website. My father for some time opposed putting his images online because he imagined they would be floating around all over without him being able to regulate how they were used or whether he was compensated. If he had lived long enough to learn about online marketing, he would probably be all for it and would enjoy what we are doing too. You are using Flickr as a form of advertising for your photographs and in that sense it works to share them that way without some form of compensation, as long as sales eventually follow. Of course the business strategy of photographers early in their career is different from those who have a name built, but I would be wary of lots of sharing without compensation because it can devalue the work. Part of what makes the photography blogosphere worth-while is networking and finding out who is doing what and what works in a variety of scenarios. The marketing of landscape photography, or anything else for that matter, is changing right before us and the future will be interesting.

  13. Richard Wong says:

    Your dad made a difference. That to me is the major difference between him and just your average pretty landscape. Everything starts to look the same after a while if they are all bathed in warm light so it is really what stands the test of time that matters when all is said and done.

    For me, I shoot what I do because I enjoy it. I do study what others shoot for commercial reasons but when it comes down to it, what others shoot really doesn’t concern me as long as I’m being true to myself.

  14. Hi Richard, thank you for your contribution. It strikes me that you probably have done more introspection than some nature photographers. You have also looked around more and educated yourself better than most. Between these two factors and others, you have a very good sense of where you are going, as well as a solid, well-defined style that does not look like anyone else’s. Meanwhile some landscape photographers might take the same level of education and use it to go out and capture the same landscapes as the photographers whose work has sold well in the past. Recently we had an open studios here in Boulder, Colorado and one landscape photographer, whose home studio I visited, had made a tour of all the major big scenes of the West from the last 50 years, made a near-duplicate photograph of each and had a brisk business going. I don’t think my father or any talented, self-respecting artist would admire this photographer’s work. He obviously does not wake up each day and think of how he can create a fresh, individual form of art that expresses who he is. His idea is that if he can just get together enough images that sell well, he can make a living running around in the outdoors and he will not have to go back to his corporate job. I suppose that every photographer has to find their own reasons for doing it. Being true to yourself as you mention, is really the best guideline, then the comparison’s are just an exercise that are not taken too seriously but still provide a source of growth. Having a mission as you point out my father did, besides driving a photographer on, helps to bring his or her work together and define it in its own right, and for its purpose, rather than leaning on its perceived value as an image as seen by others.

  15. Richard Wong says:

    Upon further reading the comments, I’ll also add that the computer or any other electronic device is the worst way to enjoy viewing photography in my opinion. Photos just seem to stick in my mind and I want to explore the printing page much more whereas when I am looking at a screen I’m more in a browsing mood and not contemplative at all.

  16. Hello again Richard. Very good point about the limitations of viewing digital photographs on the computer screen while in browse-mode online.

  17. Edie Howe says:

    in the immortal words of Rhett Buttler: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

    Landscape photography is what I do. My goal is to do it in new ways, using old techniques and modern equipment. That’s what I do, and I don’t care if folks think it’s dying or degenerating. From my perspective, it’s not. I’m still doing it, and doing it to the best of my ability.

    Edie

  18. Hi Edie, thank you for the visit. Actually that may be the healthiest attitude possible for staying focused. Landscape photographers like you who know what it’s like to wake up in the outdoors in all kinds of weather and seasons, I believe are what, or who, keep it real. Not that we can all do that, but having the genuine wilderness experience behind you I gather significantly impacts your art and your viewers.

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