A Glimpse of the Landscape
by Mary-Ann Teo
We are inundated by photographic images everywhere we go especially in this era of social media. There has been no other time in history than now that we have been constantly surrounded by photographic images. Access to photo-taking has been made so easy with the camera function on our smartphones. Anyone could take a picture that resembles those shot by well-known photographers. Almost everything we do we take a picture of it. Photographic images bombard and encroach on our daily existence.
For many of us, who feel overwhelmed by our daily lives there is always the idea to escape to nature and the outdoors to get away from the constant noise. To be within and at one with nature devoid of any human touch. There exists in our minds a mental image of what nature and the outdoors is. But is this nature that we would like to escape to just an idea? Landscape photographs we see show vast wide-open spaces in nature, beautifully majestic and romantic, projecting a wilderness untouched by man. This has come to characterize the landscape photograph. However, are we really seeing the landscape for what it is? Do we see a romanticized version of what it really is?
A photograph is never just simply a record of what is in front of the lens. It is much more than this and may be complicated because of the inherent characteristic of the camera and the photograph. Photography came about in nineteenth century Europe in an era of great changes. It was born at the end of the first industrial revolution and grew into its own through the second industrial revolution. It was a time of colonial expansion, exploration, and settling of new lands, the growth of cities, and the rise of the middle class. There was also a drive in nineteenth century Europe to collect and classify the world that led to the development of museum culture. Artists were at the same time seeking to depict the world more realistically.
Reflecting the era it was born in, the camera is a mechanical tool with mirroring capabilities providing accurate impressions of nature. It was used in a variety of ways. Photographs were used by artists to help them paint; the camera was also a tool for colonial expansion. The photograph is a document of the real and most importantly, there is a complex duality in the nature of photography. The most basic of this duality came from William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention known as the Talbotype or the Calotype that first captures the image in its negative form from which numerous positives could be reproduced. The photograph is supposed to be an exact replica of a scene made by the mechanical camera but the scene will change and the next photograph taken will not be the same. The camera although a machine is operated by the photographer and reflects the photographer’s way of seeing. The photograph is an object and image, a representation that can be possessed showing a surface but carries with it multiple meanings. The photograph reveals and conceals, making the invisible visible. It stops time yet steals that moment from history, bringing forth a presence that speaks of an actual absence. It is seemingly permanent but is a trace of impermanence. It bears the façade of realism yet indicates idealism. Even though photography has its own set of codes, it is irrevocably intertwined with the painting tradition as it emulated the language of painting in its infancy. There is an immediacy to photographs because it can be held in one’s hands, treasured, and possessed.
Photography is associated with memory but memory is problematic. Each detail in a photograph contributes to a larger meaning. The meaning of a photograph shifts, it is constantly in a state of flux therefore its meaning can be ambivalent. The photographer is a flaneur and a voyeur and the act of taking a photograph is a conscious effort of skill, planning, and control. It also reflects the photographer’s cultural and social values.
The genre of landscape photography is generally described as visual images captured of nature and the outdoors. The term landscape photography encompasses a lot more under its umbrella. It is a diverse field that includes sub-genres such as cityscape and topographic photography or conceptual works dealing with human intrusion into the natural landscape therefore it is a little unsettling to merely define landscape photography as simply just an art of capturing still images of nature and the outdoors. It is never just about photographing beautiful landscapes.
Landscape photography has existed in photography’s very early years partly due to technical issues as well as its connection to painting. It adopted the language of landscape painting and in turn, the painters were aided by the realistic nature of photographs to paint from. Photographers and their audience in the nineteenth century have no other set of references to the reading of photographs and much of the understanding was derived from the language of painting and literature of their time. In England, landscape painting had relied heavily on the notion of The Picturesque and this notion is an aesthetic ideal introduced in the eighteenth century by William Gilpin. This aesthetic ideal established a series of definitive assumptions for a landscape scene to be looked at and decided upon for inclusion into a painting. This is also applied to landscape photographs in its time. Therefore the landscape is not seen as it is but the picturesque ideal it can offer.
Our present notion of landscape photography has come to be determined by works of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and National Geographic. We have come to expect certain visual images and visual language because we have inadvertently absorbed all the images that surround us. Landscape photographs are not usually shot by chance. There are technical requirements to comply with. One needs to have good knowledge of scale, of lighting and weather, and the equipment. Many landscape photographs are stylized. It is carefully framed and distanced; therefore a landscape photograph is a very controlled image. Ansel Adams’ framing of his landscape photographs guides and dictates his audiences’ views. It is a singular view intended for a pure aesthetic experience. It is a constructed world in these photographers’ works. Instead of conveying the natural habitat that it is, the photographer unintentionally showed Man’s need to control all that is around. It is the image of the place versus the place as it is, a natural habitat. Environments are almost always represented; it is an idealized version of what it really is. Often, landscape photographs carry with them more meanings than intended and the idea of the landscape is a combination of the natural, the cultural, the political, and the philosophical. Thus, the way we see a natural habitat has been dictated by these landscape photographs.
Man and nature are intertwined. We live on the land and survive by the gifts of nature. We bend the land to our will, littering it with our history and forever changing the face of nature. In contemporary landscape photography, many photographers have been dealing with Man’s relationship with nature in the historical, political, social, and cultural. Some of these landscape photographs depict scars of human conflict left on the landscape, while others revert to a traditional format changing a vital aspect to challenge old norms. There are abstracts that distort photographic rules questioning audience perception and there are those that included humans and animals or man-made structures debating long-running issues within the genre such as highlighting the drastic changes our intrusion has made on nature.
In land-scarce Singapore, every which way you turn you are confronted by something that reminds you that nothing is quite natural. You go to the seaside and you see ships upon the water, at a deserted spot in the “forest” and you detect the glow of lights from afar. The reservoir is surrounded by a nature reserve and even the size of this country has been extended by land reclamation and of course, all man-made. The attitude we have towards nature on this tiny island is mostly of complacency and ignorance showing up the wider issue of conditioning in this air-conditioned nation. A landscape photograph as defined by the general definition of the genre from Singapore is hard to come by.
It is important to understand the landscape in art as a construct and that this construct very often applies to man’s view of the landscape. Raising questions, highlighting issues, and imbuing layers of meanings in their photographic works. The physical aspect of Jeannie Ho’s Sojourn series of Singapore landscape photographs can each be held in one’s palm. They serve as small subtle windows, reminders of the clear disparity between natural/nature and our curated nature. The yellow-tinged images mostly show treetops and magnificent clouds that seem to have a life of their own reflecting transience and disembodiment. They are glimpses of places to drift away to. Like Ansel Adams’ works, they are controlled and intentional. Everyone is too comfortable with the status quo, no one notices that there is something strange about manufactured or curated landscapes.
Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford University Press, 1997
Foster-Rice, Greg and Rohrbach John, editors. Reframing The New Topographics.
The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago, 2010
Rothman, Aaron. “The Idea of Landscape”. Places Journal,
Scharf, Aaron. Art and Photography. Penguin Publishing Group, 1991
Mary-Ann Teo is a photo artist who currently lectures part-time at the Art, Design, and Media faculty at Nanyang Technological University. With a preference for analogue black and white photography, she also has a strong interest in the theoretical aspects of visual images. Social environment, ethnography, and culture are topics that Mary-Ann is keen on exploring. She has also written on photography for publication.