This post is triggered by a definition of landscape in the introduction of a book by Liz Wells (2011), ‘Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity’. She offers a definition of landscapes as, “vistas encompassing both nature and the changes that humans have effected on the natural world”.
Thinking about the definition made me return to a landscape photograph I took recently to look at it from the perspective of Wells’ definition. So, what do I see? Is it a natural scene or have humans effected it? If so, for better or worse? The answer to those questions is more complicated than I initially thought.
In my mind I think of the scene in the photograph as natural, an expression of the wonder of the natural world, a ‘classic’ landscape. In fact it is a landscape very much shaped by humans. The lake is a man-made reservoir, the distant hills are topped by communication masts and there are houses and street lights signalling human occupation of the land. Depending on your perspective, those features could be considered a relatively recent invasion of the land, a human blot on an age-old landscape, or perhaps seen as improvements, making the land more habitable.
The man-made overlay could alternatively be seen as nothing more than a repetition of history. In a time long gone, Neanderthal man lived in this valley, made their homes in the caves, occupying the high ground because the valley was filled with water when sea levels were higher. The sea receded a very long time ago. Paths and roads emerged, laid down by man across the valley but now submerged beneath the lake. In addition to new roads above the water level of the lake there are also invisible ‘roads’ provided through the communication aerials on the top of the distant hills which allow the current inhabitants of the valley to connect with others through their mobile phones and the internet. Neanderthal man used the valley’s cave walls as their art gallery illuminated by the flicker of fires, now the landscape ‘improvements’ allow us to travel ‘invisible roads’ at great speed to a different type of Flickr!
Neanderthal and modern man may have chosen the location of their homes for the view, but their motives were probably very different. Modern man seeking shelters with beautiful landscape vistas and roads to the shops. Neanderthal man also seeking shelter but within walking distance of food and with a view that allowed them to see danger approaching irrespective of the ‘landscape beauty’.
Liz Wells’ definition of landscape makes me think more about the impact mankind has had on the landscape but we shouldn’t forget the changes Nature is also making in the background. We tend not to notice them because of the length of geological timescales. Thinking about the nature of this landscape in the future we perhaps unconsciously assume the mountains will remain as an important part of that future landscape, an immovable backcloth, but that would be an illusion. The African and Eurasian tectonic plates continue their relentless journey of convergence (6 to 9mm a year) and will eventually turn the Mediterranean Sea into the Mediterranean Mountains. How will this impact on the mountains in this photograph? Perhaps they will look more dramatic or maybe they will become visually superfluous against a new backcloth of the European equivalent of the Himalayas. Will anyone be here to see it? If not, then without the subjective framing of the human eye, perhaps there won’t be a landscape at all, just land.
So returning to the question, “What do you see?”. Like so many of the questions raised by delving into the background theory of landscape art and photography, the answer seems to be that it depends on how you look at the photograph and perhaps, remembering the geological perspective – for how long!