What do you see?

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.

201312_Lake Vinuela_210

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!

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  5 comments for “What do you see?

  1. December 29, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    The answer could also depends on a viewer mood. I did not notice the line of the small lights yesterday, but it was there today. Probably, I’m a bit more relaxed today 🙂

    • December 30, 2013 at 8:21 am

      Thanks for the comment Etana. I agree with you about the impact of mood. I find the process of being out in the countryside waiting for the sun to set and give me the colour and light levels I want a really relaxing experience (once I’ve got the framing and exposure sorted!). At one level I aimed for a traditional landscape image with colour, shape and depth but I waited until the light was fading so I could capture the lights of houses etc. I have been a bit surprised about how much detail of the scene there is to discover because the eye is drawn to the mountain shapes and colour of the sky. Yesterday I noticed the lights in Comares. This is a traditional Spanish ‘white village’ that sits on the top of a hill on the far right of the frame. I see it everyday because of its position but it never looks inhabited because of the distance from which I see it. In this photograph though the lights act as a visual proxy for the people who live there (totally accidental – I couldn’t see the lights in the viewfinder against the sky). There are also the trails of three aeroplanes heading for Malaga airport but you can only see them by zooming into the image. David

  2. December 30, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Some pictures look different on a big and small screens. Most of time, I read WordPress on my iPad, but recently, I’ve got a few DVD that I can’t watch on my iPad, so I started spending a bit more time and looked at your blog on a super big screen of my monitor. I noticed a lot of small details and this picture was for me more a location kind of picture. Whereas, on the small details did not have such importance. I enjoyed the shapes, lines and colours. I love the colour of the sky and hint of the mist.

    • December 30, 2013 at 10:13 pm

      I agree with you. I prefer it smaller, it gives it more of an impressionistic feel I think – the colours, shapes, the mist etc.

  3. December 31, 2013 at 10:03 am

    When I was a member of our local photographic club, I noticed that some good photographers presented a copy of their picture in a very small size for a clobber completion. Say, they printed their landscape picture 6×16 and mounted it in the top half of 40×50 cm mount (if I remember right our club standard). Some of these pictures even got the 10s (the best mark in our club) and one of them even won the best of the year in our club. The print allowed them to control the way of the presentation. It’s a bit difficult to do so for the pictures online, but still there are the ways 🙂

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