I am reading a recently published book (2015) written by Jesse Alexander and called, ‘Perspectives on place: theory and practice in landscape photography’. I bought the book because Alexander wrote the latest version of the landscape photography module for the Open College of Arts (UK) photography degree course, and it is an impressive course module.
The book is written as a primer for those studying landscape photography, briefly covering some basic technical issues such as the physical and emotive characteristics of light and lenses for landscape photography but more importantly it covers advanced concepts such as ‘beauty and sublime’ and ‘spaces versus places’. These concepts are important to understand for those photographers wanting to extend their thinking about landscape photography and broaden their perspective on the genre.
On page 21 of the book, in a discussion about the nature of landscape photographs and the visual narratives they can convey, Alexander quotes Robert Adams, an established contemporary landscape photographer, who said in 1996:
“Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three varieties – geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together … the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life”.
The three parameters are useful descriptive categories of the potential narratives landscape photographs can illustrate but they are also useful as an aide memoire to help extend our creative thinking when considering a location and the potential subjects/scenes we see. Using the image ‘No Escape’ as a focal point for my thoughts, I will try to demonstrate how a photographer could use Adams’ framework.
Geography is an academic subject with great relevance to landscape photography because it is concerned with ‘places’. Landscape and place are connected concepts. Landscape is external to us, something we look at, whereas a place is somewhere within the landscape that we internalise as a special part of the landscape, a place where people live, work or play – or used to in the case of an abandoned building.
In my landscape photography, ruins and abandoned buildings are important, they represent transitions. They show a place that has been discarded and ‘returned’ by its occupants to the landscape (first stage of transition), allowing nature to play its part in the conversion from a place back into the landscape by gradually eroding the building so it crumbles and eventually fades away, losing its identity as a place as it returns to the land (second stage of the transition).
The photography of ruins has two dimensions for me. The decaying buildings can be framed to create visually interesting/picturesque images but the framing can also produce images that give insights into the building’s previous identity as a place and therefore into the lives of those who lived or worked there. My photograph, ‘No Escape’, tries to combine both dimensions by using the structure of the building and sunlight to create a picturesque combination of lines, textures and muted colours but with the inclusion of the ‘bricked-up’ window on an inside wall visually reinforced by the ‘bars’ created by shadows, it attempts to raise a question about part of the building’s story from when it was ‘a place’.
In terms of autobiography – why did I choose this particular image from the many potential images available at the location and in the surrounding landscape? In general terms there is an autobiographical element to all my photography. By default all my images try to tap into an inner desire to be creative. Unfortunately I can’t draw or paint (with any degree of skill) and so photography is a substitute. The camera allows me to be visually creative, to compose and print the images I can see but could never draw or paint. Regarding this particular image, there are two specific answers to the question about my personal motives for choosing the particular framing.
Firstly, I was looking for a photograph that had strong contrasts between natural light and shadow to demonstrate the visual interplay between those two important elements of photography. Ruined buildings are good locations for finding that, with their open doorways, windows and collapsed roofs providing many different entry points for the bright sunlight of Southern Spain. The particular location I chose near Alhama de Granada has many abandoned rural buildings, built using materials I find photogenic – natural stone, subtle combinations of ‘earthy’ colours, textured walls, interesting tiled floors and old roof timbers. I also like the compositional challenge of trying to make visual sense of the jumble of potential images, trying to isolate parts of the building in an attempt to capture the essence of the building and the people who lived there, and finding combinations of design elements that create a strong graphic effect. Secondly, I have a strong interest in the interaction between the landscape and places, particularly signs of the history of that interaction. What was the function of the place? Why was it abandoned? What was life like when it was inhabited?
These autobiographical thoughts about the image provide insights into some of my motives regarding landscape photography. At a picturesque level, my preference for subdued colour schemes made up of natural/earthy colours and strong graphic designs are one set of motives but I also have an interest in how cultures/lifestyles change and how that impacts on places/buildings to produce abandoned buildings. Sometimes it is because technology has reduced the need for manual labour so workers move on, sometimes the buildings change as families change. It is typical for old rural houses in Spain to have been built incrementally as wealth or the size of a family increased. Additional rooms or another storey being built as required. The ‘bricked up’ window may be a response to building another bedroom onto the outside wall and a desire for privacy.
In the particular case of this abandoned house, a new road (only 10 metres away) has been built to connect to a reservoir a few miles away and this may have caused the house to be abandoned (there is a similar sized, newer house built in the olive groves, about 400 metres further away from the road) leaving the original to crumble back into the landscape. Impossible to know for certain but these are some of the reasons I am attracted to this type of location.
In terms of metaphor (what I’m trying to say with the image), I wanted to say something about the way buildings/places have their own story to tell about the spaces they occupy. It’s not a complete story, we have to extrapolate the thoughts triggered by the image and try and fill in the missing ‘words’ or ‘chapters’. My guess about the reason for ‘bricking-up’ the window or the abandonment of an impressive old, country house built in natural stone is just that – a guess. What is the story of that place? The caption attempts to bring together the two dimensions by suggesting the ‘bricked-up’ window has a sinister history of imprisonment (perhaps a metaphor for the harshness, struggle and hard labour associated with subsistence farming) and asking the viewer to ‘see’ the lines of shadow which are a central part of the picturesque dimension of the image as virtual bars reinforcing the idea of imprisonment, so there is no chance of escape. I have favoured darker tones to add to the idea of a darker metaphor. The caption suggests one answer to the question of metaphor but there are potentially others. I hope my caption encourages a viewer to start thinking about their own questions about the history of the place.
On a final note, taking the three categories and applying them separately to an image makes it clear there are overlaps. For example, it is difficult to talk about the uniqueness of the geography without impacting on the autobiographical dimension – why I chose the location and the particular framing of the image. Similarly, the metaphors I want to convey influence choices about the geography/locations to visit. Nevertheless, Adams’ three-pronged framework is useful. It can help to structure our thoughts when we try to describe our creative intention for an image and it can also help viewers structure their thoughts when critiquing landscape images. It is also a framework that we can use to help us explore and extend the compositional options we can see in the landscape before us.