This post is about a compositional choice in landscape photography known as the ‘intimate landscape’. It’s an approach that’s of particular interest to me because it involves looking beyond the obvious. It’s a type of composition that requires careful exploration to persuade the landscape to reveal the hidden photographic ‘gems’ that can so easily be missed.
If the wide vista ‘shouts’ loudly to us about its beauty, then in contrast the intimate landscape ‘whispers’ its appeal. Only those ‘listening’ carefully can hear, but for me it’s worth taking the time to do just that.
Where does the term ‘intimate landscape’ come from? A crucial part of the answer to that question is the photographer Eliot Porter. He was a member of the famous Sierra Club and one of the first colour landscape photographers. In 1979, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented a collection of his 1950s work in an exhibition called ‘Intimate Landscapes’ – hence his strong historical connection with this type of composition. ‘Intimate Landscapes’, the first one-man exhibition of photography presented by the museum, provides an early definition of what an ‘intimate landscape’ looks like.
The Met website (www.metmuseum.org), contains information about Porter’s work and his exhibition. To find out more, search their site with the phrase ‘Eliot Porter Intimate Landscapes’ and you will find the catalogue for the exhibition. Clicking on the catalogue takes you to a location where you can view the catalogue on-line or you can download it as a free PDF.
One of my favourite images from Porter’s exhibition is ‘Foxtail Grass’ – Lake City, Colorado, 1957. It shows a detail of the landscape that could so easily be stepped over or flattened underfoot but Porter saw it and turned an almost insignificant detail, in the context of the broader expanse of landscape, into a compositional masterpiece.
Eliot Porter was considered to be an innovator. He pioneered the use of colour in landscape photography and was particularly known for his skill in producing dye transfer prints, but there are other photographers from that era who also made important contributions to ‘intimate landscape’ photography, even though they may be better remembered for their ‘grand vistas’.
Ansel Adams is a good example. There are many images in Adams’ portfolio where he concentrated on smaller details of the landscape. Here are a few examples worth looking at – ‘Trailside near Juneau’, Alaska; ‘Aspens, Northern New Mexico, or ‘Water and Foam’, Yosemite Valley or ‘Vine and Rock’. Adams’ intimate landscapes don’t necessarily create that ‘sublime’ response we associate with his grand vistas of Yosemite (‘sublime’ in the sense of its early meaning of ‘awe inspiring’) but they do show he also had an eye for the detail in a landscape.
‘Intimate landscape’ images rely heavily on the graphical elements of compositional design (points, lines, shapes, textures, patterns)
Here’s a photograph I took at a location in the Peak District called Water-cum-Jolly. I always seem to find something new to photograph there but even if I didn’t there’s still something up-lifting about getting ready to visit a place called Water-cum-Jolly. With a name like that, it just cheers me up thinking about it.
This photograph relies heavily on the elements of its graphic design, which is reinforced by the use of a high degree of contrast (a common feature of Brett Weston’s landscapes).
Although I think it’s clear what the subject matter is, there’s also an element of abstraction which, for me, is another part of the appeal of ‘intimate landscapes’. The photograph is of a real place which perhaps makes it contradictory to think about it as an abstract image (an imaginary creation) but ‘intimate landscape’ photographs can have an abstract feel because the framing effectively removes some of the wider visual context we normally use to help us interpret an image. Ansel Adams preferred to call this type of photograph an ‘extract’ rather than an ‘abstract’ and I think that makes more sense.
Intimate landscapes are not wide vistas nor are they macro photographs
The photograph’s field of view in an ‘intimate landscape’ is usually narrower than that of the ‘classic’ wide angle landscape (Eliot Porter typically used lenses with focal lengths from 50 to 120mm – based on the 35mm format) and the subject distance ranged from five to 50 feet. Obviously those distances are not set in stone, it depends on the subject matter. The main point is that ‘intimate landscapes’ are not macro photographs nor are they wide vistas.
So to conclude, I’ve shared some of my thoughts and a few examples of the type of landscape photography known as the ‘intimate landscape’. I’ve tried to give an historical context for the term and provide some useful links for further exploration. Hopefully I will also have helped to encourage more people to look closer at the details in a landscape and to find their own examples of the hidden photographic gems just waiting there to be discovered by the keen-eyed, intrepid landscape photographer
Remember, if we want to see more ‘intimate landscapes’ we just have to listen more carefully to their whispers