Author: David Collins

Intimate landscapes

Scarborough Harbour, Yorkshire, England

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.

Eliot Porter_Foxtail_grass_Intimate_Landscapes_Photographs

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

The cove with the praying man

‘The cove with the praying man’

I don’t know whether this small cove has an official name but it’s on the Spanish GR92 hiking trail, near Torre Valentina at the western end of Palamos Bay. I decided to call the photograph ‘The cove with the praying man’ because I noticed (after the event!) the sunlight and shadows on a small rock created the impression of a man in the sea with his hands clasped as though praying. My first photograph with my Canon 5D Mark 4 camera.

Monks’ Cove – A rocky encounter

Cala_dels_Frares_BW_J9A0075_2_2

There is an extensive network of long distance hiking trails throughout Europe, In Spain they are known as ‘Grandes Rutas’ (GR) and are marked with two horizontal stripes – one red and the other white – to help keep you on the right track.

The Catalonian part of the GR92 trail, also known as ‘The Mediterranean Trail’ passes along the beach in front of my apartment and is a great route for exploring the rocky coastline of the Costa Brava. This part of the trail has a total distance of about 350 miles (580 kilometres). It starts at the border between Spain and France and continues down past Barcelona heading towards Castellon, 100km north of the city of Valencia. Other stages extend much further travelling through the provinces of Valencia and Andalucia to finish in Cadiz. During the course of its journey it also passes through Cabo de Gata which is a place I’ve visited and talked about before (see Cape Cat).

The Costa Brava in Spain is noted for its rocky coastline. There must be hundreds of coves to discover and the GR92 is a good way of getting to them. Most are small coves, often uninhabited, sometimes with a rocky beach, sometimes with a sandy beach. Many provide scenes that landscape photographers dream about discovering because of their combination of sea, rock formations and extensive skies.

I took this photograph today at Cala dels Frares which is a small cove near Lloret de Mar. Roughly translated from Catalan its name translates to Monks’ Cove. The name apparently comes from someone interpreting the standing rocks in the sea as reminiscent of hooded monks. I’m not sure about that but its name helped to stimulate my imagination as I was trying to work out how to frame the composition.

View from a balcony

 

Sometimes a sunset can be such a subtle blend of colours. This photo tries to capture the sense of quietness at the end of the day as I look out over the sea. The island of Mallorca and beyond that Africa lying in wait beyond the horizon.

I did struggle a little deciding whether to post this image because the sRGB colour space, which is used by Wordpress and Facebook, just can’t reproduce all the subtle colour variations I can see in the Adobe RGB colour space. In the end I decided to post it anyway and wait to see it in its full suit of colours when I produce it as a print.

A place for reflection

After moving from the south of Spain to the Costa Brava, I’m finally getting myself organised enough to get out to do some serious photography. After a couple of early morning visits to a possible location to check out compositions and lighting, yesterday I was ready to go.

There are three types of subject matter I’m particularly drawn to (trees, the sea and rocks). Put them all together within a half mile walk from home along the beach and I’m a very happy photographer!

The particular cove in this photograph faces east and I wanted to be there in time to catch the early rays of sunshine shining onto the cliff face. So at 7-50 am – after a scramble over the rocks, tripod set up, -10 stop neutral density filter on the lens – I was ready to ‘catch the light’.

 

 

Amazing Aurora

Having sold the house and with a couple of months to fill before moving into the new place, we decided to take a trip to Norway in the hope of seeing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). It was a short trip, only three days, so the chance of seeing the sky’s natural fireworks was fairly low – dependent on the solar activity and cloudless skies. With that it mind we flew to Oslo and then on to Tromsø which is well above the Arctic Circle and close to the magnetic North Pole, so a great place to ‘chase the Lights’. We were incredibly lucky and saw the Lights every night.

Here are a couple of photos. The first taken from land and the second taken whilst out at sea in a motor catamaran. They aren’t the greatest shots I’ve seen of the Aurora but you have to start somewhere and it was about -15°C!

 

Time to move on

Life in southern Spain has been fantastic – out in the countryside, mountain views, sunny nearly every day and even snow on the mountain tops in Winter. However, after 11 years it was time for a new adventure, so we sold the house and moved north. Goodbye to mountain views and hello to the beach.

After woodland photography, my next photographic passion is the exploration of rocky, seaside coastlines and there’s plenty of those in the new location. Not had time for any serious photography yet but I’ve started exploring some of the rocky coves in the area to get a better feel for the photographic potential of the local coastline and it looks very promising. For now an iPhone photo to give an idea of the local coastline alongside a memory of the mountains we’ve left behind.

 

 

 

 

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