Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Thoughts on Landscape

Not taken many photos recently as I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research, and the Christmas break has given me plenty of time for reflection. The first line of thought was spurred by a forum discussion on what constitutes a “Landscape” photograph.
The European term “Landscape” appears to derive from a word meaning to a system of man-defined spaces in the environment, whether individual fields or tribal lands. Then it is suggested that it fell into disuse, before being revived by 15th century Dutch painters who appear to have used it as a term for pictures of scenery – which were just beginning to be seen as artworks in their own right. It was then some years before it started to be applied to the actual scene in addition to the picture itself. Wikipedia seems reasonably well referenced on this particular subject, and there is also a potted history here.
In this context – to my mind at least – Landscape carries connotations of ownership. I’ve seen it suggested, although I can no longer find the source, that the original Dutch landscape paintings were made to help land owners or sellers show off property. The, frequently ornate, frames I associate with classical landscape paintings also imply some form of containment and limitation. By painting and framing the image the landscape has been captured, controlled and preserved. This ethos seems to me to carry forward into photography – the early pioneer photographers in the American West were capturing the landscape in bite-sized chunks for presentation to the middle classes who could enjoy a snatch of the sublime in their living rooms (see extended discussion in Land Matters: Liz Wells). At this point I start to struggle because I’ve been a long time admirer of Ansel Adams, a more recent master of the genre. But much as I admire the beauty of his images (not to mention his stunning command of the medium) it has been argued e.g by Grundberg in Crisis of the Real (and I tend to agree) they are undoubtedly of a static, unchanging landscape and devoid of human life.
Every so often - the clouds lifted - Mönch
This seems to be another theme of western landscape images – their permanence. For a more recent example the works of Cornish or Rowell seem more about the transience of light and its impact on the landscape rather than the changing nature of the environment itself. Even the New Topographic photographers seem to me more concerned with the impact of man on the environment than with the evolution of the environment or its impact on man. While this undoubtedly opens the door to the use of landscape as documentary photography – a key theme at the “Futurelands Now” seminar I attended – it effectively continues the idea of the environment as something we own/partition/manipulate – perhaps even victimise.
The history of landscape art in Japan seems at first glance to have followed a similar trajectory, initially starting off as a mere incidental in religious imagery before breaking out to become an art form in its own right. But on reflection I think that there are some key differences – at least up to the point of westernisation and probably beyond. One is the absorption of popular religious themes into the images – in particular Shinto ideas of the importance of the natural world and the seasonal cycle and Buddhist ideas of impermanence. This gives rise to the production of idealised landscapes featuring elements of one or more seasons and the inclusion of birds and animals – often as seasonal symbols. In other words a much more fluid concept of a landscape painting.
If only..
This approach was dramatically impacted by the introduction of western cultural ideas in the late 18th Century and beyond, since which time the preferred approach of Japanese artists and photographers appears to have shifted back and forward between ‘realist’ western approaches and more traditional Japanese ideas. This has been equally true of photography, which has been through pictorial phases which sought to make images that appeared like tradition Japanese ink-paintings for example, through western influenced works such as Moriyama and more recently a desire to produce ‘Japanese’ works.
Another difference which I perceive – which is not to say it is inarguable – is the manner in which Japanese paintings at least have been produced and presented. Wood block printers made careful use of the colour of the background material (contrary to modern photo wisdom which appears to argue for no ‘pure white’ except in specular highlights for example) and the images were frequently produced and displayed ‘full bleed’ or in relatively light weight forms such as hanging scrolls, emphasising the frailty of landscape and removing the separation between image and surroundings produced by a frame. These are landscapes which change, and in which we participate.
Even the words for landscape carry subtly different meanings to the European versions. There are two common synonyms in use - “keikan”  carries overtones of objectivity and physicality – a bit similar to the German word ‘Landschaft’ which is where I started this ramble. The other word is Fukei – which is more subjective and carries with it a sense of atmosphere and place. In Setting Sun, Anne Wilkes Tucker deconstructs the original pictograms for Fukei as follows:
imageThe first symbol ‘fu’ in the original Chinese means a flow or wind, the second symbol – found also in keikan – means a view. Hence landscape is not considered static, but transient and ephemeral. Ueda Shoji takes this one stage further and by engaging in (effectively) word play with the symbol for light evokes light flowing through the scenery.
A related temporality is found in Sugimoto Hiroshi’s Seascapes photos which he has explicitly stated are about “time’s arrow” and which he has deliberately reconnected to the religious origins of Japanese landscapes by presenting them in a modernised stupa or reliquary.
How much this temporality is reflected in other Japanese landscape practise I have yet to discover, but for now I think it captures something of the essence of what I am trying to portray in my seasonal photos, and I can only hope that perhaps others will see something of the same when I have the final portfolio assembled in a few months time. The same is true of my use of images of nature, as discussed in this post Geese - it matters if they're coming or going.

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