Present a critical and reflective summary on the conventions, expectations and meanings of a genre of your choosing.
In this essay, I will discuss the conventions, expectations and meaning of landscape photography as a genre and then, using one image, briefly explore the overlapping nature of alternative genres, namely documentary, portraiture, and still life.
Conventions and expectations of Landscape Photography
So what is landscape photography?
In her essay ‘Landscape as Genre’, Liz Wells (1) distinguishes between land and landscape. Land, she says, is a natural phenomenon, whereas landscape is a cultural construct dating from 17th-century Dutch painting. She goes on to describe the landscape as ‘vistas’ encompassing both nature and the changes on it affected by man. She discusses the development of landscape photography with examples of Romanticism, Pictorialism, and Modernism. But interestingly, Wells declines the opportunity to consider the wider scope that the term ‘landscape’ could include.
David Bate (2) takes a broader perspective, questioning whether the term ‘landscape’ actually has any meaning in contemporary culture. He suggests that the term is so rooted in the histories of European painting and Anglo-American art that the term may have become anachronistic.
It could be fun, he suggests’ to invent ‘scape’ names eg shoppingtrolley scapes, cupboard scapes and table scapes. As he says, ‘photography has been massively influential in producing the vision of these different scapes as types of space, precisely through the pervasiveness of multiple types of what we simply call ‘landscape’ photography.’
Another eminent landscape photographer shares Bate’s view. During the 2016 ‘On Landscape Meeting of Minds Conference’, John Blakemore (3), when showing images of his home, poses the question, ‘Will we allow these as a sort of domestic landscape?… I think we should.’
Meaning of Landscape Photography
In his essay ‘Truth and Landscape’ Robert Adams (4) suggests that landscape photographs can offer three truths, or verities, as he calls them. Namely geography, autobiography and metaphor. He suggests that an image of a purely geographic nature might be boring, that autobiography is ‘frequently trivial’, and that metaphor may be ‘dubious’. But he believes when all are present, they combine to offer an ‘affection for life’.
A landscape photograph is fundamentally the recording of a geographical place (be that a sunlit valley, a roaring seascape or John Blakemore’s living room), but inevitably it must involve some autobiographical component. Even in the confines of Blakemore’s home, framing choices must be made. Choices that draw upon the photographer’s experiences and perceptions of that environment. It is through the photographer’s eyes that we see this landscape.
But what about the metaphorical component? Adams suggests that ‘art asserts nothing is banal, which is to say that a serious landscape picture is metaphor’. (As a side note, I’m unsure what Adams means by a ‘serious’ picture. Surely the viewer, or Author (5), can interpret a non-serious picture metaphorically?).
With all three verities present, Adams proposes that we might discover the ‘significance of a place’ and interestingly, that we might prefer to spend time in front of (for example) Edward Hopper’s painting ‘Early Sunday Morning’ rather than be at the actual place hopper painted. Why might this be possible? Perhaps it is that the photographer/painter has distilled the scene, thereby allowing us to focus on smaller details.
Comparison between Genres
Using the image below (taken as part of CG Exercise 1.2: Re-create an Image) I will discuss how it could be considered as belonging to any of the four genres under consideration.
This photograph was taken as my response to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s’ image of the bed he shared with his recently dead partner. His image was designed to highlight and document the issue of same-sex love during the HIV/AIDS crisis. From a documentary genre perspective, my image shows the loneliness of single life during the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
Viewed from the perspective of the portrait genre, the image is an example of self-absented portraiture. It describes me as a single man sleeping alone.
Although perhaps still life photography would normally be associated with small objects, there is nothing to prevent this bed from being seen as what it is. The depiction of a bed.
And finally, as a landscape image. As discussed above, both David Bate and John Blakemore would regard an image of my bedroom as a Bedroom Scape.
(1) Wells, L. (2015) “Case Study: Landscape as Genre,” in Photography: A critical introduction. 5th edn. London: Routledge, pp 331-344
(2) BATE, D., 2019. PHOTOGRAPHY. 2nd ed. London: BLOOMSBURY VISUAL ARTS, pp.109-110.
(3) Blakemore, J., 2016. John Blakemore – On Landscape Meeting of Minds Conference 2016. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oa8woJC-0lg> [Accessed 14 February 2022].
(4) Adams, R. (1996) “Truth and Landscape,” in Beauty in photography: Essays in defense of traditional values. 2nd edn. New York, NY: Aperture, pp. 13–20.
(5) Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Image, music, text. London: Fontana, pp. 142–148.