Photography/History Vocabulary: Landscape

Welcome to Photography/Photo History Vocabulary, a section dedicated to the understand of the verbal communication of photography. Some words and their meanings can be hard to decipher from one another or theoretical words can be hard to grasp all together. This section will help readers understand each word in an easy manner.

Definition of Landscape

  • all the visible features of an area of countryside or land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal.

Foot hills of the Himalayan mountains, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

Though Greeks and Romans painted landscapes and garden-scapes; landscape as an artistic idea entered European thought in the seventeenth century. After photography’s invention, photographers took their cues from painting in order to make images. Landscapes were obviously at the forefront of this. Photographs of landscapes helped promote travel and the colonial agenda. However, they also help everyone appreciate the land from which they come. This post will explore how landscape is approached today and may lead you to rethink what you consider a landscape.

Through my time in India, I have become interested in the landscape and in the areas which we inhabit. This idea subconsciously extends from my knowledge of art of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when artists began to explore human interaction and influence over the landscape. I would argue that most landscapes made today include some element of human intervention because most easily reachable environments have people living in them. However, even when seeing human interaction or manipulation of the land, the lands topography is still the main feature of any landscape photograph.

Though I consider the contemporary landscape when I make my own photographs, many people think about the idea of the ‘picturesque’. Originally, picturesque was introduced by William Gilpin in the 1700’s. It was related to the natural beauty of the British Isles and helped shape the idea of Romanticism in the the eighteenth century. However, by the nineteenth century ideas around the picturesque has changed. As photographers traveled across the globe, some were disappointed that they did not find what they considered picturesque. Samuel Borne, a British photographer who photographed India extensively wrote in letters and newspaper articles that he was disappointed by the landscape in India. However, because of the long time Bourne spent in India, I think he came to appreciate the landscape there.

Beyond the history of the landscape, there are aesthetic issues to consider. Things one can consider regardless if they are photographing a mountainous landscape, the desert or at the beach. First and foremost, consider where the horizon line is, do not put it directly in the center of the photograph. In the examples below, there is only one photo with the horizon line in the center of the image.

Most landscapes are taken as horizontal photographs. Thus, consider where you place vertical elements in the frame. Place vertical elements to the left or the right of the frame. As the examples below (Arial view of Kumbhalgharh and lighthouse in Mamallapuram) show, moving these elements to the right or the left create a more dynamic composition. However, there are exceptions like the example below (Jain Temple, Khajuraho). With this photograph, I did place the architectural structure right in the center. It is encircled by vegetation thus, if it was not in the center, the viewer’s eye might not be drawn to the structure at all.

Furthermore, most of the examples here show a vast landscape, the view shows information far into the distance. This is an element of the traditional idea of the landscape. Especially as it is understood in the United States. Early landscape photographers in the States were photographing the West as a vast expansion that needed to be brought into the folds of the new country. Furthermore, historically in both the East and West landscape images have been used to show the vast scale of the landscape over that of the human form. This idea can be pushed and pulled depending on scale of the human form or intervention is within the photograph. For example with Lighthouse in Mamallapuram, there is a man walking down the street, it is obvious that he is far smaller than the rock outcrop in front of him. It really helps the viewer understand the size of that massive boulder.

Another thing to consider is where you place the objects in the frame in regard to the foreground, middle ground and background. In the examples below, the photo Rocks on the Shore of Mamallapuram, is the only image with an object truly in the foreground; the rocks. This placement lets the viewer know they are close and large. In contrast, The Shore Temple, Mamallapuram does not have anything in the foreground or middle ground. All of the subjects of the photograph are in the background. This allows an understanding of the scale of the temple in the context of the landscape around it. The temple is not an overwhelming structure like the Taj Mahal. The photograph also shows the flatness of the landscape there.

Photographs of landscapes can be taken from any vantage point, from above, below, from a distance or up close. Each of these vantage points will give a different feeling to the photograph. What elements are included in a photograph from a tree to a building will also change the way the viewer understands the topography. Consider all of these elements as well as your own experience of the landscape when you photograph it.

signage in the landscape between Udaipur and Kumbhalgarh, 2016

Arial view of Kumbhalgarh, 2016

View from above, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, 2017

View from Above, Mamallapuram, 2017

Rocks on the Shore, Mamallapuram, 2017

Lighthouse in Mamallapuram, 2017

Couple walking on the Beach, Pondicherry, 2017

Jain Temple, Khajuraho, 2015

Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, 2017

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By |2018-09-08T19:52:10-05:00September 18th, 2018|photo/photo history vocabulary|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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