A brief history of landscape photography

This post is based on a short talk given to the Canberra Photographic Society as part of the introduction to the Landscape Photography workshop being held in Bermagui. It presents a brief overview of some of the key developments in landscape photography.

It is often useful to have a look at how people have approached something in the past to see if their ideas still have relevance today. It is also interesting to have a look at how technical advances have influenced photography practice, and what is considered “normal”.

Firstly a brief time line to give a framework for some of the observations that follow:

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Early photographers photographed landscape because that was where the light was – exposures of hours were sometimes required, but gradually light-sensitive chemistry and the physics of camera and lens design improved. Early photographers had to work to get their images, so there was some consternation when Kodak releases its first “consumer” camera that brought image-making to the masses. Does this sound familiar? It only took 100 or so years for history to repeat itself with the cell phone.

Slide3Before photography, landscape painting was a popular genre (the word “landscape” is derived from the dutch “landschap” – landscape painting was important in the dutch painting traditions). Above, a famous painting by an English artist shows some of the characteristics of painted landscapes that had an important influence on early landscape photography, namely the soft and dreamy mood and the carefully constructed composition that sometimes included reference to the antiquities.

Slide4 The Pictorialist style was practiced world-wide. Some of the best-known Australian pictorialists were Frank Hurley (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Hurley) and Olive Cotton (By Olive Cotton – Tea cup ballet at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14783395)

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In response to this use of photography to emulate something else (painting), some photographers sought to practice photography as an art in its own rightSlide8

The group’s name, f/64, was a reference to the small apertures used to create images of the landscape that were sharp throughout. Famous members of the group were Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Sonya Noskowiak was one of the now lesser-known members of the group.

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The F/64 group was successful and highly influential. Alfred Stieglitz also worked hard in the early stages in the development and recognition of photography as an art form.

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Widely regarded as the father of colour landscape photography, Eliot Porter was friend of Stieglitz and his wife Georgia O’Keefe. His colour work is characterised by soft and muted colours. He published a significant body of work including several books over his lifetime.

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The photobooks published by the Sierra club were highly influential and succeeded in halting the construction of two dams that would have flooded the Grand Canyon. They were not able to stop the construction of Glen Canyon dam, so today Glen Canyon is flooded by Lake Powell.

Slide13Philip Hyde was a student of Ansell Adams and a major photographer for the Sierra Club. His images are characterised by strong and vivid colours. However, note that his images are also strong compositions. It is easy to be seduced by colour in the landscape, but usually colour alone does not make a strong image.

While learning the techniques for creating images that please you I suggest that you also ask yourself why you are photographing. If you consider what you are aiming for, your images will probably be better for it. Approaches that inspired earlier photographers may also be relevant today.

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