Evolving nature and landscape photography in the digital era
This is the first of a series of reflections on the evolution of the discipline of nature and landscape photography in the digital era.
There is no question that Ansel Adams and the F64 group launched photography into the realm of the ongoing artistic dialogue. as well as in places of many homes, offices, museums, and collections.
Film photography was practiced by many great artists but had its creative limits. With the advent of the digital camera and software of greater and greater capacity to alter the basic camera image, photography entered a greatly expansive era. However many still hold on to the notion that the camera should only capture reality as it was meant to be captured by the camera. This stance unfortunately misses out on the tremendous creative opportunities the cameras and software offer.
Now everyone could create a beautiful image and share it worldwide. Landscape photography as a photographic discipline has exploded over the last 20 years. There is not a place on Earth that has not been photographed. Everyone has a camera now. So what is a photographer to do to make themselves original? That has been a burning question in my soul since I started this journey. What makes me artistically unique?
My current project, The Transformed Landscape, marks a major departure in my personal journey into photography. I started as a standard landscape photographer, taking pretty, even beautiful, and occasionally iconic and archetypal pictures. I modified the contrast and colors a bit more and more with time, but until now, never crossed the threshold of altering the basic form of the image. The current project explores my branching out from the traditional landscape photography genre.
As I think about the different types of photography within the world of landscape photography, it seems I can begin to separate different patterns of outdoor digital photography.
My thoughts and perception at this time are thus:
General Nature photography. This broad category would encompass the world of photography of the natural world with minimal processing after the image is captured. This would be similar to journalistic photography, where the goal is to capture an image in nature as "purely" as possible with very limited processing afterward. (The term "purely" in digital photography is a completely subjective term of the photographer. Turning what we see into a table of numbers doesn't seem "purely natural" to me at all.) This would include landscapes, animals of any variety in the landscape, and plants in their natural environment. I would consider this form of art as more of a documentary form of art.
This could include images with people in the landscape, buildings in the natural world, machinery of any type, or anything made by humans seen within the natural landscape. This is latter element is often termed "the hand of man". Some contests will even specify whether or not these elements are acceptable or not. These images could be categorized as travel photography, urban photography, portrait photography, social commentary photography, or something other. These are the most common images we see on the internet.
From here on I must focus only on landscape photography as that is what I know and not the other genres of nature photography. That broader conversation about the category of nature photography I will have to leave to others.
For me landscape photography can be broken down into three different categories based on the amount of processing the artist does after image capture from the camera. That seems to be the real differentiating quality of each group - how much work is done on the image after capture.
1. General landscape photography. This type of image would involve the landscape without much alteration from the RAW of JPEG file from the camera, except for perhaps some alterations in the contrast and color in the most basic of means. It does not involve elements of "the hand of man" most of the time. Most people's response to this type of image is, "That is beautiful!" I consider this a form of art following the film paradigm, as my friend Alain Briot brought to my attention.
2. Aesthetic landscape photography. This would involve adding creative compositions that begin to elicit an emotional response from the viewer but still maintains believably in the image. Most people's response to this type of image is, "That is really really beautiful!" Often the artist has gone farther in modifying the colors and contrast and perhaps removed a few dots of dust on the sensor or removed a few distracting elements from the image. I consider this aesthetic landscape photography a separate category as the artist has clearly spent more time in composition and processing to get to the end product. There is still a quality of believability in the image. Perhaps this could be compared to the same believability that is in a good book of fiction. Regardless we have not left the world of believable art into the world of art that we know is different from what we believe about the landscape.
3. Artistic landscape photography. This is where believably is left behind and a print or image is produced that takes one into the realm of art and away from documentation and its aesthetic modifications. These images are not believable as representing nature in its "purist" form, but of an artistic presentation that was completely contrived by the artist. In this case the original image was captured by a camera and processed by the artist in their own style, which left the realm of the believable to lead one into the realm of a representation of something more than the camera captured.
Most people's response to this latter type of image is either, "That is totally awesome!" or "I really hate it." The closer to art, the more one gets a greater dichotomy of responses.
Lastly I cannot leave out images with archaeologic elements. Certainly these have elements of "the hand of man" in them, and they can be shown in a very artistic manner. But for now I'll leave this are archaeologic photography. However my friend Alain Briot has produced a magnificent collection of prints of petroglyphs as if they were on leather. His work clearly straddles several categories.
There are many great photographers but many fewer photographic artists.