4: Landscape Identities Documentary Landscape Review

Landscape and Identity

The concept of ‘identity’ is central to most landscape photography – the cultural, historical, ecological and industrial factors shaping identities of people and places and the ways in which the two interact. ‘Identity’ is however not fixed. Individuals and groups of people are continually trying to reconcile multiple and changing identities as a means of making sense of their place in the world. Identities are constantly manipulated and contested by others in political processes. In the same way, meanings of ‘landscape’ and symbolic associations of places are also multi-layered, changing and often manipulated in attempts to shape power relationships between people and groups of people and peoples’ control over and use of ‘nature’ and other resources.

In deciding how to portray particular landscape/s key considerations are:

  • Who created, owns, uses and changes this landscape? How do these people relate to each other?
  • How is this ‘landscape’ distinguished from other similar places (who decides what is and what is not similar? by what criteria? why are those criteria important?)?
  • How do (different) users and inhabitants of a place feel towards (different aspects of) the landscape (pride, indifference, disrespect, fear of loss)?
  • What attitudes do (which) outsiders have towards it?

Underlying all these considerations must also be a consideration of:

  • How are these feelings, identities and relationships manipulated, why and by whom? (See Part 3 landscape as political text)
  • Self-awareness on the part of the photographer of their own identity/ies and assumptions and power/desire (or lack of it) to manipulate and change things.

See posts:

Dana Lixenberg’s:  Last Days of Shishmaref
Jacob Aue Sobol’s work Sabine (2004)

‘British-ness’, collective identities and the countryside

“The concept of the countryside is a significant element of the British identity. All countries have rural areas, but Britain’s is one of its ‘unique selling points’.” (Alexander p119)

 4.2: The British landscape during World War II

Attitudes towards social issues like renewable energy or housing policy are often polarised by ‘Not in My Back Yard’ ‘visual impact’ on the land according to rather idealised ‘picturesque’ notions of what the landscape used to/should look like.

Personal identities and multiculturalism

British photographers have questioned established and stereotyped images of the British landscape and its heritage. Photographers like Godwin and Darwell manipulate aesthetics of the image, beauty in texture, pattern and atmosphere to keep the viewer’s attention – then guide it to pose more challenging and shocking questions about the landscape and peoples’ relationship to it. The effort of extracting meaning in this way also makes the images more memorable. See posts:

  • Immigration and race:  Ingrid Pollard and Simon Roberts.
  • Access to the countryside:  Fay Godwin
  • Environmental pollution and degradation: John Darwell Dark Days (2001 Foot and Mouth Outbreak).
  • Relationship with animals: Clive Landen: sharp documentary style and brutal but images of death in Abyss (2001 Foot and Mouth Outbreak) and Familiar British Wildlife (series on roadkills).

4.3 A subjective voice

4: Landscape Identities Review Theory

Roland Barthes


Roland Barthes was a structuralist, with a particular interest in the semiotics of language and images. Semiotics can be described as the ‘science of signs’. A semiotic analysis of an image or a piece of film is the quantification of how meaning is constructed or a message is communicated.
Before writing ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ Barthes wrote the essay ‘Myth Today’ (1972), in which he described two levels of meaning: sign and myth.
• The first level of meaning, sign, comprises a signifier and a signified – or a denoted object (the actual thing depicted) and the connoted message (what the thing depicted communicates).
• The second level of meaning, myth, takes into account the viewer’s existing contextual knowledge that informs a reading of the image.
This is a simplified description of Barthes’ system, which doesn’t apply exclusively to photographic images. In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes uses the first level of meaning to read an advert for a French grocery company, Panzani.

This table roughly summarises Barthes’ discussion of the signs he identifies in the Panzani advert. In his essay, Barthes doesn’t explicitly refer to the second level of meaning, myth, although he does mention cultural stereotypes or assumptions that inform the consumption of this advertisement: the more Mediterranean lifestyle of “shopping around” for fresh groceries, as opposed to “the hasty stocking up… of a more ‘mechanical’ civilisation”. Barthes also points
out that:
• Recognition of the still life tradition in this image is dependent upon particular cultural knowledge.
• The image is read as an advert. The fact that the context is a magazine, and the pictorial emphasis on the product labels, influence how the overall picture is read.
• These signs are “not linear”; they are consumed holistically (Barthes, 1977, pp. 32–37).
Although the landscape doesn’t feature in this advert, it refers to the bounty of the countryside.
Here we see the brand attempting to align itself to the stereotype of a lifestyle which is – as Barthes saw it – the very essence of the country, as summarised by his made-up word, ‘Italianicity’. It is very much an image of Italian identity, from a French perspective.

An excellent example of the dissection of an advert is by Roland Barthes in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (1977).

The course so far has touched upon commercial applications of the landscape image, and how ideas and ideologies have been attached to particular landscapes. Nowhere are these two things conflated more explicitly than within the sphere of advertising, where landscape imagery is aligned with particular brand values and identities. Understanding how advertising imagery is constructed is essential if you intend to practise photography commercially. Even if you’re not interested in the commercial sector, exploring advertising imagery is a very good exercise in understanding how meaning is constructed and mediated by the photographic image.


4: Landscape Identities To Do

Tim Simmons

From Out West


Simmons creates his nocturnal landscapes using fluorescent lamps and a range of post-production techniques. His images might be described as ‘hyper real’; they have an aesthetic that somehow seems to transcend photo-realism. They look almost artificial, like video game graphics.

Tim Simmons established a successful career within the field of motor photography. Simmons’s innovative lighting methods that brought him to the attention of advertising agencies, who wanted to place cars within his out-of-this-world landscapes.

His recent projects are more tightly cropped ‘vignettes’ or almost meditative viewpoints. Simmons locates his practice within a fine art context and has installed his images in temporary open-air exhibitions across the world, some of which, ironically, have been presented on billboards.


4: Landscape Identities 5: Resolution On-line Resources

Designing a project brief

Project briefs are of different types and allow different levels of negotiation and artistic freedom.

(what follows is from the Course Manual and will be revisited in Assignment 5)

Commercial (client-led) briefs
Any engagement with commercial photographic enterprise will involve a brief of some kind. This may be in the form of a legally binding contract, or it may be something much more informal. In a commercial context, a brief will usually be a document that is the conclusion of a verbal or email discussion about what the client is hoping to achieve from a shoot – i.e. what they want you to communicate with your photographs – and, importantly, what the intended outcome will be. Will the photographs be used in a book, for example? Or on a website? This second aspect has important ramifications in relation to the size, format and quality of files they are expecting, and may influence your choice of equipment. A brief written by a client may be fairly openended or it may include a list of specific products or subjects that need to be photographed, including aspect ratio and crop. It may be something prescriptive, to be referred to throughout the shoot, or something more abstract that you will respond to photographically using your own initiative.

A brief should align the expectations of the clients with a realistic outcome on the part of the photographer. Whether you’re being paid generously for your services or doing a job as a favour, it is extremely important to have, in writing (email is fine), an agreement that clearly identifies the needs of the client and what you agree to supply them with, in order to prevent at best disappointment, or at worst, being sued. A brief should include the following:
• A summary of the project and general purpose of the photographs.
• What the photographs should communicate.
• A list of any specific shots the client would like.
• The amount of time that you will spend on the shoot (hours? days?) and timings.
• The number of images you will supply to the client, and whether they will be processed or unprocessed.
• Your fee, as well as/including any expenses you will incur.
• Whether (if working digitally) your time for file processing is included or, if not, how this File format and size of processed images (and possibly colour profile and bit-depth).
• Permission for using your photographs from the shoot: how will you permit the client to use your images, and for what period of time?
• Whether you will administer Model and/or Property Release Forms.
• Details of any other parties involved in the shoot, e.g. models/subjects.
People who are in a position to commission photography may do so on a regular basis and, if so, will be expert in drawing up a brief and/or contract; other, just as valuable, clients may not. It may be down to you to put into writing their verbal description of what they want you to do. Forming a brief should be a negotiation between you and the client, and the specifics will depend on many factors, including your own particular workflow. The important thing is to make
sure all parties are content with all aspects of the brief before commencing a shoot.

[Although briefs are not discussed specifically, a wealth of related information can be found in Beyond the Lens: Rights, Ethics and Business Practice in Professional Photography, London: The Association of Photographers]

Self-authored briefs
This and subsequent courses you may study with OCA will ask you to set your own assignment briefs. The purpose of this is to allow you more creative freedom, to help you become a more independent student, and to encourage you to think of yourself as a creative, independent practitioner pursuing your own interests and working on personal projects, as opposed to making work within the confines of a prescriptive art and design course.
Developing the ability to articulate your ideas for projects or enterprises is an essential skill for professional practice, within both commercial and art-based practice. For instance, you may identify a potential business opportunity to collaborate with an organisation that might be able to commission you, and approach them to propose a project. Or you may have an idea for a documentary or fine art project and need to apply for funding. In either case, you’ll need to
write a brief. (This is explored further at Level 3.)

A self-directed brief, particularly one conceived within an arts context (e.g. an academic environment such as OCA, or a proposal to a funding body such as the Arts Council – www. will include some, but not necessarily the majority of the points listed above. You’ll still need to discuss money, in particular your justification for any special resources you may require. Appropriately contextualising the project within a critical framework rather than an economic one will be the most significant difference between the two types of brief. If you’re requesting funding or support for production, for an exhibition or publication, or for an artist’s residency, you must be able to convince whoever writes the cheques that you’re conversant with the subject you wish to research and that you have the ability and commitment to complete
the project.

Unlike a commercial brief, a self-directed brief is not a rigid plan but a more organic document, which you’ll appraise and update as you go along. This is certainly the case with the selfdirected projects you’ll propose whilst studying with the OCA.

4: Landscape Identities Documentary Inspiration

Marcus Bleasdale

Marcus Bleasdale (born 1968) is a photojournalist, born in the UK to an Irish family. He spent over eight years covering the brutal conflict within the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo and has worked in many other places. Much of his work is linked to fundraising for aid and human rights agencies and there is often a link to ways t donate. His videos are extremely powerful and also discuss what people can do to change the situations the are seeing.

His images are in both black and white and colour and he also does video. They get their power because he is well informed about what he is shooting and knows why he wants hat shot and also has access to people and situations most outsiders would not. But he also has an extraordinary sense of composition and tone. Some of his images at composited (no examples available for download) but I generally find these less powerful.

Rape of a Nation.

4: Landscape Identities

Jo Spence

Jo Spence (1934–92) had a highly politicised approach to photography, creating photographs that run counter to the idealised imagery offered by advertising. Spence often worked collaboratively and sought alternative distribution models, laminating work for durability and renting out her photography to conferences, libraries, universities and public spaces to broaden its audience. She also documented her own struggles with cancer.



‘Putting Myself in the Picture’ (Camden Press 1986) brought together her raw and confessional works to inspire a younger generation of photographers.

Remodelling Photo History (1982)  a series of self-portraits in collaboration with Terry Dennett. The work consists of a series of diptychs where two photographs of Spence are juxtaposed. In some pairs, the first is a parody of a more traditional pictorial image; the second shot is less conventionally framed and the irony is articulated with less subtlety.

‘Industrialisation’ places the female figure between the viewer and the view beyond, challenging the male gaze and the objectification of women.

‘Victimisation’ “Here we see that the estate will not admit trespass, and that it stands in for the heroic (male) defender of the ground, repelling weak opposition at its border. Jo Spence failed to cross the barrier, allowing the absent landowner (through his gate and sign) to become hero, male, the creator of difference… her mockery diminishes the victory won by the landowner.” (John Taylor 1994, p.282 quoted Alexander p133)


4: Landscape Identities Review Theory

Landscape and Gender

Some early women photographers did do serious topographical work in the late nineteenth and early 20C:

  • Evelyn Cameron,
  • Laura Gilpin,
  • Frances Benjamin Johnson
  • Elizabeth Ellen Roberts

Artistic photography, continuing the ‘genteel’ occupations for lady sketchers and watercolourists, was also conducted by:

  • Anna Atkins
  • Julia Margaret Cameron
  • Lady Hawarden
  • Lady Elizabeth Eastlake

But their work  was more closely aligned with the family album, documentary and performance, rather topographic.  (ibid, p.188).

Feminist discourse since the 1970s has rejected the monopoly of the male gaze and articulated the female point of view in relation to the landscape. Social and technological developments have also made serious photographic excursions into the landscape considerably more accessible (Wells, 2011, p.189). A number of female photographers have, in one form or another, engaged with feminist politics in relation to the landscape and the concept of nature, as well as the male gaze.

For interesting feminist and other modern approaches  see:

  • Helen Sear’s series Grounded (2000), in which she digitally combines photographs of skies with images of animal hides photographed at a museum.
  • Jo Spence subverts classical depictions of nude female figures within idealised settings.
  • Elina Brotherus
  • Karen Knorr
  • Susan Trangmar
  • Sian Bonnell
  • Barbara Kruger
  • Joan Fontcuberta Bodyscapes (2005) employ three-dimensional imaging software used for military  applications to render landscape images of close-up photographs of his own body.


4: Landscape Identities

Simon Roberts


Simon Roberts (b.1974) is a British photographic artist whose work deals with our relationship to landscape and notions of identity and belonging. His large format photographs are taken with great technical precision, often from elevated positions. The distanced vantage point allows the relationship of individual bodies and groups to the landscape to be clearly observed, and echoes the visual language of history painting.

He has exhibited widely and his photographs reside in major public and private collections, including the George Eastman House, Deutsche Börse Art Collection and Wilson Centre for Photography. In 2010 he was commissioned as the official Election Artist by the House of Commons Works of Art Committee to produce a record of the General Election on behalf of the UK Parliamentary Art Collection. In 2012 he was granted access by the International Olympic Committee to photograph the London Olympics and most recently was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

He has published three monographs;

Motherland (Chris Boot, 2007)  from a journey around Russia.

We English (Chris Boot, 2009) – voted as one of the best photography books of the past decade

Pierdom (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2013).

Simon is a patron of Photofusion (see a video interview here), an advisor to Fotodocument and a member of the European photographic collective POC.

3: Landscape as Political Text 4: Landscape Identities To Do

An My-Le


3: Landscape as Political Text 4: Landscape Identities 5: Resolution 6: Transitions Documentary Inspiration

Paul Seawright

Paul Seawright is best known for his ‘late photography’ of battle-sites and minefields. He often uses vintage technology and a much older approaches to conflict photography. But rather than reportage, his images are made for museum-going audiences and gallery patrons by people who call themselves ‘artists’.


If it is too explicit it becomes journalistic. If it is too ambiguous, it becomes meaningless…The constriction of meaning is done by the person looking at it. The artist has to leave space for that’

‘Paul Seawright, Voice Our Concern Artist’s Lecture 2010’ is a 40 minute illustrated artists lecture by the artist photographer Paul Seawright given in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in November 2010. Paul talks about the use of photography in conflict situations as often being unreliable and how his work as a photographic artist is a response to this. He presents photographs from the Crimean war and discusses the influence of photographer Paul Graham on his work. He describes the difference between photo journalism and art in the context of artists defining their subjects and in the construction of meaning. He goes on to discuss and present examples of his Sectarian Murder Work series. This Voice Our Concern lecture was a joint project organised by IMMA and Amnesty International Ireland.

The Forest 2001

17 photographs of desolate roadside lay-bys, ditches and car parks shot at night and lit by what we assume to be streetlights. By day they would probably be ordinary, but at night with the lighting they take on a sinister tone (like images we are used to seeing in detective TV series). ‘Because there is such a division between what we can see and what we cannot see (the fall off of the light does not allow for much penetration into the forest edge) what belongs there (the trees, underbrush and roadside curbs) and what doesn’t belong there (us), these are photographs that place the viewer into the shoes of the vulnerable’ (Paul Seawright’s website)

Hidden (2002)

In 2002 Seawright was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum London to undertake a war art commission in Afghanistan.In spite of the climate in which they were made, have a cool, Becher-like objectivity to them. Tension is created by concealing as much as is revealed in the photographs and their caption. Through unorthodox framing, selective focusing in places, and at times seemingly banal viewpoints, there is a palpable sense of unease in this landscape that is strewn with concealed lethal hazards. For example another image shows recently dug up mines – done by hand because they cannot be identified with mine detectors against the rest of the iron in the land., as well as America’s most wanted outlaw, who would take a further nine years to track down. His photograph of shells in Afghanistan explicitly echoes Fenton’s famous image from the Crimea.

For some of the main images and reviews (eg John Stathatos) see:

Invisible Cities 2007   

after Italo Calvino book.

Seawright travelled to major cities in sub-Saharan Africa, exploring communities on the edge of conurbations, both geographically and socially. Comprises varied photographs, some of which are recognisable as landscape pictures, or environmental portraiture. None of the titles of the photographs refer to specific locations or people, which emphasises the indistinct nature and anonymity of these places and their inhabitants.

Bridge (2006) the road bridge, presumably an interchange of major roads on the edge of the city, cleanly divides the frame in two. A yellow bus heads along the road towards the city from, we suppose, the sanctuary of the suburbs, taking children to school or their parents to work. The sky is empty and bleak, echoed by the detritus that sprawls below, shielded by the flyover from the view of the bus’s passengers.

Things Left Unsaid


Paul Seawright is Professor of Photography and Head of Belfast School of Art at the University of Ulster. His photographic work is held in many museum collections including The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Tate, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, International Centre of Photography New York, Arts Councils of Ireland, England and N.Ireland, UK Government Collection and the Museum of Contemporary Art Rome. They have also been exhibited in Spain, France, Germany, Korea, Japan and China.  In 2003 he represented Wales at the Venice Biennale of Art and in 1997 won the Irish Museum of Modern Art/Glen Dimplex Prize. He is represented by the Kerlin Gallery Dublin.