3 Landscape as political text

What makes a particular space a ‘place’? How have practitioners – predominantly documentary photographers –  related landscapes and other spaces to particular political ideologies and historical events, as well as to their personal experiences?

“Through the medium of landscape, spaces are turned into places. Areas that might have previously been uncelebrated or even uncharted, are defined and become destinations, imbued with a particular ideology.” (Alexander 2013 p83)

“Photographs slice space into place; land is framed as landscape. Representation envelops reality; it becomes an act of colonisation. Photography contributes to characterising sites as particular types of places within the order of things.” (Wells, 2011, p.56)

“…change “landscape” from a noun to a verb…think of landscape, not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed…ask not just what landscape “is” or “means” but what it does, how it works as a cultural practice. Landscape, we suggest, doesn’t merely signify or symbolise power relations; it is an instrument of cultural power, perhaps even an agent of power that is (or frequently represents itself as ) independent of human intentions…..it has to trace the process by which landscape effaces its own readability and naturalises itself and must understand that process in relation to what might be called “the natural histories” of its own beholders. What we have done and are doing to our environment, what the environment in turn does to us, how we naturalise what we do to each other, and how these “doings” are enacted in the media of representation we call “landscape” (W J T Mitchell Introduction to Landscape and Power, 2002 pp1-2)

The Picturesque and ‘aesthetic consumerism’

In the second half of the eighteenth century, definitions of types of landscape or view, seen from an aesthetic or artistic point of view distinguished between:

  • the sublime (awesome sights such as great mountains)
  • the beautiful, the most peaceful, even pretty sights.

See discussion in Part 1 Beauty and the Sublime

In between came the picturesque, views seen as being artistic but containing ‘pleasing’ elements of wildness or irregularity.

Origins of the Picturesque and ‘aesthetic consumerism’

 3.1: Reflecting on the picturesque

Going beyond the picturesque requires thinking very carefully about what one is trying to say about ‘landscape’ and why. It also raises aesthetic challenges about how to communicate this in terms of following or subverting conventional theories of composition and the likely interpretation by different viewers.

The Tourist Perspective

Our perceptions of landscape imagery have been heavily influenced by tourist photography – postcards and holiday photos – even more than landscape photography. The postcard declares “This subject is special. Not only was it worthy of being photographed, but it was important enough to be on a postcard.” (Alexander 2013 p89)

The Tourist Perspective

3.2: Postcard views

Marks of conflict and ‘late’ photography’

In his 2003 essay, David Campany comments that:
“One might easily surmise that photography has of late inherited a major role as undertaker, summariser or accountant. It turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened totting up the effects of the world’s activity.” (‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problem of “Late Photography”’ (in Campany (ed.), 2007)

‘Late Photography’

3.3: ‘Late Photography’

Landscape as a Call to Action

Photography, and the manipulation of photographs, is often used to highlight and raise political questions. Landscape photography in particular is often used in environmental activism – images of environmental degradation, urban squalor.

Landscape as a Call to Action

3.4: A persuasive image

Industrial and post-industrial landscapes

Some activist photographers have been mainly concerned with industrial and post-industrial landscapes. Here big industry becomes the ‘new sublime’ to be feared and confronted in the hope of change and avoiding disaster.

Industrial and post-industrial landscapes

Photography, memory and place

“… in Photography, I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography.” (Barthes 1982,p.76)


The matter of ‘reality’ is an important aspect to consider in relation to all areas of photography: who is recording what, why, for whom and why?

 3.5: Local history

3.6: ‘The Memory of Photography

Assignment 3: Spaces to Places