Landscape Perspectives: pictorialism to modernism

 Landscape Art

Since the very beginnings of human art, artists have been concerned with the relationship between human beings and their environment. That relationship has been perceived and portrayed in different ways in different cultures, all of which have potential to inform current photographic images particularly with the advances and freedom offered by digital cameras and processing.

  • Cave paintings: many early cave paintings were an attempt to tame the human environment, and particularly the animals in them. Many of these paintings simplified form, captured movement and superimposed images over time in a way whose power can only really be appreciated when visiting these very first art galleries. These painting are in warm earth colours and black because those were the pigments available.
  • Chinese and Japanese landscape: show a diversity of approaches to the relationship between people and their environment. Some were produced for the elite, many by monks as part of their religious practice and combined with calligraphy. Confucianism stressed human ability to control the landscape in an ordered and hierarchical manner. Taoism sees human beings as part of the landscape, needing to bend and flow with forces of nature. Zen Buddhism depicted the solitary human being confronted with  unfathomable reality or flash of momentary enlightenment. Many of these images are black and white ink, others are in colours including blues and greens.
  • Indian and Persian miniatures : these were produced for a wealth elite showing the control over nature in gardens and idealised views. They are in full colour, including silver and gold.
  • Western landscape painting: in Western Art interest in landscape came quite late as the poor relation to religious and historical art. But from  18th century artists used the sophisticated techniques made possible by oil paint to depict dramatic plays of light on landscape backgrounds. Form the late 19th century landscape art, partly in reaction to the rise of photography, started to free itself from adherence to strict compositional rules and colour conventions and experiment with different ways of using paint to convey emotions and feelings.

See page on Landscape Art

Landscape photography

Landscape photography, much longer than fine art, has continued to be constrained in traditions, conventions and preconceptions mostly derived from 19th Century Western art. Many people have very particular ideas about what may or may not be considered a piece of landscape art and these ideas are reflected in much of the photographic establishment eg rules and assessment by judges in landscape photography competitions and Royal Photographic Association qualifications . These preconceptions include:

  • suitable subject matter: eg do we include or cut out evidence of human industrial activity?
  • composition: eg canvas ratio and orientation, compositional depth, use of leading lines, golden ratio or rule of thirds.
  • where and how we see images of the landscape: eg what is appropriate for large or small prints as fine art in galleries, illustration in books, advertising or on-line.

Exercise 1.1 Preconceptions 

Exercise 1.2 Photography in the museum or in the gallery

Early landscape photography

From Alexander 2013 OCA material pp 23-36. To be rewritten, properly integrated and linked and follow up on these photographers (work out how to deal with copyright issues in linking images)

Early photography was related closely to painting.

Camera lucida and camera obscura already used by artists like Vermeer to get ‘photographic realism’. Also popular with upper class Victorian travellers.

William Henry Fox Talbot’s (1800-1877) calotype process. frustration at being unable to draw or paint with any degree of accuracy that the positive-negative analogue process underpinning modern photography was conceived. While in Lake Como in Italy on his grand tour of Europe in 1833, Fox Talbot decided he would find a way to fix the image within the camera lucida. –  Calotype allowed mass production.

Niepce (1765-1833) and Daguerre (1787-1851)

Early photography was only accessible to those with quite specialist knowledge of optics and chemistry ( with the economic implications) and so was considered part of science. Fulfilled purpose of illustration, journalism, produce mementos, criminal mug shots and method of scientific inquiry eg eugenics.

Many painters made use of photography like Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Seurat. Also modern artists like Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter.

Eugene Atget (1857-1927) amassed an archive of many thousands of glass plate negatives with views of the street life and architecture of Paris.

Discussion of whether or not Atget’s photos merits a place in art galleries given he himself did not demonstrate artistic judgement in the wat he catalogued hos work see

Rosalind Krauss ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’. Vs To Papageorge in Core Curriculum: Writings on Photography 2011


“Pictorialism” is only an exaggeration of what the photograph thinks of itself. Barthes 1982 p31

Link to Wikipedia

Link to Google Images

The norm within pictorialism was, and remains, the production of singular, one-off pieces, designed to convey the maker’s mood at the moment it was made and to satisfy the eyes of the viewer.

Some early photographers believed that in addition to its practical applications as an objective recording or objects, photography also had potential as a means of expressing subjective  impressions – as pictures.

Brotherhood of the Linked Ring

founded by Henry Peach Robinson. Philosophy that a photographic print could be considered as a work of art, despite the need for some kind of camera and related chemistry.They split from the organisation that would become the Royal Photographic Society because the organisation was too preoccupied with the scientific rather than the artistic side. RPS then adopted pictorialism.

Printing process:  Instead of applying the photosensitive coatings to the surfaces of their prints as evenly and uniformly as possible to give continuous tones, pictorialists left visible brushstrokes and marks on the print surface. Bromoil, cyanotype and gum bichromate processes rendered images with less clarity and giving them more atmosphere like drawing, pastels and painting.

Multiple negatives and first photomontages:  allowed the production of images that, especially in early days, could not have been produced indoors in low light, and it also made possible the creation of highly dramatic images, often in imitation of allegorical paintings.

  • Oscar Rejlander (1857-75) painter who saw the potential offered by photography. The Two Ways of Life (1857) allegorical scenario on a grand scale
  • Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) Fading Away. (1858)  a typical sentimental narrative. Some of Robinson’s photographs were of twenty or more separate photographs combined to produce one image.

Modernist approaches

Wikipedia Modernism

Link to Google images

Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) strongly believed in a purer way of seeing, more akin to human vision. He accumulated a large body of work on traditional rural practices around the Norfolk Broads. Emerson championed technical excellence whilst working from life, in the field. He departed from making softer, stylised photographs and began to make images that were sharply focused throughout the image. ‘Democracy’ of the frame, where all of the subjects are on an equal footing in terms of their relation to other elements in the picture, and in their importance to the formation and interpretation of the scene. MetMuseum images.

Photo-Secessionists. US ‘straight photography’

ambition for photography to ‘secede’ from previously accepted ideas about photography serving purely practical purposes. Chose impressionistic style. Challenged pictorialism. Radical shift towards celebrating photography for what it really was.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) became editor if American Amateur Photographer 1893 and set up Camera Work in 1902.

1912 The Steerage depicts with clear photographic realism a group of refused would-be immigrants boarding the SSKaiser Wilhelm II to return to Europe. Image encapsulated an abstract collection on forms and tones alongside a sense of emotional response he felt towards the scene he witnessed. It retained the pictorialsis’ desire to render an emotional response within a photograph, but Steiglitz believed he had achieved this by embracing photography’s unique ability to reproduce optical clarity captured in a split second.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973)

Smaller apertures and visualisation.   F/64 group formalised 1932. Dispersed 1935. The name referred to the minimum aperture of the lens which yields the greatest depth of field and best optical quality throughout the image. Using a 10″ x 8″ large format cameras (sometimes called ‘plate cameras’ which take a single image at a time as opposed to being loaded with film on which multiple frames can be shot). Negatives ‘contact-printed’ onto a sheet of high-quality commercially available photographic paper. The contact print is a precise analogy of the negative as made by the photographer.

It is different from enlarging images taken in smaller formats by projecting the image onto paper, which allows for greater manipulation of the print.

for the f/64 photographers, mastering exposure in the camera was essential to the creative process. Real artistry in photographic technique and pre-visualisation of the image. This approach differs significantly from the idea of roaming eye fixed to a camera viewfinder, waiting for pctures to jump i to it.understanding of different lenses of different focal lengths.knowledge of exposure to manage the different tones in a scene,

Edward Weston (1886-1958) an aspiring artist who survived by taking portraits professionally and churning out unchallenging picturesque pictorial works. After a meeting with Steiglitz, Weston changed direction, he took to the precisely composed, sharp and very photographic aesthetic as a valid form of artistic expression, and brought it back home to California. Crops into image to make more abstract.

dunes, oceano (1936) image explores much more than simply the texture and form of the landscaoe.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) best known for his landscapes of Yosemite National Park. Exceptional technical skill. But The formal elements (eg use of perspective and composition) are mostly an extension of painterly traditions.

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) natural forms but more experimental in use of photography. Expanded photographic way of seeing by further cropping into views to make a more abstract photograph.

Paul Strand (1890-1976)



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