3.1: Reflecting on the picturesque


Write a short reflective account of your own views on the picturesque (around 300 words). Consider how the concept of the picturesque has influenced your own ideas about landscape art, and in particular your ideas about what constitutes an effective or successful landscape photograph.

NOTE: Link no longer available for the picturesque and romanticism in painting: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/r/romanticism-romance-sublime-picturesque/)

I have attended many art classes and read many books and magazine articles books on art and photography composition and techniques, many of which together with topics like Golden Mean/Rule of Thirds and theories of balance and harmony, promote ‘correctly’ picturesque principles like those of Gilpin:

  • The texture should be “rough”, “intricate”, “varied”, or “broken”, without obvious straight lines (though against this, leading lines can exaggerate perspective and make it more dramatic).
  • The composition should work as a unified whole, incorporating several elements: a dark “foreground” with a “front screen” or “side screens”, a brighter middle “distance”, and at least one further, less distinctly depicted, “distance”. (often together with a path or entry point conveniently disappearing at rule of thirds)
  • A ruined abbey or castle would add “consequence” (or nowadays some flaking stone or wood can also give idea of impermanence)
  • A low viewpoint, which tended to emphasise the “sublime”, was always preferable to a prospect from on high. (but depends how high – very high looking down steep is also good.)

So I am very sure that these principles have become more or less intuitive in the way I often initially frame landscape pictures. I also often evaluate pictures against these principles if I think things look uninteresting or flat.

However in general I find ‘picturesque’ images rather boring and carefully composed images that just follow these conventions rather cliche. There are very interesting debates in design theory on how far and in what ways some of these principles are ‘hard-wired’ and how our brains interprete images eg we see tonal structure before colour, automatically try to group elements in an images and (I for one) see faces everywhere. And how far these things (eg reading single-point perspective and how we see and experience perspective) are culturally learned. Personally from an aesthetic point of view I am more interested now in images that subvert the ‘natural’ way I see things and point to something new.

I do not however think my reaction to conventionally ‘picturesque’ landscape images is due simply to the aesthetic per se  but rather the underlying concept of ‘picturesque’ in terms of making life and nature tame and ‘pretty’ rather than facing its contradictions, exhilarations and pains. Tourists seeking to idealise and sanitise their ‘safe’ experiences wither in the images they themselves produce, or those they purchase. I would much rather see and experience real sunsets, views from the top of ridges and crags and the wind in my face than see these in photographs. In photographs I am looking much more for the thoughts of the photographer on the meaning of their images – including Fay Godwin’s call for much more attention to complexities of power and conflicts of interest between different users of the countryside and also urban natural environments.

I have a long way to go though before my own images are able to go beyond the conventional.


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