Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

There's something in the trees and the superficial landscape photograph

This is a brief reply to a discussion on Twitter. To give a summary, Tom Wilkinson has asked ’how much is it [my There’s something in the trees’ series] about landscape and how much is it about me’? Meanwhile Duncan Fawkes has questioned Lucy Telford's comment that ’much landscape is superficial'.

I can't possibly hope to reply to that lot in a tweets nor 10 or 20 tweets, so here's my angle.

Firstly on the question of superficiality and landscape photography - I don't think that's a word I would use myself, perhaps I would choose ’one dimensional’. That's not just a criticism of landscape, but photography in general. I think we'd all agree that there's much out there which is a bit shallow. But my critique of landscape photography comes not from criticising other’s work, more it it as a direct result of living with my earlier conventional landscape photography. What I found was that no matter how beautiful or spectacular there was very little I wanted to live with on my wall for an extended period. Mainly that was a result of the fact that it was a simple picture of something, once I got used to seeing it, I stopped noticing it was there; there was nothing to excite the mind in my early work. It was shallow superficial and one dimensional. That's me criticising myself and nobody else!

For years now I have been trying to resolve this conundrum by exploring ways of adding more layers of meaning. That's meant different things in different series, but that is the unifying factor across all my various series. For me adding layers of meaning, (especially if they are not too explicitly described by the photograph and allow the viewer to wonder about the mystery of the photograph over many years) is the epitome of what we should be striving for as photographers. Not just for the sake of our viewers, but also for our own sakes as fulfilled creative people.

Moving on to answer Tom’s question of how much of this is about landscape and how much about me? The honest answer is that is neither a question I want to answer nor am I capable if answering. Firstly because I have no wish to undo that sense of mystery and wonder; and secondly because the series is about exploring that mystery and not answering it.

This series has emerged as I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear out of my Songs of Travel series. It is still using multiple exposures, it is still centred on the landscape. But as a result of two separate and yet related events it will be the new route for me for the time being. The first of those events was the time I photographed myself with the tree under which my mothers ashes were spread. Secondly as a direct result of those images I was asked to collaborate with Tim Andrews, the Parkinson's sufferer who has worked with over 250 photographers from Rankin to Chris Friel and Alex Boyd. These images haven't been released yet as I don't want to preempt Tim’s blog post.

What I found was that by including a person - or myself - in the photos I added a new layer of meaning and a new element of mystery and wonder. In addition it, for me at least, sets up a dynamic of questioning our place in the landscape. Not just our physical relationship, but our psychological relationship. It asks us to consider who we are, what the landscape means to us.

What I've found with these two projects is that they share a strong element of play, chance and serendipity. There is if you like a magical element in the creation of the images, because I certainly cannot predict the results. Adding myself to the images has only increased that sense of magic and wonder for me, because the results are even more unpredictable and mysterious.

Chance, play and serendipity have a long history in painting - from the Dadaists drip paintings to the abstract expressionists such as Rothko or more pertinently Jackson Pollock.

So if you want to know what it's about you should really address the question to yourselves not me!


  1. Hi Rob,

    Well, I've slept on it (am still a little fuzzy headed so bear with me!). The exploration of what landscape means to us is a very important one, and is one of the themes in my own work at the moment. For those who delve deeper and address this issue head-on by producing work such as yours here, we are confronted by centuries worth of historical 'prejudice' if you like. The picturesque has a lot to answer for and I think it is hard for some audiences to let go of that way of looking at landscape. That said, is not the picturesque still a valid opinion? People often retreat into the countryside from their daily lives and impress upon it this tradition of beauty that has been a solid representation for so many years. The picturesque IS what landscape means to some people. It may not be modern, it may be one dimensional but if that's how audiences see it, and if they are satisfied by this then I think it's dangerous to discard this popular, cultural opinion.

    Where we can go from there is quite exciting- we can play on this commonality, re-interpret it and subvert it. That's where the real fun begins! With regards to your new series, I'm going to give you an honest opinion, which I am sure you will appreciate. When I asked how much of these photographs were about the landscape and how much about yourself, I was hoping for a simple '50/50' or '30/70', so well done for not giving me that! Having seen your Songs of Travel series, I know that this multi-exposure technique yields brilliant results and creates a style that is truly your own. This new series is a natural extension of that and works so well again.

    Now for the tough part! When you mentioned this new lot would include images of yourself I was a little skeptical. I thought 'that's not like Rob to be so obvious!'. So I am pleased that the presence of yourself in these is not obvious. In fact I think you have gone far to conceal this presence so it is just a suggestion that in fact your portraits have become lost. From the image above I can see no trace of a portrait, so you have succeeded in that respect. The only issue I have with this though is that audiences will not pick up on these as self portraits mixed in with landscapes. In fact, they may just see this new series as an extension of SOT, and I am worried that the new level of meaning you are striving for may get lost among the trees. You are bang on the money with the sense of mystery and I love the fairy tale elements you mentioned too.

    Ok, so if I am going to critique this properly, what do I suggest to remedy the issues I have pointed out? And this is where I will fail! I am not sure there is a way to explicitly indicate your presence in these photographs without including your own figure explicitly, which I am assuming is not what you want to do! The question that comes from this then is, do you need to include yourself at all? I admire your approach to this, particularly in light of your collaboration with Tim Andrews, and again I think the exploration of what landscape means to us is very important and interesting. However, your images in this series and in SOT are unique. They are both your vision and your style which no-one else can replicate. In this sense then, do the images in SOT show as much an element of your self as these do? The beauty of SOT is that I find myself walking amongst the landscape in your place; you invite the viewer to become you, to experience this world as you want us to, not just in your place, but WITH you. And this is the crux of my argument- your work already includes such a strong presence of your self that I have to question if an actual physical presence of your body is needed at all. So now I realise that I have in fact got an answer to my question of how much is about landscape and how much is about you!


    1. Hi Tom,

      I'm afraid my reply has to be split into tow parts as it is too long apparently - henceforward to be known as 'doing a Michael Marten'!

      Thank you very much for your long and thoughtful opinion. I'm delighted you've taken the time to engage with my pictures so thoroughly.

      I think it's fair to summarise that you've asked me three broad questions which can be seen as -

      1. Is the picturesque still valid and is it dangerous to discard popular cultural opinion?

      2. My portraits have become lost. Okay that wasn't a question, but it is something I'd like to dispute.

      3. Will the audience pick up on the difference between TSITTS and SOT?

      Which I shall attempt to answer below.

      For the first question -
      Is the picturesque still valid and is it dangerous to discard popular cultural opinion?

      I can only offer a personal opinion, I have no overarching theory to dismiss the picturesque. Suffice to say whether we like it or not modern art happened and it has changed the way we think about art. We are as conversant with Raphael as we are Rothko. It has probably been less successful in changing the way we see, because the way we see is formulated from an early age by a huge diversity of influences.

      I recently came across a quote from Susan Sontag's diaries which I find hard to dispute "Modern aesthetics is crippled by its dependence upon the concept of ‘beauty.’ As if art were ‘about’ beauty...! (9/10/1964)

      Art is ’about’ more than beauty, this doesn't preclude the picturesque, but if an image is solely ’about’ the picturesque then it isn't really ’about’ anything. It is depiction pure and simple. This doesn't mean that there aren't photographers who produce picturesque images who don't allude to something beyond beauty, they are few and far between, but they do exist. Although even then the conversation all too frequently seems to be no deeper than exploring a way of seeing - I give you David Ward as an exemplar.

      Whilst I don't dispute for the majority of people the picturesque is still the way they want to see the world, but there is a difference between what is suitable for a calendar and what is appropriate to an art gallery wall.

      I would dispute that I have abandoned all notions of beauty or the picturesque in both my recent series however. I think there are still elements of them in there but my work is not ’about’ them.

      As to whether its ’dangerous to discard popular cultural opinion’? I can't imagine it is, I haven't found any sharp objects so far! Seriously, I am not working to achieve the broadest possible appeal, there's another way of expressing that and it's ’the lowest common denominator’. Apart from the obvious fact that I work primarily to satisfy myself, I fully realise that my work will only appeal to a small (maybe tiny?) minority, but hope that those who do appreciate it will have a more fulfilling and lasting appreciation of it because it contains elements that engage the mind as well as the emotions.

      And now for part two...

    2. As for that second question - or more properly your assertion that my image has been lost. It hasn't! Not only am I present in every single frame, elements of me survive the process, albeit massively transformed. I am the legs at the foot if the tree and the face in the tree top in number two and in number three I am the foxy looking creature in front of the trunk.(That’s probably the first and last time I will describe myself as ’foxy’!) One of the joys and most intriguing elements of this process of multiple exposure is the way it creates these transformations. For me as the creator anyway and when I can find images of this transformation that are pertinent to the project then that's when I will publish them.

      Finally ’Will the audience pick up on the difference between TSITTS and SOT?’

      Obviously this relates to the above question, which is why I needed to answer that first. Because I would dispute that they are the same as SOT and that my image isn't present - if transformed.

      Frankly I expect people to look, not because it's something I demand, but because I have engaged them with the images. If not I will have failed as an artist. Again we have to accept in the fast moving social media world most will only give them a second or two’s consideration, but there's not secret formula for preventing that other than trying to produce something unique and that gets them thinking. I can only but try!

  2. Hello.

    Just to clarify... what I actually said was " It's a given, I imagine, that landscape photographers enjoy being outdoors in places which inspire them in one way or another but that's a very one dimensional and superficial take on it." In other words, that a photograph which merely shows that you have enjoyed being somewhere is a one dimensional and superficial thing. Not that most landscape photography is superficial. Just wanted to clear that up :-)

    And, yes - it is Rob's exploration of our psychological relationship with the landscape which intrigues me in this new series. A photographic take on psychogeography. How do we feel when we are there? How are we affected by our environment? How does it impact upon our thoughts and emotions? And, conversely, how is the environment affected by our presence? It's a dialogue in a way. Interractive. And I like the idea very much.

    1. Hi Lucy,

      Thanks so much for your comments across various social media platforms, I'm delighted that you're finding so much in my new series. Firstly let me apologise for misquoting you, I should have linked to the original comment. Please don't tell Michael Marten he’ll have me rusticated or some such!

      As for more on the superficiality of landscape - and photography generally please have a look at my reply to Tom’s comment. Needless to say I think there's nothing to apologise for.

      Whilst I like the idea of psychogeography, I’m not sure I understand it well enough to give a definitive response, but it is as much about me, if not more than it is about place. It's the interaction of the two in our minds and our feelings that is spurring me on to further explore in this series. I can't wait to get out there again and try more of this, despite the inherent risks in such a playful approach, the results can be very exciting!

      Thank you! xxx

    2. Hi Rob,

      Yes - I read and agree with what you say in reply to Tom's comment. It made me think of another thing which Sontag wrote in 'On Photography' I think which was along the lines of "a beautiful photograph is not the same as a photograph of a beautiful thing." A subject needs getting beyond, behind, underneath - and often the only way to do that is to make those things into an exploration of self in relation to the subject. Which is what you are doing.

      I only mention the psychogeography because it touches on how our environment makes us feel and also has Dadaist and ludic elements which might be of interest. But, yes, I know it's as much about you - as you say, it's an interraction. It IS exciting - it opens up a whole heap of possibilities for exploration to do with our relationship with the world and the environment we find ourselves in. I can see the connection with SOT but I also see the differences. This new series is interractive and is less to do with a journey - more to do with a relationship.

  3. Goodness, I casually stop by to have a look at your latest posting, and find I'm mentioned in two of your comments! Not necessarily in the way I'd want to be... ;)

    Seriously: I think all three of you are raising serious points here, but I think there are further considerations that might come into play. In theoretical terms, I find myself thinking of Jean Baudrillard (sorry, more French philosophers!) and the idea of the real and the hyper-real etc. I think one of the things that all three of you are doing at the moment in your different ways - Rob with the trees/(self-)portraits, Tom with the noir mystery series, Lucy with the recent photograms - is that you are all transcending established norms of societal communication that determine (in substantial measure, at least), the nature of social relations. Traditional conceptions of 'beauty' are undone in this context, and then reimagined - and in all three cases, turned inwards.

    I missed most of the Twitter conversation on this topic, but I do think that Tom's question (how much is landscape/how much is you) therefore actually becomes meaningless the moment it is asked. This is not to say that it is not worth asking and in fact I think it is an essential question to be asking, but the asking of it leads to a realisation that it is a meaningless question. What is being communicated in all your three very different approaches to visual interpretation is BOTH real AND imagined, and - importantly - unreproducable, at least in the sense of being able to recreate the images. These really are singular photographic images, and questions of 'beauty' become almost completely irrelevant in that context.

  4. Hi folks, nice to get such a great discussion going, I think these are definitely the way forward, and possibly a very good use of social media (who'd have thought?!).

    Rob, I completely agree with Sontag's quote here, thanks for throwing that in ( and also yours Lucy). I will hold on to your input with reference to your portraits in the series and see how they develop (both your images and my opinions.)

    Michael, you raise a very interesting point about whether asking the 'how much is landscape/how much is you' question is relevant at all. If you were local I'd suggest we met up for a pint and I'd ask you to elaborate on its meaninglessness, but as we're not I will have a guess! Do you mean that there is no point in asking the question because the resulting images from Rob's series do not benefit from any such enquiry? We don't get any further insight into the photographs meaning if we ask this question? Well, I agree to a point and feel that we can sometimes get very much off-topic with discussions like this and sometimes ignore that we are supposed to be discussing a photograph at all!

    The reason I asked the question in the first place was that, for me personally, trying to get to the essence of Rob's intentions (as far as I can understand them without him explaining every process- which I'm sure he wouldn't appreciate!) is important in my own understanding as a fellow photographer with, as you have pointed out above, similar thematic interests. For the artist to remain enigmatic is important and the audience must always make up their own minds about what to glean from a work. It is interesting to see, however, that above Rob has actually answered my question in his response to Lucy's comment, "but it is as much about me, if not more than it is about place".

    So, having this answer, what do I now do with it? Will it add anything to my reading of the images, or anyones? You could argue not, and I have said above that Rob's series, along with SOT, is so individual that my own personal reading is such that I see them as a self-reflexive exercise anyway. If I think about my reasons for asking the question in the first place, I think it was mainly to confirm my feelings that Robs work is (of sorts) strongly inward-looking. That's why I love these images- some of them are hard work, not immediately easy to read or understand, but when you realise the fact that they are, for me, a kind of mental projection of an alternate reality, through photography, then they really hit the spot!

    1. Yes, this is good - and if I think back to some of the discussions that have happened on each of our blogs in recent months, it is a helpful way to proceed. Not quite as good as meeting up and hammering it out over food and drink, but pretty close.

      To clarify: I didn't mean that the question shouldn't be asked: quite the contrary. It is a key question for our engagement with all artistic expressions (whether visual art, literary output, musical composition etc.). However, I think that in the asking, the question is shown to be meaningless, and I mean that despite Rob offering a kind of answer in the original posting: "how much of this is about landscape and how much about me? ... that is neither a question I want to answer nor am I capable... [of] answering..." The reason, I'd suggest, applies to all expressions of ambiguity: "Firstly because I have no wish to undo that sense of mystery and wonder; and secondly because the series is about exploring that mystery and not answering it."

      The point behind this is not, I would suggest, that we actually "find Rob" in the image, but that in looking for Rob, we find something about ourselves. We have to ask the question in order to realise that - in the nicest way possible! - Rob is actually not that important here, but in exploring his own relationship with the landscape, he is also enabling us to find a way to engage with the landscape that we may not otherwise think of/engage with/relate to etc. etc. etc. Lucy rather memorably, I think, called this space for the viewer in an image "ambiguity" - and what all of this work needs is a measure of ambiguity in order for us to interpret it for ourselves. Yes, there is clearly an emotional engagement from Rob that relates to the death of his mother and his mourning of her passing - but that is a starting point for his exploration of this particular spot, and not an end. I don't think Rob can actually end that exploration for anyone other than for himself (and perhaps not even for himself?). All he can do for us, I think, is suggest to us what (he feels/thinks) it means for him, and we can then, in the study of his image and the engagement with it, reflect on what it means for us.

      Part II follows... ;)

    2. Part II...

      Therefore... I never met his mother, and even if I were Rob's twin brother and had grown up with her as my mother too, the only person who can really know what her life and death meant for Rob is Rob - it is evident to me that there is mourning there, but there are probably other emotional reactions that I cannot possibly understand, and perhaps Rob doesn't understand them fully either, which is why he wants or needs to explore and articulate them in visual form. These may even be emotional reactions that Rob thinks he doesn't WANT to feel about his mother, such as anger or resentment or whatever, and admitting to or articulating that might be hard - I can't know any of that. However, in the anthropomorphisation of the tree that the inclusion of his own body leads to, we are drawn into an appreciation of what these themes might be, and that ambiguity (à la Lucy) allows us space to explore what the landscape means for us. The great thing about this is that we don't need to know this tree, or this landscape, or his mother, or even know Rob - in fact, in some ways all of these things are pretty irrelevant to us as viewers - because what the image is doing is making us ask precisely this question: how much of this is about landscape and how much about Rob? And the answer (and hence my reference to Baudrillard and my statement that asking the question reveals it to be meaningless), is that there is a reality that is being communicated here that is real FOR US, regardless of what it means for Rob. His image, and the inclusion of his own physicality leaves enough of an ambiguity there for us to explore our relationship to landscape and so on, and so asking the question is important, but actually doesn't really have an answer - other than the one Rob has given.

      Thinking about your own recent series of images ( if I pick a random image, say, no. 5, it is irrelevant to me if you have a connection to this landscape, to these trees etc. - the trees, the footprints in the snow, the rather strange light etc. all suggest something to me. And that is surely what you want? How much of you is in that landscape? Asking the question leads me to think that it isn't actually important, it doesn't actually matter. There is sufficient ambiguity there for me to find myself in it, and that is why I can engage with it.

      There are two things that I have not touched on here. One of them relates to the physicality of the body, and the connections that that brings. Part of that is about what physicality means, and that includes themes such as embodiment, ableness, communitarianism, eroticism, solitude/community etc. These are themes that would warrant useful further exploration, I think. And secondly, I am aware that there is a wider problem with my reflections in particular, which relates to a blog posting I am trying to finish (one of three pieces for different blogs/purposes - I'm way behind with everything!) about the privatisation of modernity in contemporary imagery. I'm not sure my post will cover this, but in brief, I would want to ask: where is the space for the communal here? So far, in what I've described, this is about the photographer, the landscape, and the individual viewer - but I have a sense that there is something communal here too that - without writing another 19,000 words! - I can't quite put my finger on just now (and perhaps not even then).

    3. Part one, of two -

      Thank you all ever so much for such thorough, thoughtful and considerate comments. I must say it feels a little strange to be at the heart of so much discussion and conjecture after a mere three photographs! The truth is that I haven't fully thought through the implications of this series yet, partly because I've only just started it, but also because, as Michael quite rightly says, it is meant to be a visual exploration. In many ways I hope to find answers and questions which are beyond the precision of words. Not to say that words aren't useful to me in developing ideas. One point I've failed to mention in my previous statements is that I'd already written a longish piece about Songs of Travel. That was never meant for public consumption, so don't worry you haven't missed anything! I wanted to explore the ideas within the series more deeply in order to examine where next to take the series, how to deepen it, make it more profound for myself and the viewers and also to examine the imagined or self imposed barriers that I'd placed on myself. To cut a long story short after many, many words I came to the conclusion that what I should be exploring was a journey of the mind. I wasn't sure quite how that would resolve itself, but that it would be a step removed from adherence to the traditional notions of landscape and more about an internal journey.

      I’m in complete agreement with Michael that asking the question of how much is about me and how much is about landscape is both a vital question and one which is rendered meaningless by the asking. If there is a point to photography it is to examine the cracks between words, it speaks a different language, one that can be written in language, but in doing so there is a danger of undermining the ideas within the visual aspect. As I'm sure many of you are aware I'm extremely keen on using language, creatively and as a tool of exploration to develop ideas and themes, I’m certain it can add complexity and depth to our work, but there comes a point when we must hand over to the language of the visual medium and let that take us places beyond, behind and within. This is part of the ’ambiguity’ that also allows for the projection of self and engagement of the viewer. So to ask the question, in words and expect a reply in other than visual terms would serve to undermine the point of the visual exploration itself. This of course is where the academicisation of art will always stumble. Whilst it can hope to shed light it can't fully illuminate the subject, nor should it aspire to complete and definitive answers. That is for the photographer, the image and its relationship to the viewer. In fact it is to be hoped that each person brings something of themselves that is unique to each image.

    4. 2/2 -

      In Michael’s reply he makes the assumption that this series relates to the death of my mother, or at least that it is a starting point for the exploration. In fact I'd say it doesn't. The image of myself taken against my mother’s tree was a starting point for the ideas and the visual exploration, but it isn't part of the subject of this series. At least no more than in the way that my previous explorations around that subject and the event itself will always be a part of me. This series certainly explores our ideas if unity with nature/the landscape, how we are always a little removed from it no matter how great our appreciation. More so there is another idea that's been at the back of my mind recently and that is that the only true unity with nature/the landscape is through death. To borrow the language of Christianity and the King James Bible

      ’In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’

      So it is an exploration of my /our feelings of mortality, not the death of my mother. Of course there’s an irony here, especially if like me, we have no belief in an afterlife, that we’ll never be aware of our unification. I'm not building this up to be an existential crisis, more an exploration of the paradox and of our constructed notions of both self and the landscape, environmentalism and how we interact. It is, as in much of my work, about a reaction against the Romantic notions of the landscape. A subversion if you like Tom! Barring major climactic catastrophe (which we probably shouldn't discount) these trees will outlive us all as individuals. We will be mere memories, shadows, ’ghosts’. If that?

      What might outlive us is our work and there's an ironic twist here, if we imagine this as a rumination on mortality, the photographs will probably be all I leave behind. All I am remembered for.

      I hope this goes some way to reinforce and help define Michael’s assertion about ’physicality....embodiment, ableness, communitarianism, eroticism, solitude/community’. And whether these questions are part of the series.

      As for the question of ’the communal’ that Michael raised, (I’m not really sure if that was aimed at me/us three, but anyway...) these are all questions which unify us; Mortality, unity and separateness to nature/the landscape, time, life and death. Many years ago I realised that the questions I wanted to explore in my photography were beyond the political, that in part accounts for my rejection of the documentary as a form of personal expression. There is certainly a role for the documentary in society, but it's not my chosen route. It's the realisation that I can explore more profound and personal issues that can illuminate, give colour and texture to our lives and touch people through a commonality that makes them feel more human. That is part of the role of art for me, uplifting us, taking us beyond the everyday. Reminding us of what it is to be human. I suppose the missing link is to exhibit beyond the narrow confines of my social media circle to reach out to a wider audience, and that is something I'd like to do, but is fraught with practical difficulties.

  5. Hello.

    Don't worry about not having thought through all of the implications of the new series - the point you make about visual art happening in the cracks between words and having an entirely different language all of its own is extremely important, I think anyway. You are a photographer primarily and you express yourself primarily (although by no means exclusively) through that medium. It is neither necessary nor desireable to verbalise it all. But I know you know that... :-)

    The new series seems to be very much a way of holding different concepts together in one's head - ideas of self, mortality as you say, and the interraction between man and environment. Exploring profound and personal issues has to be at the centre of what artists do. I, personally, see little point in doing anything else. I keep returning to this same idea but I believe it's true - that if you explore what matters deeply to you, if you turn the mirror inwards as Roger Ballen said in that interview - then there will be an inevitable integrity and truth and that will, in turn, be true for others.

    What I have come increasingly to realise is how painful this process can be which is another reason, I think, why I persoanlly am struggling so much to make images. 'I Am Not Myself' is bound up with many things - not least the fact that the only people I have ever loved have rejected me. But, as an artist, there is still a need to 'use' this (for want of a better word) because it is deep inside me and is a truth. Facing the idea of mortality makes most of us feel uneasy, particularly if one does not believe in an after life and also, maybe, if one does not have children, and you have to be brave to confront this and deal with it. It isn't easy but neither should it be, I'd venture.

    The deeper you go, Rob, the harder it may be - but it is the only direction to take. I am very pleased to be along for the ride.

  6. Bit late to the party on this one but here goes!

    I appreciate that Lucy was trying to emphasise the added depth this series has over “conventional” landscape photography. And on one level I agree that most landscape photographs are superficial, though I prefer your description of one dimensional and I prefer my own of “hollow”. For starters I’ll assume that we’re talking about the subset of landscape photographers that are being creative and intentful about their work – there are many more whose intention may go no further than to capture a beautiful image which I think is fine (everyone has different objectives).

    However for all the hollow images out there, there are certainly some fantastic landscape photographers that are creating thoughtful, often understated and beautiful work that demands the viewer linger and take it all in. To me these aren’t superficial or one dimensional, though perhaps for the casual viewer they are – as indeed would most imagery unless it was of a very abrupt, “smack you in the face” nature. They take a lot of thought, intent and skill to create and knowing that alone elevates them far above the superficial.

    I expect that Lucy wasn’t talking about this group of landscape photographers, but “most” can be interpreted as pretty wide sweeping so I wasn’t sure. I know some have a view that anything literal or more firmly grounded in the physical world can have nothing more than a fleeting engagement as the view is quickly taken in and the viewer moves on.

    It seems that these days departing from the “real world” is almost a necessity for people to develop a deeper level of engagement and explore nuanced meanings – without having the instant hook of a familiar landscape then they are forced to look deeper. ICM, Multiple Exposure, “creative” use of tilt-shift, etc are all departures from the real world or at least our daily perception of it. I’m reminded of Frances Hodgson’s comment in his recent review of Landmark, “It’s less about the fight for subject matter, and more about the fight for style”. Sometimes I feel that a more conventional approach is no longer deemed worthy because they’re “not clever/creative enough” or something.

    I quite like how you have explained your reasons for your more unconventional methods. I like how you talk about layers of meaning. For you this approach clearly works and seems to be taking you in the right direction. Yet for me at least for now I have plenty of path to explore on the conventional route. Perhaps one day I will tire also but for now I feel comfortable with my approach. Indeed I’m as happy as I’ve ever been with how I approach my work, the intent and mindfulness I bring to it yet without the frustration and inner turmoil that has blighted me in the past.

    And so I think what you say here is what I would say also – you’ve found something that works for you and that’s great. Equally I’ve found a place that I’m happy in. Perhaps our messages and thoughts are different, my images may not be as deep as yours, but I don’t see my work, my approach or my intention as superficial, one-dimensional or hollow. And so that’s why I perhaps reacted over sensitively to Lucy’s comment.

    Ultimately I’m left to think we’ve all got a different take, different approaches, styles, backgrounds, meanings, reasons. We all have different ways of expressing and none is more right than the other. They’re just different, but different is good. I love your images. I couldn’t make similar and feel that they were any deeper than the images I already make – in fact they’d feel like hollow interpretations. So I think we’ve just got to listen to ourselves and go down the path that feels right.

    I hope at least some of that makes sense. Quite a difficult topic to think about, lots of arms and legs to it!  At the end of the day I just wanted to say that just because it’s conventional it’s not mindless visual junk food.

    Thought provoking stuff, thanks Rob (and Lucy – apologies again if I’ve put words in your mouth :)).

    (oh and I love the new series!)

    1. !/2

      Hi Duncan, thank you very much for your considered opinions, I can see you've put a lot of time and thought into this reply and bravo! You know a few years ago - or maybe more if I'm honest with myself - I would have been pretty annoyed if someone had attacked my chosen genre of the time - conventional landscape photography. But, strangely perhaps, I now find myself in broad agreement with Lucy. So what changed? Well I've seen more conventional landscapes over the years than I care to think about, but I've changed too. The way I think about visual expression is now massively removed from how I used to think. And I find my former self wanting.

      One thing you won't hear me disagree with is that we should all follow our own paths. We can't follow anyone else's and find creative satisfaction. What happened to me is that I became dissatisfied with my own conventional work, but the path I've followed since isn't about me trying to be consciously ’different’ it's just me ploughing my own furrow. I am quite happy that my work doesn't look conventional because I hope that it illustrates that the thought processes behind it are indeed different - they are mine and mine alone. The more I follow this path the further I travel from accepting any rules from anyone, again not to be different, but because it's my work. I'm sure the same is true of Lucy and Tom. In addition though the way I work and the images I create are dictated by what I want to communicate rather than simply choosing from a pick and mix of styles because I feel like it.

    2. 2/2

      Where I will differ with you is this idea of ’most’ landscape being superficial. Actually I would say the majority (not all) is indeed superficial/one dimensional/hollow whatever we term it - it pretty much adds up to the same thing. There is the trite repetition of compositional ideas, locations and light. And for most photographers there isn't much more to it than that. Yet we also have people like Dav Thomas (he denies it, but I'd say anyone dealing with human emotional metaphor in the landscape is producing art) Alex Boyd, Chris Tancock, Mike Jackson and indeed Tom Wilkinson and many more who are really pushing themselves creatively within the landscape genre. There's others like Pentti Sammallahti, Bae Bien U, Sebastiao Salgado and Jan Tove who while not exploring with quite the same intellectual rigour are producing hugely visually satisfying images. But rarely working to the norms of composition etc. They are unique because their work is personal, individual and in their own way clever. You just wait until Bae Bien U’s new book, we’ll be swamped by his new subject of windswept landscapes. That brings me to the crux of the matter - that there is no intellectual validity in plagiarism. Nor is there any great ’plain old’ viewing satisfaction in seeing things repeated ad infinitum. And frankly there's a lot of it about. And it's not just me that thinks like this, I can remember Tim Parkin suggesting my 80% was too low for landscapes that are ’shallow, repetitive and derivative’. So there's a small percentage of good stuff out there. But you know what they all got there by following their own paths. So good for you for saying that's exactly what you're going to do, because none of us can get anywhere or achieve anything personally satisfying any other way. I don't know if you had the chance to read the email I sent Doug earlier about originality and cliché? (I've published it on this blog). My argument was from the standpoint that genuine honest to yourself creativity is far more satisfying than following a few simple rules, visiting the same old locations and etc. It's that what I've discovered is it to be a huge source of personal fulfilment and a deepening if my humanity in a way that my old conventional ’superficial’ work never did. It's that way because I put more of myself into it and therefore get more out of it. It might just be I was a bit rubbish at conventional landscapes - I certainly was for a fair few years, but the point for me is personal satisfaction. I lost a lot of fans and popularity on social media for turning my back on conventional landscapes, but I gained infinitely more in what I found inside myself.

      So I'll finish by saying be careful what you wish for in following your own path, it's not necessarily going to be a smooth ride of growing popularity and adulation. You just can never know where it leads. It is in fact the brave decision.


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