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Photographing People in the Landscape

Here’s a fun shot of my old friend Lucy who I managed to convince to stand on a rock, moments before the tide came sweeping towards her. Except for the warmer tones in the rock and Lucy’s top (actually my top) the color throughout the image is blue. The cool blue light from the stormy sky is reflected in the turbulent water emphasizing the predominantly monochromatic bluish color.

 

Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M lens with Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M lens with Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film

So why photograph people in the landscape?

The depiction of people in the landscape has changed over the centuries mirroring attitudes of the time and our relationship with nature. The history of the oil painting allows us to track that changing relationship.

Initially the landscape was little more than a background for portraits. Later it provided visual clues as to the status and wealth of the individual portrayed. The land and those that worked it signified the power and prestige of the lord or landowner by whom the painting was most likely commissioned. Later the landscape provided the setting for which characters would play out important roles, in a highly idealised form, from history or mythology. The depiction of good and evil, right and wrong, victor and vanquished was dependant, at least in part, on the requirements of those commissioning such works. As a consequence the painting became a tool of propaganda and, with the message growing in important, artists strove for a greater sense of realism in their work.

The invention of photography coincided with the industrial revolution, by which stage most of the landscape of England and competing powers of Western Europe had been explored and, to a large degree, tamed. Photographers, just like painters before them, had originally rendered the North American and Australian landscapes in a way that harkened back to the more ordered, safer landscape of the old world. Later, the indigenous aspects of the landscape and its unique geographic forms were depicted in a more realistic manner.

In America the landscape offered the promise of a new life, away from the religious persecution of the old world, and the notion of going west offered hope and prosperity. This notion is central to the American Dream where anyone, regardless of race, creed or color can make a good life for themselves and their family. The landscape offered opportunities through which the individual’s hard work would be rewarded.

In Australia the initial approach by painters and photographers alike was to render the natural world in line with the more pastoral landscapes of the countries from which they originated. European settlers were seen to be enjoying the benefits of this wondrous landscape. Indigenous peoples were depicted as friendly natives within an idyllic landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. The implication was that the indigenous peoples were children on the evolutionary scale, pure but unsophisticated. This helped to justify the righteousness of English settlement and colonisation. My bringing industry and commerce, education, culture, law and religion these natives would be brought into the modern world and, at the same time, their lives would be saved.

With the invention of photography painters were freed from the constraints of realism and topographic representations of the landscape, to which photography seemed well suited. This allowed painters to moved towards more interpretive and abstract renderings of the landscape. The work became less about what the artist saw and more about how they felt about what they saw. This approach grew into the Impressionist movement.

Over recent times painters and photographers alike have chosen to pay attention to the plight of our environment caused by industrialisation, over population and diminishing rainfall. My own approach is to make images that show the landscape, albeit distressed, with an underlying power and beauty that with proper respect can provide us with all the nourishment, both physical and spiritual, needed for our renewal. The nature of our existence is, after all, tied to that of the land.

These days we photograph people in the landscape for the following reasons:

Scale

By placing a recognisable subject (e.g. a person) into the image we can better gauge the size of the landscape and its features (trees, mountains, etc).

Environmental Portrait

The Environmental portrait places the subject in an environment to which they seem to belong. A teenager in their room, a minister in front of their church, a surfer holding their surfboard against a raging surf, a painter in front of one of their works, a teacher in front of a whiteboard, etc. 

Tourist

Of course most folks like to include a picture of themselves and/or their loved ones in front of an iconic landscape. This proves they were there and to an extent that, by being there, they have won some sort of a battle. Most folks have to save to go on holiday, so their feeling of elation is due, at least in part, to the difficulties involved in actually funding their holiday.

During my travels I’ve often noticed Asian tourists making the V sign in front of an iconic location, be it natural or man made. It’s worth noting that V has been a symbol for victory, prior to it becoming a sign for peace. There are numerous images of Winston Churchill, England’s WWII leader, making the V for Victory sign. I’m sure that modern day tourists, even young Japanese I’ve observed at various Australian WWII memorials, make the sign with no intention other than that of the ordinary man or woman enjoying the fruits of their hard work and savings at an iconic overseas location. And why not, they’ve earned it.

The image was made with a Leica M6 camera and Leica 35mm f2 Summicron-M lens with Kodak Ektachrome Elite 100 Extra Color film.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography

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