01 Oct 2020
We explore black and white Landscape Photography, one of the most enduring and forward looking genres.
Landscape as a genre, is one of the most enduring and forward-looking in the medium of photography. From the offset, since the invention of the camera, early black and white landscape photography sought to document the surrounding natural world, often through a use of topographical land studies. Originally born from necessity, landscape photography has eventually evolved into a medium capable to critique and capture the natural, industrial and ever-changing urban world we live in. Predominantly, perspective-led, landscape photography remains prominent in the work of contemporary artists today.
Next week marks the beginning of the renowned photography fair Photo London (7 October – 18 October). Although, usually a live fair, due to current circumstances Photo London this year presents a brilliant programme of digital online events.
In light of this, we at Unframe have decided to focus on the medium of photography this week. Specifically, we are considering the varying realms of monochrome landscapes. To begin with, through examples of historic and contemporary black and white landscape photography, we will delve in to how the medium has progressed and adapted over time. After this, we will explore traditional and topographic landscapes and then how they have influenced industrial and contemporary photography. We will delve in to the works of, just to name a few; Timothy O’Sullivan, Ansel Adams, Raymond Moore, Robert Adams, Graciela Iturbide, and Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Topographical Landscape photography
Although overtly responsive to a natural environment, black and white landscape photography is steeped in its own traditional ways of forming a composition. Importantly, landscape is one of the richest genres in photography; land, city and seascapes were the first natural elements to be captured by early photographers. In this instance, even the remotest parts of the world, unseen by most, were able to be captured and shared worldwide. Ultimately, early examples of landscape documentation depict a desire to relate to the places we live in as humans. In turn, human’s impact on land and the environment has been recorded rigorously through black and white landscape photography.
Fundamentally, the earliest topographical landscape photographs were made as the western economies in the US and Great Britain became industrialised. At the time, in the late 19th Century, photography was utilised to aid land surveys, predominantly producing meticulous visual descriptions of land. Consequently, as industrialisation soared, landscape photography became integral to the development of systems such as railways, mining and documentation of archaeological sites.
Timothy H. O’Sullivan
American photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan is most well known for his melancholic photograph ‘The Harvest of Death’, (1863), famously depicting dead soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg. To begin with, he is renowned for photographic documentation he captured of the American Civil War, this was during his time as a Superintendent, mostly focusing on map and field work. Importantly, he photographed two of the most important Western surveys; the King survey of the Fortieth Parallel, and the Wheeler survey West of the One-Hundredth Meridian, as well as his own personal work.
Important to note, O’Sullivan was a pioneer in the early history of American photography and this is visible in his meticulous documentation of the natural world. Interestingly, despite his work’s essential use, his ability to capture American landscapes from a compositional angle is strikingly skilled.
Focusing on black and white western landscapes, we look at the work of American photographer Ansel Adams. As well as being a prolific landscape photographer, importantly, Adams was also an environmentalist. Crucially, depictions of the American West are renowned. Alongside others, he was part of a group named ‘f/64’ that championed the use of a sharply focused lens, coining the term ‘pure’ photography.
In particular, through his desire for a complex tonal range, Adam’s landscapes depict photographs deeply intertwined in their process. Subsequently, negative developing and experimentation with exposure contribute to his starkly contrasted photographs.
Equally important, early Western landscape photographs reveal a monochrome and sublime depiction of natural surroundings, reflective of the progression of industry at the time. Although, both O’Sullivan and Adam’s portrayals of nature are gloriously artistic, they first and foremost deliver information on the site itself, as land studies.
In addition, the ascent of photography as an art form, developed an aesthetic freedom to the photographic process. The American photographer Edward Steichen’s photograph ‘Moonlight: The Pond’ (1904) is an early photographic depiction of this. Although the black and white eery scene feels ‘happened upon’, distinctively, Steichen has chosen the scene for it’s reflectiveness. Comparatively to the ‘land studies’ discussed, ‘Moonlight: The Pond’ (1904) portrays the beginnings of aesthetically monochrome landscapes.
Aesthetically Banal Landscape
As the photographic medium advanced and the use of cameras became far more affordable, photographic output naturally evolved alongside. It seemed that photographic responses to nature and the environment grew to be glorified and tainted by a new romanticised outlook. Importantly, landscape photography was moving away from it’s roots in scientific and progressive land studies and into realms of the aesthetic.
Here, we will look at the work of post-war English photographer Raymond Moore. His beautifully banal landscapes depict a wistful and alluring portrayal of Britain. Importantly, Moore’s interest in photography came at a time when photography was very much still considered a craft, over a recognisable art form. He was greatly inspired by the work of Hugo van Wadenoyen and his ‘Wayside Snapshots’ book published in 1947. Notably, Wadenoyen’s ‘Wayside Snapshots’ marks the beginnings of new compositional values in British landscape photography at the time.
“Photography is a means of sifting or extracting visual phenomena – it can be solely concerned with conveying factual information about objects in a particular position in time and space – or it can convey an awareness or revelation of the marvellous.” – Raymond Moore.
Moore’s recognisable monochrome landscapes were largely taken on vast stretches of the Cumbrian coast, in the north west of England. Moore sought to glorify what others found bleak and monotonous. Importantly, his departure from classic depictions of charming landscapes marks him apart from the discussed topographical work of Western America. Here, we see the topic of interest has shifted, comparatively, to traditional landscape photography. In summary, his photographic work focuses on an apotheosis of ‘the mundane’.
Although the purpose is contrasting, topographic photography draws clear visual parallels with aesthetically charged portrayals of landscapes. Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen is perhaps best known for her black and white portrayals of the terraced Newcastle community, specifically the area Byker, which was redeveloped in the 1980s. On a similar note, as with the work of Moore and Konttinen, artistic compositions draw our attention to view seemingly banal scenes in a different and romanticised light.
Urban & Industrial
At the same time, a new photographic style seemed to form in the work of a group of American photographers. Initially, influenced by the man-made world, points of aesthetic interest shift to alternative imagery; such as parking lots, industrial warehouses and suburbia. Simultaneously, the photographs were depicted through an alluringly austere lens, possibly revealing the rising tension felt around the industrialisation of natural landscapes at the time.
The name ‘New Topographics’ was conceived by the curator William Jenkins in 1975. Notably, the term was used to describe the seminal work of a group of American photographers, notably Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, who capture a similarly banal aesthetic to the work of Moore and Konttinen. At this point, the prolific ‘New Topographics’ exhibition was extended to be shown for a whole year in 1975 at the International Museum of Photography in New York. Above all, the exhibition had a huge impact on the American photography scene at the time, it was integral to the development of landscape photography around the world. The show epitomised a key shift in black and white American landscape photography at the time.
Photographer Robert Adams never seeks to mythologize the American West in his work, as previously done. Instead, he visibly seeks to capture the ‘essence’ of a landscape, showing his interests in symbolism and representation.
In the same way, Adams and Baltz had an eye for the nondescript and overlooked in their landscapes. Importantly, the idea of ‘new topographics’ directly harks back to the Western land studies of photographers such as Timothy H. O’Sullivan and Ansel Adams. Although, at this time ‘topographic’ photography portrays the use of aesthetic choice, contrasting with it’s connotations of necessity. Instead of reflections on historical sites and ruin, we see a new kind of photography that has emerged, championing once trivialised or overlooked landscapes.
“I was living in Monterey, a place where the classic photographers – the Westons, Wynn Bullock and Ansel Adams – came for a privileged view of nature. But my daily life very rarely took me to Point Lobos or Yosemite; it took me to shopping centers, and gas stations and all the other unhealthy growth that flourished beside the highway. It was a landscape that no one else had much interest in looking at. Other than me.” – Lewis Baltz
Subsequently, capturing landscapes is still of great importance to many contemporary photographers today. Mapping from the most remote and natural to industrial, man-made surroundings, photography is widely used still to document, but also to comment upon the ever-changing environment we inhabit.
The diverse body of work of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, often delves into the ritualistic through symbolic portraits and landscape photography. Particularly, Iturbide often captures sensitive portrayals of women and Indigenous peoples, in both everyday and outdoor settings. During her travels through Mexico, Iturbide would photograph unrepresented groups such as the nomadic fishermen in the Sonoran desert in northwestern Mexico or the town of Juchitán, part of the Zapotec culture in Oaxaca.
Through doing this, her use of black and white photography would aid the formation of relationships during her time spent with specific communities. She describes her work as “a pretext to know the world, to know life”. As Iturbide explores and travels, she captures and documents both natural and urban contemporary landscapes.
Italian artist Benedetta Panisson works with photography, video, live performance, film and drawing in her art practice. Particularly, she focuses on ‘extended relations’ between the sea and land, her photo-series ‘People do water’ (2013-2019) becomes an eclectic documentary archive. Generally, the archive depicts moments and observations of interactions between people and the sea. Within this, she explores elements of attraction, focused on humanity’s affinity to water, in turn, capturing photographs of sensory interactions. In summary, Panisson’s black and white landscapes evoke a historical nostalgia attached to the seaside, she re-interprets this in her contemporary photographic depictions.
A Modern Landscape
After all, modern landscape photographers still explore a monochrome aesthetic today. Crucially, the topographical land studies discussed eventually pave the way for the eventual bursts of creativity formed within the medium’s vast history. Ultimately, the varied but continuous stream of depicted landscapes become historical fragments, a common thread between all artists explored.
One of the most famous contemporary photographers is Sugimoto. As shown above, Japanese photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto speaks of his photography as a depiction of “time exposed”. Specifically, his photography captures and serves as a time capsule for events passed. Importantly, his work bases itself on spirituality, the transience of life and the interplay and conflicts within the theme of life and death.
“Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.” – Hiroshi Sugimoto.
As we can see, Sugimoto creates almost purely tonal seascapes, he suggests distinguishable features with soft lines and subtle shade. Compared to his previous work, these contrasting studies of the nature of water depict repetitive variations, in turn, contribute to an eery and almost abstract portrayal. Naturally, his black and white photographs are empathetic and emotional, these perfectly represent the calm and ethereal landscapes he chooses.
In contrast, as urban landscapes transform, the relationships involved drive the work of Italian photographer Raffaela Mariniello. As well as this, Mariniello chooses to focus on unrepresented events of crisis, specifically of the 1991 iron and steel collapse in Bagnoli, Italy. In this case, through documenting landscapes, people and events, Mariniello is able to depict relationships between humans, everyday objects and environments and how they interplay with one another.
Historic black and white landscapes, through to contemporary representations, share many repeated and common themes. First and foremost, key photographers lead the prolific transformation of the medium, whilst documenting historical change and transitioning into creative and experimental realms.
We recommend viewing Photo London, the international photography fair, which starts on 7 October – 18 October. Above all, it brings together photography from around the world through a unique digital programme.