Is Landscape Photography Art?
Originally posted at www.jonaspaurell.com
A few years ago I was sitting in Chamonix, high up in the French Alps, with a glass of red wine and had a discussion with an acquaintance who works at the National Gallery in London - in my view one of the finest art establishments in the world. Speaking for herself (as opposed to representing the official view of the National Gallery) she told me that nature photography, in general, and landscape photography, in particular, isn't art - it is documentary. She went on to say that this is the general view of photography galleries and print collectors. I disagreed then and I still disagree now. I don't disagree with the fact that it is the general view among gallerists and collectors, for it surely is. What I do disagree with is the idea that landscape photography isn’t art. Landscape photography can absolutely be art. The conversation that we had has been bothering me for about two years now as I felt I didn't manage to convince her. Instead of letting it hold me emotionally hostage any further, I thought that I would crush her arguments once and for all.
Historically, nature photography used to be considered (by most) as a documentary form of photography where we - nature photographers - simple captured what was already there. At the same time, all photography used to be considered truthful. In photography's early years, no discipline of photography was considered a form of art. Photography was even celebrated for its then generally understood power to accurately produce an image of exactly that which was in front of the lens. The photograph - contrary to e.g., paintings and drawings - was seen to be free from the selective bias of humans and our inability to paint or draw without flaw. It didn't take long until people accepted that this was far from the truth. Photographs can easily be manipulated or just simply used out of context to tell lies. Nature photography - is the depicting of natural features of land, water and skies and the flora and fauna that live there - because of this simple base, it was for a long time perceived to be documentary. I have never seen it this way, as I know that in our landscape compositions we seek out and modulate complex relationships between the elements that make up the photograph, such as lines, shapes, forms, colours, values, textures and space – just as a painter would. In post-production - editing - the majority of photographers also "paint" on the photographs. These two stages and the intention that goes into making something visually powerful and emotion evocative - in my humble opinion - take the documentary reproduction of nature and makes it something more. The use of the word "more" at the end of the last sentence clearly denotes where I stand in my own personal judgement of the hierarchy of photography disciplines. My view - which naturally will not be shared by everyone - is that art is something of greater value than that which is documentary. I don't go as far in that reasoning to equate art with fiction and documentary with truth or, perhaps, honesty as I know that there are truth and honesty in art too. Nature photography can be both documentary and art at the same time. Perhaps the best nature photography has this quality.
As a former corporate strategist and fan of definitions as a foundation of shared understandings, I feel a great need to introduce a one such here, and that is the definition of art.
The Lexico dictionary provides the following meaning:
Art (noun) - The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Let's see if photography fits.
The first part provides: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works" as photography is an application of creative skills and it does produce "works" it is hard to exclude photography from this part. Naturally, one can argue that not all photographs ("works") are the result of human creative skill and imagination, but then I would also say that not all drawings do that either (e.g., I think I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call the drawings that I make whilst on the telephone art). I guess we can just agree that some photography can be art, just as some drawings can be art.
The second part: "to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power" has to do with intent. If we make photographs of nature with the intention for the potential viewers to enjoy the beauty or to have an emotional response evoked, then it is art. If we, on the opposite, make a photograph to simply show how something was or is, then it is not art, but rather documentary.
Let's simplify and at the same time apply the terminology of photography.
Art (noun) - The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, in the form of photographs, to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Easy. Cased closed. Discussion over. But is it?
If I employ all my creative skills and my imagination and make a photograph of some nature thing intending for the viewer to be dumbfounded by the utterly obvious beauty of nature and at the same time feel peaceful - is it art? To me - the artist - it certainly is. But to my acquaintance from the National Gallery, she might just see whatever nature thing that I made a photograph of and be completely devoid of emotions and not see the beauty. My first instinct is to critique this, but truth is, exactly the same thing happens to me as I stand in front of many of the greatest paintings and sculptures in the world. I don't get why or how whatever something that I am looking upon can be considered art. The real truth is that art is subjective. We don't like everything, and we typically reject that which we don't like pretty harshly.
The real point of this text is not to say that art is subjective, but rather that to say that the entire discipline of landscape photography isn’t art is just plain ignorant. A lot of landscape photography is art, but of course not everything.