OnLandscape conference: craft versus art

OnLandscape, an on-line photography magazine, organised a weekend conference from 21-23 November 2014. I don’t think of myself as a landscape photographer but walking and photography have been synonymous for most of my life so I thought I’d attend. Here are my thoughts.

It's a fungus. No, it's a highly eroded landscape. No it's avast underground city. Yes, it's a metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

It’s a fungus! No, it’s a highly eroded landscape! No it’s a vast underground city! Yes, it’s a metaphor!! ©Malcolm Raggett

A glance at the OnLandscape Web site and the type of photographs that many of the contributing photographers take shows the narrow definition of “Landscape” to be expected at the conference. We’re talking “Natural Landscape” here: the urban or built environment is anathema to most of these photographers, as is any sort of environmental activism. The overwhelming aesthetic derives from that long thread stretching back from today’s Joe Cornish and Paul Gallagher (colour and black & white respectively) through Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams to the American Sublime and the English Landscape painters.

Most of the conference speakers (all male, I note) talked about the business, craft and practicalities of their photography, though David Ward considered cultural origins of colour, Rafael Rojas gave an excellent analysis of his approach to fine art photography and Jem Southam showed how he used the photographic process to satisfy his curiosity about contested spaces, narrative and metaphor. Southam’s talk was the closest we got to offering an alternative aesthetic in landscape photography and, judging from my conversations with other delegates afterwards, caused strong division of opinions amongst those who heard it.

Pushing a little harder at this division, there are those who think that a photograph should depict the subject in front of the camera in the most conventionally beautiful way possible. The recent winner of Take-a-View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year was held as an example of this, and two of his prints displayed at the conference did show a distinct tendency towards oil-painting qualities. I didn’t gather opinions from everyone at the conference but my perception is that the majority of those present fell into this “conventional beauty” camp. The concept that what a photograph is of and what a photograph is about can be entirely different hasn’t occurred to many viewers, or that a series of images can be greater than the sum of the parts was only acknowledged in a superficial way (such as a book being a collection of someone’s best photographs).

orange cone by yellow rape

Is it a road cone by a field of rape? Or is it a king leading his army into battle? Oh no, it’s another metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

The photograph has a powerful hold in many peoples’ minds as a reproduction of reality. Much has been written to dispel this myth but still it persists, perhaps because that is how most of us serve our photographic apprenticeship: recording photographically as an aid to memory. Yet one of the characteristics that is unique to our species (as far as we currently know) is our use of metaphor. It seems to be inate, starting with children seeing clouds that are shaped like animals through fictions that represent real life, to lines on paper that represent gods. Why then can’t aspiring photographers make the same associations in theirs and other photographs? Perhaps because the photographer never intended it? Or because the viewer never thought to push themselves outside their normal mental comfort zone?

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

I wonder if Jem Southam’s unuttered plea for delegates to think more deeply about their photography, to let go of the camera-as-craft and use it as a tool of enquiry, will have fallen on deaf ears. If a few people are encouraged along this line of thought then I think the conference will have been a success. It certainly helped me to see the different levels and diversity there is even within the narrowly defined scope of the conference. The conference was subtitled “A Meeting of Minds”; I do hope those minds have been encourages out of their comfort zones!

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2 responses to “OnLandscape conference: craft versus art

  1. Thanks for this – very fair review. I agree that many people who are passionate about their landscape photography tend toward the representational but that’s fine. It’s a fine hobby to have and great work has been done in that vein. The conference’s goal was to stretch people a little. The same goes for a few students who were there who may have been stretched a little in the more romantic direction, realising the validity and talent necessary to ‘say something’ with beautiful imagery. I really hope we managed on both counts 🙂

    • Tim,

      Thanks for organising the conference. You managed to get quite a diverse programme into a short time span. Well done for that.

      For most of my photographic life I held to notions of conventional beauty as the type of photography to aspire to, and that was fine for learning and practicing the craft of photography as an amateur (and, I now realise, it is what makes a living for most professionals). It gave me a lot of pleasure (and some frustration) but these days, now I have more time, I look beyond these conventions to a broader artistic approach to my photography. It’s not that I reject the conventions it’s that I find them limiting: there’s a whole universe of ideas beyond them and I want to busy myself exploring them! If your conference encourages people to go beyond their comfort zone rather than reinforcing it, that would be great – only time will tell!

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