Those who choose to pursue serious, creative color landscape photography find themselves working against the grain. Traditionally, artistic landscape photography has been a world of black and white, while color landscape images have all too often been lumped into the less-than-creative genres of postcards and calendars. Why? And how can the serious color photographer break with such restrictive conventions and develop a fresh personal vision of landscape?
This second question can only be answered by years of patient personal research with a camera. There is no one path, no one approach, no one way, but there is time, there is weather, there is mystery and magic in the landscape, in remote wilderness, in plowed fields, in the natural world. At its best landscape photography can become synonymous with discovery, a discovery the photographer has to earn, image by image . But the other question – why the color landscape has remained an underappreciated genre in serious photography? – deserves a good answer, now. For me, art implies a transcendence or transformation of the literal, the everyday. When I load a camera with black and white film, I’ve already taken a big step away from the recording of everyday reality. Since the world around us is not black and white, every black and white photo is already an abstraction, an important first step in a creative process. Color on the other hand tugs us back toward the literal, toward the everydayness of the world around us, the expected rather than the unexpected. Photographers and critics alike have been quick to sense this, and this, I believe, is what has led so many people to dismiss color landscape photography as a serious or artistic endeavor. But the literal side of color film is a point of departure not a dead end. In order to turn the color landscape photo into a personal or poetic expression, photographers must look to, and explore other avenues of abstraction. They must use other means than a monochrome tonality to establish the distance from the real observed landscape needed to create a new landscape in the photo, rather than just a copy of everything that’s out there.
In fact, there are many options, although perhaps no easy ones. The search for unusual perspective; the quest for unique light; the abstracting power of strong composition; the revealed or imposed structure of geometric forms half-hidden in nature; the ruthless elimination of visual distraction and clutter from the final image – all these contribute to the creative color landscape by radicalizing the straight image.
To explore the non-literal landscape it is often necessary to break out of the visual-technical limits of traditional scenic photography. This need to experiment makes a good case for the flexibility of 35 mm and today, digital capture, rather than the heavy tools and often static approach of the traditional view-camera landscape. Is a smaller format really equal to the challenge? Absolutely – but only if we are willing to treat and use our lighter equipment with the patience, care and fanatical attention to technique usually reserved only for the large format image.
For more than a decade color photographers working in 35 mm have been able to use films that offered sharpness and saturation undreamt of a few years earlier. Fuji Velvia, for example, was a revelation and a key ingredient in my photography for years.
Now the revolution is continuing with the latest generation of digital cameras, light enough to pack into the back country, but with more resolution, more detail, and greater color fidelity than any film I have ever used. I switched to digital capture a few years ago, and haven't looked back. In the hands of a purist digital capture is just another tool for wrestling reality into the confines of a rectangular image. A wonderful tool.
It’s equally true that we are also in the middle of a revolution in printing technology. Digital printing with pigment-based inks has already solved one of the biggest complaints about color as a fine-art medium – the archival lifetime of color prints. Altogether this is an exciting time to explore the color landscape as a personal statement.
What can one hope to achieve? A weak landscape photograph at best only reinforces the way we already look at the land. Whereas a strong landscape photo challenges the way we look at nature. But a great landscape photo can actually change the way we perceive the world around us, and our place in it. Like all serious photography, landscape photography is more than just a sensual play of surfaces, of light and dark, or in this case of color. It is also a photography of ideas.
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