Will the Real Landscape Photography Please Stand Up?

A curmudgeonly look at the current state of landscape photography.

I was at in Munich yesterday, munching some bratwurst and drinking a beer in a place where they had a huge TV monitor on the wall that was playing a slideshow of landscape photos. I couldn’t keep my eyes away from it, as the photos were really beautiful. You know that type of photo: amazing locations, wonderful light, colorful sunsets, starry skies, waterfalls, ocean waves, tropical beaches, brilliant colors. Most of them revealed a mastery of technique, accurate choice of location, delightful  composition, masterful post-processing. Each one of those photos could have won a contest, get printed on a calendar or poster, graced the pages of a magazine or got a million likes on social networks. There was even a photo that was almost identical to Peter Lik’s Phantom, the most expensive photo ever sold.

And yet, after having seen the slideshow roll around three or four times, I was disgusted and wanted to throw my jug of beer to the screen. I even contemplated giving up landscape photography and picking up some other genre. That much beauty had left me numb and a feeling not unlike how you feel after a binge of eating chocolate or sweets.

Part of the problem, I think, was that at a time and age when everyone can have a decent camera for not much money, when photographic education is cheap or free, when it is much easier to travel to awesome locations than it used to be, almost everything has already been photographed in the best light. How many other beautiful photos of Moraine Lake or Antelope Canyon do we have to see? Or of Mesa Arch at sunrise (yes, I too am guilty of the latter)? I made a resolution the other day: if I ever visit Antelope Canyon, I will take a camera with one fixed lens and take one photo, just to be able to say: I’ve photographed inside Antelope Canyon, and then switch the camera off and take it all in with my eyes.

Another problem is that I am seeing a growing trend of conformism in landscape photography. I could not recognize any one of those photos and tell who was their author, but at the same time they could have been attributed to any one of the many photographers who are very popular on social media. There is this prevalent style in landscape photography that aims to capture the viewer with dramatic light, strong composition and bright, saturated colors. I can definitely see why people like it, but I don’t like it anymore.

The third and final problem is that all those beautiful images didn’t speak to my soul. It’s as if, at some point, I realized that what the photographer was thinking of, when he pressed the shutter and when he processed the image, was “How can I wow the viewer, get more accolades online, and make more sales?”

Screenshot from 500px.com

Popular today on 500px, landscapes category

All of this would not be a problem and I could limit myself to moan the lack of discernment of whomever put that slideshow together, but if I look at what is popular online, this is exactly what I see. Each one of those photos, if published on 500px, would have gone straight to one of the first pages of the popular photos of the day, landscape category. Don’t get me wrong, all the photos on there and those in this screenshot are beautiful and I am not here to badmouth their authors. But many of them, with a few exceptions, are shooting what the public likes and in a way that the public will appreciate. Peter Lik is truly great at this: shooting exactly what sells and employing exceptional marketing skill to make millions. I envy him and everyone who manages to have even a hundredth of his commercial success. Life must be great up there.

To be honest, much of what I see everyday on 500px is much, much better than the pictures on that slideshow and I realize that I am being too harsh here. But then again, I don’t see any of the photographer’s emotions and mood transpire through some of these images and, to me, this is not art. I don’t want to do a digression about the definition of art but, in a nutshell, I believe it is art if the artist puts himself inside his work, not if somebody pays money to hang it on a wall.

Mesa Arch Sunburst

Mesa Arch Sunburst

So, now that I’ve come to this realization, what do I do? This is not a rant against other photographers, it is a reflection on where I want to be with my photography. Am I content with just being a curmudgeon on my not very popular blog, hoping that controversy will bring me traffic? I don’t want to be that guy. Maybe I should go looking for great landscape photography somewhere else, far from the online world of followers and favorites. Maybe the great masters of the past can quench my thirst.

Who are the great, contemporary masters of landscape that do not follow this kind of mannerism and do not play to the lowest common denominator of mass market taste?

And what do I do with my own photography? I started thinking of limiting myself to shooting landscapes in black and white, to eschew assertive compositions in favor of a plainer and more relaxed style, to blur details intentionally, to employ ambiguity as a technique that is the opposite of the extreme clarity that is sought in the prevalent style. But if I do so, will I become a mannerist myself and end up consciously choosing a style because of the effect I think it will have on people, not because it is part of me?

So many tough questions. The only thing I know for sure is that I didn’t think being an artist would have been so difficult.

Ripples

Ripples

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