Posted by: kerryl29 | March 19, 2012

The Intimate Landscape

Widely associated with Eliot Porter, the individual who is also credited with making color photography respectable, the intimate landscape is a subset of the broader landscape photography genre.  The term itself is one that nature photography enthusiasts encounter frequently, but its meaning has always proven to be a bit elusive.  Just what is an intimate landscape?

Birch Tree Twins, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

I’ve often found that one of the best ways of describing what an intimate landscape is, is by describing that it is not.  When we think of landscape photographs we often envision what is commonly referred to as the grand landscape.  Grand landscapes are generally broad, sweeping scenes, where the very size and breadth of the setting serves as a conceptual embodiment of the broader category.  As a matter of scale, the intimate landscape is something more circumscribed than that.  In nuts and bolts terms, the intimate landscape ordinarily excludes the sky; it typically involves a limited number of compositional elements; it generally does not rely on scalar relationships for impact; it frequently (but by no means always) includes abstract or semi-abstract renderings; it does not rely on magnification to emphasize its significance, as close-up photography does.

Reeds & Lily Pads, Chain O'Lakes State Park, Illinois

The inclusion of the word “intimate,” moreover, implies more to me than mere matters of proportion.  “Intimate” suggests a certain emotional proximity or association: between the elements of the image; the image and the photographer; and the image and the viewer.

Lichen Wall, Acadia National Park, Maine

Intimacy also implies, in a somewhat more tangible sense, a certain simplicity of composition, with an image’s center of interest reduced to a foundational level:  a pattern, a melange of colors or tones, a set of textures, or something similar…or perhaps a combination of these things.

Driftwood & Beach Stones, Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington

Also in contrast with the grand landscape in particular, the intimate landscape seems to exude a personal connection between the photographer and his/her subject matter–another nuance of the term “intimate.”  The intimate landscape image often includes superficially prosaic elements that are rendered in unique manner, either visually or emotionally…or both.  Unlike the great vista, for instance, or light-infused sunrise/sunset, the intimate landscape often includes elements and encompasses scenes that the average person–and even the better-than-average photographer on an average day–is inclined to bypass without a second glance.  In my view, a successful intimate landscape image is seldom the kind of photograph that makes your jaw drop when you first view it; it’s typically more subtle in its impact.  It’s usually the kind of image with layers of reinforcing impact that are teased out slowly with repeated viewings.

Backlit Tree, Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The successful intimate frequently causes the thoughtful viewer to query the photographer thus:  “how did you see that?”  The answer is precisely the intimacy–between the photographer and the rendered scene–that the term conjures up in the first place.

Prairie Trillium, Illinois Canyon, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois



  1. Great description of an intimate lanscape, especially about it being “subtle” and about its impact being “teased out slowly”. The photos are the kind I could have on the wall and study repeatedly.Searching for this type of image has heightened my ‘ability to see” both in nature and in a photo. Thank you.

    • Thanks very much, Jane!

  2. Very interesting and informative, especially for newcomers to photography like me!

  3. mmmm….. the first 2 and the last 2, money in the bank

  4. Fabulous series, Kerry. Wouldn’t mind seeing the birth photo a little darker (at least on my Mac…). Otherwise, these are “money in the bank”. 🙂

    • Thanks, Frank.

      Re the darkness/lightness…trying to match luminosity with everyone’s monitor…forget it. 🙂 The picture, as you see it, printed just as I’d hoped, for what that’s worth.

  5. I’ve not heard or seen the “intimate landscape” mentioned before…but you describe it as something that I couldn’t imagine any other way.

    Beautiful photos, Kerry. I especially enjoy the reeds/grass with their reflected and complementary selves in the water…so pretty.

    • Thanks very much, Scott!

      • You’re welcome, Kerry.

  6. Elliot Porter, John Daido Loori and a bit of John Shaw for good measure. Intimate is an apt description, emotional proximity better and your images best of all. Very personal and I like that.

    • Thank you, John.

  7. I’ve always referred those types of landscapes as closed landscapes, I think. It has been a while since I’ve thought about. Great post, as usual, and beautiful images. I nominated you for the Sunshine Award.

    • Thanks, Leanne. And thanks very much for the award nomination. I’m not familiar with the Sunshine Award, so I’ll have to look into the details.

  8. Very interesting, Kerry.
    I’ve not heard of the intimate landscape before, but I think you have accurately described many of my own photos. I should post them on my PhotoBlog more often.
    Love the image of the rocks and weathered piece of wood.

    • Thanks very much, Vicki!

  9. I appreciate your exposition of the intimate landscape, a middle ground I often instinctively find myself in. Why this realm isn’t better known I don’t know, but perhaps because it lies between two more easily discernible and less ambiguous things: the grand landscape and the true macro. Of course there’s a continuous range of scale between them, and how many parts that gamut gets divided into, and where the dividing lines are drawn, is arbitrary.

    Steve Schwartzman

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head; I alluded to this by beginning by description of what an intimate landscape is by laying out what it isn’t. There’s little if any disagreement about what a close-up is, and in the classic sense, the same holds true for the grand landscape. The intimate landscape appears to be inherently fuzzier and has seemingly always resisted being defined on its own terms.

  10. I don’t really have to admit this, but I will — just clicked “like” not long ago without really seeing all the images. But I should have known better than to do that with your images. Another beautiful set. Especially love the lily pads. PS–yes, awards are a whole topic in itself, and maybe even a little minefield too, aren’t they? But yes, it’s all in good spirit.

    • Thanks. The awards thing is serendipitous based on something I had been putting together for some time. This gives me an excuse to post it sooner rather than later.

  11. Kerry, I must say that as gorgeous and evocative your photos are, your words are as strong. “Intimate” suggests a certain emotional proximity or association: between the elements of the image; the image and the photographer; and the image and the viewer.” What an incredible statement that is so true and yet so often overlooked. Art as the interaction between artist and the perceived scene – not a static but a dynamic interaction. What a brilliant post – you continue to astound me.

    • Wow. Thanks very much, Lynn. That means a great deal to me.

  12. What a gorgeous shot of the moon,,and the reeds and lilies..beautiful.

    • Thank you kindly!

  13. These photos’ are beautiful in their simplicity! Grand landscapes are all very well but images like these can have just as much impact.

  14. Hi Kerry,

    Although I greatly enjoy the challenge of a grand landscape composition, I take particular enjoyment from creating intimate landscape images. It’s an opportunity for me to focus my audience’s attention on what I want them to see in ways they may have never contempated, alter their sense of reality, and apply much more creativity and emotion than what is possible with grand or middle views.

    You’ve presented an ambiguous subject with clairty and outstanding images as examples. Bravo!

    • Hi Jim. It’s always interesting to hear your thoughts. Thanks very much for weighing in!

  15. By coincidence, the May issue of Outdoor Photographer has an article by Tom Till entitled “The Forgotten Intimate Landscape.” The tag line is “Think like Eliot Porter, and adopt a ‘less is more’ approach to your landscapes.” It’s a good article, and naturally it makes some of the same points you do.

    • Yeah, I read that article just last week, as luck would have it. Always nice to have your thoughts echoed by someone with credibility. 🙂

  16. Your description of the “intimate landscape” is perfect. I too believe there is so much that is missed between the grand landscape and the macro world. I enjoy both visions, but for me, I try to find, what my wife says, “the vignettes” of a scene. It’s just something that calls out to me. Your photos in this post are exquisite! They are of a style that I love to view and contemplate. Well done indeed!

    • Thanks very much, David!

  17. Really great post, and wonderful examples! I’m glad I found your blog – now following. 🙂

    • Thanks–for the comment and the follow!

  18. […] shots; it has, however, generated a collection of what I consider to be intriguing images of the intimate […]

  19. […] Longtime readers of this blog have seen regular references to the Morton Arboretum, my go-to location for photography when I’m at my Chicago area base.  The arboretum is a 1700-acre oasis of (mostly) nature amidst suburban sprawl in DuPage County.  Landscape photography there can be challenging, but as I’ve said many times, this kind of challenge is a big part of my affinity for the intimate landscape. […]

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