Posted by: kerryl29 | February 3, 2020

Is Engagement in “Serious” Landscape Photography Declining?

I’m not a fan of click-bait headlines, so I intentionally avoided titling this post with something hyperbolic like “Is Photography Dying?” or “Is the Demise of Photography Nigh?” or something equally melodramatic.  While it’s always gratifying when more people read one of my entries, the fact is that I make the same amount of money–zero dollars and zero cents–whether one person views a blog post of mine or a million people do.  (Not that a million people have ever viewed one of my posts, but you get the idea.)  As a result, I have the relative luxury of feeling smug about my decision to avoid hyperbole…most of the time, anyway.

San Miguel Range Sunset, Last Dollar Road, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

In all seriousness, I have wondered for some time about the answer to the question posed in the title of this post.  But before I ruminate on the substance of the matter, I’m going to take a moment to explain what it is I’m referring to.  Despite my stated attempt to avoid exaggerated terminology, parts of the title of this piece have the potential to convey charged meanings.

To be precise, what exactly do I mean by “serious” landscape photography?  I can probably best address that question by first describing what I don’t mean.  In my parlance, “serious” landscape photography isn’t synonymous with big, expensive cameras, lenses and accessories.  It’s certainly possible to engage in the pursuit with big, expensive cameras, lenses and accessories, but by no means is it a requirement.  It’s absolutely possible to engage in the pursuit with a smartphone.  (In fact, I’d argue, it’s possible to, in part, engage in the pursuit without a camera at all.  I’ll expound on that point a bit later.)  My meaning behind the phrase “serious” landscape photography, then, has nothing to do with gear.

It also isn’t necessarily a function of output.  To the extent that a consensus exists about what makes a “good” or “bad” landscape photograph (a subject arguably worthy of a series of blog posts itself), it’s certainly possible to produce a “good” photograph without engaging in “serious” landscape photography and to produce a “bad” one while being so engaged.

Waterline Falls Black & White, Letchworth State Park, New York

So what does it have to do with, then?  Intent.  Engagement.  Emotional, psychological and intellectual involvement with the endeavor.  It’s about connection–the photographer and the landscape.  I will concede, albeit grudgingly, that the logical consequence of it being labeled landscape photography does, ultimately, require the use of some sort of device that will produce a photograph, but as I see it, this is a very, very minor part of the equation.  And certainly what specific device you use does not, in and of itself, confirm or deny the degree of seriousness by which someone is engaging in the endeavor.

So, in short–and imperfectly–what I’m talking about is the degree and depth of personal involvement that someone has with the landscape and the exercise of producing a rendering of it.  The making of the photograph can be done with a large format camera, a smartphone or anything in between.

Sunwapta River Rapids, Jasper National Park, Alberta

My sense is that the pursuit of what I’ve described as “serious” landscape photography is in decline.  This is admittedly anecdotal–I’m not sure that anything that we could legitimately describe as objective confirmation or dismissal of this declaration exists, to be frank.  But wherever I’ve been over the last handful of years or more I see fewer and fewer people engaged in what I’ve described as “serious” landscape photography (and it’s pretty obvious when someone is so engaged and when they aren’t–just watch them).  I’ve received a version of the same story from others I know, based on their own observations in the field.

Landscape photography writ large, without qualification–is most certainly not declining.  More images of the landscape, of myriad quality (however that quality is assessed), are being produced on a daily basis than ever before and there’s no indication of an arrest in that trend.  But “serious” landscape photography?  That seems to me to be an entirely different matter with an antagonistic trend line.

Coast Trail, Samuel H. Boardman State Park,Oregon

There’s a purposefulness behind the kind of behavior I’m discussing.  There’s a world of difference in my eyes between the exercise of an outing that involves actively looking for images and an outing that involves the occasional casual taking of pictures.  As I’ve said in the past on this blog, there’s a qualitative distinction to be drawn between a photo trip and a trip where one takes photos.  Again, one isn’t necessarily “better” than the other, but there’s a clear delineation between the two.  Think of what I’m describing as a miniature version of that; the distinction of photographic intent–or lack thereof–applies whether one is on a trip or not.  And whatever the scale, I’m seeing far less photo-trip-style-behavior than I used to.

Lily Pond Reflections, Kancamagus Highway, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

To the extent that what I’m describing as a trend is accurate, two additional questions probably come to mind:  1) what’s the cause of this? and 2) who cares?

With the express caveat that I’m not sure, I’ll take a shorthand stab at the “what’s the cause?” question.  With the secondary disclaimer that it’s almost certainly more complicated than I’m about to surmise, I think the biggest reason for the change is the somewhat ironic truism that picture-taking, in the most superficial, technical sense of the term, has never been easier to carry out than it is today, and it will almost certainly continue to get easier in the future.

The Fire Wave at Dusk, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Humans are interesting creatures.  We are, generally speaking, lazy beings and as a result we’re frequently guided by inertia, surely the most powerful force in the human universe.  There’s a kind of long-standing joke in photographic circles.  Cameras–whatever their platform–have increasingly become auto-everything over the years:  autofocus, autometering, autoexposure, auto-ISO, etc.  Thus–the punch line–the photographer is reduced to little more than pressing the shutter button.  The corollary to this joke is that the final stage of this development will be an auto-composition mode:  tell the camera what kind of an image you want and it will float into place, frame the image for you, run through the rest of the auto-everything protocol and, voila!  Of course at that point, someone will undoubtedly complain about having to tell the camera what kind of image he/she wants:  “why do I have to go that trouble?”  (Get a group of condescending old time photographers together to riff on this story and you’ll have a photo version of the Four Yorkshiremen before you know it.)

There’s a certain compelling irony to the notion that the easier things get, the less we seem to want to do them at all.  The advent of digital capture and all of its components made it immeasurably easier than ever to overcome the omnipresent stumbling block of properly exposing a photographic frame.  And yet, in the now mature digital world, a smaller percentage of people engaging in photography have any idea how to expose a scene than ever before.

Approaching Sunset, Mahogany Hammock Road, Everglades National Park, Florida

As to the obviously loaded question of “who cares?…I’ll frame it a little bit less provocatively:  does it matter?  In the greater scheme of things, I suppose not.  It’s not as though civilization’s sustenance is riding on the answer to the question of whether “serious” landscape photography is on the decline.  But when a subject as close to me as this one is (this blog, in part, has served as a venue for my thoughts on matters such as this since its inception more than 10 years ago) comes to the fore, and with what appears to be such a negative prognosis, it takes on a personal significance that’s greater than it likely should be.  Perhaps it’s an exercise in pure nostalgia on my part, perhaps it’s something equally intangible, but I find the notion that active engagement with the art and craft of landscape photography is diminishing…unfortunate and, at some level, indescribably sad.

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


Responses

  1. Interesting post Kerry! This is something I’ve actually pondered on a bit, and to a certain extent I agree with you, but to another, I’m not so sure. Landscape photography, perhaps more so than any other genre, takes work to be successful. Beyond being at the right place at the right time, landscape requires substantial technical understanding, and even more importantly, a real sense for how elements in a frame interact. Developing that kind of knowledge and craft requires effort, and study, and time in the field.

    Other outdoor photography pursuits like wildlife are more straight forward. Sure it requires time and travel, but (at least at the amateur level) mostly requires the right gear, and the right understanding of your camera. Composition is second to the hunt (though I’m not sure it should be).

    Too, a wildlife photographer can purr off a thousand shots in the time it takes a landscape photographer to make 1. For that reason, landscape lacks the instant gratification of other photographic pursuits. So with that aspect I agree: there are fewer (proportionally) photographers willing to put in that kind of effort and time, and study.

    The flip side is that there are an abundance of exceptional landscape photographers at work right now. While the average quality has declined, the top end efforts are extraordinary. There is a much greater difference between good and bad now than in the past, but the top end, dare I say, has never been better. And there, I think, landscape photography is thriving.

    • Hi Dave.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave such a well-considered comment. I don’t disagree that there are a good number of top-notch landscape photographers working today, but I wasn’t really thinking about quality output when I penned this essay, partly because reaching a consensus on what constitutes good work is a bit of a trap in and of itself, and partly because I’m really concerned less with the elite in the field with how the average would-be photographer, amateur as well as pro, is going about his/her business in the field. I’m just not seeing the dedication, in the broadest sense of the term, to the process that I once did, and it bothers me. It probably shouldn’t, but it does. 🙂

  2. “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
    ― Ansel Adams

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I agree with the Adams quote–for those who put themselves into the art and craft of photography. I’m just not seeing nearly as much of that as I used to.

  3. “It’s not as though civilization’s sustenance is riding on the answer to the question of whether “serious” landscape photography is on the decline.” In response to your above statement, I would say all this immediacy in life may be a symptom of the decline of civilization. I noticed people in an art gallery taking photos of the paintings and they were so busy recording, they weren’t looking at the paintings at all. Just like landscapes around us. We are not engaging in life and the photos show the results.Instant gratification isn’t fast enough for some, and it does not satisfy. I agree with the previous comment that top end efforts are extraordinary.I disagree with the comment about wildlife photography,because getting a good angle, good light and composition takes work and practice and intention- the result speaks for itself.You have made a good point here in today’s article, thank you.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      When it comes to art, there’s really no substitute–as I see it–to putting one’s heart and soul into the endeavor. I wish I was seeing more of that these days.

  4. “Intent. Engagement. Emotional, psychological and intellectual involvement with the endeavor. It’s about connection–the photographer and the landscape.” Taking this as your definition of serious landscape photography, yes I agree that it is probably in decline. However, that doesn’t make it any less valuable because those engaging in the exercise gain personal satisfaction, and those who view the images appreciate the results even if they don’t fully understand the process required to produce them. And in that lies the answer to the “who cares” question. We all should care. The “connection” is why people love to look at photographs as well as why people intentionally create them. Thanks for another thought provoking post. Makes me want to grab the camera bag and tripod and head out to some amazing landscapes.

    • Hi Ellen. To the extent that this post inspired you–or anyone else–to get out there and be creative, it’s succeeded beyond my most sincere expectations.

  5. Natural artistic ability fits into this in a huge way. Photographers, Whittlers, and many other artisans never mention it at all, they seem to either not know they have it or take it for granted.

    • Interesting observation. I can only speak for myself, of course, but it would seem to me that any innate ability that artists have would inspire them to dig deeper, to maximize their potential.

  6. Thanks, Kerry, for this thought-provoking post. The sad truth is that most viewers will not spend the time to read what you have written and to contemplate the issues that you have touched upon. I don’t have any magical answer, but it seems to me that one of the consequences of a greater focus on instant gratification has been the shortening of the average attention span. I don’t personally do a lot of landscape photography, but I spend a lot of time trying to connect with the environment as I go back time and time again to the same locations to take wildlife photos.

    • Thanks, Mike. You’re probably right that I’m sort of implicitly talking to myself. 🙂 To the extent that there is a trend, I don’t know what–if anything–can arrest it. All I can hope is that at least some people will give the subject some thought. It’s a small goal, but even that may be asking too much.

  7. Well written, Kerry 👍

  8. Nice pictures, I really like your Lilly Pond Reflections from New Hampshire.

    • Thanks very much!


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