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  • Writer's pictureBen De Winter

Can (landscape) photography be considered as art?

Is it more than just a picture.... ?


In a prior article 'A Deep Dive into the Question “What is Art?"', we delved into the definition of art.

The key takeaway was that art acts as a platform for artists to express their worldview, shaped by personal emotions and creative processes, aiming to impact society and propel the progress of civilization.

 

The first photograph ever taken, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s ‘View from the window at Le Gras’, dates back to around 1826. Since then, a recurring query has been: “Is photography considered art?”

 

Traditionally, photography was primarily perceived as a tool for documentation which allowed to capture existing scenes. Additionally, there was a deep belief in the inherent truthfulness of all photographs. In the early stages of photography, it wasn't recognized as an artistic medium. At an initial gathering of the Photographic Society of London, a member criticized the new technique, claiming it lacked the ability to stimulate imagination and compete with traditional art forms due to its extreme literalness.

 

This perception of photography as a strictly factual means of recording reality persisted over time. Even at the start of the 21st century, photography galleries and collectors often regarded photography, especially landscape photography, as purely documentary in nature.

 

Between 2006 and 2008, a significant shift occurred in the perception of photography. Edward Steichen's "The Pond – Moonlight" marked the beginning, followed by notable sales of Andreas Gursky’s "99 Cent”, Richard Prince’s "Untitled (Cowboy)," and Gilbert & George’s "To Her Majesty," fetching prices ranging from 2 to 3 million dollars and beyond. However, it was in 2011, with the sale of Andreas Gursky’s "Rhein II," depicting the grey river Rhein under a similarly colourless sky, for 4.3 million dollars, that also the debate surrounding landscape photography finally closed.[1] [2]

 

But does fine art landscape photography really fit in the definition of ‘art’ as given in A Deep Dive into the Question “What is Art?”?

 

Art is:

A world perspective infused with the personal emotional imprint and creative spirit of the artist.

A platform to communicate a (social) message with notable impact on society, and a driver for the development of civilization and the creation of a new world view.

 

 

The first part provides: “A world perspective infused with the personal emotional imprint and creative spirit of the artist.”

 

While documentary photography strives to accurately portray the reality of the world, fine art photography is not constrained by such limitations. This allows photographers to express their creativity and evoke their emotions in their work. In their landscape compositions, photographers precisely manipulate various elements within the photograph - such as lines, shapes, colours, values, textures, and space - in a manner similar to painters. Furthermore, during post-production editing, most photographers use artistic techniques to enhance their images. By navigating through these two stages and aiming to craft visually captivating and emotionally resonant pieces, I believe that the portrayal of nature and landscapes transcends simple documentary reproduction and evolves into something more profound. First requirement met? In my view, the answer is a resounding 'yes'!

 

The second part of the description of what art entails, requires that the photographer communicates with society to send out a message with impact.

 

Just like this applies to painting in the Middle Ages, photography has had a profound impact on social, cultural, and political movements in the last two centuries, playing a crucial role in shaping our understanding of society and the world at large. The medium’s ability to capture and convey powerful visuals has allowed it to become a catalyst for change and a tool for social commentary.

By capturing images that go against the mainstream, photographers can bring attention to social issues that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. From the early documentary photography of Jacob Riis to the powerful images of the Black Lives Matter movement, photographers have used their craft to document injustice and inspire change. By shining a light on the issues that matter most, they encourage society to confront uncomfortable truths and work towards a more equitable future. For landscape photography in particular this can be issues as:

Connection to Nature: Landscape photography serves as a powerful medium for individuals to connect with the natural world. Through producing images of breathtaking landscapes, viewers can experience a sense of awe, wonder, and appreciation for the beauty of the environment. This connection to nature can feed a greater sense of environmental consciousness and responsibility.

Documentation of Change: Landscape photographs often serve as historical records, documenting changes in the natural environment over time. As landscapes evolve due to factors such as urbanization, climate change, or natural disasters, photographs can provide valuable insights into these transformations and their impact on society and ecosystems.

Cultural Identity: Landscapes hold significant cultural meaning for communities around the world. Landscape photography can capture and preserve the unique characteristics of a region's natural environment, landmarks, and heritage sites. These images can help reinforce cultural identity and pride, serving as visual representations of a community's history, values, and traditions.

Tourism and Economic Impact: Stunning landscape photographs can attract tourists to visit specific destinations, thereby contributing to local economies and supporting businesses in the tourism industry. In regions renowned for their natural beauty, landscape photography plays a crucial role in promoting tourism and generating revenue through the sale of prints, artwork, and related merchandise.

 

Overall, landscape photography plays a significant role in shaping social perceptions, cultural narratives, and environmental awareness, making it a potent tool for communication, expression, and advocacy.

 

Is the discussion truly settled: landscape photography embodies all facets of the "art" descriptor. Case closed. But is it?

 

If I use all my creative talent and imagination to capture a photograph of a landscape, aiming to amaze viewer by its undeniable beauty and create a sense of tranquillity - can it be deemed art? For me, the photographer, undoubtedly so.

The reality is that art is inherently subjective, a truth that extends to photography. We are attracted to what resonates with us, while we reject what does not resonate with a certain degree of severity.

Yet, the core of this discourse isn't about the subjectivity of art; rather, it's to claim that turning down the entirety of landscape photography as not being art is simplistic. Much of landscape photography qualifies as art, though certainly not all.


Notes

[1] At the moment of writing, the most expensive photograph ever sold was “Le Violon d’Ingres” by Man Ray. It sold for a record-breaking $12.4 million on May 14, 2022, at Christie’s New York.


[2] An overview of the 10 most expensive photographs ever sold can be found at the Expert Photography website.





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