Home Thoughts on Photography On Landscape And Photography

On Landscape And Photography

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler Zeleny
Image from Landscape Photographer Kyler Zeleny - www.kylerzeleny.com

Landscape is an imagined construction; it can be used to create place attachments or form national identities.

“This review essay explores the current literature of landscape and place.”

People can claim to possess landscape.

Some people argue landscape possesses them while others opt for a shared vision of cohabitation with landscape. This review essay explores the current literature of landscape and place.

Three of the five texts relate to landscape photography. The remaining two texts are solely written accounts of place integral to understanding contemporary visual representations of landscape.

The texts explored focus primarily on the American landscape, particularly ideas of place in the American West. With the exception of Liz Well’s Chapter on ‘North American Place: Land and Settlement’, none of the sources directly address Canadian landscape.

However, given landscape in the Canadian West underwent a similar formation history as the American West, we can extrapolate some of the teachings found in these texts to the Canadian landscape – particularly that of Western Canada.

This review will highlight the convergence of common themes among the source texts. It will also highlight emerging trends in the interdisciplinary field of landscape studies, particularly those narratives that incorporate the discourse of environmentalism.

This essay is a guest contribution written by Canadian visual sociologist Kyler Zeleny. He recently published a book called “Out West”.

On Landscape and Photography

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler Zeleny

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler Zeleny

Landscape is an influencer of people and landscape photography exemplifies this mediated performance in numerous ways.

“Landscape is formed as much as it is forming.”

On one hand it acquaints us with great magnitudes of typography, and on the other, it can simply illustrate the microcosm of the land. Landscape is formed as much as it is forming.

There is a reason that prairie folks yearn for wide horizons and mountains make mountain-men. It is important to the North American sites (and sights for that matter). Deborah Bright wrote that “landscape art is the last perverse of American myths about nature, culture and beauty” (Wells 2012, pg.13). North American’s, speaking specifically about those in ‘the west’, who take from the landscape its riches and in return the land presses upon them its own impressions.

In Landscape and Photography Rod Giblett defines “landscape photography as “a creative, photographic inscription of the visual appreciation for the surfaces of the land in the three major aesthetic modes of the sublime, the picturesque, and the beautiful.” (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.15). This definition is troublesome as it is limiting and focuses on the purely aesthetic qualities of landscape photography. In The Myth of Emptiness and the New American Literature of Place Wendy Harding explores and ultimately rejects the use of sublime as a way of discussing and classifying landscape.

Others have sought a wider definition of landscape photography as any visual impression that focuses on the surface of the land or its upheaval. It goes without saying that there are issues with broad definitions; cultural geographers have taken up issue with the wide use of the term landscape “suggesting that it has become too imprecise to be of value” (Wells 2012, pg.265). This is the problematic nature of focusing on a concept that is interdisciplinary.

Definitions of landscape photography by photo theorists do exist, however given the interdisciplinary space the topic inhabits it is best to apply a broad definition of landscape and the visualization of landscape as ‘everything under the sun’. This literature review relies upon visual texts of landscape as well as those that are solely written and builds upon the current literature in the field (W. J. T. Mitchell, Gillian Rose, Deborah Bright, Nigel Thrift, JD Dewsbury, Joan Schwartz, James Ryan, Tim Edensor).

“Photography is creating and reinforcing semiotics of place.”

Therefore it is imperative to discuss how writing and photography have influenced (and in most cases reinforced) the other and our understanding of space. Since the birth of the medium the daguerreotype has been influencing and shaping ideologies of land in the west (Sailor 2014, pg.xvii). In Place Attachment: Advances in Theory, Methods and Applications, Lynne Manzo and Patrick Devine-Wright critique the literature in their field for underutilizing visual methods for the study of place and people’s investments to it.

They go on to state, “images communicate something different from ‘words and numbers’ approach that constitute more traditional forms of place attachment data collection” (Sailor 2014, pg.113). The authors of chapters nine in Place Attachment argue that visual methods of research have been placed on the periphery.

Place attachment is concerned with the symbolic meaning and increasingly photography is creating and reinforcing semiotics of place. This is related to Rachel Sailor’s Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographers in the Nineteenth Century American West where Sailor discusses the construction of place as an early settler practice.

Place Attachment

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler Zeleny

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler Zeleny

Manzo and Devine-Wright’s Place Attachment is an edition that focuses on place attachment and place creation. The authors define place attachment as the “emotional bonds that form between people and their physical surroundings. These are powerful aspects of human life that inform our sense of identity, create meaning in our lives, facilitate community and influence action” (Manzo & Devine-Wright 2014, pg.i).

“Photography’s ability to aid and create place attachments.”

The creation of meaning and the facilitation of community relate to the early uses of photography in the American West as explored by Sailor’s Meaningful Places, and Rod Giblett and Juha Tolonen’s Photography and Landscape. In Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity Liz Wells argues that places are generated from spaces with the aid of representations, those of which are primarily visual (Wells 2012, pg.3). Of particular interest in Place Attachment are chapters that address photography’s ability to aid and create place attachments.

This is explored in Chapter 9 ‘Photo-Based Methods for Understanding Place Meanings as Foundations of Attachment’ and to a lesser extent, Chapter 10 ‘Theoretical and Methodological Aspects of Research on Place Attachment’. As well, chapter 12 ‘Place Attachment, Community Identification, and Pro-Environmental Engagement’ covers some of the same theoretical ground as the latter chapters of Photography and Landscape. David Seamon’s chapter ‘Attachment and Phenomenology’ is particularly insightful.

Seamon’s argues that places are phenomenologically interpreted by “six interconnected processes that each contribute to supporting or eroding the lived structure and dynamics of a particular place” (Manzo & Devine-Wright 2014, pg.16). Seamon’s insights are valuable to interpreting the erosion of Aboriginal culture form the American and Canadian West as explored in Meaningful Places and Landscape and Photography. Furthermore, through a process of what David Seamon terms ‘place identity’ and ‘place creation’, individuals come to understand the place they inhabit as significant; they “come to feel a part of place and associate their personal and group identity with the identity of that place” (Manzo & Devine-Wright 2014, pg.17).

This association to place is highlighted in chapter 3 ‘Rich Bass’s Winter’ of The Myth of Emptiness. In Rich Bass’s novel Winter – and the wider context of the American West—land appears to have geography but no history, this is true of early written and photographic representations of the American West. We learn from Place Attachment that the “land is not held to be the repository of the values and the cultural memory of the nation form which members must learn; on the contrary, inasmuch as it was held to be undiscovered, the land offered a site of invention and of creation” (Harding 2014, pg.4).

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyA common theme to Sailor’s Meaningful Places is the idea of photographers in the American West extending notions of Frontierism. These early image-makers document the land as Euro-American immigrants settled it. This helps create meaning for the settlers and establishes the land as virgin by not effectively including Aboriginals in their narratives.

“Place attachment and place creation through photography.”

Landscape photography operates at numerous levels: personal, local, regional, national, and global. Images of Banff National Park have a different meaning for a long time inhabitant (place attachment) than for a Japanese tourist. Sailor explains early on in her book that “the stories that follow do more than just shed light on how western settlers used the photographic image as a settlement tool; they also illustrate how local and regional understandings of places have a fundamental impact on those places now, and how, taken as a whole, they shape modern concepts of the West” (Sailor 2014, page xx). A common theme in Meaningful Places is the process of place attachment and place creation through photography.

Imbedded in this processes is the fluidity and destruction of Aboriginal place attachments for the place creation and subsequent attachment of Euro-American settlers. Photography helped write the land as empty and by extension created a culture of ownership, plenitude and expanse that becomes problematic in the later decades of the 20th century as discussed in Land Matter and Photography and Landscape.

The Myth of Emptiness

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler Zeleny

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyHarding postulates that “over the past few decades, a change has been taking place in the way writers, artists, and scholars represent our surroundings. Sites that were once represented as devoid of human presence, as either wilderness or wastelands, have been newly explored and discovered to be full of the signs of human activity” (Harding 2014, pg.xi). Harding has selected contemporary writers (Rick Bass, Charles Bowden, Ellen Meloy, Jonathan Raban, Rebecca Solnit, And Robert Sullivan) who explore sites that are empty, and to which could be thought of as either zones of plentitude or emptiness. Harding’s exploration of each text is succinct and appropriate.

The author arrives in a new place and interprets the place as being ‘under the sign of empty’.

She builds upon the previous literature in the field of spatial studies (Doreen Massey, David Harvey, Edward, and Edward Casey, Henri Lefebvre) by a textual analysis of the contributions by contemporary place writers. Harding illustrates that no space is empty neither in a historical or contemporary sense. The majority of the stories follow a similar formula; the author arrives in a new place and interprets the place as being ‘under the sign of empty’. Many of the authors explored in The Myth of Emptiness reenact the same presumptuous process as did early settlers. From the early day of “colonial settlement, areas were pronounced empty and conceived of as empty in order to serve precise objectives.

The practice is directly linked to the settlement situation, and similar ideological constructions can be observed in other colonized countries like Australia, Canada, or South Africa” (Harding 2014, pg.11). However, the author’s redemption is their ability to modify the early perceptions of their spaces and to ascertain that no space is empty.

The writings Harding discusses in The Myth of Emptiness are part of a larger contemporary movement by historians, geographers, photographers and sociologists to study and in some cases reinterpret our relationship to the land and humanity’s role in transforming it. The search for establishing new ways to interpret the land calls for new ways to write (Harding 2014, pg.52) as well as photograph it. Photography, as discussed earlier, is a powerful tool of influence in this realm. The illusion of emptiness is an easy trick for photography.

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyUnwanted subject matter can be left outside of the frame or rendered out of focus. Photography as an instrument is neutral, only when coupled with a practitioner does it become politically charged. It is for this reason that photography can help empower environmentalism (as explored in the concluding chapters of Photography and Landscape) or subvert it. We find in Harding’s book examples of when photography can be a more effective information delivery system than writing. Photography is also used to further concepts; in this situation image and text work to create a synergy of meaning.

“…the autonomous media of text and image enter into dialogue with each other.”

We see this in Harding’s exploration of Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land. As well Charles Bowden’s Frog Mountain Blues provides us with another example of this type of marriage. The chapters of Bowden’s book are nonlinear and arrive to us from different narrative sources, which inadvertently explore ‘methods of knowing’ and ‘knowledge creation’. One of the narratives is comprised of images where “the autonomous media of text and image enter into dialogue with each other” (Harding 2014, pg.83).

A common theme in all the books reviewed here and which is especially prominent in Harding’s The Myth of Emptiness is how photography has been implicated in the creation of ideals towards certain landscapes. Photography’s authority as a ‘medium of fact’ allowed it to compartmentalize certain groups from the land and set agendas. During the settlement era in the American West, photography was used to push the agenda of the land as open and free, while post-settlement photography was used to help create place attachments.

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyThrough the semiotics of images Aboriginals were thought of savages, who were beholden to no land, no fixed home. Early travellers, settlers, and photographers did not ignore aboriginals; instead they were selectively used as props when it was convenient to support certain agendas—mainly the frontier as empty and Manifest Destiny. Landscape painting of the same period operated in similar ways.

Photography has played a pivotal role in making the land appear as ‘settlable’.

In her introduction, Sailor posits that “in fact, The American idea of ‘frontier’ developed year by year with the aid of community photographers, significantly augmenting nationalistic rhetoric at the grassroots level” (Sailor 2014, pg.xix).

In Photography and Landscape ­­­­­Rod Giblett finds that “photography is an optical technology of empire. Landscape photography renders the land settlable. The colonial enterprise, settler societies and landscape photography are mutually reinforcing” (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.16). Giblett goes on further to state “photography has played a pivotal role in making the land appear as ‘settlable’“ (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.69).

Land Matters

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyWells’ Land Matters is a literal play on words; her book addresses issues related to land and how contemporary photographers interact and interpret landscape. She echoes a theme addressed throughout this paper when she says “landscape, as a genre in photography, has been influenced extensively by North American Photographers, particularly those working in the West” (Wells 2012, pg.111). Wells addresses changes to some of the operational goals of landscape photography, stating that in “the 2000s, with widespread concerns related to environmental change, imagery relating to land and place has re-emerged with renewed socio-political orientation” (Wells 2012, pg.xv).

Wells discusses a number of photographers embracing a sociopolitical approach to image making. Wells discusses Ron Jude’s image ‘Plain’ from his series Landscapes as embracing this approach, as well as Ori Gersht’s image ‘In Line’ from the series Liquidation. This approach is consistent with the theme of The Myth of Emptiness and Photography and Landscape and shows man’s impression upon the land.

Sailor’s Meaningful Places

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenySailor’s book Meaningful Places traces the development of the American frontier and photography. Sailor’s approach is the micro equivalent to Well’s macro as discussed in chapter 2 ‘A North American Place: Land and Settelment’ of Land Matters. Although it may not seem clear from the onset, is important to include a history of the frontier and its relation to photographic practice. Including Meaningful Places lays the foundation to effectively interpret and critique the visual culture of a space that arguably had little or no materialistic visual culture pre-settlement.

“Landscape is the visible surface of the land that allows the eye the power to wander and to name places.”

Sailor demonstrates that the landscape strategies used during the nineteenth-century by settlers and photographers has “profoundly affected generations of photographers well into the twentieth century, ultimately creating a legacy for our understanding of western places even today” (Sailor 2014, pg.xxviii). Many of the photographers discussed in Meaningful Places utilize a ‘straight photographic approach’, most notable in the ‘grandscapes’ of Ansel Adams. Sailor regales the reader with early explorations of the daguerreotype process and the influential photographers (Thomas Easterly and Charles Zimmerman) who pioneered the process in the American West.

Easterly and Zimmerman’s early images remind us that pure landscapes were not always the focus and that man’s possession of the land is an element that is critiqued by contemporary photo theorists. The wet plate Collodion process overcame some of the limitations of the Daguerreotype process. Peter Britt’s Collodion images of Crater Lake have helped create a place attachment for early Euro-Americans. These settler’s ‘discovered’ “the lake in much the same way as they did other western places, gradually imbuing it with cultural meaning” (Sailor 2014, pg.58) and at the same time draining it of its previous meaning to Aboriginals.

As Giblett discusses “landscape is the visible surface of the land that allows the eye the power to wander and to name places, or more precisely to rename, as the places already have indigenous names” (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.54).

Landscape and photography

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyGiblett and Tolonen, the co-authors of Landscape and Photography, state in their introduction that the book is a compilation of their two distinct voices. Each author is responsible for certain sections specific to their research. Although they consider themselves equals in the publication, Giblett is responsible for authoring over three-quarters of the book. As a result the book is primarily reflective of his eco-political goals and aligning’s. Giblett holds the belief that photography and environmentalism share an integral working arrangement and that each is mutually supportive of the other (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.13).

“Past and present political functions of landscape photography in America and Australia.”

As an eco-cultural critic and conservationist, Giblett’s critique of landscape photography is inflected with a clearly political objective (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.11). On the other hand is Tolonen, a visual thinker and practitioner. His work focuses on the past and present political functions of landscape photography in America and Australia. Citing a similar settlement process, the authors draw a comparison between Australia and America. Although Giblett and Tolonen make no mention of Canada in the text, we can also extend their writings to make generalizations about Canadian settlement, and how photography has been elicited to create landscape and place in a Canadian context.

Chapter five of Landscape and Photography focuses on the American landscape and ‘wilderness photography’, otherwise known as early Frontier landscape photography. The text discusses the indelible work of Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins, the pioneers of landscape photography in North America, and Ansel Adams their more celebrated successor. Sailor discusses Adams in detail, however that discussion would have benefited from a richer exploration of Watkins earlier exploits. Chapter six transitions into a discussion of Australian landscape photography. Similar to Canadian landscape photography, Australian landscape photography also borrows its aesthetic approach from American photographers. The chapter discusses the practice of early Australian landscape photographer Frank Hurley and how he influenced place (place creation/ place attachment) in Australia.

A drawback to Landscape and Photography are the confinements under which certain photographers are explored in relation to their work on the American West, for instance, Sailor’s use of the particular to highlight the general. However this task becomes difficult to complete in such a varying and emerging space, as is discussed in Giblett and Tolonen’s work. A more general overview of image-makers may have better illustrated:

  1. the complex nature of landscape (typography) in these vast spaces
  2. the complex notions and ideas and methods at play
  3. the number of image-makers working to interpret, negotiate and produce visual knowledge about the land

Adopting a more general may have been more effective to convey the importance of photography to the development of place (past and present) in Australia and America.

Extended Conclusion

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyTraditionally we have thought of landscape photography as the visual representation of land and space generally devoid of a human element. As Giblett notes, landscape photography also tends to obscure the role of people in actively shaping the land (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.16). As Harding’s book describes, there has been a change in the way we interpret and write about landscape, which can also be extended to the way we photograph, as both mediums speak to the other.

Contemporary landscape photography highlights the manipulative nature of mankind.

Recently a paradigm shift has emerged amongst landscape theorists (visual or written) and how they view ‘the land’. Visual representations of place, particularly empty space, have changed since the time of Ansel Adam’s and his predecessors. Contemporary landscape photography highlights the manipulative nature of mankind and the negative idiosyncrasies that result from an exploitive relationship with the land. More than a century of self-destruction and self-critique has slowly, but increasingly, addressed this belief.

A mid 20th Century theme in landscape studies (visual and written) was the destruction of the land by instantaneous catastrophes—nuclear war. We see this topic explored in the photographic practice of Richard Misrach and Carole Gallagher, and the written work of Rebecca Solnit. Both Harding and Giblett discuss Solnit’s writings on nuclear cataclysm and the Nevada Test Site. Giblett uses Solnit’s work to set up an argument for environmental photography when he states, “recent landscape photography, such as the photography of nuclear landscapes, has turned away from national parks and wilderness to industrial landscapes, mindscapes, wastelands and disaster zones” (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.20).

Over the past few decades instantaneous catastrophe has been replaced by a slow build catastrophe epitomized in the environmental movements of the 1970s and onward. Giblett and Tolonen discuss the conceptual change in landscape as pastoral to man-altered. The author’s site the ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape’ exhibition as the hinge point for this change. This approach continues to be illustrated in contemporary photographic exhibitions, the New Mexico Museum of Art ‘Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment’ exhibition in 2011 is a more recent example.

On Landscape And Photography Essay by Kyler ZelenyHarding touches upon this shift when she discusses Robert Toedter’s image ‘Westside of Cortese Landfill’. Toedter’s image highlights what many contemporary landscape photographers are incorporating into their approaches. These image-makers aim to express land as both inhabited and uninhabited, to play upon the false dichotomy of nature separate from man, and to ultimately question the connections between nature and man. We are seeing a paradigm switch towards landscape photography that is critically informed. Emerging work is now illustrating how man is marking the surface of the earth, operating as an updated version of settlement in the American West (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.159).

“Photography for environmental awareness is not a novel concept.”

Salvesen, as cited by Giblett, writes that “these photographs of man-altered landscapes forestalled nostalgia and prevented an escape into the past – instead, they forced viewers to remain in the present and think about the future…its key message is not revelation but responsibility” (Giblett & Tolonen 2012 pg.167). Photography for environmental awareness is not a novel concept. Although not obvious on the surface, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evan’s collaboration during the US Farm Security Act years can be cited as an early example of environmental awareness (Giblett 2012).

Numerous contemporary photographers engage with the topic of environmentalism. Only scratching the surface, the selective works of Bryan Schumaat’s, Edward Burtnysky, Alec Soth, Toby Smith, Laurent Gaudart, Daniel Shea, and Jeffry Rich illustrate this eco-friendly approach.

As a result, the contemporary understanding of place and landscape focuses around our connection with the land rather than our dominance over it. Borrowing an example that Tolonen discusses in Landscape and Photography, when we see an image of a polar bear floating on a piece of ice we understand that this scene is no longer nature free of man. This is a place so remote albeit still touched by man’s hand in complex ways.

Most impacts we make on this earth, whether is be driving a car to a provincial park or running an air conditioner during a heat wave is now related to that polar bear floating. We have shifted our thinking and increasingly we do not see landscapes of the environment but “landscapes for the environment” (Giblett & Tolonen 2012, pg.22).

About the author

Kyler Zeleny is a Canadian visual sociologist. He is interested in found photography, family albums and the politics of archives. His personal interest in photography, relates to open space, and contemporary issues in rural spaces.

He received his bachelors in Political Science from the University of Alberta and his masters from Goldsmiths College, University of London, in Photography and Urban Cultures. He is a founding member of the Association of Urban Photographers (AUP).

He recently released his first monograph – Out West – with the publishing house The Velvet Cell.

Kyler Currently lives in Toronto, where he is a Communications and Culture doctoral student at York University.



Check out my photography podcast – conversations with inspiring photographers from around the globe sharing their secrets for creating amazing images. It’s mostly in German, but here are some episodes in English:

Valerie Jardin: “Street Photography – Creative Vision Behind The Lens”

Dmitry Stepanenko: “Heavy Color” Street Photography

Jason Koxvold: “Knives” – Left Behind In Rural America”

Dyanne Wilson: Chasing The Northern Lights In Yellowknife

Luc Kordas: Loneliness In New York

Inspiring photographers from around the globe share their secrets and insights. Join the newsletter and you’ll get actionable advice to help you develop an unique photographic language and eventually take your craft as an image maker to the next level.
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else. More information



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here