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Author Topic: The Implied Human Presence in Landscape Photos  (Read 25099 times)
fike
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« on: October 24, 2006, 11:07:18 AM »
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Out this weekend I had lots of photographic epiphanies.  One of them had to do with the fact that so many of our landscape photos that appear to only contain nature, actually are dependent upon human elements of the landscape to be possible.  

I think many of us try to have our photos only contain "natural" subject matter.  We avoid telephone poles, roads, houses, and other signs of human inhabiation.  (There are certainly notable exceptions to this statement.)

What elements of a photo are only implied, but are absolutely essential for a photo to turn out well.

* A trail on which you can get to the location
* A road that creates a break in the trees so that you can photography them
* A meadow cleared by logging 20, 30 or 100 years ago

I was thinking about this as I tried to use my 200mm lens in a deep, dense forest.  The only place the lens was usable was where the wilderness was cleared by logging, or a road, or a pasture.
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jani
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« Reply #1 on: October 24, 2006, 04:36:00 PM »
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Interesting points.

I also noted a comment in another forum here, where someone said "shame about that vapor trail". Why is that a shame? That sunset wouldn't have been there sixty years ago, either.
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Jan
sgwrx
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« Reply #2 on: October 24, 2006, 08:24:59 PM »
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unless someone else added a similar comment, i made that comment about the jet trail. i struggle with is it 'natural' or should i come back another time when the jet trail isn't there, thus deminishing the unique aspect of the moment. perhaps the intent is to want to create an escape from the day to day world and to do that you have to minimize the actual human element. which is paradoxical of course as shown by fike's epiphany. it all speaks to the mind of the observer. one of the reasons i stare in wonder at photos from the hubble is that "noone is there, in that remote galaxy" it's pure and untouched. which of course brings up the whole paradox of whether something is pure once it's observed.
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jani
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« Reply #3 on: October 25, 2006, 04:01:56 AM »
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unless someone else added a similar comment, i made that comment about the jet trail. i struggle with is it 'natural' or should i come back another time when the jet trail isn't there, thus deminishing the unique aspect of the moment.
What about the colours of the sunset, which are the result of industrial pollution?

Doesn't that "diminish the unique aspect of the moment"?

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one of the reasons i stare in wonder at photos from the hubble is that "noone is there, in that remote galaxy" it's pure and untouched.
And even that is probably an illusion in your mind, as there most likely are someone there, in that remote galaxy.
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Jan
russell a
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« Reply #4 on: October 25, 2006, 08:14:25 AM »
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It all depends on the photographer/viewer's preferences and desires.  If one longs for a utopian landscape one leans toward depictions of "pure" and seemingly unpopulated landscapes, like Ansel Adams' most revered work - in which even clues to scale are not easily apparent.  (Note that Moonrise, Hernandez differs from most of his other iconic work in that the graveyard and village in the foreground lend both scale and the record of human presence.  But of course that photo was essentially a "grab shot".)  On the opposite end, if one favors landscapes that depict a dystopia, then Robert Adams' shots of the West as trampled and trashed by Mankind are your thing.  Many more Ansels than Roberts grace calendars and home walls.  A reason for museums is so people can also see an occasional Robert Adams.

The comments of fike and jani are significant.  For example, what does a "beautifully" clean and regular line of trees that result from the regrowth of clear-cutting mean to you?

Since we are way way more likely to live in Robert's rather than Ansels' world, my personal inclination is to find 'beauty" in what we have.  My favorite Ansel is non-iconic, it's his Rails and Jet Trails taken in Roseville CA.
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sgwrx
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« Reply #5 on: October 25, 2006, 05:45:52 PM »
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it could be argued that the pollution does.  i guess it all comes down to degree of compromise. well that and intent (mind of the observer).


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What about the colours of the sunset, which are the result of industrial pollution?

Doesn't that "diminish the unique aspect of the moment"?
And even that is probably an illusion in your mind, as there most likely are someone there, in that remote galaxy.
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John Camp
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« Reply #6 on: October 25, 2006, 10:38:24 PM »
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The idea that landscapes should be unpeopled and wild is peculiarly North American. If you look at great European and Asian painting landscapes, there is almost always an explicit reference to a human presence. You don't have to look only at paintings, either; look at European landscape photographers like Charlie Waite, and there's usually a non-ironic reference to human activity. Wait: you don't even have to go that far. Look at Michael Reichmann's stuff, even in places with spectacular wilderness scenery like Iceland, and you often see non-ironic references to human activity (like the church shot.) In most places, the human influence is seen as a beautifying, softening factor; most places *like* the idea of bountiful harvests from well-tilled fields, homes nestled in the countryside, etc. One of the reasons that Provence (or Latium, around Rome, or the Dutch countryside) is so much loved is because it IS so cultivated and cared for. I don't think it's an accident that what is arguably Ansel Adams' best-known photo is one that portrays a relationship between men and nature; Moonrise is a great photo. There is no reason at all that great landscape photos shouldn't show that. Not that I'd include a phone pole.

JC
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larsrc
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« Reply #7 on: October 26, 2006, 12:28:16 AM »
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The idea that landscapes should be unpeopled and wild is peculiarly North American. If you look at great European and Asian painting landscapes, there is almost always an explicit reference to a human presence.
[...]
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I'm thinking one of the reasons for that is that in those places it's a lot harder to *find* places that are not obviously changed by humans.  You see the same thing in mid-west photography, which for very obvious reasons features fields as a major motive.  When looking at British photography, I see many ways the fields, hedgerows and buildings are essential elements of good photos.

I also think this whole discussion misses an important point:  Unless your explicit photo project is "the Great Untouched", there's no *reason* to deliberately exclude all human traces.  If human traces and nature combines to form a great photo, is it lessened because of the human part?  No.  If human traces or elements of nature distract from an otherwise great photo, do away with them.  

-Lars
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Lisa Nikodym
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« Reply #8 on: October 26, 2006, 10:10:50 AM »
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In addition to the two types of landscape photography compared above (wild landscapes, and landscapes with signs of human modification), there's yet a third type that I find especially fascinating to photograph, that of ancient ruins.  In a way, it's the inverse of a "natural landscape with human traces", being instead of man-made landscape reverting to wilderness.

For photography, all three types of landscapes have power and interest in their own ways.  I enjoy photographing all three.  Sometimes I clone out the poles intruding into the otherwise pristine-looking wilderness, sometimes I leave them and the other human structures in, and sometimes the human structures are what I'm focussing on, as appropriate for what I'm trying to convey with the image.

Having traveled extensively in both the western U.S. and Europe, I can confirm that European art and photography don't often contain pristine wilderness just because there's so little of it left in Europe.  It's far, far easier to find in the western U.S.  I've hiked in both the Swiss Alps and the Sierra Nevada, and the experience is very different.  In much of the Sierras, you can hike all day and, once you leave the trailhead, see no sign of humans whatsoever except for the little primitive trail you're on; I've been hiking on a holiday weekend on one of the less well-known trails and not even seen another human being.  In the Alps, there are lifts, farms, signs, and restaurants all over the place; comfortable and convenient, but not a wilderness experience by a long shot.

Lisa
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jani
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« Reply #9 on: October 26, 2006, 04:36:01 PM »
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Having traveled extensively in both the western U.S. and Europe, I can confirm that European art and photography don't often contain pristine wilderness just because there's so little of it left in Europe.
Just a minor point of nit-picking: that depends on where in Europe you go.

I'll bet you a dollar that you'll find some nice and pristine wilderness on the western slopes of the Ural mountains, in the woods of Finland, the tundra of northern Scandinavia, the Carpathians and probably also the Pyrenees, just to name a few examples.

Central and western Europe are, I agree, extremely densely populated.

Another difference, I think, is that in the US, the pristine wilderness is closer to highways, and remains perhaps that little bit more accessible.

But I may be wrong.
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Jan
fike
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« Reply #10 on: October 26, 2006, 08:31:00 PM »
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So we have pastoral images and "wilderness" images and ruins which could go as far as some of the photo work done on garbage and dumps and rusted old cars...even broken down old barns and cabins which tends to return back to the pastoral.  

In some ways, few of us are areally shooting much wilderness.  You can't REALLLY get there.  In the dense mountains of the east, many of the forests are so overgrown with Rhododendron or other such bush that travel through the woods is impossible.  And then, say you wanted to take a picture, you couldn't get far away enough from anything to actually frame and make a picture.  

The wilderness really is pretty untidy anyway.

In a sense, we are all photographing some version of a pastoral image or some other civilization inspired image.  It's hard to get away from  it in the most remote regions.  And even if the shot is unmarred by the intrusion of civilization, there's always that photographer, probably with a tripod, sitting behind the camera.
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John Camp
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« Reply #11 on: October 26, 2006, 08:34:48 PM »
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In my note above, I wasn't really talking about the availablility of wilderness; I was talking about an aesthetic. When  people (including most photographers) in the US or Canada think of a landscape photograph, they generally think of something that doesn't show much or anything in the way of the human presence -- you know, half dome, or the painted desert, or giant redwoods, or wild beaches. On these LL forums, we find long discussions of getting out to wilderness areas for the best photos, etc. In Europe, the human presence is often shown by preference, as an aesthetic choice.

In North America, the aesthetic preference for wilderness is so strong that in many areas of the US and Canada, we have fake wildernesses, like Yellowstone; and if you go on a fly-in fishing trip in NW Ontario, you'll see that the "North Woods" is often a 100-meter wide strip of trees on either side of the highway, and everything else is clear-cut, a forest-factory. The strips of trees along the highway are mandated so that people passing through get that real North Woods feel...

It really is an aesthetic concept that poses wilderness as real, and signs of human activity as something else.
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LoisWakeman
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« Reply #12 on: October 27, 2006, 05:22:22 AM »
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On a broader note, most of the landscapes in the UK, at least, are almost entirely a product of 1000s of years of human activity, even those we fondly think of as wildernesses. Not so true in less densely populated areas of course.
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pcox
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« Reply #13 on: October 28, 2006, 06:25:26 AM »
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I guess this is something of a personal choice (as is everything, when you get right down to it). I agree with the point that it's not a coincidence that Adams' best known image incorporates man-made structures. It's a perfect gel of subject matter and emotion - a tranquil graveyard. Composition doesn't hurt it either =)

In my own photography I find myself using human elements if it fits the scene - which happens rather more often than I expect. In fact, most of my best-selling images feature human elements. They add a supreme sense of scale which really can't be gotten any other way. They also provide an emotional point in the image for people to grasp, something with which they can identify. This might be a ruined cottage, a distant lighthouse or even a ramshackle hut.

I do tend to make these elements rather small, however - so the dominant aspects of the image are natural.

Cheers,
Peter
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seanmcfoto
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« Reply #14 on: November 12, 2006, 11:28:16 PM »
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Due to the short sightedness of the fledgling Electricity Supply Board in their early days, the whole of Connemara, in the west of Ireland, is littered with poles. It is still quite a wild place but almost impossible to shoot with a pole sticking out somewhere. Derryclare Lough, visible from the Clifden Road has about 8 cables running between the sides of the lake directly in front of the most picturesque island around there area. So to get the shot you have to include the cables. It's all very Irish anyhow.
You can see them (and some poles) Here!
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howiesmith
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« Reply #15 on: November 15, 2006, 12:58:50 PM »
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Part of the reason to leave "people" stuff out of photos may be that that stuff dates a photo.  Gasoline at 29.9.  Clothing.  Car modeal.

Things like smog are not usually easily recognized as even there, let alone human.

Jet contrails are modern, relatively.  I recall a scene from "The 10 Commandments" where Moses raised his arms to part the Red Sea, and a jet trail sorta ruined the mood.  I saw a tire track over Ben Hur's shoulder during the chariot race scene in the Colosium.  Didn't really add to the timeliness.  

I have a portrait of an Arab camel driver with a wrist watch on his arm.  Wish it weren't there, but it was.  Some folks thought it was telling, and it was.  Just didn't say what I had in mind at the time.

Ansel Admas has a scene from the Wawona Tunnel area showing a winter storm rising.  There is a big pine in the foreground.  I have some shots showing that tree alive, dead, and gone.
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LvdByGod
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« Reply #16 on: November 17, 2006, 05:02:46 PM »
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funny we never consider man as pure nature... we never have a problem shooting a dung beatle ball or a huge ant hill...

 
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tgphoto
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« Reply #17 on: November 17, 2006, 06:49:59 PM »
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This is a wonderful discussion, and it's one I have had with my photographer friends at different points over the years.  During one such discussion on implied human presence, a good friend of mine  suggested I take a look at the work of photographer Len Jenshel.

I think Jenshel's work is amazing, both on a technical and an aesthetic level.  He is clearly dealing with the idea of implied human presence in his work, an in many of the pieces, it's that feeling of "being there" that brings the viewer deeper into the photograph.

After spending some time on his site it really got me re-thinking what is a landscape.
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danborge
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« Reply #18 on: November 18, 2006, 09:16:58 AM »
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A variation of  "implied human presence" is "implied antiquity" -- a preference for the old over the new.  I recently traveled to Venice -- a purely man-made place. When I returned home and looked over my photos, I noticed that nearly every photo included many small TV antennas. They were on nearly every roof.  I had not noticed them when I was there, probably because I did not expect to see them in a place hundreds of years old. But in the photos, they were conspicuous and jarring.

I did not hesitate to remove them via the trusty rubber stamp tool.  Deceptive? Or just removing modern trash that obscured the true Venice? In 200 years, the TV antennas (and perhaps Venice) will be long gone but undoctored photos would have preserved a quaint, historic feature of the Venice of the past.
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dbell
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« Reply #19 on: November 18, 2006, 03:08:16 PM »
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I did not hesitate to remove them via the trusty rubber stamp tool.  Deceptive? Or just removing modern trash that obscured the true Venice?
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Depends on what you are trying to do. If you're intending to give the audience an accurate representation of what Venice looks like, then yes, it's deceptive. If you're trying to give the audience the Venice that exists through YOUR eyes, as a work of fine art, it's perfectly acceptable. I'd be happy to see it hanging in a gallery, less happy to see it used in a travel agency's ad brochure and not happy at all to see it used in a newspaper story documenting some event that took place there.


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Daniel Bell
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