zedscape: Modern landscape art and photography

At the time when photographs became usable for practitioners, around 1840, there was much discussion in the European art world as to whether photography was art. Meanwhile in Africa, the Ngoni were moving north after Zwangendaba crossed the Zambezi in 1835. Today, landscape imagery has evolved broadly into continua between raw nature, from the calm and beautiful, the picturesque, to the awe-inspiring sublime, and the impact of mankind’s presence from wilderness without people to cities and industrial complexes. Australians Rod Giblett and Juha Tolonen (2012) distinguish between manmade ‘landscape’ and untouched wilderness photography, which is not particularly applicable to Europe but is more appropriate for Australia and Zambia.

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According to Graham Clarke (1997), ‘Landscape photography remains encoded within the language of academic painting and the traditions of landscape art which developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’. Can Roger Fenton’s picturesque ‘postcards’ be compared with a Turner, or with Cézanne? The fundamental tenet of photography, and the argument against photography being an art, is precisely the reality and accuracy of the images; Courbet and Millet were realist painters, and Vermeer allegedly used a camera obscura. If anything has been applied from European art to landscape photography it is the concepts of the sublime and the picturesque.

Despite a shared history, photographs and artists’ paintings are different. Many have seen wonderful views like the Grand Canyon, Wellingtonia in Malawi or Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls), but the long, thin, panoramic view is not usually photogenic and often not photographable, except when 2/3rds of the view can be sky or mist, like Jacob van Goyen’s View of Rhenen (1646). Linear and aerial perspective and chiaroscuro are inherent in photography but are a skill for a painter. Linear perspective can be increased or reduced by using different lenses; aerial perspective can be reduced with UV or haze filters; chiaroscuro can be altered by the extent shadows are ‘filled-in’ by light from the clouds, the blue of the evening sky or by flash. And then the whole can be manipulated later through digital image processing.

The closest a photographer can come to emulating a painting composed of sketches is a montage; but generally, photographs continue to be taken at the ‘decisive moment’, so the photographer/artist does create the landscape, as Andrews says, probably in a single shot. This is not a denial of skill so much as a different skill, of understanding the elements and seeing and taking the image at the right time. Andrews’ view does not constrain landscape art to decisive moments of realist painters or photographers, or the montages of Claude or of photographs, and is inclusive of the wilderness.

When David Livingstone was exploring Zambia, Timothy O’Sullivan’s frontier photography in the United States was demonstrating wilderness. Many sketches were made of Victoria Falls, even by Livingstone in 1860, but the first photograph was not taken until 1892 by William E. Fry. The photograph was a record of Victoria Falls at that time. Although sketches can be accurate, they are never as precise as a photograph at a decisive moment.

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Cover of Photobook zedscape Tarven University Lusaka Tukunka Banks Museum Advertising Estate Restaurant Skyscrapers Civilisation Communications Waste Robots Centre Everywhere

Peter Langmead,

Lusaka, 2014.

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