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Zambian Landscapes

In his third book, Peter Langmead captures the ever-changing rural and urban environments of Zambia. This is important, not only for the social history of Zambia but also for global heritage. In the Western-centric, material and increasingly unstable world we live in, there is an inherent risk that societies miss the value photographs add to the awareness and consciousness of our environment.

zedscape, like Postcards from Zambia and The Zambians, is a view of Zambia from a foreign perspective. The challenge of these times is that it is rare for people to experience their environments at all, either actually or through images. There was a great moment for photography when newspapers and magazines used pictures extensively, so people could experience other places. This no longer happens, and the pictures on mobile phones are not seen either.

Dr Langmead’s photographs are different simply because he has taken the photographs and published them. The selection is based on the content of the photographs and their interest in the broader context of mankind and humanity.

“The photograph was the first form in the history of mankind that could capture a slice of time!” ‘What a perfect rendition of the truth! Peter Langmead has a way of bringing out true Zambian faces and the truly authentic Zambian life just by the click of his camera. Beyond the photograph, he gives indispensable lectures on the history and art of photography and the value of pictures. Postcards from Zambia and The Zambians both speak to the importance of capturing the moment, because a picture is worth a thousand words.’
Brenda Muntemba, Author

zedscape

The history of photography, which technically starts in 1829 with Niépce and Daguerre, really begins with art more generally, even with cave painting. But this far back does not tell us much about the development of modern landscape art, which starts around the advent of miniature paintings, perhaps by Hubert van Eyke, painted in 1414-17. All but one of these were destroyed in a fire in 1904, coincidently a few years after the land north of the Zambezi River became Northern Rhodesia under the British South Africa Company.

So, how did modern landscape painting develop and what has been its impact on landscape photography? And, in our contemporary world, do the economic phenomena of migration to cities and climate change affect demand for landscapes pictures?

Modern landscape art

There are two views of landscape: Kenneth Clark (1949) implies a landscape is made into art by an artist, which assumes that the landscape was already there. It may appear pedantic but, actually, it is the land that is already there, so Andrews’ (1999) view, that land is made into a landscape by the artist, is more realistic.

Any picture can be described as aesthetically beautiful, whatever the subject. An image is composed, of colours, textures, shades, perspectives, lines and accents, whether or not it is beautiful to the observer. It can be abstract, use symbols, or be read as a story, or represent an object, animate or inanimate.

Since the term landscape can be all-encompassing, it is defined to some extent by what it is not. It is not a portrait, even though the background in a portrait may contain landscape-like elements, like Jan van Eyke’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1433/4) or his and Hubert’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432) where distance is becoming realistic. And it is not a still-life.

Nature had a poor start: it was dangerous, and Petrarch, for example, was reportedly the first man of letters to climb a mountain. Nevertheless, landscape has very much been in the human psyche. The earliest existent modern landscape is probably Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Peace (1339) in Siena. The role of this painting was entirely political; its importance is that it shows an appreciation of beauty for its own sake without religious motivation, which is the definition of modern landscape art. Still, at that time, the Persian concept of paradise being a walled garden still prevailed, as it still does today to some extent, as evidenced by a history of walled-city States and artistically minded tyrants.

So, there was an area outside Eden that was seen as dangerous, because of animals and alleged criminals, a belief that continues to be driven by xenophobes, but ranging from magnificent beauty to awe-inspiring creation. It was not until the 14th century that medieval man went hunting in those dark and dangerous forests, for sport, first seen in de Limbourg brothers’ calendar pages in Très Riches Hours du duc de Berry (1413-16). Again, while these paintings are part of a prayer book, the images do not refer to religion; as a result, these small paintings are thought to be examples of early modern landscapes, and they achieve a sense and saturation of light through colour that is not matched again until the 19th century.

Linear perspective, which is the concept of a vanishing point, was first found in a painting by Filippo Brunelleschi (c. 1415) and explained in a treatise by architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72). The next great landscapes were the Venetian landscapes of Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), who added the emotive power of morning and evening light so popular with landscape photographers today. Interestingly, he reverted to midday light later. Aerial perspective was used by Leonardo da Vinci in the Virgin and Child with St Anne (1508-10), where distance is realised by degrading tones and reducing contrast.

Clark’s factual landscapes disappear from both sides of the Alps, after Bellini and Hieronymus Bosch (1460-1516), until the 17th century, except for Pieter Brueghel (1525/30-69), whose unique landscapes marry humanity and weather. Both Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt (1606-69) sketched factually but their paintings departed from reality.

Dutch landscapes in the 17th century extended from nowhere and, after years of suffering, the market was for pragmatic views of what they had died for: the wars of religion were over; mannerist art was finished; and mediocre art was as fashionable as it is today! Meanwhile, in Zambia, tribes and cultural myths were evolving, often through adventurers from the north. Most of the languages spoken today were essentially in place at that time.

If anyone defined genres, it was the Dutch. Although landscape paintings already existed, the Dutch specialised and moralised: Jan van Goyen (1596-1656) painted landscapes - 1,200 still exist - selling to town-dwelling merchants, professional classes, tradesmen and better-off artisans. A feature of his pictures was low horizons, showing lots of sky. Exaggerating the importance of windmills by size and river palings by light is evident in Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wijk, (c. 1665); Meindert Hobbema’s (1638-1709) The Avenue, Middelharnis, (1689) suggests the viewer should stay on the ‘straight and narrow’.

The painting thought to be closest to a photograph is A View of Delft by Jan Vermeer (1635-75), except the design is too calculated, the elements are too consistent and the colours are brighter than real life. Albert Cuyp (1620-91) painted The Maas at Dordrecht by the reddish light of a setting sun. Painting light had become a trick but, according to Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) at London’s Royal Academy, 17th century Dutch landscapes were ‘the last branch of uninteresting subjects’.

Where Clark calls his chapter, ‘Landscape of Fantasy’, Andrews calls his, ‘Astonished beyond Expression’, and it is a challenging area to classify. Awe-inspiring is a cliché today, but the image ‘takes your breath away’. El Greco’s View of Toledo (1597) is a cityscape. Fires, thunderstorms on land and sea, dark forests, waterfalls, treacherous skies with craggy mountains and precipices were all game subjects for Salvatore Rosa (1615-73) as well. ‘The experience of the Sublime is, almost by definition, one that subverts order, coherence, a structured organisation’ (Andrews). If sublime is masculine then its antithesis, picturesque, must be feminine: curved and soft rolling hills, swirling mist, passive, slow moving water, low contrast, aerial perspective, pastel shades, ‘soft’ focus. A much later example is Degas’ Landscape (c.1892).

lightning

‘Ideal’ landscapes by Claude Lorraine (1600-82) and Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) combined images that make up classical landscapes inspired by the Virgilian Golden Age, when mankind lived without effort and fear, before Pandora’s Box. In Claude’s case, there is a corridor on one side, a middle plane with a large central feature, followed by two more distant planes, the whole being interconnected by bridges and other devices. While Claude used receding planes, Poussin was more geometrical: since landscapes do not have natural verticals, he introduced classical buildings and repeated non-vertical diagonals to give depth.

The art world finds it difficult to place Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840): his ‘frigid’ technique has not been extended. These landscapes were painted when chiefdoms were developing in Zambia, and two of them, Kazembe and Lozi, became kingdoms with imperial tendencies. In many ways, some landscape photography is reminiscent of Friedrich’s style: there are plenty of trees like that in the Tree of Crows (c.1822) on the way to Western Province.

Perhaps the master of chiaroscuro in landscape was John Constable (1776-1837). Chiaroscuro is reflected light in shadows: in the case of landscape, this is often the blue of the sky. Constable painted his themes as small oil paintings and sketched his forms with pencil. He then made large oil sketches, which remain most admired, before painting an even larger finished canvas. Constable is recognised as having an impact on the Barbizon school, exemplified by Delacroix, and having the essential qualities of impressionists to spontaneously transcribe a landscape to a sketch. duality

That Constable constructed a painting made him very different to Gustave Courbet (1819-77) who painted grass too green, sunsets too pink, like a colour-embellished postcard, a style that can be understood without education or knowledge. He is considered one of the first realist painters, who captured the image that is there rather than the conception of what is there, rather like photography; the result is popular but non-ideal art.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was the last great painter before the advent of photography, and no comparison can be made between his paintings and anything that could be made with a daguerreotype, and the same is true for later great painters, like Claude Monet (1840-1926) Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) George Seurat (1859-91) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

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.

Geographical features are classic landscapes, and often sublime. Next to the plunge pool of Victoria Falls at night in a thunderstorm, where the rain is not felt and the thunder is not heard, would be sublime. Ironically, the image of this, as a picture or as writing, delivers sublimity, while real visitors rarely ‘tremble with a sensation like dread’ as noted by Nathaniel Hawthorne as he travelled to Niagara Falls in 1835. And although Victoria Falls would have been difficult to see and experience in 1853 from any other vantage point than the island in the middle of the falls itself, Livingstone’s report of it was reserved; but the ‘smoke that thunders’ continues to be among the greatest viewable natural phenomena in the world. It is rare to find picturesque pictures in serious landscape photography.

How about cities? They are, too, part of nature, so they cannot be excluded; and many have dark places. Land is contained by a view; mankind is contained by land; so, landscapes include mankind, animals, the sea, the sky, the mountains, cities, poverty ridden urban sprawls, waterfalls, subterranean caverns and let us say everything else except portraits and still-life in their most limited senses. city

The importance of modern landscape art in the context of landscape photography is the concept of the picturesque and the sublime. Although realist paintings are an artist’s equivalent of the photographer’s decisive moment, great artists created paintings from their sketches, and not necessarily from the same vantage point. Linear and aerial perspectives, and chiaroscuro, are natural phenomena; they are captured by the camera and can then be manipulated by equipment, knowledge and processing, in the same way that a painter must have the necessary skills.

A case for landscape photography

In 2014, a reported 54 per cent of the global population lives in an urban environment, and 39 per cent did also in Zambia in 2011. Jean-François Millet (1814-75) and Courbet both painted realistic rural landscapes for their Parisian clientele that matched the romantic notions of rural living for the urban elite. Gainsborough’s clients wanted to see their estates in their family portraits and there are Turner’s watercolours of Petworth Park. Likewise, there are selfies taken on mobile phones in Zambia that show family members on their farms or in front of their houses and cars in Lusaka, intentionally showing their possessions.

The converse of this is that, migration to urban centres being a social and economic fact, it is likely that rural communities like to see images of urban centres, but for different reasons, leading to an hypothesis that there is increasing duality in demand for landscape imagery arising from the burgeoning middle class: the romantically minded urban elite still wants picturesque images of their estates, but, also, rural communities want real information about urban centres, where many of their relatives are living, often in foreign countries.

Photography has always been a means to record events for prosperity, and remains so despite valid efforts to call the reliability of photographs into question. If the assertions of climate change damaging environments are correct, then it is urgent to record those environments in which we live to demonstrate the damage. Floods, tsunamis, thunderstorms, landslides, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are all images of the sublime, during and after the events.

Peter Langmead,
Lusaka, 2014.