The Vernacular Landscape – and Intention

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I do not consider landscape central to my practice, though like many others who started in photography with a lot of travel images, the genre has always been present within my work. Just before this MA began, I was setting upon my CRJ, and wrote a post on Landscape. At the time, I suspect that the only person that read it was me. But, given the subject matter this week in Informing Contexts, I think it is worth going back to.

In the post, I wrote:

An early theorist, Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829) placed the picturesque between the serenely beautiful and the awe-inspiring sublime (from An Essay on the Picturesque: As Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful, Robson, 1796).

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in the Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, 1790) took Burke’s concept further. He noted that the viewer projects beauty onto natural objects, and that experiences of beauty create universal feelings of delight. Beautiful objects need no underlying concept.

Kant wrote that “the beautiful and the sublime agree on the point of pleasing on their own account. Further they agree in not presupposing either a judgement of sense or one logically determinant, but one of reflection”. However, he went on to say that the beautiful is “a presentation of an indeterminate concept of understanding.” By contrast, the sublime is found even in an object without form. The sublime is a “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason“. First Part, Section I, Book II Analytic of the Sublime, #23.

W.J.T. Mitchell, in Landscape and Power (1994) noted that “Landscapes need to be decoded, they don’t merely signify or symbolise power relations; it is an instrument of cultural power. Landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we live and move and have our being, but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place of time to another. Landscape circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity.”  (pg 5)

Liz Wells, in Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (2011) also commented that “The content of images may seem natural. But representational and interpretative processes are cultural in that they are anchored in aesthetic conventions. Photographs substitute for direct encounter; they act as surrogates, mediating that which was seen through the camera viewfinder”. (pg 45)

Culture and context thus create considerable impact on the way the photographer views the scene and creates the image.

As I reflect on this, the distinction between the sublime and the picturesque is helpful, with an emphasis on Kant’s comment that the sublime is an idea. I would consider the ideas within Barthes’ punctum have congruence with Kant’s notion of the sublime. As I noted in an earlier post on Barthes:

Both studium and punctum include objective and subjective elements, although Barthes suggests that punctum does not of necessity arise from a viewer’s interest in the subject matter of the photograph, in the way that studium usually does.  Barthes’ distinction between the two is thus thought-provoking yet confounding at the same time, in being left in so many ways a matter of personal taste and opinion. 

A matter of personal taste and opinion. Steph suggested that whilst Joe Cornish’s work is very successful, it is essentially vernacular (picturesque, perhaps). His audience clearly like his work (it is to their personal taste). But even the most positive readings would find it hard to see the sublime in Cornish’s work. In fact, Cornish himself said:

‘I don’t think there is any photograph that I’ve ever done that I would say is on a level with an Ansel Adams or an Edward Weston. For me they remain a kind of benchmark that I aspire to. I would like to take pictures that move people in the way they did, or make people think about why they live the way they do’. Interview with Roger Voller, 2014.

Cornish would like to ‘move people’ – but he accepts that he doesn’t. There is little punctum present, despite his excellent, consistent craft (and sustainable marketing) skills.

I would however submit that Cornish does illustrate another important issue in assessing photography – intention. He intends to sell lots of photographs, taken in a certain way, for a certain audience. And many of us are ‘guilty’ of trying to emulate his work.

Mick Yates. 2015. Sligachan, Scotland.

Intention is a critical factor in all photography and not just landscape – indeed, in all art.

Elizabeth Anscombe separated ‘intention’ from ‘prediction’ (1957). I can predict that the sun will rise tomorrow, and I might predict that I will fail this MA. But I do not intend to fail – an intuitive understanding of the difference.

She then defined three ways that we use the word ‘intention’:

  1. An intention to act – I intend to write a CRJ post tomorrow, I intend to take landscapes tomorrow. Of course, I might not actually do either.
  2. Intentions in acting – I intend that readers will better understand my practice because of this post. I intend to sell my work, or at least get many likes on Facebook. I cannot however predict that these will become true.
  3. Intentional action – To illustrate my post, I took some landscape photographs on my last trip to Cambodia.

Anscombe notes that it would be a mistake to try to totally separate these three meanings, and writes that ‘A acts intentionally = a certain sense of the question ‘Why?’ applies to A’s action’. (Intention, §5).

Cornish’s work is replete with intention to create and sell, whereas an intention to ‘move people’ is not present. By contrast, one could argue that the intention to move people was present in some of Ansel Adams’ work (though not all), underpinning his aim of encouraging environmental awareness.

Sometimes we take images as records of events or people, without an overt, serious intention, although as Daido Moriyama notes, the photographer is always in some sense ‘in’ the photograph. We are taking photographs with some intention.

There is no separation between what is photographed and the self. The photographer connects them by the desire to be connected’. (Setting Sun, pg 18).

As an aside, in conversation yesterday with Gary, I commented that I find the tradition in Japanese Photography of photographers articulately discussing and writing about their work refreshingly different to the Western approach. It seems that photographers, here, often only write for exhibition catalogues, or offer their views when interviewed. There are helpful summaries of artist statements in works such as that by Stiles and Selz, but it features few photographers.

Let me now use a few of my photographs to explore these ideas.

The header, taken in Indonesia in 1987, is my second most liked image of all time on Facebook. Whilst it ranks as a vernacular image, it clearly caught an audience’s attention, at least relative to my other work. I am not going to digress on the importance (or ridiculousness) of ‘likes’, although it is one obvious way that we use today to have our work judged and responded to.

I think a case could be made that it is one of my most ‘sublime’ images, in the sense of photographically reflecting a certain genre of painting. At an intellectual level, it does raise questions around location, time, and perhaps the idea of sunrise (or sunset?) itself is worthy of exploration.

Yet, my intention at the time was simply to record the travels of Ingrid and myself – in fact, a record of our honeymoon in 1987 in Indonesia. Only decades later did I post it on social media, with the intention of getting an audience response of some kind. So, over time, my intentions regarded this image changed.

By contrast, I would argue that Cornish’s intentions (to sell work of a certain kind) are remarkably consistent.

Now, consider this:

Mick Yates. 2016. Take-off. Brighton

This is another of my top-liked images, and it was used by the Royal Photographic Society as a ‘welcome card’ for new members. I was exploring Brighton as part of a group of friends taking street photographs, and this happened at the end of the day. I had no intention of taking landscapes that day, so it was a serendipitous but evocative image.

On reflection, I am reminded of a quote about Eugene Atget’s work, by Shoji Ueda (in Setting Sun).

‘Atget’s photographs still evoke the aroma of Paris and the feeling of gentle breezes. Wind blows through a landscape. If that flow of air that is not visible to the eye can be felt in the picture, then I would venture to say that the photograph successfully fulfils one of the goals of landscape photography’. (Setting Sun, pg 45)

To some viewers though, the RPS, the photograph was worthy of reproduction, possibly because it illustrated a certain kind of work and captured a certain kind of moment.

Here is a landscape of a different kind.

Mick Yates. 2015. The Long Road Home. Gloucestershire.

First, it is fair to say that it illustrates that the landscape part of my practice has an inconsistent voice. That said, around this time I was beginning to centre my practice on story-telling, and this fits within that overall theme.

I recall having a  clear idea when I took this photograph – communicating the loneliness of a road trip. Whilst this is a vernacular image, it does seem to convey that idea. This is also most certainly an example where the caption helps. The result was that it is became one of my most liked images on social media.

Now, moving to a very recent photograph.

Mick Yates. 2019. Mong Chen Hill, Battambang.

So what is this? A photograph of some burnt fields? Perhaps if one studies the kinds of trees, it is possible to discern that it is not in our temperate climate. There is nothing remarkable about the photograph.

It might help to know that this is one of roughly 20,000 Khmer Rouge era ‘killing fields’ in Cambodia, where thousands died. If you look closely, you can see shallow indentations in the landscape. It is not on any map as such, and hardly ever gets visitors. Sarath and I found it via detective work. It is the site of an old Chinese cemetery, hence the name. My intention in taking this photograph was not to create some kind of picturesque landscape, and not even to share it on social media. It is part of an aftermath series, an indexical document of a particular site, almost forensic in nature.

It is also a reference image, as I was experimenting with infrared as an aesthetic within my project, to suggest the history and ghosts of that era. It is also a paradox – a ‘beautiful’ spot, yet with an awful history.

Mick Yates. 2019. Mong Chin Hill, Battambang. Infrared

I am encouraged by the aesthetic, asking different kinds of questions about the place, although I will leave my audience to decide on its success. There are more strongly metaphorical images in the aftermath series, and I am not sure whether this ‘scene-setter’ will make any final cut.

I do submit, though, that a photographer’s intention is always worthy of consideration in critiquing their work.

……………….

Anscombe, Elizabeth. 1957. Intention. 2008 Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill & Wang.

Gautrand, Jean Claude (Ed.). Eugène Atget, Paris. Köln: Taschen.

Kant, Immanuel.1790. The Critique of Judgment (Part I, Critique of Aesthetic Judgment).Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. 1994. Landscape and Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Price, Sir Uvedale. 1796. An Essay on the Picturesque: As Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful. London: Robson.

Stiles, Kristine & Selz, Peter. 2012.  Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writing (2nd Ed.). Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Vartanian, Ivan, Hatanaka, Akihiro and Kambayashi, Yutaka. 2006. Setting Sun: Writing by Japanese Photographers. New York: Aperture.

Voller, Roger. 2014. Interview with Joe Cornish. Available at: http://www.uklandscape.net/interviews/int%20cornishJ.html. (Accessed 02/03/2019).

Wells, Liz. 2011. Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London: IB Tauris & Co.

Wiseman, Rachel. 2016. Anscombe’s Intention. Abingdon: Routledge.