Simplicity in Landscape Photography

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17/01/2014 - 12:28




Simplicity in Landscape Photography



‘Simplicity’ is an aspect of photography that I have been experimenting with for sometime now, but it is one I feel I have begun to understand more since reading David Ward’s excellent ‘Landscape Beyond’ book.



David Ward, one of the UK’s Master Photographers, is noted for his ability ‘to see beyond the obvious’ yet make compelling photographs that often leave more questions than answers (which it turns out is a good thing!).



He argues well that classic landscape vistas are an illustration of what we observe (if we consider waiting for light that suits the scene) or a documentary photo if we merely wish to make a quick observational record of it in any ‘ordinary’ light, not that there is anything wrong with those approaches.



Some photos he points out have technical skill and good light, but somehow lack the ability to be memorable in the long term... that essentially they miss the emotive or enquiring depth that really memorable images have.


His photographs are a mixture of intimate studies of specific aspects of the landscape, rural architecture within it – through to studies of the wider landscape. Somehow they compel the viewer to sustain their gaze at the slice of the world he has chosen to show us within the frame of the photo. He is an advocate of ‘simplicity, mystery and beauty’.


I highly recommend a read of this book which puts an inspiring collection of images into the context of what he has explained in words.


By the time I had finished it felt I better understood the reasons why I made attempts at ‘simple’ photographs recently and a greater desire to continue these experiments of distilling the essence of a landscape down to something hopefully rich and with a sense of mystery... for if that can be done in our own photographs, we may hold the viewer’s attention for longer.


Here are some examples of my attempts at 'simplistic images' that I have made in the last year or so:


'Resonance' - River Aune





"Curving back within myself I create the world around me..."

(Deepak Chopra)





'Zen Garden' - Upper Dart, Dartmoor National Park




“One who returns to a place sees it with new eyes. Although the place may not have changed, the viewer inevitably has. For the first time things invisible before become suddenly visible.”

(Louis L'Amour)




'Quantum of Solitude' - River Aune




A friend who saw this said "this is a picture about a river, rather than merely a picture of a river!", I liked that description.





“What's really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.”

 (William Albert Allard)




'Isles of Audhn' - River Aune, Dartmoor National Park





The approach of simplification can also be applied to urban landscapes. An opportunity of late afternoon winter light, falling upon the beach huts at Broadsands in Devon, is seen below. Floodwaters from days of heavy rains and a tidal brook at high tide, created delightful reflections of the beach huts upon the flooded inshore grassy parkland. The repeating patterns of form, the spectrum of colours and the reflections were the elements of interest - so I paid attention to avoid distacting elements such as distant tree tops and people wandering in front/ behind of the huts. I was lucky with my timing in a busy place and a sun about to sink over the ridge behind where I stood.






Hope you find Ward's book to be inspiring and that you have a go at least once  at this 'reductive approach' to composition at some point, it may change the way you think about even the big vistas you want to compose ;)




As ever, I welcome your comments & thoughts...











18/01/2014 - 20:49
Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about this kind of philosophy of landscape photography - it's been a bit of a love/hate thing for a few years on & off now.

Make no mistake, I love the composition and colours, especially in the last shot; I find simplicity very appealing (occasionally striving for the "Zen", myself). But if it weren't for the caption I wouldn't've had a clue what country it was taken in, other than one with a climate that occasionally produced enough water and leaves - it's jumped from Dartmoor-place to art-space. In the process, it's become "a thing arty landscape photographers do", which perhaps shares a page in the thesaurus with "derivative".

Perhaps the way to overcome this conflict is to present two versions of the same scene. If it is this river you like, then by all means give us the arty long-exposure of water around rocks with an autumn leaf on top, but also present it in a diptych with a more general documentary overview.


Come back in 5 years' time when the Forestry Commission have clear-felled it and tell me which version you miss.
Phil Hemsley
18/01/2014 - 23:17
Appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this Tim.

With the many delightful photographs you have made of intimate studies of the 'inner landscape' I am a bit suprised to hear you talk of conflict between the arty 'derivative' and the documentary or illustrative vista. Must they be seen as dichotomous studies of a place and time, or are both approaches valid explorations and observations.

In a recent post entitled'Points of View' I shared what you suggest as a conflict resolution of arty and documenatry-ish photos - set within a very localised range of viewpoints to encourge the idea of experimentation in observation.

The diptych idea sounds interesting and is something I am yet to try as a print / presentation within an article about a place,

To counter your final question, I love the rivers and the woods, but when an area of plantation was felled recently on a local river, and much scarring was left to the landscape it was the river that still appealed foremost
19/01/2014 - 01:26
Well, I've been around the landscape-philosophical loop a couple of times already and am showing no signs of stopping thinking about it just yet... A few years ago now, I rebelled totally - spotted a flaw in a photo-club-member's thinking that stopped me going out of my way to shoot landscape, so I took woodland nature shots in a spirit of "no-light", preferring flat hazy grey days. It's being a slow return towards, if not entirely into, the landscape fold, since then.

I'm certain both styles are valid, but perhaps instead of a conflict it should be seen as a complementary difference. David Ward talks a lot about an image "connoting" things. So, let's imagine the great unwashed staring at a photo on a restaurant wall: they can deduce things like "warm"(day), "autumn" etc, from both a vista and an intimate landscape; but they can only recognize the locale itself in the case of the vista. That's trading a context for the sake of vision - as per your Elliott Erwitt quote.

I think I shall make a point of thinking diptyches of approachable context and/or vision for a few photos - in days/weeks to come. Hadn't thought of that before, so thanks!

Sadly, the biting question earlier arose from experience: I'd taken a bunch of photos of a favoured place, none of them stellar, then the Forestry happened, and I went back through my library and mentally re-evaluated the earlier work as documentary-landscape. It's as an extension of that experience that I see myself putting the photographic horse back in front of the cart: first you see things, then you make the photos, then you decide they fit the landscape genre. Or, as I see my work: landscape (quite often "documentary/realistic"), nature and art (not an exclusive categorization, by any means).

Incidentally, I see you used Photomatix on that river shot - impressed; that's perhaps the first time I've noticed a *natural*-looking HDR claiming to use it.

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