The History of Landscape Photography
The more that society has industrialized—become built up into big, loud, and crowded cities—the more people have become interested in and attached to nature and the outdoors. During the course of the 19th century, landscape painting, for centuries only an afterthought in the background of great canvases, came to the fore of many new art movements including Romanticism, and Impressionism. The same trend holds for landscape photography, which developed from a scientific curiosity to the preferred means of expressing and celebrating the natural world in less than a hundred years. Let’s take a look at the history of landscape photography and how it has influenced our vision and understanding of the natural world.
Beginnings and Pictorialism
The early history of photography is complex and setting a specific date for its inception is difficult. Experiments with photosensitive materials had been going on for decades, however, and by the 1830s, the technology existed to reliably capture and preserve an image on a metal plate or other material.
Over the next few decades, the slew of new photographic processes (Daguerreotype, Ambrotype, Tintype, etc.) were used primarily as archival tools, recording great events like Civil War battles or capturing portraits of the wealthy. It makes sense, then, that some of the first landscape photography comes from the expeditions of federal and state geological surveys. In the 1860s, photographer Carleton Watkins took some of the first images of the Yosemite and surrounding areas, introducing people in the metropolitan east to the land that, less than a decade later, would become the world’s first national park. In 1871, a similar thing happened when William Henry Jackson was hired to document the USGS’s journey to the Yellowstone, returning with images of bottomless volcanic pools and spectacular geysers.
As of yet, however, photography was not being used as or considered a serious artform. By the late 1800s, however, professional photographers were applying the rules of painterly composition to their images in attempts to break into the artistic community. This move was summarily rejected by artists who disdained the speed and skill-like nature of the medium. In response, photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and others began to use new kinds of darkroom manipulation and even overpainting to create a more atmospheric style and hands-on technique that would legitimize photography in the eyes of the artistic establishment. These same trends prevailed in landscape photography as well, as demonstrated by Edward Steichen’s The Pond — Moonlight of 1904.
Ansel Adams & Group f/64
Naturally, there were those who disapproved of this groveling to the painterly community and sought to establish photography as an artform in its own right. This would come about through the activities of what came to be known as Group f/64 and their work in landscape photography.
Group f/64 was formed in the early 1930s and was composed of photographers working in and around the San Francisco/Bay Area including Willard Van Dyke, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Ansel Adams. The work of this group was marked by extremely sharp focus throughout the entire frame with precise composition highlighting shape and scale. One of the key aspects of this movement was the complete embrace of technical darkroom work. Images were heavily edited, not to replicate any sort of painterly technique, but to improve contrast, even exposure, and generally enhance the visual impact of the composition as it was.
Ansel Adams was, of course, the titan of this movement, and by far the most recognizable name in all of photography today. His images of Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and the desert southwest are still held up as the pinnacle of landscape photography, and even photography in general. Still, this was just the beginning, and there was much stylistic and technical ground still to be covered.
The Advent of Color
Up until this point, with the exception of tinting and the afterpainting applied to some pictorialist works, photography was still a monochromatic medium. Beginning after World War I, however, effective polychromatic processes began to emerge, paving the way for a transition to color.
The first person to popularize color landscape photography was Eliot Porter, who photographed the birds and forests of the eastern U.S. starting in the mid-1930s. Porter used Kodachrome, the first mass market slide film, but employed special chemical techniques to make the film suitable for use under the forest canopy.
The newness and expense of Kodachrome, the association of art photography with the black and white work of f/64, and World War II, however, meant that color landscape photography failed to develop significantly until the 1960s. It was around this time that the young Galen Rowell began his career as part-climber, part-adventurer, and part-photographer. His expeditions to the high Sierras and Himalayas and his development of the graduated density filter changed both what it meant to be a landscape photographer and what was possible stylistically.
This period, roughly 1965-85, saw the rise of a huge number of color landscape photographers, including greats like Ray Atkeson, Philip Hyde, David Muench, Ross Hamilton, and many others. Moving away from Porter’s old northeast, most of these artists focused their work on the West, creating vibrant and exquisite images from the deserts of Baja California to the rainforests of British Columbia and the Alaskan glaciers.
Abstraction and Nostalgia
By the latter half of the 20th century, the expansion of landscape photography began to defy any sort of simple narrative of stylistic evolution. With the advent of digital photography, this has become even more true, and there are now artists employing every conceivable approach to celebrating and preserving the beauty of nature.
Photographers around the world continue the line of dedicated and talented color landscapists, journeying into the forbidding wild to capture the ever-changing faces and hidden places of nature.
Michael Kenna, calling upon the early abstract works of Edward Weston, blurs the line between candid and staged photography in his uncannily ordered portraits of the inherently disorganized natural world.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work spans several almost diametrically opposed styles. While his seascapes exhibit a level of abstraction almost outside the realm of photography, other of his works verge on pictorialism, with an otherworldly glow that makes the scenes almost resemble sets from a play.
Sally Mann, in her work on the deep south, chose to revive the wet collodion photographic process of the 1860s. Her bayou and farmland landscapes attempt to capture the surreality of a postwar America and detach the photographic artform from the narrative of technological progress.
The only thing landscape photographers tend to share today is a love of nature, and thus everyone is now free to experience and express that passion in their own unique way. Whether there will ever be a unified “trend” in the genre in the future remains to be seen, but for any landscape enthusiast or novice looking for inspiration, there is no shortage of styles and approaches to discover and learn from.
Today, in a time where the role and future of nature are increasingly insecure, landscape photography is more important than ever. What the story of landscape photography tells us is that passion for the natural world is timeless, but nature in itself is not. Landscape photography is, thus, not only a means of connecting with the places we all come from, but the power to conserve it for new generations of artists as well as the public at large.