Oxford School of Photography

insights into photography

An Exhibition: Image, instinct and imagination: landscape as sign-language

There are many debates amongst the photographers I know about the validity of photographic criticism, or more accurately the validity of ‘art’ photography criticism and the words used to explain and identify why the image is worthy. It should be noted that art photography is rarely actually criticised because that just raises the spectre of the ignorance of the critic. Not understanding the purpose and development of an image is a failure upon the part of the viewer. You see if you look at a photograph that is considered art and you don’t understand, like or even see any value in it then you are at fault. Interesting circular argument.

Here is a piece of writing explaining the worthiness of an image:

A striking example of a Panorama with a reach or ‘fetch’ of over 45 miles. The picture here relies on the clarity of the light and illustrates the advantage of ‘falling ground’. The immediate foreground is free of vegetation that might impede the prospect, but we are assured of the proximity of refuge by the line of the treetops, high enough to catch our attention but not to interfere with the prospect.

The tidal River Trent enters from the left in the middle distance, joining the Yorkshire Ouse at Trent Falls (a misleading name, as there are no ‘falls’ as such) to form the Humber. Until the opening of the Humber Bridge, some 7 miles downstream in 1981, this water-body interposed a formidable barrier between Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

The panorama illustrates well how landscape is a product of the interaction between nature and humans. The fields bordering the rivers are natural floodplains reclaimed as productive farmland and divided by hedgerows providing linear pathways for the movement of wildlife. Since this picture was taken in 2003 the whole middle distance has been given back to the estuary and restored as floodplain in one of the Environment Agency’s largest realignment projects, providing a cushion against tidal surges. However the storm surge of 5 December 2013 caused severe damage to the infrastructure of the site, with fences being carried up to 1km from their positions by the force of the water.

The foreground platform, on the edge of the Jurassic escarpment, showcases a rare example of a mystery puzzle to challenge our curiosity. Julian’s Bower is one of a number of turf mazes in England whose origin, date of construction and function is uncertain. What we can be sure of is that instinct demands we carry on questioning. Words by Jay Appleton

This does make the image sound interesting and full of understanding but here is the image

1_resize1Simon Warner

I think this is nice enough, don’t you like the word ‘nice’ either adds or detracts. I don’t see the wealth of value as espoused by the words written about it.

Here is another

A tributary of the River Thames, the Windrush meanders across water meadows. Until the early 20th century irrigation of the meadows was controlled in order to improve agricultural productivity. This peaceful scene belies the importance of the river as a source of clean water and power for the woollen industry which became established in many of the small towns along its course during the Middle Ages.

The picture is an example of an Indirect Prospect, where an alternative vantage point (in this case the church spire) appears likely to offer an even better view. It is also a Deflected Vista in that the course of the river beyond the bend has to be inferred. Both these pictorial elements are prompts to our curiosity. The picture also shows the operation of a particular Habitat. The swans will have found sufficient refuge in the reeds and grasses to build a nest, and are now exploring the surroundings with their cygnets. The environment is not entirely safe, as they are vulnerable to attack from hungry pike as well as from human interference. But the river can supply all their food, and the balance of advantage and threat is in their favour. again words by Jay Appleton

4_resize1

Simon Warner

I have to flag up that I don not accept any images from students that contain ducks, I include swans, it is not that I don’t like ducks; with an orange sauce they are acceptable or better crispy with pancakes, it is just that indolent wildfowl are too easy and too dull. I think the same about sunsets by the way.

Back to the picture, did you actually get any of the commentary from just looking at the picture? It looks like a post card to me, maybe worse, not even interesting enough for that. I read a lot of photography criticism and often do feel over my head, why can’t I see what the writer can see, what is missing from my education and decades of looking that keeps these mysteries from me?

The article that I am using as a source is Royal Geographic Society, so I would expect them to understand about landscape and it’s function and history but not necessarily about photography. A landscape photograph so devoid of atmosphere or emotion that needs many words to support it is diminished.

Here is another for you to consider and when doing so think about the many inspiring landscape images you have seen, how they make you want to get your camera and make some yourself.

The broad raised track offers a reassuring prospect of access to the shelter of the wood, avoiding any need to cross the Impediment Hazard of ploughed fields on either side. The edge-of-the-wood is an important site in Prospect-Refuge terms. It typically offers unimpeded outward views from the refuge of tree-cover, thus fulfilling the desirable condition of seeing without being seen.

5_resize1It is clearly easy to be simplistic about photographic composition, to only work with basic compositional devices, rule of thirds, lines, frames etc but these are a basis upon which many of the greatest photographers have built credible bodies of work. These images, although nice, require words to lift them out of the mundane, to express what the photographer probably meant to say.

A blog is a place for opinions, no blog is accurate or true just one person’s version of something.  I cannot deny the very impressive accomplishments of the writer and the photographer, both are lauded and held in esteem, so am I just ignorant?

These images and words are from an exhibition

Image, instinct and imagination: landscape as sign-language

  • Monday 31 March – Friday 16 May 2014
  • Weekdays (excluding bank holidays) 10.00am – 5.00pm
  • Also open on Saturday 5 April 2014 and Sunday 6 April 2014
  • Displayed in the RGS-IBG Exhibition Pavilion, accessible from our Exhibition Road entrance

An exhibition of photographs by Simon Warner with a commentary by Jay Appleton, supported by the Landscape Research Group, LUC and Colvin & Moggridge

In an unusual collaboration, the geographer Jay Appleton and photographer Simon Warner join forces to explore Professor Appleton’s Prospect-Refuge Theory of landscape appreciation, first published in The Experience of Landscape (1975), where aesthetic taste in landscape and landscape art is shown to derive from primitive, hunter-gatherer instincts for viewpoints (Prospect) and shelter or concealment (Refuge). Humans, as well as other animals, select environments that contain a favourable balance of these two elements.

If you want to read more or discover details of the exhibition go here 

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2 responses to “An Exhibition: Image, instinct and imagination: landscape as sign-language

  1. Jane Buekett April 16, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    This is hilarious. It is academia making something out of nothing and getting funded for doing so. Or could it just be one huge joke? Duck surprise?

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