Thursday, May 22, 2014

Digital Landscape photography: Yes...but is it Art?

Chambre Hardman's Birth of the Ark Royal.From a golden age of photography or just old hat?: Image National Trust

The other week I caught a programme on iPlayer which was originally aired on BBC Scotland on its Adventure Show series presented by outdoor writer, Cameron McNeish. This particular episode concentrated on the work of acclaimed and hugely successful outdoor photographer, Colin Prior. Most people throughout the UK will be familiar with Colin’s work though his glossy coffee table tomes, calendars, greeting cards etc. In the programme, Colin and a huge team of porters trekked through the Karakorum region where the photographer is engaged in a five year mission to capture the mountains and it’s people through digital imagery.

As with his Scottish and UK work, the images were never less than technically outstanding. In fact I remarked to my partner that some of them were like stills from Lord of the Rings. And in that, it encapsulates a personal growing distaste for what landscape and in particular mountain photography within the digital media, has evolved into.

Colin Prior.The Jack Vettriano of the photographic world?:Photo BBC/Adventure Show

A rather predictable medium where perfection is almost guaranteed and creativity is at a premium. I’m not a photographer, more a happy snapper who happens to take thousands of images a year. I do have an interest in photography as an art form though which dates back to when I was in my early twenties and working as a van driver in Chester. The old storeman in the company where I worked, taught me the basics of photography including black and white film developing and encouraged me to move away from point and shoot Instamatic photography and get a half decent camera and learn how to use it. In this case it was a Soviet Zorki 4 Rangefinder camera. My mentor passed on an old Gnome enlarger and all the required tanks and trays to equip a darkroom and I was away. Locking myself in the bathroom and watching through a roseate glow as ghostly images emerged in my plastic tray. A line of prints pegged out across the room.

In recent years I’ve become increasingly bored with digital photography as a medium and attracted to film photography. A year or two ago I blogged about Lomography (a large part of which is rehashed here) as an exciting and creatively satisfying film medium. Lacking the almost guaranteed perfection of digital, this lo-fi, analogue medium excites through its unpredictability. If you want a quick resume of what a typical lomograph film image is, then think Instagram. For this hugely popular digital image medium simply apes the imperfections of an image taken on say a cheap Chinese Holga camera. Weird colour tones, light leaks and heavy saturation etc.

These days, anyone with a couple of bob can buy an expensive digital camera and use it with an editing suite to create images which will fool 90% of the general public into believing that the image creator is a bona-fide professional. The other week I saw a feature in a North Wales media which posted prize winning landscape images, a lot of which had been so heavily manipulated by effects such as HDR that it only proved that in photography, you can fool most of the people most of the time!

Of course, there is a real difference between the amateur who equips themselves with expensive cameras and who knows their way around an editing suite, and the true professional who still requires the patience, creative eye and feeling for the landscape of the old film masters. For myself though, there’s only so many images of mountains folded into strands of cloud, with peaks aflame and flanks simmering in shadows and fire, that I can take!  I yearn for imperfection and gritty black and white urban brutalism! The other week I drove along the dock road in Liverpool and as always, was taken with the powerful imagery presented within the waterfront environment. Empty warehouses and boarded up street corner pubs. Ships and gantries, turbines and tankers, a flash of river down a dockland street. An environment far removed from the mountains of north Wales but in its way, just as dramatic and conducive to creative image making .

Cover Image from Colin Prior's Highlight.Published by Constable and available through Amazon and all good bookshops

Which brings me back to the Colin Prior TV programme. It’s funny to me how within popular culture, photography is somewhat immune from the same cultural critiques which are applied to painting or sculpture. Whereas a popular painter like Scottish artist Jack Vettriano is ridiculed and torn apart by the Guardianistas, a populist photographer like Colin Prior remains unsullied by the culture vulture critics. Why is this? Both are highly successful professional creatives, producing work for a mass market but whereas poor old Jack has to endure the contempt of the art world, Colin strides through the popular culture landscape untouched. To this writer at least, both are gifted individuals in their field but neither would produce a work I'd particularly want to hang on my wall, but I respect however,the fact that this is very much a minority view.



  1. Very true John.
    As an aside I also went along the 'Dock Rd' in Liverpool the other week and was amazed at the abandonment of it all, the tobacco warehouse, a huge shell of a thing with windows broken and looking as if the Luftwaffe had only been there yesterday, The Clock Tower, very sad, you and I remember the days when you could cycle the full length of the docks and take in the ships and the overwhelming aroma of molasses and tobacco and coal dust and as you point out the corner pubs, I was taken aback at how many are boarded up with the names still proud amongst the graffiti, now this area is a real photographers dream, these are 'Landscapes for the Souls' without a doubt, if you fancy another trip there give me a shout and we can have a 'scan like' and even try and find a put that's still offering a pint of 'Higsons'

  2. I could debate the pros and cons of landscape photography - be it digital, film, scanned film or what ever, all night, but I do empathise with your view of Liverpool. I took this before the tarting up of the Albert Dock started a while ago now (and of course on film)

  3. And in the old days anyone with sufficient cash could buy a Hassleblad, and pay for a studio to develop the images to their satisfaction. I remember an interview with Lord Snowden who stated that photographers should “take hundreds of images, never stop shooting until you are happy you’ve captured everything.” Fine for a Lord but not so good for me as a student without ten bob in my pocket to develop one roll, let alone the hundreds he was talking about. Digital photography ahs democratised and opened up the “art” of photography to the masses. My humble images are as good as I can get them, and these days I do shoot hundreds of images to get it right. Yes it has led to a deluge of average shots, but also a trickle of good if not great images. Yes it means that “development” now takes place on a computer, with a cracked version of Photoshop, rather than in a dark room. But then again I suppose there were those that claimed Fox Talbot would ruin the art of watercolour painting. This article, what with its; “ I now take crappy lomograph film image photos as they are more arty” snobbery misses the point of digital photography IMHO.

  4. As what is good for the gander is good for the goose, why not let good old Ephraim Inoni benefit from this very same largesse? His account published a few days ago should pay off his debt without much loss of sleep..
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