View Full Version : Generality in Landscape Photography

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Ulrich Drolshagen
05-27-2008, 12:37 PM
Hi all,
further down is an interesting thread about the creation of emotional touching landscape pictures. I must concede, that I am way further up that road. I am much more involved in creating generality in landscape pictures.

I'd like to illustrate what this means to me with two of my pictures in the gallery. The first one is to my consideration, being all in all not that bad, of low generality.


Any one having it hanging on the wall would be asked: "Hey, nice picture, where is it taken?" For the reception of this picture, the context of creation would always matter. The picture, nicely composed as it is as I think, this way is of relevance only to me.

OTOH this one:


This one may be boring but it seems to be of great generality as no one for the reception of the picture needs to know where and when it was taken. It is just a flat meadow with a tree and some wood in the distance, period.

It would be of great value for me to identify the elements that create pictures of generality (which not nessessarily means that these would be generally interesting).
It would allow me to intentionally take pictures that I would not have to talk about much and would, in a further step, help me creating pictures of general interest.



Struan Gray
05-28-2008, 03:50 AM
You have an interesting idea.

Showing the universal in the particular, or the particular in the universal, is a classic way to use photography.

Your problem is that not every viewer will share your definitions of the universal or the particular. For example, I have looked at a lot of images of alpine scenery in my time, and your photo works well as a general image for me. Conversely, I have a current obsession with cultural landscapes and I do want to know where your second photo was taken.

I'm not just being obtuse. I think one reason so many photographers converge on a personal language or style, and use it even when making a general point, is that they can then rely on their audience's familiarity with their earlier work to guide interpretation of their newest creations. If you have to rely on the general visual media in which your viewer is immersed the possibilities for confusion or misinterpretation multiply alarmingly.

Of course, some photographs are all about deliberately creating confusion or misinterpretation. There are no rules.

05-28-2008, 04:11 AM
yep.. it's all contextual I think..

05-28-2008, 06:20 AM
In my view, what you call by low generality, is an image where the interest falls on the object (site) you are shooting. OTOH, what you call by high generality, is an image where the interest falls on the way you composed with some given elements, in your case found on a site. So, in my opinion your question does emphasize the following dichotomy: object/objectivity (the photographed) vs. subject/subjectivity (the photographer).

Or, let's put it this way: when seeing the first image people ask you where did you shoot it, but when seeing the second image people would like to know what did you felt when shooting it, what is the message you try to communicate. The first image has no message in it, only beauty, while the second image does have a message: your feelings about something in the picture or suggested by the picture.

Mick Fagan
05-28-2008, 07:15 AM
Ulrich, interesting way of looking at your pictures. Firstly when I looked at them I saw two obviously distinct landscape pictures.

The first reminded me instantly of Switzerland and Austria, as I have seen villages like that with an unbelievable vista at the front door in both summer and winter. It reminded me of my trips and my intended visit to Germany this coming Christmas.

The second one reminds me of Denmark (Jutland) and/or northern Germany, the tell tale sign is the construction under the tree. I've seen this scene many times in both of those areas.

Neither of these pictures makes me wish to ask where was it taken and so forth, mainly because I think I know where they were taken.

However, the second picture has a lot more going for it because it is more general, the positioning of the tree in the frame is what makes this picture quite interesting.


05-28-2008, 01:26 PM
I must admit I'm confused by this approach. Why would a person want to step back from, or to isolate themselves from the very thing that motivates them? Isn't being an artist the process of peeling away layers in the search of whatever our most truthful way of seeing may be, not adding layers, or emotionally detaching ourselves from the things that amaze us?

Maybe this kind of work appeals to people who lead incredibly busy lives and live in downtown apartments in large cities, giving them a sense of peace when they look at them. I lead an uncomplicated life on the edge of a vast wilderness and find these kinds of photographs don't motivate me to spend much time looking at them at all. I can see, however, that these kinds of photographs will gain more importance over time. Years hence, when the forests are gone and when shopping malls sit where lone trees once stood, photographs such as these will become accusations that cannot be denied. Today, in the here and now, I prefer to look at and to create photographs that fight towards the truth, not step away from it.

Funny thing though, Ulrich, even though we take such different kinds of photographs we both prefer to not explain what our photographs mean to us, and would rather the viewers come up with their own interpretations.


Ulrich Drolshagen
05-28-2008, 04:48 PM
Thank you all for your enlightening remarks. Taking pictures helps me seeing, looking closer to the world and its aesthetic qualities. In this respect I am taking pictures mainly for myself and they are in no way limited to landscape. I take pictures of anything seeming decorative to me, mostly finding them en passant.
These pictures conserve my own reception of the world in a particular time for me and serve as a medium to communicate my view of things to others.
Only lately, contemplating a rather abstract landscape I took, it came to me that pictures, as they materialize on paper (and of cause as files on the web), sometimes get a life of their own. They may get meaning to others independent of my own intentions. Creating pictures like that intentionally -serving my aims and serving others- would be rewarding for me. I think phenix pinpointed my problem.
@Struan: Only lately I discovered the uses of Google Earth for me.
I can not say for sure but I think the tree is this one: 52°45'05.94"N/10°51'36.26"E ;)

The alpine valley is Sellraintal and the village is Praxmar. It is about 30 Miles from Innsbruck, Tyrol, Austria. The picture was taken New Years Day 2005 during our winter holydays.


05-28-2008, 05:30 PM
Interesting idea, Ulrich, but I must say that it is the complete opposite of the way I think about these things! :rolleyes:

When I look at a landscape for photography, the thing that I try to find is that particular something that most distinguishes that landscape from any other. Indeed I am usually drawn to the relationship between the sky and the land, and I suppose that is a general theme for me per your definition, but what attracts me is how differently the common elements like sky and water and foliage interact.

What I find the most gratifying is to take a shot and print it and later relive my feeling of being at that particular place through the print.

So, the way I see it, the whole power of photography is its ability to record particular perspectives... at particular moments.

The flip side of this approach is that a photo may hold absolutely nothing in it for most people who see it- it may be as foreign as a place they've never visited. That is fine with me, fortunately I'm not in it for the money ;) Though I do see your point that there must be some general "hooks" in the photo that draw people in, if it is to be "successful."

To be blunt, I think that a highly general photograph, as you describe it, sounds to me like a successful stock photograph... Seriously, isn't that what makes stock sell? That it has mass appeal because almost anybody can "get" it?

Christopher Walrath
05-28-2008, 07:15 PM
I'm with Murray. I don't quite get it. By the examples you proffered it seems as though you are referring to general as taken to mean 'dull and uninteresting'. Don't take this wrong. I LOVE THE FIRST IMAGE. The composition is great, I love the subject matter (mountains and snow). I have no need to know where it was taken because it stands by itself as a piece of art. The second image, if you mean dull and uninteresting, it is certainly general to me. Not that I don't like it. The exposure was done very well and there is a good range of print values. But it fails to grab the imagination.

Ulrich Drolshagen
05-30-2008, 10:32 AM
May be it's due to my limited knowledge of the english language that I am got wrong with the term "general". I hope, I can illustrate my point with an additional image, which made me think about the whole topic in the first place.


For me it's very specific to the location where it is taken. It is, as I think, not trivial in its reception and therefore in no way "stock photography" and it is highly general as it leaves, as I hope, enough space for the imagination of the viewer to come to own conclusions independent of my initial intentions of taking the picture.
This works independent of knowledge of the location. It is just some sand flat.
As a side note: This is the first and up till now only picture I made some effort in time and cost to get there to take it. It is only one of a series of pictures though, from which some may be considered stock photography. I was there in my winter holidays and needed some weeks to work it out. I had to work up my courage, so to say, trying to represent the breathtaking beauty of this empty landscape this way.

As I think about it further, it seems to me, that pictures need to bear some kind of abstraction in all their naturalism. May be a specific tree, meadow, mountain, sea or beach should be shown in way to represent the essence of their kind leading to some generalization, sort of. I am not happy with the term anymore.

Thank you all for helping me to rearrange my thoughts on this.


05-30-2008, 05:23 PM
So, Ulrich, if I understand correctly, you are referring to general appeal rather than general subject matter. Right? I think general subject matter is stock.

I am a bit troubled by the idea of letting one's art become a function of how people will receive it, in a generalized way. I do realise that in the real world one has to sell prints that appeal to people, and there is some artistic compromise implied in that economy. But... one thing I definitely don't want polluting my thoughts when I am out shooting a landscape is whether people will get it. I am busy enough deciding whether I am getting it, when I take the picture. It's so easy to walk away from a scene with only a superficial impression as a photograph.

05-30-2008, 05:34 PM
Perhaps "universal" or "archetypal" fits better than "general." I understand what you're after and I'm on the same page. I have no interest, for example, in photographing a famous, recognizable landmark. That's specific in the extreme. I don't want to make even an excellent picture of Half Dome, the Grand Tetons, the Maroon Bells, etc.

sun of sand
05-30-2008, 06:21 PM
I don't think it even works that way. When looking at famous photographs ..or just photographs that I really like I always wish I could go and see that particular sight for myself. Does not matter how general the subject is. A tree Ansel Adams shot isn't really any more special than a tree I could find in my own neighborhood but it is the fact that someone actually took notice of such a thing and made it appear beautiful to me that makes me want to go and perhaps visit it some day. A photo of grasses can do the same thing ..or a neglected barn or fence or pile of rocks
These are the photos that inspire us ..to go out and find/make our own beautiful and seemingly unique photographs
There are millions of trees around me ..not all of which are trees I'd take a photo of -though- I am allowing the tree I do take a photo of to represent all the others.

Dirt is general/universal. You want to build up a portfolio of dirt photographs? It could work but it has nothing to do with the dirt itself

Why do you feel forced to talk about your photographs at all? Screw that bullsh*t. Tell people it is a picture of Earth.

05-31-2008, 10:12 AM
Well... I don't think it's bullsh*t to speak or write about photography. One does need to think about it, and being open to others' opinions is a good character quality to have.

Christopher Walrath
06-01-2008, 12:46 AM
It could be interpreted as a rendition of man's seperation between his hopes of flight and his being grounded in reality.

Doesn't matter. As long as you take something from it.

But Ulrich, I see where you were going with this one. An apparently bland and base subject matter. More tonal variations or abstract shape made from recognizable, however unfamiliar, scenes.

sun of sand
06-01-2008, 01:26 AM
Well... I don't think it's bullsh*t to speak or write about photography. One does need to think about it, and being open to others' opinions is a good character quality to have.

That's not what I'm saying, Keith.
It's bullshi*t to feel forced into talking about your art if you don't feel like talking about it or if you'd rather not give specifics that you feel lessens the importance -OR whatever it is you feel is happening- when you do so

This person obviously -seemingly- doesn't want to do either very much and would rather let the photo

speak for itself

He shouldn't -have- to shoot photos that don't elicit such responses
"where was this photo taken its so pretty I want to go there as I, too, could be a good photographer with such beauty before me" ..or whatever

That's how I'm seeing this thread

Struan Gray
06-02-2008, 04:10 AM
@Struan: Only lately I discovered the uses of Google Earth for me.
I can not say for sure but I think the tree is this one: 52°45'05.94"N/10°51'36.26"E

Nice. It was the background pollards that interested me. I'm coming to Magdeburg in the autumn, I'll have to swing by on pilgrimage :-)

I read your post as a desire to make photographs that do more than simply depict a known place. There are a number of classic and contemporary ways of doing that.

Symbolism seems to be making a bit of a comeback in landscape photography, although it's heyday was a hundred years ago with the Pictorial movement. The big problem is finding a shared language with your audience: people are thoroughly ignorant about the countryside these days, and the market for sentimental cliché is unendingly vast.

I am very taken by the 'quiet' landscapes of photographers like Jem Southam and Elgar Esser. Again, there is sometimes the problem of shared knowledge - or the lack of it - and you have to find some way to get your audience to take your photographs seriously and not dimiss them as mere snaps. For me, a book is a better way to publicise this kind of work than a gallery - a book seems to aid contemplation in a way that is hard in most stand-up-and-look venues.

And then there are the conceptualists. I'll confess I find the concepts often very shallow, but there is a vast movement of photography dedicated to collecting seemingly trivial views that aquire force (or not :-) from the concept behind the project. Marcus Neis (http://www.markusneis.de/) is someone who does this successfuly for me.

There are not many people who take eye-grabbing images of mundane or anonymous landscapes, but it can be done. Eric Fredine (http://www.ericfredine.com/) and John Brownlow (http://www.johnbrownlow.com/wildthings/XIV/large-6.html) are two of my favourites. This kind of exciting the eye without dulling the mind is where I want my own photography to go.

So much depends on context. Your hunting tower takes on a new resonance once you tell people it is near the old internal German border. The beach could be off Cuxhaven - a place of romance and suspense to most English readers - or it could be off Peenemünde, with its rather different associations. A lot depends on just how much you tell people, or include in the photo so they can work it out for themselves. There are lots of ways you could take things, and no rules or even roadmaps.

Ulrich Drolshagen
06-03-2008, 03:24 PM
There are not many people who take eye-grabbing images of mundane or anonymous landscapes, but it can be done. Eric Fredine (http://www.ericfredine.com/)
Thank you very much for your reply and especially for this link. Fredine does very well articulate my point.

The beach could be off Cuxhaven - a place of romance and suspense to most English readers

May be even more if they knew it is the westmost point of Juist. Only about one or two nautical miles off Memmert. ;)


06-03-2008, 03:39 PM
There's this "Early Riser" fellow too....

Struan Gray
06-04-2008, 03:15 AM
May be even more if they knew it is the westmost point of Juist. Only about one or two nautical miles off Memmert. ;)

'Why not go to Memmert?' I said, in fun.

'To Memmert?' said Davies, slowly; 'by Jove! that's an idea!'
Lucky guess on my part.

I have only flown over the top, but my sister-in-law took her first steps on those sands. The boat, an old Dutch sailing barge, was stranded by the tide (and my father-in-law's refusal to buy an up to date chart). So they had a picnic on the sand at low water, turned round to admire the scene to seaward, and when they turned back the baby had learned to walk and was heading for Cuxhaven.

The decline of Baltic and Friesian beaches as holiday destinations would be an interesting project in itself. People still go there - when I lived in Berlin, every second car had a Sylt-shaped sticker on the back - but the general cultural significance of the north European beaches has been eclipsed by cheap charter flights to the Med.

See: you can never completely escape the resonances of a specific place.