The land has never asked to be photographed, never called out for any attention or demanded documentation. But like a portrait of a person, a photograph of a landscape can begin to offer the viewer feelings that are evocative of a place and an environment. Indeed, the natural world and our impact on it is one of the most telling ways to mark a place in time.
When a photographer takes a picture of the land, they are attempting to tell the story of a place. But these photographs must also convey a sense of humbleness, as the photographer must come to terms with the fact that their subject is so much bigger than themselves. No matter how masterful the photographer, a landscape cannot be manipulated as freely as a human subject.
In coming to terms with a landscape, a photographer must attempt to capture the essence of the place as it is, having only what is in front of their eyes to work with. The land does not respond like a person does when faced with an "artist"—the land continues to exist in the exact same way whether an image is taken of it or not. Thus, in the case of a landscape photograph, there is a one-way relationship: the photographer (and then the viewer) react to the land while the land remains unmoved, unchanged by the act.
Of course, that does not mean there is only a single interpretation available within any one vista. Feelings of isolation, of awe, of both hope and dread can all exist inside an image of a place simultaneously, and for different photographers at different times. So, a landscape image can be a reflection both of the personality of the land and the spirit of the maker in the moment of creation.
The three photographers featured above all document landscapes but utilize very different processes (reflecting the multiplicity just mentioned). In these three approaches, the "natural" landscape is contrasted to man-made environments—though at some points, this distinction disappears, creating a new kind of tension.
Rona Chang’s image of a small red cabin in the middle of Norway ["Weather", image #1 above] shows a landscape that is timeless, an environment with almost no telling signs of when the image was produced. This conveys a feeling that the place depicted sits outside the effects of modernization.
Carl Gunhouse’s images present a nearly opposite landscape, where the constant pace of "progress" and alterations (shown here in the form of strip mall signs [image #11 above]) is evident all over the "natural" landscape.
Finally, Rafal Milach’s images offer natural elements intermixed with what humans have built on it. Milach's view contrasts the man-made and the natural, bringing together what is unsettling and what is beautifully still. His work pulls back at the same time, allowing the small details within the frame—the glowing white lights in Iceland or the man interwoven against the machinery along the Black Sea—to maintain a sense of human involvement. While Milach's contrasting elements are "unnatural," they bring a distinct beauty to the frame.
This group of photographers, although working in the same genre of the landscape, are compelled to shoot in different forms. Still, beneath their varied approaches is an undeniable pull towards the earth around them. Whether driving around and caught by a moment of man's folly or working contemplatively on a long-term project about stillness, or "progress" or the wholeness of nature, these three image-makers offer us compelling scenes of place and our relationship to it.
Abigail Smithson is a contributing writer for LensCulture and an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. She is continually fascinated by contemporary photography and the role that it plays in her own understanding of the world. A California native who left her heart in Brooklyn, she is willing to go anywhere, at any time, in search of good images.