While struggling with the definition of landscape photography, there is still an important question floating around: is there a place for people in a landscape photo?
Landscape photography and purists
Many photographers approach landscape photographers from a “natural” perspective and want to show as few people and human influences as possible in their photographs. Other landscape photographers incorporate or even focus on human influences in their landscape photographs. Elements such as buildings, cities, and industry could be included in landscape photography. For purists, landscape photographs can only show natural elements such as trees, mountains, and rivers. Animals are still tolerated, but people or even the influence of mankind is scrupulously excluded by certain landscape photographers. That is obviously not easy in our regions.
People in the landscape picture
We find examples of well-known landscape photographers who explicitly and consciously portray the presence of people or at least their impact on the landscape.
Including “humans” in the picture could be done in three ways:
- People give an impression of the landscape dimensions and they can be used as a reference or focus point
- People reinforce the composition on an otherwise boring piece of background
- People who have worked the land and left traces.
The walker in this mountain scape provides a focal point and shows the real dimensions and therefore the second photo has more dynamism in respect to the first photo (Guy, 2013)
The added value of people in landscape pictures
So, if people contribute to a coherent image or if the landscape has to give an impression of the world in which we live, I do not see any reason to ban people from the landscape photos.
Both perspective and scale are powerful tools in the composition of a photograph.
By incorporating something of recognisable size into your image, such as a person, the viewer can draw conclusions about the size of the elements in the image. When a person stands by a tree or rock, we get the impression of how enormous it really is. If that person would not be there, we may not have any idea at all about the scale.
I am not advising that a scale mark must always be included. The deliberate avoidance of scale marking can create intriguing images because the viewer cannot be certain of what they see. They will have to keep looking for reference points and this will stimulate their curiosity.
Types of landscape
One speaks about different types of landscape: natural landscape, cultural landscape, transition landscape, urban landscape, cityscapes, industrial landscape… In my opinion, this distinction makes little sense.
It was a typically American view that landscapes should be natural, instead of overcrowded and man-made. Landscape means here: wasteland. In the twentieth century, the work of Ansel Adams embodies this very clearly.
In the rest of the world, the public is more interested in landscapes where both the work of man and that of nature is visible. A moderately inhabited landscape was a proof of civilization and of a harmonious state. In the European landscape tradition, both in painting and in photography, signs of agriculture, landscaping, a few people and some isolated buildings were generally accepted.
When a landscape is inhabited, structures help in fine-tuning the composition and provide a point of interest. Such structures can be large and impressive like cathedrals, Egyptian pyramids or Hindu temples or the can be tiny like a small shed.
The revival of the natural look of landscapes?
‘Modern man’ has much less bonding with the landscape in which he lives. He usually lives and works in the city. He is, however aware of the myriad of landscapes in the world, beautiful and ugly, horrifying and soothing.
Perhaps that is why nowadays, especially those landscapes are loved again. They offer the opposite of our own urban environment: vast wilderness and as little as possible reminds of modern culture.
Mankind has radically changed the landscape. This varies from country to country. In large parts of Europe, there are little areas where man has never intervened. Even in our nature reserves the landscape has been shaped and reshaped. High in the mountains and in northern Scandinavia or on some small islands, we can still see untouched landscapes.
Our European cultural landscapes have their own magic, with burial mounds, castles, and farms, orchards, fields, rows of trees…
Landscape photography as a statement
In Australia or the United States, we still find large areas, relatively well protected, which can be considered as the original landscape. Although tourism and pollution also occur here. Landscape photography is not only about the beauty of nature but also how it is seen through the eye of a city dweller. It can also be used as a political statement just as Ansel Adams did in his time or nowadays the French photographer Yann Arthus Bertrand tries to show the degradation of the environment. Landscape photography is thus for the photographer a way to reflect his personal relationship with his environment.
Simplifying landscapes photo
In my own landscape photographs, I am looking for simplicity, light, and lines. Cultivated fields lend themselves perfectly for this purpose. When I look at many of my own photographs, I noticed over time that I try to include less and less. The ‘art of leaving out’ creates a stillness and makes the landscape more abstract.