Landscape Part 4 – Landscape and identities
Exercise 4.5: Signifier – Signified
Find an advert from a magazine, newspaper or the internet, which has some clearly identifiable signs. Using the example above to help you, list the signs. What are the signifiers? What is signified? Read Barthes’ essay to help clarify your understanding of these principles. You might find Barthes hard going at first, but please persevere. The way in which meaning is constructed in an image is directly relevant to photographic practice.
Read Deborah Bright’s essay ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men’, available online. Copy this URL into your web browser:
As well as writing widely on photography, Bright is also an established practitioner. This text was written in 1985, and some of the things Bright argues for have been achieved. The text provides a contextual insight (particularly in relation to American photography) and an interesting sense of the climate from which much critical practice has emerged. Read the essay, noting key points of interest and your personal reflections in your learning log.
Hard to say what I really think for fear of being trampled by the angry masses, this essay appears to be another moan about the lack of women in photography. I really struggle with this because in my experience there are lots of women in photography in fact 4 of my top 5 favourite photographers are women and when ranked probably hold all of the top spaces. I can’t see any reason to think that gender makes any difference when it comes to skill in photography hopefully this will cease to be an argument in time as the dinosaurs cease to have an opinion that counts.
Bright starts out with the gender argument but quickly refers to the idea that landscape paintings in the 1700s and 1800s were depictions of land ownership as pointed out by John Berger created to celebrate the customer’s wealth. She makes the connection that landscape photography continues this tradition established by the earlier painters. Still, she feels that photographers have more responsibility to highlight the way the minorities are treated in these images.
Despite its cultural dominance, this is a landscape in which the major portion of the nation’s populace—its urban natives and refugees (including blacks, Latinos, queers,Jews)—finds no positive reflection but instead repression. (Bright, 1985)
She claims that landscape photography is still seen with a masculine eye:
The sorts of questions we might ask concern what ideologies landscape photographs perpetuate; in whose interests they were conceived; why we still desire to make and consume them; and why the art of landscape photography remains so singularly identified with a masculine eye.
Sorry but I just don’t identify with that statement I am struggling to work out what is intrinsically masculine about the sort of landscape images you see. I get the early images apeing the oil painters and being made to show off property but is this still happening?
She goes on to suggest that the landscape is held up as a healthy alternative to the unhealthy urban life most lead and this lead to countryside tourism, along with travel and railroads etc making this more accessible. She states that as cars became more accessible roads were engineered to funnel people into the countryside, and parking/access to the said countryside was made more available.
I did not enjoy this essay, I seem to come against this ideology a lot that there are not enough women in photography and they are in some way mistreated. While I cannot comment on the mistreatment as I am not a witness to this but have heard some disturbing stories, I do feel able to comment on women in photography as there are lots of them doing a really good job and in many cases far better than male counterparts. My true feeling is that we should not even consider gender but rather the merit of the work and that the best work should come to the fore regardless of gender.
To help develop your personal voice as an independent practitioner, it is important to acknowledge your subjective attitude towards the subjects you’re researching and photographing. Right now you’re dealing with themes around landscape.
Write an entry in your learning log (around 300 words) reflecting on any current and previous circumstances and experiences that you think may influence, or may have influenced, your view of the landscape. Describe how you think these factors might inform your ideas about landscape photography or related themes.
If you’re stuck, consider the following:
- Did where you grew up / spent time whilst growing up influence your view of the landscape?
- What sorts of engagement have you had with the landscape? Leisure? Work? Negative or traumatic experiences?
- Are there any social or political issues that particularly concern you in relation to the landscape?
I have lived for my entire life in the suburbs where the countryside has never been too far from reach. As a young lad, my father and I would go shooting together. He had two farms where the owner let us shoot to help keep off the pigeons and vermin that were destroying his crops.
My Father lived in the country as a young boy where his family had moved out of Southampton to avoid the bombing during the war. The circumstance of war meant that my Father had to hunt shoot and fish to put meat on the table as these things were rationed in ordinary life. This upbringing gave my Father a very country based view of the world, and I inherited this from him.
As a family, we have enjoyed going into the countryside for walks and picnics and using the country as a place of leisure. I spent my working life in cities all over the world and have quite a balanced view between that of a townie and that of a country boy and have always been able to drop into the persona of either when in the company of either.
As I have gotten older, I have become less mobile suffering a leg injury that has never adequately healed, making walking much harder. I also suffer from a weight problem which has over the years made long walks and over exertive pastimes more and more difficult. I now actively avoid long walks in the country as they tend to mean quite a bit of pain and suffering, which spoils the experience substantially.
I now view the countryside with some regret, as I would love to go to some of the hard to get to places and create beautiful images but am quite physically limited in doing this. It is this in part that makes me more interested in studio photography where my physical restrictions do not play such a significant role.
Read the short extract from ‘Landscape for Everyone’, published in John Taylor (1994) A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination (see ‘Online learning materials and student-led research’ at the start of this course guide). Summarise the key points in your learning log, along with any other observations or reflections.
The article starts by looking at the British view of the landscape during the second world war. It notes that the British ideal that the countryside is a place to spend recreational time and relax was subverted by the war and its restrictions.
He draws the reader into thinking about a romantic view of the English countryside steeped in history and patriotic with the idea of never being invaded or conquered.
It alludes to the fear people had of the country being overrun by industrialisation giving way to the fear of it being overrun by invasion. These fears led to changes such as the removal f signposts and the obstruction of rural places to a point where people felt that the country was no longer a place for leisure and these ideas were consigned to memory
The war propaganda machine took over and used the landscape as an anchor for everything British and patriotic often drawing a contrast with images of Nazi Germany and playing on the fears as mentioned above of invasion.
Ironically during the war the country became inaccessible and it was only the evacuations that put people into the country where the fear of being bombed was less.
The British propaganda engine used the love of the country and the fear of its loss in a bid to keep the resolve of the people firm and to motivate people into being more British and maintaining a stiff upper lip. It is interesting to note that the precautions of war had the same effect as invasion in that it prevented people from using the countryside.
Feel free to do this exercise before you get to Part Four of the course.
Read forward to the brief for Assignment Four.
When you’re ready, send your tutor a proposal for your critical review. You may have a firm idea of what you would like to write about, or you may have several topics to decide between. At this stage you’re not expected to have a plan. This proposal can take the form of an informal email, of not more than 200 words. You must contact your tutor before you begin your research and writing in earnest.
‘Souls’ in the landscape; Does photographing a landscape enhance or detract from the landscape itself?
this is based on the idea that photographs make a place familiar to people who have never been there but do they get a real sense of the place, I have a number of threads I am researching such as the idea that Ansel Adams and to a larger extent Carlton Watkins helped to make the National Parks in America by photographing them, Carlton Watking being central in convincing congress to declare Yosemite National Park.
I am also thinking about the other side of the question which is more complex to find, i am looking at people like Chloe Dawn Mathews and her work on shot at dawn, and Paul Seawrit’s work on sectarian killings. do you have any further thoughts on practitioners that might help here. I could do with some work that glamourise a place that is not so nice.