Ultimately, any landscape photograph is a function of the photographer’s interaction with the scene, and the viewer’s interpretation of that interaction. If we consider the photographer’s involvement and the degree to which their style is imparted, most landscape images can be placed somewhere along a spectrum of reality ranging from a literal ‘documentary’ representation at one end, with minimal interference from the photographer and little apparent creative intent; to creatively rich ‘dreamscapes’ at the opposite extreme, where there are no rules and emotive expression reigns supreme.
The most influential works of our favourite landscape masters are presented in exhibitions or books, and such collections are often tightly themed. Consequently, we can easily be seduced into striving for a more restricted style in our own work, believing that following a similar strategy is a way of improving. When working on specific projects, this can be invaluable, but for any other purpose, it is usually counter-productive.
For photographers working at the creative end of the ‘reality spectrum’, it can be rewarding to experiment with more documentary styles. The greatest challenge is to stay true to our subject, creating an honest portrayal, while still allowing some stylistic flavouring. Black and white images are particularly suited to such projects because they allow greater emphasis in post-processing without becoming so obviously exaggerated; and of course, they also have a rich visual heritage.
I recently spent a week in the Outer Hebrides, retracing the steps of Fay Godwin. I was introduced to her work when a photographer friend gifted me one of her wonderful books in the mid-1980’s. Those magical black and white landscapes bestowed iconic status on many of todays favourite ‘honey-pot’ locations. Godwin’s style had a huge impact on me and remains mesmerising. A single image would often span the entire spectrum from documentary realism to creative fine-art landscape; she had an enchanting style.
My own stylistic preferences usually lean heavily towards the colourful ‘dreamscape’ end of the spectrum and I’ll often spend many hours fine-tuning an image in Lightroom before I’m happy to hang it in the gallery; but for our South Harris shoot, I wanted to investigate Godwin’s subject matter, ‘rural documentary’ with a heavy sense of narrative and a dash of my own flavouring.
Allowing ourselves complete creative freedom to experiment in other styles offers a rich and productive progression to ultimate artistic fulfilment.