Reconsidering Landscape in Contemporary Photography

Lead Research Organisation: University of Ulster
Department Name: Sch of Art & Design


This practice-based research project makes new links between the study of European landscape painting of the Romantic period, the consideration of landscape within the disciplines of social history and cultural studies, and contemporary fine art photography. The project asks whether, based on these links, new ways might be developed for landscape to be understood and represented within fine art photography.

In my photography, I present contemporary landscapes in response to styles and ideas developed in European, British and Irish landscape painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whilst they make reference to these earlier landscape painting traditions, these works are not intended simply to mimic historical works or approaches, but to investigate and critique the political and social ideas that they present us with, and the contexts in which they were made.

This research project will involve the production of two new series of photographic works. The first will develop my use of the figure in landscape imagery. The figure has been a recurrent motif in landscape painting; contented peasants are depicted in leisurely poses in the work of Corot, or are seen working in harmony with the land in Constable's paintings. The Romantic figures shown by Caspar David Friedrich offer a more generalised representation of mankind and came to symbolise certain philosophical values of the Romantic period. My work seeks to adopt these uses of the figure, but positions the figure in a more active role in the contemporary landscape I photograph. In these contemporary views of the landscape, urbanisation and industrialisation of the rural are apparent, and sentimental approaches are avoided.

In the second body of work, produced by photographing in mist and fog, the landscape subject becomes obscured, sometimes even invisible. These works investigate philosophical ideas of the 'sublime', developed from the 18th century onward, and places them in a contemporary context.

By bringing together a broad historical range of stylistic and theoretical approaches to landscape, the project finds ways in which these ideas can be made relevant today. Most importantly, it asks how the complex political and historical issues brought up by the study of 'landscape' can be approached through the photography of contemporary landscapes.

I will be using a combination of chemical and digital photographic processes in this work. I will also be investigating the relationship between mechanical processes of photography and manual traditions of painting. My work uses a chemical (film-based) photographic process paired with digital scanning and printing technologies. The flexibility of digital image manipulation makes more feasible a research process that moves between the contexts and traditions of photography and painting.

The first stage of the research will involve studying specific landscape paintings in museums and galleries in Dublin, Paris and London, in order to develop my understanding of the history of the landscape tradition.

A number of distinct fields inform this research:

1. Approaches to landscape within art, including 18th and 19th century painting as well as contemporary photography.

2. Philosophical texts, both historical and contemporary, relating to ideas of the sublime.

3. Critical considerations of 'landscape' in recent social history and cultural studies.

4. Specific depictions of landscape in cinema of the last 40 years.


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