Classical Photography

Reading an article on the landscape genre in Britain in the mid to late 18th century recently, this description of a traditional classical landscape struck me: “a foreground tree framing some human figures and a middle distance with, say, a river or a castle for interest, and a distant blue horizon”.

What struck me was that nothing has changed in two and a half century and that this over-seen-and-displayed rule is still applied today in photography, especially the type that you see spinning round on carousels in holiday resorts. However valid this theory, it is also dreadfully cliché*, and if painting and photography are to be open to creativity, then one of the rules has to be to break established rules through experimentation.

This definition of a good landscape and the parallel between classical painting and postcard photography also reminded me of a photo from a German calendar a former colleague of mine once had on her desk. The calendar was of photos of German landscapes, or seascapes as in that particular case. The spot where the photographer stood, on the Baltic island of Rügen, must have been only inches away from where Caspar David Friedrich stood when he drafted his painting Chalk Cliffs of Rügen: the cliffs-and-trees frame, the perspective and the blue of the sea fading in the distance are strikingly similar; in the middle distance, a bulky 2007 ferryboat floats like a heavy slug where the pretty sailboats of 1818 glided along like feathers; and the foreground characters have vanished.

Whatever the rules behind flattening a landscape down to two dimensions while keeping an illusion of three, landscape painting or photography still has the power to impress us more than two hundred years on. As a regular reader of the National Geographic, I am in awe every month at the quality of the photos and the beauty of the sceneries, and  can only admire the talent (and envy the luck of being in such places and the budget for the equipment) of the authors of those photographs.

*In this context, it is interesting to note that, originally, ‘ cliché’ is another word for ‘photo’ in French. Hence the notion of something static, set in stone, etc.

Photo: paintingdb, Kirchner/Iaif (scanned calendar page)


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