For most people, landscapes are often the shots that wow them. Think of those backgrounds or your computer screen or even default background wallpapers that come with new phones. It is easy to take landscape images for granted, but for those that are passionate about landscapes, the landscape is not only a passion but also a way of life. But just how did landscape photography come to be? What inspired photographers to capture these on film?
People have been fascinated by landscapes long before photography technology came to be. This is proven by the number of landscape paintings that already existed before the earliest camera equipment was even conceived. When photography technology first emerged in the 19th century, early photographers seemed to decide that landscapes made the perfect subject because they were static. So, there was no danger of the subject moving about as they waited for photographs to be exposed. Can you imagine how challenging wildlife photography would have been back then?
It’s a bit harder to pinpoint when landscape photography began. According to records, the earliest known evidence of a landscape photograph was taken between the years of 1826 and 1827. It was an urban landscape photo taken by a French inventor by the name of Nicephore Niepce. It was noted this first exposure took him a mere 8 hours, so perhaps it made sense for him to choose a still subject. A few years later, around 1835, an English scientist named Henry Fox Talbot entered the scene and introduced innovations in photography.
It was quite revolutionary back then because this allowed people a much faster way of rendering reality into a two-dimensional format that they were previously only able to do by way of painting. This process took much longer than taking a photo.
Landscape photography makes a mark
Photography certainly proved popular with users back then, and a slew of images and portraits were taken and developed during the Victoria era. However, it wasn’t until 1904 that landscape photography made its mark with the help of Edward Steichen and his photograph called Moonlight: The Pond.
One fascinating thing to note about his artwork was that it isn’t a straight-up photograph but rather a juxtaposition of photo and painting techniques. Steichen added the black and white photo with the painted elements in the form of a bluish tone. He also included a moon in the background. Now, he wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on anyone but instead practised what was called pictorialism; a technique that photographers used back then to make their works unique from those of amateurs.
At a time when handheld cameras were new and sold at low prices, everyone had one, and these photographers innovated and managed to elevate their artform. While some may argue that painting on a photo isn’t at all fair, this still makes for a fascinating point in the history of landscape photography.
Pioneers in landscape photography
As the 20th century began rolling in, the world saw American photographers at the forefront of landscape photography, and this was because they had a rather vast and varied array of landscapes to photograph. There are many notable names in landscape photography, and one of the most legendary ones is Ansel Adams. He was an ardent environmentalist who advocated for the natural world and inspired people to show love for the planet by showing love and respect for it. He has produced some spectacular images of canyons and rivers, which have become a sort of inspiration point for photographers that followed.
Another notable American to take landscape photos is William Henry Jackson, who is most well-known for taking images of the American West. Aside from being a skilled photographer, he was also a painter, a geological survey photographer, and an explorer. Jackson wasn’t always a photographer and spent most of his time drawing while serving in the Union Army. It was in 1866 that he travelled to the West with his brother and got into the photography business once they settled in Omaha.
Jackson worked with Union Pacific in 1869, where he documented sceneries along various railroad routes, which were to be used for promotional purposes. Ferdinand Hayden discovered Jackson’s work and asked Jackson to join one of their expeditions to the Yellowstone River region.
One of Jackson’s most famous works is called Mountain of the Holy Cross, taken in Colorado, which shows a naturally formed cross feature on the mountain-side. It doesn’t appear like much at first glance, but it becomes increasingly engrossing the longer you look and does inspire a sense of wonder.
Landscape photographers across the pond
There were a lot of Americans leading the pack when it came to landscape photography, but a revolution was happening across the pond at this time as well. For instance, Peter Henry Emerson was a British photographer and writer who passionately argued about what the meaning of photography was. His main point was that it was an art form and not just something to be used for technical or scientific means. He drew inspiration from naturalistic French paintings and so started his photography journey by taking images of country life. His first photography album, called Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, was published in 1856, but his best work was published in 1895 and was called Marsh Leaves.
Another one was a maverick called Luigi Ghirri, an Italian photographer that dared to shoot in colour just when black and white photography was only becoming recognized. The use of colour in his photos gave them a sense of human engagement and was known to evoke subtle but beautiful emotions in viewers.
Landscapes may be considered static subjects, but when looked at by different eyes and viewpoints, they can take on various forms and can be very dynamic. These early photographers and their works have paved the way for landscape photography as it is today. As the years moved on, the advancements in photography made id possible for more people to take up photography. But it was these trailblazers that started it all.
Featured image: By Peter Henry Emerson, British Library (Public Domain)