Looking at the Land: Landscape Photogs Explain the “Why” Behind Their Shots

Andy Adams of FlakPhoto has an interesting new digital exhibition titled Looking at the Land — 21st Century American Views that features 88 landscape photographs captured around the United States since 2000. What’s neat is that each of the images is accompanied by an explanation of “why” it exists. Adams asked each of the photographers the same questions, with the main one being, “Why did you photograph this place?”

Otter Point by Jonathan Smith. Acadia National Park, Maine. 2009

This photograph was taken at first light near Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine. It is an area of extreme ruggedness, strewn with rocks formed thousands of years ago and shaped by glaciers moving across the land. The sea has pounded them, eroding and cracking them against each other over a span of time that we can barely comprehend. As the golden tones of the sunrise glistened over the space, I stood alone with my camera set on tripod, taking in the fleeting beauty of that moment with all the urgency a photographer can feel. Along with the immediacy of the scene, though, I simultaneously found myself struck by its immense scale and the countless centuries that had to pass in order to forge it. It was awe-inspiring.

Porcupine Wash by Daniel Kukla. Joshua Tree National Park, California. 2012

I created this particular image in a dry river bed (wash) and angled the mirror towards the stars. This area is at a high altitude around 3,500 feet and has very little light pollution, so the night sky was particularly vivid. While I was making the photograph I remember thinking how strange it seemed to see the cosmos restricted by the edges of the mirror. It’s impossible to hold a frame to something as great and vast as our universe.

Stroboscopic Moon by Caleb Charland. Hopkins Pond, Mariaville, Maine. 2011

This place is one of personal significance to me. It’s on Hopkins Pond in Maine, the site of my family’s summer cabin. It’s a place to get away from it all, to be next to nature and to reflect upon life and one’s place in the world. I was hoping to use my studio flash to attract clouds of bugs to its light. Then, if all went as planned, I would fire the flash dozens of times to fill the frame with tiny glowing particles. I had envisioned the bugs hovering in air like diamonds, similar to previous work created in blizzards over the past few winters. The more I make work the more comfortable I am with failure. In this case I was quite let down when I saw no trace of bugs whatsoever, let alone filling the sky and air before the camera. (I’d still like to make that image someday.) I put the image away for a few weeks, when I returned to it still a little sore from the initial failure I saw that something else had occurred that night. I had photographed the moon several times at decreasing intervals of time on the same sheet of film in an attempt to create an interesting event in the sky. I love how simultaneously epic and naive this appears — as if I would be able to create a stroboscopic study of the moon with a man-made piece of lighting equipment.

Astoria Pool by Angie Smith. New York. 2005

I made this picture because I was in New York, looking to make an image of a place where people congregated around a body of water. It was Labor Day, so I knew there would be a lot of people at this pool in Queens. I wanted a swimming pool because the bright blue color would contrast well with the gray color palette of the city. I wanted to take this picture because it was a situation where there were many people gathered in one place relaxed, happy, and connecting with one another. I think that being in nature, or environments that mimic elements of nature, have a relaxing and joyful affect on many people. It’s necessary for humans to spend time in natural environments because it is an opportunity for our minds to function without the incessant influx of communication from cell phones, advertising, computers and modern amenities. I think that it changes our mental, physical and spiritual state of mind and I always try to visually depict this through my landscape work.

My Backyard by Susana Raab. Nelsonville, Ohio. 2005

I made this picture while working on my Consumed series, which looks at America and its relationship to fast food. I was looking for images that showed daily life and the ubiquity of fast food iconography on the landscape, how we are always playing in the shadow of the giant.

First Snow in Twenty Years by Eliot Dudik. Rosa Scott Road, Edisto Island, South Carolina. 2010

The circumstances surrounding the creation of this photograph are quite different from much of the work I had created in the previous year in the southern part of coastal South Carolina. On February 13, 2010 my sleeping body was rattled awake and thrown out of bed by my good friend in encouragement to drive south from Charleston, South Carolina and photograph the snow that had covered the ground the night before. It was my birthday, and my friend and I had been up celebrating late into the night, enjoying the snowfall that hadn’t dropped like this in twenty years. I had asked him the night before to make sure to get me up at 6 a.m. so I could make some photographs. I groggily traveled 90 minutes south to Edisto Island and drove around making exposures for a few hours until the snow had melted completely away. I stumbled upon this particular place, drove past, and made the typical reverse maneuver to take another look. Some happy fellow had made a perfect circle in the snow. I thought this was a terrific example of the free spirited, fun-loving personalities of the people who live in this area.

Cycling by Youngsuk Suh. Anaheim, California. 2009

This photograph was taken in Anaheim, California right after a big wildfire that swept through the area in 2008. The riverside community park was completely burnt by the fire but at the same time the park was still functional once the fire had been contained. People immediately came out to the park, some in curiosity, others for their usual walk and exercise routines. Eventually, the fire and its impact became an integral part of the park.

Imperial Sand Dunes by Joshua Dudley Greer. California. 2011

It’s difficult to pass by 45 miles of sand and not be compelled to make a picture. I had been to this place a number of times before and always photographed it, but never felt satisfied with the results. This particular image seemed different to me — it was so reductive both in content and form, that I feel like it’s not a picture everyone would see or make. It definitely reflects my attitudes about the relationship between nature and culture and is emblematic of the way I usually see that relationship, which is to say, deeply connected. by Christine Carr. Roanoke, Virginia. 2005

Normally I search for a particular location, light or structure, but this was spontaneous. Big clouds mesmerize me, so I was looking in that direction and as I rounded the corner I saw this image. I slammed on the brakes in the middle of the road to get a better look and promptly found a place to park as I scurried for my camera. I do most of my shooting in the evening, but I happened to have my camera with me that day, just in case.

Hanging Deer by Brad Temkin. Laporte, Indiana. 2005

My family and I were driving to Indiana to pick up our new puppy, Miles. As we were driving along US highway 30, I spotted a deer hanging in a tree. I immediately pulled over and walked up to the person’s house to introduce myself and ask permission to make a picture. My wife and daughter are used to me doing this and also got out of the car to walk around. As I was making the picture, the owner came out and asked me why I was so interested in this. We talked for about an hour, and as we were leaving, he gave me several venison steaks, sausage and stew meat. I learned a lot that day. I revisited a year later to give him the picture and was sad to learn that the family had moved away without leaving a forwarding address.

You can browse all 88 photographs in the exhibition and their stories here.

Image credits: Photographs by their respective artists and used with permission

  • DamianMonsivais

    Saw this over a month ago and surprises me its even on here.

    Great post.

  • madmax

    Photography is not literature. If you need to explain a picture, probably it´s not good enough.

  • DamianMonsivais

    The answers are statements on the body of work.

    And the Photographers on there are pretty well recognized, so they can answer the question if they wanted to. Some chose not to I.e Todd Hido.

    “There is nothing worse then a Sharp photograph with a fuzzy concept” –Ansel Adams

  • Luc Renambot

    I doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to read the photographer thoughts about their work…

  • DamianMonsivais

    The answers are similar to there statements on the body of work.

    Some chose not to answer the question on why. I.E. Todd Hido

    “There is nothing worse then a sharp photograph with a fuzzy concept” -Ansel Adams

  • one_eyed_shooter

    I believe knowing the image makers intent, gives the work a starting point for discussion.

  • madmax

    I also know a good quote from Ansel Adams:

    “A true photograph need not to be explained nor can it be contained in words”

  • DamianMonsivais

    contradictory is it not?

    BTW these aren’t stand alone photographs but larger bodies of work.

    Statements are almost always something to look for.

    I understand clearly the relationship between the written word and the visual image. But they both are considered a form of Language.

  • wickerprints

    A number of the images in this article aren’t really to my personal taste, but even so, the works clearly do stand on their own merits. I consider the words of their creators as being more like annotations, rather than explanations.

    By your reasoning, no photographer should ever make any remarks about their images, or else the image instantly becomes “not good enough.” Just because an artist chooses to comment on their work, that doesn’t mean they are providing vital information that the work itself should have conveyed in order to be effective.

    A similar phenomenon occurs with the familiar running commentary that we now find on DVDs. When the director or actor shares some interesting trivia about the scene, does that suddenly diminish the film as a whole? Why is this practice not considered equally worthy of your disdain?

  • madmax

    I understand your point and everybody else, but the real thing is I wanted to say in an educated manner that these pictures (all of them) are less than acceptable for a professional photographer and even for an amateur. If I ever shot like this, I quit photography.

  • rhubarbcrumble

    I don’t understand your reasoning for ‘less than acceptable for a professional photographer’. Are you saying there is particular standard of style that a professional photographer has to achieve? What makes any of these images amateurish?

  • madmax

    I´m not speaking about an style standad, but if you don´t understand why I said these pictures are less than acceptable, I feel can´t explain it in words…

  • wickerprints

    If you can’t explain it in words, then maybe you need to show us with a photograph.

  • NA_Rules_33

    Ansel Adams was a great photographer, few would argue that. People should be careful though about quoting him as if his every utterance was photographic scripture. He was a modernist. The ideas he and his colleagues made photographs that were meant to be imbued with sublime spiritual importance. That was all well and good, but modernism ran its course, and it’s now over. Not saying that their work was not good (it was quite good), but photography has since pushed well beyond the prescribed boundaries set by that antiquated era, and that change is for the better.

    If he wanted to take beautiful photographs of nature and say nothing about them, well great, because what else can you say about them other than that they are pretty. If, on the other hand you would like to make pictures which take into account the manifold complexities of life in the real world (not in a magical museum like a national park), then you might find that while words aren’t always a necessity, that they can enhance the viewers experience and give them a deeper point of departure for their experiencing a body of work.

    That was the diplomatic response to your statement. Here’s the blunt one.

    “A true photograph need not to be explained nor can it be contained in words” – What a cop out. And what a load of mystical BS. Switch the word photograph to painting and the quote may as well been by Thomas Kinkade. It is incredibly easy to make beautiful photographs of beautiful things. It’s been done a million times though, so it’s ultimately boring and only people with bad taste in art really care about them. The photos in this post are actually quite good and do show us something new and interesting.

    Ansel Adams wasn’t Moses. His movement and its ideas have been discredited. Photography is not literature you say? What is it then? Inspirational posters? Imagery for mouse pads and coffee mugs? Should we dumb it down a notch or two as to not confuse the unwashed? A photographer should be proud to have their work held in the same regard as other serious art like literature, they shouldn’t be encouraged to produce vacuous visual candy.

    Sorry for the rant.

  • Jake

    Most of these pictures don’t seem to be explanations, so much as background stories. There is some analysis, yes, but for the most part, we are learning how and why the picture came to be, and what was going on in the artist’s head. I for one can enjoy the picture by looking at it, but find great entertainment and inspirational value in learning about what lead up to the picture.

    And as for literature, well, one could easily use your line and say that if you need to explain a book, it’s probably not well written, though I’d disagree with that statement as well.

  • seoras

    I like this body of work and will enjoy looking at them all. And I like the answers, to the simple question ‘why did you photograph this place ?’

    These are not artists statements thankfully, which invariably consist of self important twaddle, by people who should stick to photography and not writing. Though many should give up on the photography as well.

  • madmax

    I totally agree about Adams. Only quote him because someone before did and to demonstrate how easy is to quote somebody. I don´t like people quoting others in order to defend their positions.
    “It is incredibly easy to make beautiful photographs of beautiful things.
    It’s been done a million times though, so it’s ultimately boring and
    only people with bad taste in art really care about them.the photos in this post are quite good” … it´s a joke? Besides, I didn´t say all pictures must be about “beautiful things”. These photographs are not pleasant to the eye at all but also need “explanation”. Please don´t try to pull my leg with valueless afirmations.

  • madmax

    Also need to say:

    Your saying: “It is incredibly easy to make beautiful photographs of beautiful things. It’s been done a million times though, so it’s ultimately boring and only people with bad taste in art really care about them.” it is going to be the best quote of a “famous” photographer ever. In case you didn´t noticed (and I think you are not smart enough), you are insulting i.e.:

    -Landscape photographers like Robert Fulton and Michael Reichmann
    -Model photographers like Steven Meisel, Terry Richardson, Helmut Newton or Anie Leibovitz.

    All of them, in your very interesting opinion, as long as are photographing “beautiful things”, are “boring” and only people with “bad taste” (like me), care about them. You are pathetic. Even more pathetic than the pictures shown here.

  • DamianMonsivais

    Mad Max. You surely don’t understand the difference between Commercial photography and Contemporary Landscape photography.

    The photographs are all made in camera, all responding to the likes of Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Walker Evans.
    If you believe a photograph must be a glamorized overproduced image of narcissistic people then you have failed the medium of photography.
    All those photographers you mentioned are great for what they do and they do it for the money but these photographs tell us a lot more about ourselves, others and our surroundings then anything they have made.

    Now be quiet and go have a wetdream about the latest new cameras out there.

  • Johnny5

    It’s hilarious to see all you wanna-be photographers try to disect images that are properly composed in root rectangles and using thousand-years old concepts from painting. Like most culture since world war 2, everything has been dumbed down for the masses of consumers.

    Photographs are now only measured by their “sharpness” and their “bokeh”, both attributes a photographer has little control over after the lens is attached. These photos are amazing because everything good about them was a concious decision on the part of the ARTIST. A good artist doesn’t want to be “professional”, they want to be GOOD.

    The photos not being to your taste is fine, but to suggest they are somehow inferior is a slap in the face to the visual language. Keep your BS attacks to yourself or perhaps instead aim them at the same-old cliche images the world is getting tired of.

  • Johnny5

    Probably because your argument is thinner than frost.

  • madmax

    “All those photographers you mentioned are great for what they do and they do it for the money”

    Did you ever ask them why they take photographs? I´m pretty sure it´s not only for the money. And please, don´t try to discredit these great photographers in order to gain this discussion. It seems to be rather ignoble.

  • NA_Rules_33

    Madmax I can understand your anger and harsh personal attacks upon my character, I mean I was the one who began insulting you and other photographers…. oh wait no, actually that was you. You’re the one who strolled in here and shat on the work of the photographers in the post. In other words lay off the personal attacks because none were leveled towards you, no one has called you pathetic or not smart, I merely said you had bad taste. It’s actually okay to have bad taste, a huge portion of the worlds population have terrible taste (how else do movies like 2012 and Battleship get made?). It’s not a big deal we’d just appreciate it if you admit your problem upfront instead of pretending to have legitimate reasons for disparaging good art. Wouldn’t you prefer if someone who was colorblind didn’t critique your color balancing efforts? Same sort of thing.

    Back to the topic we came here for. I was not at all joking when I said that the photos in the post were quite good, I stand by that appraisal. For our purposes here let’s limit our discussion to landscape photography (fashion is an entirely different thing). I suppose it could be insulting to tell Reichmann and Fulton that their photography isn’t relevant in the real art world, but then again I suspect that they already know that. They are no doubt extremely talented with composition and all the technical aspects of their craft, and I even like some of their pictures (I googled them). The point though is that the kind of photography they do is commercial, and tends to ignore relevant social, cultural, and (ironically enough) environmental issues that people are faced with daily on an individual and societal level. Those kinds of pristine landscapes are essentially escapism. They ask no challenging questions of a viewer. They provide only comforting answers. The images in the post above however require an attentiveness which rewards the viewer with useful insight rather than warm feelings – though the two are not mutually exclusive. When in doubt as to whether a photograph is a commercial piece or actually intended to be legitimate art check the title. If it says “Soft September” or “Winter Inspiration” than you know you’re dealing with tourist art gallery material.

    Here’s a challenge Max. You write 1000 words about Fultons photograph of that tree with the beautiful light on it and the snow on the ground. The only rules are that you can’t in any way discuss his camera equipment or the editing techniques that he used. Please focus on what we can draw from the image conceptually and how it might inform us in regards to a social or cultural issue. Maybe discuss the important ways it differs from his previous work. If you can do that I will do the same for one of the above photographs.

  • Damian Monsivais

    Couldn’t Have said it better.

  • Damian Monsivais

    BTW Mad Max.. Annie Leibovitz is broke so is she not doing it for the money?

  • madmax

    Better do this: You write in 1000 words about one of the pictures above, but you can´t in any way use the comments of the photographer nor nothing related to them, nor technical details.

  • Bob

    Then say it with flowers!