Every enthusiast photography magazine, and website has run a feature on photographing landscapes, birds and flowers at some point. Some do this every month, and I have no problem with that. Why would I? These are the ‘go to’ subject choices for many photographers, from the young beginner to the seasoned camera club veteran. They are all subject areas that offer infinite possibilities for creativity and storytelling. So why are they so often created with such a formulaic aesthetic? The history of photography suggests that this does not have to be the case.
Let’s start with flowers and start near the beginning with Anna Atkins, or further down the photographic dateline with Karl Blossfeldt or Albert Renger-Patzsch. There is no shortage of flower photography within the medium’s history as is evidenced in William Ewing’s book Flora Photographica: Masterpieces of Flower Photography: 1835 to the Present. Flower photography can range from botanical documentations to sexual metaphors, from large format high detail representation to lo-fi evocations of atmosphere and place. Flowers and associated flora surrounds us, it’s an easily accessible subject matter, that comes at no cost. But where does photographing flowers take you? Well, Ewing has that covered also in his book Flora Photographica: The Flower in Contemporary Photography, in which he illustrates the powerful use of flora within contemporary art practice. Images made by photographers such as works by contemporary photographers such as Cindy Sherman, Thomas Ruff, Vik Muniz, Valérie Belin, Viviane Sassen, and Martin Schoeller appear in this second book, and yet I see very little influence of this work in the majority of the flower based photography I see.
The hobbyist can receive satisfaction from creating images that please them; mastering a particular lens, use of depth of field or a post production technique. For many that is enough, but if you wish to progress this work into working as a photographer commissioned to photograph flowers you are going to need to be highly informed about the subject you are photographing. Just as in any area of photography in-depth knowledge of the subject matter is essential. Pleasant or technically proficient photographs are not going to be enough.
Let’s move onto landscapes. Wherever we look, we see landscapes, rural and urban, geographic and architectural, the most omnipresent of all photographic subjects and just as with flowers a rich seam of landscape based work leads from the beginning of the medium’s history. From Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple (1839) to Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter’s documentations of waterfronts in 1848, the early days of photography were filled with landscape photography bridging the pictorialist, documentary and commercial needs of an evolving medium. Today, there is no shortage of photographers embracing the topographic approaches of photographers such as Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and others, documenting the man altered landscape. Whilst the work of Ansel Adams is still seen by many as being the one true approach to photographing landscapes, work interpreted today through long shutter speeds capturing ‘misty’ water and high contrast black and white.
Again as with the documentation of flowers there appears to be a schism between two schools of photographic approach regarding the landscape, perhaps easiest described as ‘the classical’ and ‘the contemporary’. This could also be seen as a divide between ‘fine art’ and ‘contemporary art’.
Where the contemporary artist is working with narratives, and within series, and bodies of work to publish as book and exhibitions, the fine artist is most often working towards individual print sales, often based on a strictly defined aesthetic, whilst the hobbyist is most often sharing via social media and online forums.
The understanding of these different approaches, and outcomes allows the committed landscape photographer to find their heroes, and subsequent influences. As with photographing flowers pleasing pictures will be appreciated, however only you will know if that alone fulfils your expectations of photography.
Finally, let’s discuss photographing birds. I own vintage magazines from the 60s and 70s that contain features on how to photograph birds, and copies of recent magazines sharing very similar knowledge. I have to admit to having no interest in birds or in photographing them, and yet as a subject matter they must be popular or why else would there be so much information available? I will suggest an answer to this question later in this article, but I think it would be fair to say that of the holy trinity of photographic subjects discussed here, it’s bird photography that requires the most knowledge of the prey.
So, why are these subjects so popular, and so often featured in print and online? The cynic in me has an answer. Aside from their availability and lack of cost, they all present the committed photographer with opportunities to buy kit. Of course you do not need expensive art, macro, super fast or telephoto lenses, tripods, mono-pods, large or medium format cameras, post-production plugins, or rugged clothing, and camera bags, to make photographs, but all three of these subjects lend themselves to those purchases. That works for magazines and websites reliant on manufacturer advertising to survive, and brands keen to sell you stuff!
I have yet to find any photographers making interesting contemporary images of birds (although I am sure you will let me know if there are any), but there are many outside of the expected and formulaic images we all know making work with flowers and landscapes. The challenge for any photographer approaching any of these subjects is to create original, and thought provoking work that progresses the way in which we see the most traditional of subject matter, and to be aware that approach is always more important than kit.
Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com