Landscape or photographs which have the aesthetic

Landscape photographers focus on an
aesthetic style throughout their career. Examples of these styles are the picturesque,
the sublime and the beautiful. These aesthetic ideals are achieved by using different
camera and post production techniques which allows photographers to create a
specific representation of the scene in their photographs. Aesthetic ideals
were influenced by traditional painters such as Claude Lorrain who’s work and
name became synonymous with the picturesque aesthetic and Frederic Edwin Church
who pioneered ‘the sublime’ aesthetic in landscape painting. In this essay, I
will be talking about Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams; focusing on their approaches
in terms of the picturesque and the sublime.


Firstly, the picturesque was derived
from the Italian picttoresco, “from a picture”, the term defines an object or a
scene that is worthy in being in a picture. This means that it will “please the
eye in their natural state; and those, which please from some quality, are capable
of being illustrated by painting.” (William
Gilpin, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 1794). Some people may go
further and say that the land is transformed into a picture by the very act of
looking, this lead to the invention of the Claude glass. The Claude glass (or
black mirror) was a small mirror, slightly convex in shape and tinted a dark
colour and it was named after Claude Lorrain. The Claude glass had the effect
of changing the subject that is reflected in from the surroundings. The glass muted
the colours and tonal range of the scene, giving it a painterly feel; literally
turning the scene into a painting. It was carried and used by artists,
travellers and connoisseur of landscapes.

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The concept of the sublime did
not enter mainstream European thoughts until the 1700s. It was a concept that
was to invoke discord and a sense of threat. British philosopher Edmund Burke differentiated
the sublime from the beautiful for its capacity to evoke intense emotions and
inspire awe through experiences of nature’s vastness. However, emotional
responses to paintings or photographs which have the aesthetic of the sublime
can vary between different people. According to Freud these emotional responses
cannot be changed or identified as they are a result our unique repressed
negative memories from the past. “Astonishment
is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree… No passion so effectually
robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever
is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.” (Edmund Burke, A Philosophical
Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 175) Burke
said although the sublime may inspire horror, there is a pleasure in knowing
that the perception is fiction and harmless, almost like the viewer is being
conditioned to face their fear or phobia.


Ansel Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist, who also
photographed Yosemite Valley during his photographic career. Adams work often consists
of dramatic clouds, leading river or lakes and breath-taking mountains. “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” –
Ansel Adams. By looking at Adams’s work I can see that he composes the
frame ‘perfectly’ before pressing the shutter.

Ansel Adams was part of a group called f/64 (including Edward Weston,
Imogen Cunningham and others), they worked very hard to change people’s
perspective of photography and get the majority to accept photography as an art
form. By doing this Ansel Adams and his group borrowed technique from painting
and fine art and incorporated them into photography (composition and printing
technique). “Dodging and burning are the steps to take care of mistakes God
made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams. This means that Adams
abandoned the picturesque aesthetic early in his career, approaching the
environment subjectively by using various manipulation techniques. He adapted
to a technique called Zone System which guided Adams into printing images full
of detail, depth and contrast. For example, in the photograph of the Half Dome’s
cliff face (See figure 1). This photograph reflects the inhospitable slopes of
the cliff, but also making me feel the omnipotence of nature. Adams used a deep
red filter that helped darken the sky, this emphasized the snow on the Half Dome;
creating a terrifying representation of the cliff face. The sublimity of this
photograph implies an impossible object (a way we can’t see using our naked
eyes), inspiring awe and greatness of nature.

(Figure 1, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, 1927).


Carleton Watkins (American,
1829-1916) was one of the most highly acclaimed of early western photographers,
his photographs of Yosemite brought him worldwide acclaim as it influenced congress
and helped President Lincoln in the preservation of Yosemite Valley during the
time of the civil war. Yosemite Valley was Watkins favourite subject to
photograph, these photographs had made Carleton a legacy and a pioneering
environmental photographer. Watkins is regarded as ‘America’s greatest
landscape photographer of the nineteenth century’ (Weber, 2002, p.67).


Although Carleton Watkins also photographed
mountains in Yosemite Valley, his views of the mountains are not as
monumentalist and sublimatory as Adams’ were. Firstly, this is because during
his first significant project, Watkins used glass-plate negatives (21 x 18inch);
allowing him to produce natural looking contrast and clear tones in his
Landscape photographs, conveying the picturesque. The whole process of creating
a print from glass-plate negative was much longer and complex than Ansel Adams,
meaning that Watkins produced much natural looking photographs that almost
mirrors reality. Because Adams mostly used black and white negatives during his
career, this allowed him to manipulate the prints in the darkroom.


Watkins created picturesque
photographs by choosing angle, location and composition. Watkins instinctively avoided
dramatic clouds, fog, mist and wind; capturing the clear essence and giving a
clear acuity of the Landscape. He used a framing device and often included reflections,
water movement and trees in the frame; creating a natural representation of the
landscape that he photographed. An example of the picturesque aesthetic is seen
from the photograph Tasayac, or the Half Dome, 5000 feet, Yosemite Valley (see figure 2). Firstly,
the soft flowing water in Merced river seen in the foreground draws the viewers
eyes into the photograph, awakening us as the viewer to the exquisite pleasure
of active seeing.