While the end uses of documentary and commercial photographs are limitless, the photograph that exists for its own sake is traditionally destined for a wall. This tendency is especially true for fine art landscape photographs, which ordinarily end up within a private context, such as a home, a hotel, or an office building. Not all styles and subjects of landscape photography are very suitable for these contexts, however. Photographs that are not particularly relatable, calming, or uplifting are less likely to appeal for display in spaces that are dedicated to purposes other than the exhibition of art. Nonetheless, the genre of landscape photography would be impoverished without its more unorthodox photographs. If you feel as though the idea of interior decor is governing your creative decisions, then it may be rewarding to think outside those walls.
The Statement Piece
No matter where a photograph is displayed, its context will affect the experience of viewing it. The photograph in a private environment typically becomes a statement piece: through its selection and placement, it signals something about its owner’s interests, values, experiences, personality, or even social status, thereby adding a layer of meaning on top of whatever ideas may have gone into the process of creating it. The print that we see over a mantle may tell us that the owner enjoys oceans, or lives near a particular coastal area, or really likes the color blue. The print in an office lobby may symbolize the company’s industry or else suggest some abstract quality of the company culture, such as openness or sophistication. Because of the process of selection and display, a print hung in a private space will make a statement about that space and about the print’s reason for being there, even if it is hanging in the photographer’s own home.
With domestic and business contexts in mind, photographers are likely to favor certain creative decisions that cater to the traditions of private decor or even to customer preferences. Landscape photographs therefore tend to feature locations, subjects, moods, and colors that will have broad appeal, and it is no wonder that the genre is widely considered to be especially traditional, with its harshest critics thinking of it as hopelessly trite. Not all landscape photographs need to meet the demands of interior decor, however, and even those that do can still be powerful works of art that offer much more than their decorative qualities or their usefulness in communicating identities or a sense of place.
The Conversation Piece
It is often said that the defining purpose of modern art is to inspire discussion, to encourage people to ponder visual cues and to engage in conversations about them. Pre-modern art functioned through a similar principle, using visual cues, symbolism, and metaphors to facilitate discussion, but usually for some higher purpose, such as education. With the evolution of art for art’s sake in the modern era, the discussion of artworks became an end in itself.
No matter how intimate or grand, landscapes can be rich wells of ideas for the viewer willing to contemplate them, as I explained a few years ago in “How Landscape Photographs Tell Stories” (Photo Cascadia Blog, July 13th, 2015). Indeed, some images are well suited for this purpose alone. Even if a dark or sullen landscape is hauntingly beautiful, it may nonetheless have scarce appeal as anything other than a conversation piece; alas, few people really want Mordor in their living room. Similar biases run against photographs of obscure locations, indistinct subjects, hostile environments, frightening situations, or intense scenes that demand attention: beautiful or not, most photographs of these varieties are not generally desirable for the typical home or business context—but they can excel at suggesting ideas, and that singular purpose should be reason enough for these photographs to exist.
Where, then, are we to imagine such photographs, if they are not well suited to traditional private contexts? The obvious answer is the museum context, which is by no means a pretentious goal. The word museum has its origins in a concept more akin to a library than a storehouse for precious objects, initially describing a building filled with items that were singled out for study. In that regard, even a book or a website can serve as a sort of museum, and so can any exhibition space that serves no other function than to display prints for contemplation (which could include a dedicated space that a collector might set aside within their home). Such spaces for exhibiting prints may be limited, but they represent a distinct and important end use for a fine art photograph: the contemplation of the image itself, including its place within a photographer’s body of work and within the history of the medium of photography.
Landscape photographers typically consider books, websites, and museums as supplemental destinations for their works, but thinking of them as valid primary destinations can throw off the shackles of traditional limitations. Likewise, viewers are sure to gain a greater appreciation for any photograph if they are willing to imagine it in the ‘museum’ context, regardless of where it is actually displayed. Homes, hotels, and offices are venerable venues for display, but there is a lot of room for imagination beyond their walls.
Does the idea of interior decor factor into your photography? How do you feel about landscape photographs that depart from traditional aesthetics? Let us know in the comments below!
Erin Babnik is a full-time landscape photographer, photography educator, writer, and speaker. Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in Erin’s life, including an extensive background in various studio arts and a doctoral education in the history of art. Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Europe, teaching workshops and giving talks on both continents. You can learn more about Erin and her ideas about photography through a variety of interviews with her. | Erin’s Website: www.erinbabnik.com