Written by: Ryan Nemeth
Being that I identify myself as a landscape and environmental photographer, I find it worthwhile to actually try and elaborate on the term landscape. I feel that the term landscape is most often taken out of context when applied to the field of photography. My perception is that this misunderstanding can be squarely attributed to the term’s multifaceted and somewhat subjective definition.
Landscape ecology by definition deals with the ecology of landscapes. So what are landscapes? Surprisingly, there are many different interpretations of the term “landscape.” The disparity in definitions makes it difficult to communicate clearly, and even more difficult to establish consistent management policies. Definitions of landscape invariably include an area of land containing a mosaic of patches or landscape elements. Forman and Godron (1986) defined landscape as a heterogeneous land area composed of a cluster of interacting ecosystems that is repeated in similar form throughout. Turner et al (2002) define landscape as an area that is spatially heterogeneous in at least one factor of interest. Thus, there are many variants and definitions that are applicable based on the context in which the term landscape is used. Therefore, both research applications and fields of study can skew the way in which this term is applied (McGarigal, No Date).
The long and varied careers of the word landscape in English, and of its cognates in other northern European languages, have centered on the human shaping of space and also on the dynamic interaction of actual places with mental or visual images of place. The conception of landscape has expanded from genres of painting and garden design, through the study of seemingly unchanging agricultural societies, to the entire contemporary American art scene, to applications in design and preservation movements and a growing interest in conflicts of race, class, gender, and power (Wilson & Groth, 2003).
Old English precursors to landscape, landskipe and landscaef, already contained compound meanings. In the Middle Ages, a land was any well-defined portion of the earth, ranging from a plowed field to a kingdom. The original senses of -skipe, -scipe, and -scape were closely related to scrape and shape, meaning to cut or create. The related suffix, -ship, denotes a quality, condition, or a collection. It yields a word such as township, in Old English, túnscipe, which primarily meant the inhabitants of a town or village, but, secondarily, the domain or territory controlled by that settlement. Thus, landskipe essentially meant a collection or system of human-defined spaces, particularly in a rural or small-town setting (Wilson & Groth, 2003).
The Old English sense of landscape, which was social as well as spatial, appears to have faded into disuse by 1600, when artists and their clients introduced a related Dutch word, landschap, back into English. A landscape, in this new Dutch sense, was a painting of a rural, agricultural, or natural scene, often accented by a ruin, mill, distant church spire, local inhabitants, or elite spectators. In contrast to the earlier traditions of religious, mythological, and portrait paintings done on commission for the church or nobility, landscapes were painted on speculation for anonymous consumers in emerging mercantile centers such as Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London. As a result, the term landscape and the painting genre it described were tied to the rise of a merchant class with the power and leisure to cast their controlling and organizing gaze from the city out onto the countryside. Subsequent painting genres; seascapes, cloudscapes, and townscapes extended this sense of a scape as a carefully framed and composed real life scene (Wilson & Groth, 2003). Thus, old English and Dutch history gave rise to the modification of the word landscape. This iteration is what persists today and the word landscape is most often associated with this pre-industrial perspective. Thus, most Americans tend to associated the word landscape with natural scenery, which is often skewed to a very romantic and unaltered interpretation of the land. Evidence of this is found in most modern definition of the word, for example:
The dictionary defines the word landscape as such:
1) a picture that shows a natural scene of land or the countryside
2) an area of land that has a particular quality or appearance
3) a particular area of activity (Merriam-Webster, 2014).
The recent field of cultural geography, which was developed largely throughout the last half of the 20th century helped to define the term landscape in a much more comprehensive way. The renowned cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson contributed immensely to this field and almost single handedly helped to shape a more modern and rounded version of the definition. To illustrate this point, Frank Gohlke, the renowned landscape photographer stated, “John gave me an understanding of the responsibility of the landscape photographer, which is to make the invisible visible. To see clearly and unsentimentally what has heretofore escaped our attention”. Gohlke further stated, ”Jackson and his colleaguesarticulated the obvious truth that everything in the landscape has meaning.” In this idea is the belief that photographing or asking the simple question about an object in the landscape can unlock the human history of an entire region” (Gholke, 2009).
To clarify the parameters of the word landscape, Jackson traced the etymology of the word (partially offered above) and distinguished it from relative terms such as nature, scenery, environment, and place. He emphatically suggested that our national parks and romantic ideas of unadulterated landscapes are in fact scenery rather than landscapes. Jackson, also provided compelling evidence that landscape was actually an active principal influenced by human actions and natural processes in ever changing dynamic system (Gholke, 2009). In doing so, Jackson’s unique perspective opened up the term landscape to objects and forms that were previously ignored in the American landscape and often overlooked in artist’s depictions until the environmental movement of the 1960s.
Through Jackson’s magazine Landscape, readers were urged to examine and see their surroundings and to recognize the origins, utility and appeal of everyday objects and features such as parking lots, motels, mobile homes, gas stations, and billboards (No author, 2010). Landscape photographers should know that it is in fact a combination of scenery and these man made ubiquitous items that occupy and therefore construct our landscape. The important thing to know is that both altered and unaltered environments comprise and define the term landscape. In fact, a more objective depiction of landscape probably is inclusive of both altered and unaltered states of scenery. Furthermore, landscapes are constructed forms that occupy both physical and mental space and are thus transcendent constructions of our psyche. Certainly part of the conversation is to understand how humans delineate their claim to what is worthy and suitable of occupying space. The question to understand is how much of the human psyche drives the construction of landscape and the evolution of space?
- No author, (2010) New Topographics. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl Publishers and Center for Creative Photography in cooperation with the George Eastman House.
- Gohlke, F. (2009) Thoughts on Landscape. Tucson, AZ: Published by Holart Books.
- McGarigal, K. (No date). What is a landscape? Retrieved from: http://www.umass.edu/landeco/teaching/landscape_ecology/schedule/chapter3_landscape.pdf
- No author, Merriam-Webster.com (2014). Landscape. Retrieved from: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/landscape.
- Wilson, C., & Groth, Paul E. (2003) Everyday America : Cultural Landscape Studies after J. B. Jackson. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press, 2003. Retrieved from: http://site.ebrary.com/lib/marylhurst/reader.action?docID=10062321.