Digital Photography and the flattening of landscape

Cameras have been making people feel uneasy for a long time.

Ever since the first subject was invited to say Cheese, or more likely Fromage, portrait photographs have provoked a sense of discomfort in those at the other end of the lens. These feelings have ranged from mild embarrassment, to the conviction that being photographed will steal one’s soul.

So what happens when the camera’s gaze is turned upon a landscape? Photographers have been taking pictures of places for as long, if not longer than they’ve been capturing faces. In 1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took a shot, not of a model, but of the view from his studio window in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. This is now considered the very first recognizable photograph – at least the oldest surviving one. A little under a decade later in England, Henry Fox Talbot could be found upstairs in Lacock Abbey taking a photograph of a window.

Of course human subjects are emotional, sentient creatures, surely the taking of a photograph cannot affect a rock, a tree, a river or a building in the same way? Or could it? Can a landscape have its soul stolen by a photograph? Does the place in the frame become a little thinner every time it is snapped and shared?

The reason I ask is because of a quote I read recently on the Landscapism blog in a post on ‘Deep topography’, which stopped me in my tracks.

As part of an interview conducted during the London Short Film Festival, writer and ‘conscious walker’ Nick Papadimitriou gave a list of principles and tips for the practice of deep topography walking (these are listed towards the end of Eddie Procter’s post on Landscapism linked above).

These principles are all aimed at helping individuals to pay close, serious attention to a given landscape and its character when walking in and around it. About half way down the list was a short, almost throw-away, line that stated: “Digital cameras are the death of the imagination.”

As I read it I almost physically recoiled and my gut reaction was ‘YOU WHAT?’ and ‘REALLY? and ‘Why not film cameras?’ and finally ‘What about YouTube videos of YOU ambling about in the North Middlesex Tertiary Escarpment then? That’s ok is it?’

Now, as regular readers of this blog will know, (hello you three), I occasionally use this space to have a rant. And that is what this post was originally going to be. Thankfully, I stopped myself from banging out some ill-considered diatribe and started to think about Papadimitriou’s remark in a bit more detail.

At first I took the statement “Digital cameras are the death of the imagination” as a kind of anti trespasser measure, designed to keep amateur, let’s say ‘shallow topographers’ at a distance. I conflated the line with a separate quote from the same post where Iain Sinclair talks about ‘psychogeography lite’.

On reflection I pretty quickly decided that this notion wasn’t some sort of exclusionary, rule-making, boys-club thing, (after all it is part of a set of guidelines aimed at helping other people to get out there and explore place), but remained a pretty bold and intriguing statement to make.

I often write about place and landscape here and also read and look at lots of other writers and bloggers covering similar themes and subjects. In many cases photographs go hand in hand with the text – complementing and illustrating the places being written about. Yet here was someone saying that digital photography is in some way anathema to this.

I began listing positives about digital photographs in relation to being in and thinking about places and landscapes.

  • Digital photos can act as a visual notepad, helping to recall a moment, journey, even a particular light at a place you’ve been.
  • Digital photography is accessible, democratic even, as there’s no complex kit required, just a basic camera, or more likely a phone camera. Partly this is because it is cheaper, requiring less resources. It’s quick and easy – there’s no waiting for rolls of film to be processed. There’s no real limit (other than battery life) on the number of shots you can take. You can fire away and get multiple angles, crops, views without worrying about running out of film.
  • Taking digital photographs can even inspire you to look at a place – thinking what’s interesting here?
  • Without lugging heavy cameras, or long lenses around your neck there’s less self-consciousness about what you are doing. The process has the potential to be more instinctive and, therefore, in and of the moment.
  • It’s easy to share your photos – on a blog, via social media, online or in print. Combining visuals with text, as we’ll see below, tends to attract more views and visits – vital for a blog.

Next I began a mental list about what the negatives (pun intended) of digital photography might be. To my surprise this list quickly become longer than the first ‘pro’ column.

Photographs accentuate a visual response to a place at the expense of all other senses
This is something sighted humans typically tend towards anyway, but exaggerated further.

Digital photographs limit the way you see the world around you.
Rather than looking at a place holistically, with a camera in hand you begin to look for what might make a ‘good’, or ‘interesting’ image. You can easily become removed from the moment, no longer looking for looking’s sake, but on the hunt for a photo-opportunity.

Pause for thought is no longer required.
Why wait for what Cartier Bresson termed ‘the decisive moment’ when you can simply snap away until you’re happy with the results? The whole process of taking a photo has become far more instant and disposable.

Skill is redundant
Digital photography has become so automated that getting what passes for a ‘good’ shot is almost guaranteed. A ‘moment’ fixed in a digital image can never be true, even to itself – first the taker frames their shot, deciding what context is left out and what is allowed to remain. Afterwards, this already highly subjective reality is very easy to manipulate further. In the past, using film, unless you had access to your own dark-room or studio, elements such as exposure had to be accounted for then and there. Now we can all change images immediately or long after taking them by adjusting filters, exposure levels, contrast, brightness, even colour balance and shadows. As a result adding ‘No filter’ as a comment on a posted photo, now invites praise for having simply taken and shared shot without altering it.

The digital image has become more valuable than the subject itself.
Writing in a pre-digital age about film photography, Susan Sontag talks of photographs having transformed the way we connect with and relate to the world around us. Taking photographs has in Sontag’s view, delivered us into a “chronic voyeuristic relation” with our surroundings and each other.

This change has accelerated exponentially with the advent of digital photography. Easy access to the internet and faster broadband, for many in the West at least, mean that anyone interested in landscape, nature, geography, topography and related areas can now spend vast amounts of time casting their eyes over an almost limitless territory of online landscapes and environments. As a result, it is quite possible for people to devote many more hours gazing at digital photographs of places near and far, than actually spending time in them.

On the other side of the coin, the desire for authenticity felt by growing numbers of people, in the face of an ever-expanding virtual world, is driving up the value of a photo as evidence of real, lived experience. Photographs become visual markers for something in the physical world that the subject/sharer did, or witnessed directly. Ironically, in this context, the photograph as proof now has greater perceived worth than the subject or experience itself.How many times have you been to a gig, sports event, or looked at a view, only to see someone (or yourself) witness it through the screen of a mobile phone-camera? Being there is no longer enough in itself, proving it with an “I was there” image is now hugely important.

Now of course this isn’t true of all of us, all of the time, but the image as social currency continues to grow in value, whilst simultaneously declining in meaningfulness; as more and more of us take more and more photographs of the same kind of things, in the same kind of ways.

Digital photography flattens the world.
I take a lot of photos, both personally and to illustrate this blog, but increasingly find myself frustrated that they never really portray what I was looking at the time.

Recently, at a bus stop in Herne Hill, I glanced up and saw the moon. Properly saw it. This was no flat disc of unearthly whiteness. The moon sat up there in the sky, protruding from the blue-dark like a pregnant belly, plump, half rounded and glorious in its fat solidity.

If I’d attempted to take a photo of this moon, the camera couldn’t or wouldn’t catch it in the same way. Rather than a pregnant moon, the digital image created on a smartphone would be a flat dead thing, an electronic speck of light in the dark. And beneath it, the world would be cropped away, here would be no space, with no trace left of the peripheral elements that my eyes and other senses were taking in simultaneously: traffic crawling past, people passing by, barking dogs, blackbirds fussing in the bushes at the edge of Brockwell Park.

None of this is new; photographs have changed their subjects, changed perception of their subjects, since the camera was invented. As the street photographer Garry Winogrand puts it: “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.” What is new, as we’ll see below, is the scale. The sheer number of photographs and images people are making.

According to an article in The New York Times in 2015, it has been predicted that this year around 1.3 trillion digital photographs will be taken around the world. This is in comparison with the high-point of film photography in 2000, when around 80 billion photos were taken. This incredible growth has been fueled almost entirely by mobile phones, which, according to the same article, account for some 75% of all photographs taken.

As well as hardware, another driver of this extreme growth is behavioral and goes back to the idea of the photo as social currency. Sharing our selfies, Instagram posts and everyday shots with our friends and the wider public has grown enormously in importance, in the way we present ourselves to the world and each other. A recent survey for marketing platform SHIFT, about the use of photographs within Twitter, found that “Users engaged at a rate 5X higher when a photo was included.” The study also discovered that “Drilling down further, SHIFT found that users retweeted and replied to tweets 2X more when images were included.” 

From personal experience, I know that an interesting image can draw attention to an online article or blog that may otherwise have been overlooked. One of the most popular posts on this blog is one on walking Hadrian’s Wall. This features very little text, but a lot of photographs that I took along the way.

It is clear that a digital photo today has to do more than exist as an image solely to be looked at. A photograph posted or shared on social media can rarely be simply appreciated in and of itself; its function as an attention grabber is now as, if not, more important.


A temporary view of a temporary field.

We are all artists in light now. Digital photography of places and faces is no more and no less than a way for billions to drive a personal, visual stake on the ground, showcasing their place in the world and the people and places they cherish.

However, the meaning and worth of the images and the moments they represent, at least in the context of social media platforms, is becoming increasingly fleeting and utterly transient. Indeed, on Snapchat that’s the entire point – you put your digital footprint out there, a visual version of an echoed shout down a well, then for a tantalizingly brief period, your photo cries out  “Hello, look at me” and is then erased forever.

With digital images of places and spaces there is a danger that the countless shots and views and impressions blur into nothing more than backdrop, providing a little relief from the text. A digital image of a place is in a sense no longer real. Somewhere there is another from a different perspective, another time, another angle. No one digital image can fix a view of anywhere, every shot is entirely partial. All are equally valid and equally shallow.

A quick glance at a search engine can really bring home the volume of all these images. If, like me, you have ever felt that you have somehow caught a unique moment; take a moment to do a Google image search for landscape photography, or a specific feature and the hundreds of trees bare of leaves, distant hills, golden-twilights (‘No Filter!’) jagged escarpments, even lichen on a Hawthorn branch, might well disabuse you of the notion.

Photo platform Flickr now has a magic view function, which in some ways is quite magical, as it sorts images by type – forest, trees, landscape, mountain, tunnel etc – yet this feature also succeeds in highlighting the sheer sameness of the landscape images so many of us are taking. All these billions of photos of people and landmarks, cities and objects and oceans, details and panoramas on repeat, collectively become, like Warhol’s Cans and Icons, mechanised and emptied of meaning through sheer weight of numbers.

Whether shared on Snapchat or other channels, billions of our photos will never be looked at again after their initial social debut. After a Like, a share and a glance, all these stories framed in light will go dark and vanish into a vast online hall of mirrors (or at best be incarcerated in a billion hard drives for future reference).

Having looked a little more closely, I have to conclude that Nick Papadimitriou has a point. All the more reason then to remember to set aside our cameras and phones, these digital scrying eyes, more often, and to simply look and feel and remember the tangible world that surrounds us.

Links and References

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce & Early Photography

BBC 4 Britain in Focus: A Photographic History – Eammon McCabe
Includes Fox Talbot’s Window Shot referred to above

Photography & Soul Stealing Big Bang blog

How to flatten the moon – Matt Gilbert

The New York Times, Photos, photos, everywhere

SHIFT report Digital Tweets with Photos

On Photography, Susan Sontag, Penguin Modern Classics, 2008

3 thoughts on “Digital Photography and the flattening of landscape

  1. It’s possible I was being a little anti-trespass there, for which I apologise. My old physics teacher used to say’your bad manners are showing’ and this must be a case in point. Having said that I do feel uneasy about modern-tech. I think I spent so many years wandering around that I’m scared the range of responses that sustained me in those days will be overwritten somehow. At this moment I am contemplating getting a digital for a specific project. My walks really began in 1989 and they were a survival resource for me. I was in a bad way and walking the edges and brownfields (so many in those days) really felt like walking outside of metropolitan culture. Yes, I am a bit defensive but it is proportionate to how important those zones are in my memory. Thank you for not ranting at me and applying your efforts to examining this issue. I think, in the end, it comes down to my wanting to draw some tangible result from my native abilities and digi-cams seem a bit passive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello. Thanks so much for reading the piece. I know it sounds a bit like I was taking you to task at the start, but it was more that your remarks sparked me to thinking about the ways photography can cloud and mute responses, as well as sometimes provide a very partial short-cut to a view of a place. When I first read your quote and then the article around it, I did initially jump to conclusions, which I quickly revised and changed. The tone at the beginning of the piece was an attempt to reflect that and the more nuanced thinking that followed. As the title I hope makes clear, I actually agree with much of what you said re looking, engaging and remembering a place more thoughtfully and deeply. I suppose in some ways the post was me trying to work out a way to justify using digital photography to accompany some of my blogging. Very best wishes and thanks again for taking the time to read the article and respond.


  2. Pingback: Vanishing sky | Richly Evocative

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