That’s nice, or perhaps not: The Beauty, the Picturesque and the Sublime in Landscape

August 09, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

I was recently chatting to a member of my family about my progress as a photographer, both in terms of leaving my previous career and my academic studies.  I pointed out that I had changed a lot when it came to my own work, but also in how I view the work of others.  I’ve never been shy in offering my opinion on a wide range of subjects, but when it comes to photography, I’ve had to learn to keep them to myself unless asked.  This could be seen as my mellowing as I get older or it could be that I’ve just decided to stay away from artistic ‘judgement’ because I have developed a broader view of what for me, makes a ‘good photograph’.  During our conversation, it was pointed out to me that the majority of people don’t look at photographs with a critical eye, that they simply like it or not, depending on their perspective or life experience.  I’ve talked about this before in earlier blogs and my assertion was that there is nothing wrong with going with our immediate emotional reaction to an image.  I’ve also made no secret of my contempt for what I call the ‘camera club mentality’ where work is often judged merely on its technical merit.   My critical approach to looking at photographs is being shaped by what I continue to learn about visual codes and artistic genres through my study, which results in an appreciation of an image that is very personal to me.  I realised that this is what I mean by keeping my judgements to myself. 

The discussion got me thinking about some of these critical ideas that I base my interpretations upon and my most recent research into the concepts of the beautiful, the picturesque and the sublime, which exist across the genres, but none more obviously than in landscape.  When thinking about beauty, we all rightly believe what that means to us.  We associate beauty with liking or loving something, a provocation of a sometimes-overwhelming sense of wellbeing.  In landscape art, the idea of beauty was associated with nature and the elements in the natural world that create an almost primeval sense of wonder.  Natural light, colour, texture and scale can all combine visually in landscape invoke a sense of beauty, but nature is also capable of creating a sense of fear and despair.  If the landscape image contains treacherous rocks or violent weather, our experience changes.  We still take a pleasure from viewing the image, but it is now an excitement at the danger or threat to our lives that might ultimately result in death.  It might sound perverse, but this concept, known as the sublime, has been an important part of art history for centuries. 

It won’t be a surprise to learn that these are not simple categories that pictures can be placed in through some form of scientific analysis.  Discussions about whether the natural world in the form of wilderness is actually real or whether human impact has practically eliminated it, have continued since the 18h Century.  If you place yourself in wilderness, is it really still wild or at some level colonised?  The idea of artists shaping and representing the aesthetic beauty of nature for their own purposes became the basis of the third category, the picturesque, which was conceived by the artist William Gilpin at the end of the 18th Century.  Picturesque (as in a picture) imagery contains a romanticised notion of the landscape which often means idealised weather conditions and carefully placed buildings, structures or features in carefully constructed compositions.  They are pleasing on the eye but don’t necessarily provoke any extreme emotions in the viewer.  Not surprisingly, the majority of landscape photographs that surround us are picturesque and these tend to be what most people hang on their walls.  A simple Google search of a famous location such as Durdle Door in Dorset provides us with many examples of the picturesque.

Almost every image is the same view, with only the weather and foreground details changing between photographs.  We get no real sense of the natural formation of the cliff from them, nor the conditions under which it might have been formed over the millenia.  The are ‘nice’ photographs, but personally they have little emotional impact beyond “I’d quite like to go there”.  However, in the photographer the vision was unlikely to have been ‘you should go there’.   They would have seen the rock formation and the lighting conditions and wanted to represent its beauty.   The resulting image though, is directed by the idea of the picturesque which presents us modern photographers with a problem.  The main issue with the idea of a beautiful or sublime landscape photograph is that it cannot really exist.  As with the arguments about man’s impact on the wilderness, the landscape photograph is still driven by a specific observation by the photographer about the scene.  The events leading up to the decision to shoot the picture may well contain elements of the sublime, but the image itself still tends towards the picturesque, i.e what makes it look good in a picture.  The sublime then, is a visual code for analysis of elements that provoke the emotions, rather than a classification or specific artistic intent.  It makes us think differently about the picture we are looking at and how it makes us feel. 

In preparing my thoughts for this post, I looked through my own collection for landscapes that could be considered sublime and found only one.  Many years of considering landscape photography as the representation of something pleasing that I might want to print, have directed me, like everyone else, to shoot toward the picturesque.   

In this scene, I was struck by how quickly the conditions change in the Yorkshire Dales and how man’s efforts to tame the landscape, with walls and fences, is insignificant compared to the power of nature.  What I hadn’t considered as I pressed the shutter, was how to best represent that power; the sublime element not really occurring to me until afterwards.  You can bet that my future landscape images will consider precisely what I want to say about what I am seeing and feeling.  That’s nice, or perhaps not. 

Interested in taking up photography?  Bought a new camera and don't know how to use it? Why not have some beginners' tuition that is tailored to your interests.  Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details or have a look at my work at for some ideas. 



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