Perspectives on Place by JAP Alexander – Landscape Photography but Not as We Know It

Perspectives on Place by JAP Alexander – Landscape Photography but Not as We Know It

1920 1080 Sroyon Mukherjee

Does “I’m not into landscape photography” strike you as an odd reason to buy a book about landscape photography? Okay, I do look at landscape photographs – you can hardly avoid it, even if you want to – and sometimes I even dabble in it myself. But I used to think that landscape was not one of my favorite genres of photography. Fortunately, I started to question that idea some time ago, and now I have well and truly put the notion to bed. The turning point for me was when I read the book Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography by JAP Alexander.

“I don’t do landscapes” and Other Misguided Notions

My main limitation, I believe, was a narrow understanding of what landscape photography is or what it can be. I mostly thought of it as… well, Mark Knopfler said it better than I can: “The drawing room tea-set / Wants horses, sunsets / Sweet nothings – the seaside with yachts.”

I don’t claim any kind of moral high ground; I’ve taken my fair share of “sweet nothings” – pleasant but unoriginal photos of horses, sunsets and the rest. Sometimes the sky turns a certain shade of pink, a flock of birds takes flight and you gotta do what you gotta do. But I’m not just talking about landscape photography by dilettantes such as myself.

In 2012, I went to see an Ansel Adams exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. I was blown away by his compositions, dramatic timing and mastery over light and shade. But the exhibition did not move me, or make me think, as much as some others have – World Press Photo exhibitions, for example. Now clearly, this is just about my own preferences, and not a general slant against photographs that celebrate picturesque or sublime vistas. But it took me a while to discover the other forms of landscape photography are out there. Wanting to broaden my vistas (literally) was one reason for purchasing Perspectives on Place.

Perspectives on Place Overview

Perspectives on Place is written by JAP Alexander, a freelance photographer and writer. It features images by a number of photographers who have engaged with the landscape in diverse ways – from stalwarts of the past like Ansel Adams and Fay Godwin, to contemporary and postmodern work by artists such as Noémie Goudal and Tonk. Even Spirit, the NASA Mars rover, gets an entry.

The cover image – Hong Kong, Back Door 02 by Michael Wolf – sets the tone for what is to come. I’ve seen many photos of the Hong Kong skyline taken from the surrounding hills; in fact, I took one such photo myself when I was there in 2011. In Wolf’s place, many of us would have instinctively framed to exclude the plastic chair, but its inclusion makes it so much more surprising and thought-provoking. Who was sitting there, and why? What went through their mind? How much of the landscape – and philosophically speaking, how much of life – do we miss, when we fixate on the grand vista in the distance and ignore the seemingly mundane details closer at hand?

The binding, paper quality, print and layout are all excellent. I photographed some of the pages for this review, but they don’t really do it justice.

The images featured in the book include remote landscapes like glaciers (Jose Navarro) and national parks (Ansel Adams), but also shopping malls (Dan Holdsworth), unassuming Welsh villages (Keith Arnatt) and even computer-generated terrain (Joan Fontcuberta). Indeed, one of the key messages of the book – as Paul Hill says in the foreword – is that “you don’t have to go to remote or exotic places … to make landscape photographs. The land is … everywhere – in your backyard and garden, in retail parks and industrial estates, as well as in picturesque dingles and glens” (p6).

The book is designed as a “primer” (p13) – not just for “makers of landscape pictures” but for anyone who is interested in contemporary landscape photography. It has five chapters addressing broad conceptual themes such as Defining Nature (chapter 2) and Landscape and Power (chapter 4). At the end of each chapter, there are end notes indicating sources and further readings, ideas for projects and questions for research and discussion. As a casual reader I didn’t do the assignments myself, but I can see how they would add value, especially if the book is used as part of a (formal or informal) photography curriculum.

Technical Aspects

The book covers both technical topics – such as composition, lenses, filters, color temperature and the Zone System – as well as theoretical and philosophical aspects. The former, I found, is a bit general, and not detailed enough to be truly useful. But I can overlook that because there are many other “how-to books” for landscape photography on the market, which cover such topics more thoroughly.

In any case, I think such books can only take us so far. As someone with no formal education in photography, I found that after the first couple of years, once I’d got my head around basic technique  of exposure triangle, focal lengths, and so on, my learning curve hit a plateau. It took me a while to figure out what I needed to make further progress: engaging with the work of other photographers, learning more about history and critical theory, and reflecting on the “why” rather than the “how.” For me, Perspectives on Place delivers most solidly in these areas.

Even in the technical sections, it offers at least three things which most “how-to books” don’t. First, it avoids the trap of being too prescriptive – a refreshing change from books which try to brainwash beginners into following certain “rules.” For instance, after briefly introducing the rule of thirds, Alexander warns us that ‘adhering to such a formulaic approach for one’s own picture making is not conducive to a progressive approach’ (p27).

Second, the technical sections are illustrated not with generic images as in many other books, but with work by outstanding past and contemporary practitioners. Cartier-Bresson’s The Hauts-de-Seine ‘department’ illustrates the section on composition, and Fay Godwin’s Fence, Parkend Woods features in the section on formats and aspect ratios (unusually for a landscape photographer, Godwin used a 6×6 camera for much of her work).

Third, discussions of technique are interwoven with critical theory and aesthetics. Alexander says in the introduction that technique and theory are not really separable, and that this book “is designed to deliberately blur those false boundaries” (p13). The section on view-camera movements and tilt-shift lenses, for example, analyses Richard Page’s use of a skewed focal plane to suggest misinformation and uncertainty.

Landscape Theory and Philosophy

The theoretical discussions, illustrated with some excellent photographs and insightful captions, are truly eye-opening. Take for example Robert Adams’ assertion that landscape pictures can offer us “three varieties – geography, autobiography, and metaphor”. The quote, as it stands, is rather abstract, but Alexander brings it to life through an illuminating discussion and a series of examples, one of which is Dewald Botha’s Ring Road project. At a basic level, Botha’s photographs are a geographical record of a transport system in the city of Suzhou. But the ring road can also be seen a metaphor for an enclosure or defensive wall. Finally, for Botha, the metaphor also carries autobiographical connotations – linguistic and cultural barriers that can isolate the outsider.

The book also covers movements and trends in landscape photography including pictorialism, Group f/64 and the New Topographics school, as well as aesthetic issues such as “picturesque” and “sublime” depictions of landscape in painting and photography.

Among others, I enjoyed the discussion on WJT Mitchell’s theory that landscape is more usefully understood not as a noun but as a verb (as in, “to landscape”) – for example through cultivation, industrial development and other human interventions. More subtly, as Alexander says, framing and composing a photograph is also an act of “landscaping” – creating, reinforcing and sometimes subverting expectations of how the land should look.

Chapter 4 (Landscape and Power) is particularly concerned with such big questions. Some sections focus more on aesthetics, such as the “industrial sublime,” deadpan aesthetics, urban exploration and the allure of decay. Others address political issues like land ownership and access, environment and conservation, gender, national identity and minority perspectives.

Final thoughts

I won’t attempt to summarize or even list all the themes covered in this extraordinarily wide-ranging and thought-provoking book. Suffice to say, Perspectives on Place is ambitious in its scope, but strikes a really good balance between breadth and depth. Likewise, the theoretical discussions are comprehensive, but I did not find them difficult or dry. The photographs are well-chosen, and the captions really added to my understanding and appreciation. If I have a criticism, it is that the roster of photographers – mostly male, nearly all from Western Europe and North America – is unfortunately not as diverse as the range of landscapes and approaches represented in the book.

If you’re interested in the theoretical aspects of landscape photography, I believe Landscape: Theory (1980) edited by Carol Di Grappa is another excellent book. Unfortunately, I haven’t read it myself; it’s out of print and quite expensive (anyone want to lend me a copy?) Bloomsbury, publishers of Perspectives on Place, also have a sister volume on portraits: Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography by Roswell Angier. I’m currently reading this book, but so far (only a couple of chapters in), I find it less engaging than Perspectives on Place.

This is my first book review for Casual Photophile; my contributions so far have mostly consisted of gear reviews. And when reviewing gear, one of the best things I can say about it is that it makes me want to go out and take pictures. Perspectives on Place is the equivalent in book form. Turns out, I am into landscapes after all.

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Sroyon Mukherjee

Sroyon is an amateur photographer who likes making images with pinhole cameras, smartphones and everything in between. He also enjoys working on collaborative projects, alternative processes, and developing and printing in the darkroom.

All stories by:Sroyon Mukherjee
  • Your final thoughts are a bit rich Sroyon. Trying to appeal to the woke crowd are we? Disappointing, son.

    • Comment with your real name next time, and stop defining yourself in terms of what makes you mad. Nothing in this article is disappointing.

      • Hi James, given that Sroyon has clearly put a lot of thought into this first rate review, and, I’m guessing (although it’s not really my business), is of Indian descent, the comment above is not only thoughtless, but actually quite insulting. I totally understand your commitment to free speech, but, as this exchange adds nothing, yet causes a collective sigh of despondency amongst the less Neanderthal amongst us, why not just delete it? I, for one, would welcome such an approach. Keep up the good work, best, Pete

    • I had to read this review twice. As a diabetic type 1, I had to make sure I wasn’t going low with a foggy mind…
      What planet are we on here Joe? ?!?
      A very intelligent review I think – what ever your on, you can keep it – I’ll just take sugar. Thanks.

  • Super, thorough review. I’ve just ordered it!

  • One more time I am happy with for the high level of all the reviews and articles, they ate totally different and perfectly very interesting. One more time Sroyon gives us a symphony. Today I have a fast look with the comments, and of course I will read it slower like we drink a nice cup of tea or coffee. One more time James is perfect. This is the reason why every day I check with JapanCamerahunter, and Emulsive. About this review what I can say : GORGEOUS ! The point is, “to be is to do” Socrate, “to do is to be” Sartre, “to be do be do” Sinatra. I like to read others and more compliment them because the day I will be able to do better than them, in a next life, maybe I will be able with a high ego to criticize others … Because I find great every time, I say positive things, If I do not like, I go to visit an other page … 😉 Thanks James and Sroyon and other positive comments.

  • Well done piece. And excellent links for further reading. Thanks.

    This is a well chosen and apt quote: “The land is … everywhere – in your backyard and garden, in retail parks and industrial estates, as well as in picturesque dingles and glens”.

    • Thanks Terry! That’s actually a common thread running through the book, and a really worthwhile message I think.

  • This might be your first book review but I hope it isn’t your last. It made me want to both check out the book and go out and take pictures, a double success! Thank you.

  • Nice, a double success indeed! Next up I promised James a couple of lens reviews, but after that I do have another book review in mind, stay tuned 😉

  • “mostly male, nearly all from w europe and n america” ?
    Very agessive and offending criticism, in no way related to photographic aesthetic or technique, to my eyes. Very subjective, highly flamable and dangerous politico/ ideological forced categorization.
    First and last comment here, won’t come back.

    PS: when I study lifes and works from “mostly male and european/american photographers” from XXth century, I learn from individuals having for so many of them suffered in their lives, having had to exile (themselves or family) from their own countries to escape from horrors – fascism, nazism, antisemitism… (Morath, Taro, Capa, etc.) and dedicating their freedom, spirit and work to show the whole world the tragedy of people targeted by these regimes and ideologies, themselves excellent promoters of mankind categorization and forced identification.
    Criticizing a book on this ideologic basis is to me medieval autodafe.

    • Thank you for your comment, interesting that you found this rather mild criticism “Very agessive and offending”. But since you won’t come back, I suppose you won’t see this anyway…

  • Such a wonderful review.
    you do it well, you did gear review well, you do book review well.
    Yes, nice book are expensive.
    We don’t worry, if China feels they can make money with books, they will copy them, so we will have this book for the price of Coke, like a Noctilux 0.95 for the price of middle range mobile phone, … they are good traders, they know, one dollar + one dollar + one dollar = increase hegemony power, … there are so many people to continue to buy their things, here in Australia we start to stop.
    Sorry, the book 😉
    What I like, this is :
    – Your read it, very well,
    – You chose very well,
    – You give an excellent introduction about it, which makes want to buy it, at the normal price, people who like to read, like original, …
    – You give your opinion, what it is the most important thing for me.
    Here, because this is opinions are possible.
    Thank you one more time.

    • I appreciate your kind words, Eric. Having seen your comments on other posts, I get the clear sense that you have a problem with the Chinese government and manufacturing model, but please consider whether it’s really necessary or appropriate to allude to it in nearly every comment, regardless of whether it is relevant to the topic of the article in question. Thank you again 🙂

  • Although the point has been clumsily made, is it worth exploring, nevertheless? Is it technically possible to criticize a selection of photographs on the basis that not enough were made by photographers of a particular gender or from a particular part of the globe? If you lay out say twenty photographs in a blind test, would it be possible to tell the photographers’ gender or background? I’d say not, and that’s what makes that (single) part of the reviewer’s critique IMHO technically inappropriate. It’s also what makes photography such a level playing field. Very happy to have it pointed out where I’m wrong on this. To put it another way, you can’t take, say, gender offence at a photograph as such, you have to be given additional background information about the photograph in order to take offence – but if you have to be given additional background information to interpret a photograph, you’re no longer interpreting the photograph.

    • White male photographers, and white male visions of photography, have been historically over-represented. A selection like what we have in this book perpetuates that.

      • (I pressed enter before I finished writing my comment…) Although the majority of the photographers are male, the gender balance in this selection (for what it’s worth) is relatively better than many others I’ve seen. But if a book which purports to be an introduction to landscape photography focuses almost exclusively on photographers from W Europe and N America, that, to me, sends a very clear (and wrong) message that important landscape work is done almost exclusively by photographers from W Europe and N America.

  • I had just posted Martin Parr’s witty photo, Pisa, Italy, 1990, from this book, and was pleasantly surprised to find your excellent review a few posts down. The author manages to organize a vast range of approaches here. If you only think of “picturesque” landscapes, your view of the possibilities will be greatly enlarged. The best thing about the book, and worth revisiting, are the many splendid examples. An encyclopedia of photographers to explore. BTW, I found a copy through my local library’s inter-library loan service.

    • Yes agreed, I “discovered” several photographers through this book, or in some cases, gained a better appreciation of photographers whose work I had already seen before.

  • Just purchased a used paperback copy of Landscape:Theory on Amazon for 22.28

    • Thanks, I actually found an affordable copy too, a few months ago! But I didn’t get as much out of the book as I had hoped…

  • I now have this book in my Amazon cart! I agree that some representation of landscape photographers outside of Europe and North America would be great, but I am excited to learn more nonetheless.

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Sroyon Mukherjee

Sroyon is an amateur photographer who likes making images with pinhole cameras, smartphones and everything in between. He also enjoys working on collaborative projects, alternative processes, and developing and printing in the darkroom.

All stories by:Sroyon Mukherjee