Where’s The Vision, Where’s The Style?

While looking at some recent landscape photography contest winners, I couldn’t help but notice (once more…) how detached from reality the imagery has become. “The look” that may have been invented and popularized by Marc Adamus (and I will not mention any other names here, nor will I place links to individual images, or the contests that I looked at) is all over it.

But that’s not all. In one contest, I found the exact same spot photographed by two different people and then rendered to look essentially the same, with… “that look”. It was absurd but perhaps only fitting that both images won recognition in the same contest. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. It’s the same, the same, the same, the same, and then more of the same.

It’s surely not easy to produce something that’s original in landscape photography anyway (everything has been photographed, just not by everyone;-) but at present, the whole genre, at least as it is showcased in contests, seems to drift even further into the uniform. You could reshuffle these photos and randomly assign photographer names to them and it wouldn’t make a difference.

The “problem” is that it gets lonely when you pursue your own photography, your own style and vision. When you begin to make photos for yourself, of subjects that you find attractive, of things that truly interest you, you’re communicating something more personal about you — and you automatically reduce the number of people who may be able to connect to these photos. You remove the social validation that you get for mass-producing “pop photos”. (you’ll get less drags from the highly addictive crack pipe of social media.)

The judges of such contests influence what landscape photography looks like and what people will consider to submit to future contests. By completely disregarding originality and instead rewarding conformity of subject matter and process, they are failing the genre.

Very little of what all these contests showcase has anything to do with vision and style. Photography is a certain routine anyway, that’s for sure. The craft component of this type of photography seems to consist of being out at a scenic spot for first/last light, capturing an optimal “bracket” of frames that adequately covers contrast range, time, different focal lengths, and depth of field — in other words, everything that you might need as a “building block”.

These pieces are then assembled in Photoshop and molded together with the “Marc Adamus look”. You see a foreground inches away from the camera, a grand vista beyond, and a completely overcooked Milky Way arcs above it all. All is nicely lit, of course! Paradoxically, these dream worlds may of course be adding more artistry to a craft’s expression that normally tends to be rather literal, but that’s a different can of worms, which I’ll open another day. ;)

If that’s the stuff that wins contests repeatedly it begs the question: are there simply no submissions anymore that would be both more original and believable? It feels as if landscape photography has, with regards to its style and look, been overrun much in the same way that social media has led to certain places being overrun. I stopped taking part in the popularity contest of sharing photos on social media, and I have stopped submitting images to photo contests too — and pretty much for the same reasons.  It makes me wonder whether people who make “normal” landscape photos have simply given up on submitting their images to these contests.

If you’re a landscape photographer and still inclined to take the challenge of a contest, maybe there’s hope: the Natural Landscape Photography Awards promises to address all that, and they have described the problems that I see in current landscape photography contests in a shorter and much more polite way than I did too, on their “Why?” page.

My own solution is what I should have done in the first place: go back hiding under some rock, and stop looking at landscape photography contests… :P

As always, thanks for reading.

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16 thoughts on “Where’s The Vision, Where’s The Style?”

  1. Thoughtful. Nice to hear your perspective. I also heard for the Natural Landscape Photography Awards and was inspired by what they are doing. Nice photo “Just Add Water.”

  2. I was not familiar with the artist you mentioned, his work is certainly dramatic. I enjoy the natural look of yours and it should win contests because it is beautiful and natural. Sad that things have to be overly processed to get attention. Interesting read as always.

  3. Alex:
    I agree with your assessment of the “de-evolution” of digital photography. No doubt Marc Adamus is an amazing photographer and I have admired his work for years. But… now things are going too far. It’s like the images from so many digital landscape shooters are under some magical spell waiting for Gandalf to lift the curse and make them “normal” again. Just look at the images in the International Landscape Photographer of the Year awards. All the same dreamy hypnotic look, no reality that I can see.

    This is one reason why I still shot film in addition to digital. Film, as Ken Rockwell has been said, is the real RAW. Too bad film and developing now is so damn expensive! I love the freedom that digital provides but if film was the same cost as digital, (i.e., free) I would be shooting nothing but my Pentax 6×7.

  4. Could not agree more. Modern landscape photography suffers from a distinct sameness. Instagram, photo magazines and contests are all full of technically perfect images of stunning locations that bore me to death. Beyond the sameness of style is the sameness of location in which epic vistas are captured like trophies on photo safaris. The thrill seems to be in collecting shots, not making images.

  5. Well said! I call it the Calendar Effect, because they have always been oversaturated and overcooked. One of the bummers is that after you see some of these images and then visit the actual place, you go, “oh….gee, the colors are kind of dull.” You wouldn’t have otherwise. I get so tired of seeing “stack of 54 images (or 100). Yes, the detail is amazing, but come on…

  6. I’ll admit to already being under a rock, unfamiliar with the current round of contests or styles of photography. I had to look up Adamus as I wasn’t familiar with him, either. I will say I do like his photographs. I see what you mean in that they’re less about showing the landscape as it is and more about his interpretation of the scene. And of course, when someone becomes popular by doing something like this others will follow. There are always waves of this. We saw it when HDR first came about, and we’ve seen it with some well known celebrity photographers who developed their style and were then emulated by the masses. That’s one of the problems with developing a “unique style” is that others will copy it to the point you may no longer be able to tell yours from theirs. And that’s why some of these folks reinvent themselves every so often, coming up with another “unique style,” which always has a limited shelf life. And so it’s great to hear about the Natural Landscape Photography Awards, I’d not been familiar with them, either. It was interesting to see William Neill as one of their judges, I’m currently reading a book of his. Interesting topic, and one that had me looking back at my photography and considering how often I might have followed others style, how long I did it for, what came of it, and whether any of that stuck around or faded away as a fad.

    • Thank you, Todd! Glad you found it an interesting topic — living under a rock isn’t a bad thing I’d say! ;)

      And I’ll add that all of my photographs are about conveying my EXPERIENCE of the landscape more than simply SHOWING it. Landscape & nature photography to me is a recording of a personal experience, and “optimizing” that experience to hopefully transport it (better) to the viewer is a normal part of it. Where that becomes more of an interpretation is of course debatable… just like most everything.

      To me, the more astonishing part was how everyone seemed to have “coincidentally” ;) arrived at the same way of showing their landscapes! :)

  7. Don’t hide under a rock – we would miss seeing your landscapes. But don’t spend more than a few seconds looking at landscape photography contests, either. Otherwise, you’ll have to rant again. Making photos because you love a particular place, then sharing them – that’s where it’s at. I wasn’t familiar with Adamus but I chuckled when I saw his home page. Sheesh! It sure is a familiar look. I think once you begin to exaggerate everything like that, it becomes hard for people who aren’t sensitive to go back to looking at normal life. It’s the same as over-sweetened, over-salted, oversized, etc. food.


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