Techniques, Reviews and Commentary



Pretty Pictures and the USA

monval

Monument Valley is stunning without any extra help

Don't get me wrong, Australia is not without its beauty and much of it is stunning but overall it is far more subtle than the US.

The US has grandeur, mountains are big, canyons immense, the flora vastly more varied in the larger scale and the contrasts enormous even within the same landscape. As an example desert scenes backed by snow capped mountains are not a rarity, even in summer.

Gazing from the Glacier Lookout at Yosemite I realized that Australia generally lacks the outright natural visual drama, the knock out vistas if you like, and while this particular view is an American icon, on that same day I gazed upon at least a dozen vistas that were equally impressive in their own way.

Yosemite is of course only one of a myriad of amazing US/Canada national parks, all of which offer visual splendor on a grand scale. California probably presents the greatest degree of scenic contrasts, locations ranging from dense green forests to the high altitude barrenness of the high Sierras and down at less extreme altitudes the classic desert landscapes of the areas west of LA dominate and of course there is far more besides.

To me the most significant issue when comparing the US landscape to the Australian landscape is that almost everything is easily accessible on high quality roads and well served with accommodation and lifes’ sustaining needs are catered for in almost all locations. You needn’t be a hard core 4WD wielding modern day explorer to go to these classic US landscape locations and enjoy them. In many parks the roads are impeccably maintained wide hotmix ribbons that closely align with the main vantage points, in fact most lookouts can be reached in a wheelchair via a very short roll.

The only time a tourist will find themselves on gravel roads are within parks under native American control, and only because they wish to preserve the heritage of the parks. This applies to Monument Valley and the South Western end of the Grand Canyon, but it must be noted these are relatively short trips that don’t need a 4WD.

Our Australian experience is radically different, you want to visit Ularu, Devils Marbles, Lake Eyre or pretty much any other major Aussie natural wonder? Be prepared for heat, flies, discomfort, long trip distances, poor roads and make sure that wallet is very full!

Many US National Park locations are served by small and large towns, the Grand Canyon being a great example where you have all sorts of flash facilities. Rarely are we talking about isolated locations miles from anywhere else.

Photographers having made their Australian journey will face another major difference to the North American experience, they will need to get creative with compositions and exposures because the Aussie landscape is much more about subtleties. Colours and tones are often very close together, foliage is predominantly desaturated, weather is often blue skies and nothing else. In other words be slack in your approach and most shots will lack any sort of impact unless you happen to shoot under the occasional very dynamic lighting conditions. Additionally many locations do not offer radical differences in appearance as the season changes, summer-like conditions are a seasonal constant and barring occasional flooding rains things remains in status. Most of the US by comparison radically varies in appearance from Winter to Summer, to Fall offering some rather stunning colour options, in winter snow is common or dominant (even in the high desert areas), spring abounds with colour and so on.

The North American photographic experience to my mind really is radically different. Let's put it this way, say you do go to Yosemite for a day ( and frankly you need a few), if you didn't come back with some shots that got your Aussie audience nodding in appreciation and complementing you on your superior photography skills there are only three possible explanations. You left the lens cap on, forgot your memory card or you just weren’t interested! Forget about excuses of poor weather, Yosemite works in every type of weather, actually a clear sunny day is probably the worst type of weather for Yosemite, throw in some fog, clouds, wind, snow, hail, etc and it all just gets better.

I am not claiming my holiday pics are stunning or high end works of art, they are competent and of consistent quality but hindered by having to work with whatever light was there at the time and the need to work fast within a very tight timeline. I am sure If I had the time to revisit at my own leisure, now knowing the subject matter, sun angles and seasonal possibilities I could do better....much better. On the other hand I am sure that to those people back home in my classes the images come across just fine.

Australians photographers tend to hold the US “landscapes hotshots” in great awe and many are indeed excellent but honestly compared to the lots of Aussie photo landscape artists they have it all laid on, it's relatively easy in my estimation. I feel I can say with a fair degree of confidence that the top Aussie artists have easily as much skill and in general produce work that is often more sophisticated and subtle and shows greater dedication to the task.

US photographers can virtually go on a Photo Expedition and never leave the tar or walk more than a mile or two at a time, and when the day is over they can chat over a nice meal in a close by restaurant then retire to a comfy bed for under $100.00 a night. Hell in many parks, like Zion they even have shuttle services running all day most of the year. I promise most of those cool shots you see from Zion National Park were taken just a few minutes walk from a shuttle bus and lay only half an hour from the Zion Park restaurant and cafe.

But all is not as good as it could be in the US landscape photo art world.

Let me give an example, no names supplied. Wherever possible I visited photo exhibitions by well known US photo luminaries ( and yes that includes Ansel Adams and yes his work was as brilliant as expected). One landscape exhibition in particular stood out for its absolute lack of subtlety, not because it was radically different in approach to the others but because the images were all printed to enormous sizes for impact.

This is by a guy very highly regarded and he sells a large amount of work at very high prices, he claims that he often shoots on large format transparency and as expected there is a mass of detail and the subjects are typically dramatic. But despite the positives the colours were garish in the extreme, highlights were routinely horrifically clipped, (even worse in some cases than is normal for even a mid range digital camera) and the shadows often blocked to ink black. It was disappointing as really the images could have been so much more satisfying if shot on high end digital or better yet large format colour neg and edited with some sense of subtlety. This is work designed to do one thing, sell at high prices on the basis of immediate colour driven visual impact. If the images were movies, they’d be US style blockbusters, all clever special effects and everything ramped up to bursting. French arthouse films they would not be.

The tragedy is that the great majority of the colour landscape work I saw was of the same ilk, more overcooked than a Chinese buffet in a suburban mall and with colours to match!
Highlights and shadow tones were generally MIA and colour gradings bore only a passing resemblance to the reality that I saw day in and out in the US parks, the hand of nature was often replaced with a dirty great boxing glove of photoshop filters indiscriminately applied.

I don’t deny a photographers right to get all “colour creative”, but guys the reality of what you have is so stunning it doesn’t need any extra sweet sauce or cooking, it needs subtle and sympathetic rendering. In short much of the editing looked no better than what I would expect from one of my students after their first editing class, you know what I mean, when people are at that natural learning point where everything is still turned up to eleven.

I get it of course, sizzle sells, but so does lasting quality. It’s a bit like American food, pretty much everything is fried and comes out in gargantuan servings lashed with every possible condiment, denying one of the joy of tasting subtle variations and flavours.

The pity of it all is doubled when you realize many of these artists have gone to great expense and effort to get the images in the first place and factor in the not insignificant printing costs of the larger images, these are not minor undertakings.

And just in case you're thinking oh Brad you’re just being harsh, even my wife said as we walked up the street after exiting the mentioned exhibition, "gee that colour was over the top and out there."

Sometimes you feel like screaming out, enough already. A wise person once said good editing is about knowing when to stop! A lot of these guys seemed to have raced on straight through the stop sign, hit the throttle and opened the nitrous oxide tap!

Happily a lot of the monochrome work I came across was very nice indeed, stunning in fact and in many ways I have come to realise that much of the American Landscape actually works better in monochrome. I was pleasantly and genuinely surprised when doing first edits of my California landscape images at just how much of it really worked in mono, I can't quite explain why yet, perhaps that's a subject for another blog but nonetheless I can see why so many great US artists embrace the mono option.

It is all very sobering and importantly has given me a greater respect for the Aussie artists who generally with a couple of (well known exceptions) have a solid grasp on subtlety and real quality. I suppose what I am saying is we shouldn't feel any degree of inferiority, Aussie shooters are easily as good as anything you see in the US mags and on the whole can't simply rely on overtly dramatic subject matter or seasons to carry the show, in short they have to work at it, and they do.

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