Do People in Landscape Photographs Diminish Their Value?

February 25, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Take a look at the two pictures attached. One is a peaceful, morning woodland scene from Kings Wood, Challock, Kent. The other is a quiet, late afternoon, tide-out seascape from Camber Sands, East Sussex. Do you think they would have greater value as landscape images if they didn’t have people in them? Or do you think their respective values are increased with people included?

Before answering, let me tell you what I mean by ‘Value’. 


For purposes of this discussion, I mean value in the sense of merit as photographs. (There is also value in the sense of commercial worth. Are photographs of outdoor scenes more or less attractive to buy, say for an office wall, or home, if people are in the scene? But that’s for another time).


So, does the inclusion of people enhance the photographs, give them greater impact? Do they help the pictures tell clearer stories, and get you to relate to them better? Do they provide a sense of scale that you think would otherwise be missing? 


Or, do the figures undermine the essence of the pictures as landscape scenes? Do the people change their meanings for you? Instead of deriving a sense of the outdoors, and maybe feelings of peace and mindfulness from gazing into them, imagining yourself being there, are you now pre-occupied with the human element? Maybe more interested in what they are doing, or talking about, and why they are there? Do the people dilute the merit of the pictures as scenes in themselves? Reduce their relative power to evoke feelings related to nature and the countryside? And instead, replace them with human intrigue and tension? 


It may be argued that, without people in the scenes, the pictures are just soul-less records of places. Simply photographic accounts of outlooks to view dispassionately. If there are stories in them at all, they are only about the conditions of the moment, or their respective environmental appearance as they are now, albeit sculpted over hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Arguably, not the most interesting ‘stories’ for the average viewer. Include people, however, and the scenes come alive. They are now places that you can connect with on a passionate level. You can more clearly see yourself visiting and enjoying the scenes as those in the pictures are doing.


I disagree. I believe many of the landscapes I visit and photograph tell their stories best when left to themselves. They generally don’t need people who, after all, just pass through and overlay a selfish, human shadow over their existence. When people visit great landscape scenes, many do their utmost to make it all about them – their place in the space, their pose, look, outlook, attire, physical action, importance. When there’s a photo to be had, particularly for their social media, people attach less value to the place itself.


I admit that I positively choose not to include people in most of my landscape photographs. Firstly, I’m not a people photographer. From a photography point-of-view, I’m much more interested in the environment around us than the people who pass through it. Second and more importantly, when I go out to do landscape photography, my objective is to make the landscape itself the subject. I don’t, generally, want other elements drawing attention away from the centre of my interest. By allowing other subjects into the frame, I feel that I’m confusing the picture’s narrative and misleading the viewer. In any case, the stories that landscapes share are much bigger than human stories. Many have evolved over thousands, even millions of years. Thirdly, if viewers nevertheless crave a human element in countryside scenes, if they look close enough, most environments include the hand of man in their make-up. You don’t have to see people in the picture to know that human stories exist there.


But if this is the case, how do I explain the two photographs attached?


Well, they are exceptions. In both cases, as I arrived at my vantage points, what I observed first were the people, not the scenes. This is unusual for me, as I’m normally very good at by-passing people in my view to determine if the scene itself is giving up a story for me to capture. In these cases, however, the stories in both scenes: ones of peace, the soothing sound of nature, places to forget your tension, relax and breathe, were complimented, reinforced even, by the silhouettes slowly walking along the beach and the horses and riders walking peacefully along the woodland path (with the sound of the horses’ hooves echoing beautifully through the trees). In both instances, the scenes and the people conjoined to tell the same stories better together than apart. I could have waited for the people to pass out of the scenes and then captured the landscapes only. This is what I’d normally do, particularly if the light doesn’t look like it’s going to change quickly. But in these cases, the people, for me, didn’t de-value the stories but enriched them.


So, what does this say about the value of landscape images containing people? It says that the value of each landscape image rests in the story the photographer is fortunate enough to be told by the place, the feelings that emanate from appreciating the story, and whether both the story and the feelings are heightened by people present in the scene doing what they are doing.


All of this, of course, is for the photographer to contemplate and decide. But there is a twist: when the photographer decides to display landscape photographs that include people, the ultimate say as to whether the images hold their value, or if you prefer merit, isn’t theirs. It rests with you, the viewer.


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