Seeing Shapes not Things

Along with Narrative, seeing Shapes, especially Geometric shapes is very important to my being inspired to make an image. I’m not yet sure whether perceiving a pleasing arrangement of shapes comes first, followed by narrative creation. I know shapes are key in the initiation my of “Design” and “Belief” images but I also suspect they are key for my “Intuitive” images as well (see “Image Analysis by Initiative” post, from 13/06/2017). “Spectacle” images are primarily initiated by the quality of light and “Recognition” images by the narrative they have sparked within my memory.

The images in this post were all initiated by “Intuition” and or “Design”.

In trying to understand this feature of my work I have exaggerated the shapes from various images in the way I had perceived them at the time of taking the picture. Examples:

This image of Buchaille Etive Mor and the tree plantation is all about the shapes, balance and the image rotation around the vanishing point. It has very little to do with any potential narrative. There is a bridge in the scene, but it is so small as too be insignificant to the composition.

Garth Ness, Shetland

This is a very simple construction of shapes that I perceived as a two-dimensional scene with no perspective depth. My aim was to enhance this two-dimensional effect thus making the horizon appear like the edge of the world.

As with the previous image there is a single, strong rotational point but, this time, it is not the vanishing point. It is where the side of the building meets the horizon. The positioning and size of the 3 pieces of wood (bottom right) provides balance and weight to that side of the image.

This image has far more narrative potential than the last with its derelict building and the unsettling nature of the apparent void over the horizon.

Lerwick, Shetland

In my mind this image does not have a subject. Instead the landscape, water and the building form a single assemblage of geometric shapes that, again, I perceived to be two-dimensional with no perspective depth.

In this image there is no single rotational point. It is more about the balance and arrangement of various geometric shapes, lines and tones. For example, the way the sea and sky colours are reflected in the glass of the window.

The dark areas of seaweed underwater are the first non-linear elements that I have focused on. They contribute to the balance of the image by adding weight to the base. It was not their shape but their tones that caused me to emphasise them.

Ness of Sound, Lerwick

This image can be perceived in two-dimensions or three. In two dimensions the land horizon implies a deep void beyond.

In three dimensions the sheep track moving from the right side up to the horizon is critical to the arrangement. Along with the sea horizon it guides the viewer towards a point that appears also to be the focus of the concrete gun emplacement. Additionally, it helps create a subservient position for the viewer by emphasising the slope and that the viewer is looking up towards the gun emplacement.


This image is all about triangles, from the folds of the nets, the holes in the nets, to the shards of glass. The soft curves of the dunes and grasses are well integrated with the nets so that, at first, it may be difficult to extricate the shapes that made the composition attractive.

The shards of glass provide both an interest in that area of sand and a source of narrative creation.


A mirror but not quite a mirror.

I find the abstracted version of this image almost as pleasing as the original.

Unst 2

This is the first image where I have interpreted a very amorphous shape, the clouds, as a strong directing element pointing towards the subject of the image, a gun emplacement.

Along with the clouds, the mirror-like water, forming a dais for the subject to sit upon, give it a superiority, making it the key element, the subject, of the image. The other building provides an element of balance but the island is mere detail that could be removed without impacting upon the overall image.

Unst 3

A soon as I saw the potential of juxtaposing the concrete foundations with the old WWII Power house I chose this vantage point to link the two elements. Then I adjusted the camera height to ensure the horizon aligned with the top of the power house, with only the gable end emerging into the sky.

The only essential elements in this image are the foundations, the power house and the horizon. Everything else is just a canvas upon which these elements are arranged.

Unst 4

This final image in the set was also perceived as a composition of lines and shapes. When abstracted down to the key elements the result reminds me of paintings by Wassily Kandinsky.


What I find interesting in this exercise is how often the perception of shape in compositions ignores whether the shape could be a subject or is just part of the background, the canvas. Instead it is the intuitively seen interplay between elements that builds the patterns and compositions that inspire the making of the image. It is also interesting to see which elements have been intuitively ignored and merged into the background.

Most often there are dominant, usually geometric shapes that appear to sit upon a canvas of sea, sky and or land. However, occasionally, the whole scene is perceived as being two-dimensional. In such cases the sea, sky and land also functions as shapes and not merely as a backdrop.

Viewing the scene from a low position, where nothing is visible beyond the land horizon creates an unsettling impression that there is a void beyond. It also helps the image to be viewed in two, rather than three dimensions.

This type of photography depends upon simplifying the scene down to a few basic elements. This is another reason why I am more successful in remote, sparsely populated, usually treeless, locations where achieving a simple composition is much easier.

This area of research is far from complete. I’m sure there are more learnings to be made from these and other images. So, the conclusions may change over time. However, I do believe that my intuition is being highly influenced by how my perceptions of shapes and the juxtapositions of such shapes within the scene is operating.

What happens to our perceptions of Human Constructs over time?

In my original proposal for this research, whilst talking about human constructs built for survival in remote places, I wrote:

“These constructed elements can be in conflict with the visitors’ romanticised expectations of a “sublime and picturesque landscape”. Visitors can perceive these elements as intrusions or impositions onto the landscape that jar with their expectations.

Yet, over time, with weathering, redundancy or just presence these elements can become accepted, even attractive, focal points within a landscape. Do these elements change as they age or do visitors’ attitudes change as the elements gather historical and social significance through their use and persistence?”

These questions concern me because I find myself losing interest in human constructs as focal points once their age means they have lost all traces of recent human activity, activity that I can recognise and to which I can emotionally relate. I have no problem relating to currently active constructs or derelict constructs from the 20th Century, even from Victorian times but anything earlier, especially pre-Enlightenment, seems beyond my imagination.

These standing stones at Calanais are a good example. They are beautiful, and I took their image because of their sculptural qualities, not because I could feel any emotional or other connection with whoever had built or used them some 5000 years ago.

Here is another example, Castle Stalker. I have no emotional or empathetic connection to the people who created it or lived there. I cannot imagine what their lives were like. This image is not about the human aspects of the castle. Instead, this photograph is all about the light and shapes. The castle is merely an interesting sculptural and geometric focal point that contrasts to the natural shapes of the hills and clouds behind. It is, in its way, spectacular and attention grabbing, but again, I have no emotional connection with it and, as such, it is an image that will bore me very quickly.

Scenes, such as the three shown below, do have emotional attractions for me. The cottages are very definitely derelict, but the materials from which they are made, the tyre tracks, furniture and, most importantly, their purpose and function, are all easily recognisable and relatable. For me these places have a tangible emotional content. They are faded by age and weather, but I can feel that things happened here, people lived, argued, had crises here and this was within my lifetime. The images have narratives with which I can engage.

The above images demonstrate a subject matter and style that I have been using for many years. Yet, as my research progresses I am finding such scenes less satisfying. Perhaps this is because the subject matter, Dereliction, has now become very fashionable and so it is increasingly difficult for me to say something new about it. Or, perhaps the narrative and emotional content are just too obvious, too easily romanticised. Certainly, my colour palettes and lighting for these images is much closer to that used in the romantic, landscape painting of Victorian times rather than contemporary photography.

These days I am looking for more powerful, and probably, more recent constructs to be the centre of my images as shown in the examples below. Also, I am using more realistic, more muted colours to express my feelings towards the subject. I am moving away from trying to evoke the skills of the artist with their “painterly” effects and obvious narratives, towards more realistic and, hopefully, more intriguing images.


As human constructs age and weather they do start to blend in with their landscape and become features of, rather than intrusions into the natural world. For myself, it is at this point that they lose their human narratives and become merely focal point objects, thanks to their, usually, more geometric, rather than natural, shapes.

In this article I have only been investigating my own reactions to the aging of human constructs. I still need to understand how others view them. Do they, like myself, start to see very older constructs as sculptural rather than relating to a former human usage, once the traces of activity have eroded? Or do they always evoke a human narrative and emotions for others?

One success of my researches, to date, has been a move away from trying to create “painterly images” with obvious narratives and towards more realistic and, hopefully, more intriguing images that will make the viewer think about my motivations.

What turns a Place into a Location? Human Constructs as focal attractions

Architect and Photographer, Melissa Cicetti has pointed me towards Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking”. Heidegger appears to say that a “location” does not exist until it has something of use to a human, for example, a bridge.

“The bridge swings over the stream with case and power. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream. The bridge designedly causes them to lie across from each other. One side is set off against the other by the bridge. Nor do the banks stretch along the stream as indifferent border strips of the dry land. With the banks, the bridge brings to the stream the one and the other expanse of the landscape lying behind them. It brings stream and bank and land into each other’s neighbourhood. The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream.”

“The location is not already there before the bridge is. Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can be occupied by something. One of them proves to be a location, and does so because of the bridge. Thus, the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.” (Heidegger M, 1971)

Elsewhere, Heidegger talks of the bridge being more than just a “thing”, it is also a symbol for everything that a bridge makes possible for a human. For example, access, connection, communication, etc. Is this why a bridge or any other, usually human, construct (as opposed to natural) becomes a focal point for my attention as a photographer? Am I viewing it as a symbol, more than just a thing?

Brandy Dahrouge, in her MA Dissertation for the University of New South Wales, on “The Middle of Nowhere” opens with the statement:

“Nowhere: a space without determinacy, a place that lacks a location, a destination that is not anywhere.”

She goes on to say:

 “Humans need to create place from space in order to comprehend it. One of the ways we do that is to find the potential for people and events to exist within it.” (Dahrouge B, Date?)

Every photograph, presumes the presence of a human, either behind the camera or having caused the camera to be in a particular place. Whilst agreeing with the first of these quotations it is not sufficient for my own photographic practice that I was there. I need some other human narrative as well. Taking the second quotation to a further stage, in order to achieve a human narrative, I also need evidence that humans have already existed there, not just the potential for humans to exist there. Hence my need for human constructs, or at least traces, in my landscape photographs.

Dahrouge goes on to quote Edward Casey, “Getting Back into Place” on his experiences as a child at summer camp in central Kansas.

“It was not accidental that I found myself feeling forsaken in an arid and brittle landscape. That landscape embodied my own existential desolation, reflecting it back to me with an augmented force. Landscape itself is not desolate; we merely project our feelings of despair upon it. “The middle of nowhere” is a reflection of our own feelings of being out of place.” (Dahrouge B, Date? quoting Casey E, 1993)

Whilst I can understand this statement, it is the opposite of what I experience when in I am in “the middle of nowhere”. Rather than feeling out of place and despairing in a remote or desolate landscape I feel freed of my day to day cares. My own “baggage” becomes invisible to me and I revel in the moment. At such times I take photographs in order to be able to trigger similar feelings in the future. As Dahrouge says:

“By photographing nowhere, it becomes somewhere: we can name it and place it on our own map, and in our own timeline.”

“The reasons leading up to you taking a photograph and the feeling you are experiencing in that moment, are what you want to capture, to remember.” (Dahrouge B, p7 & p24, Date?)

Later Dahrouge echoes my own experience of photographing in remote environments when she writes:

“It is the human element that connects you to the landscape: allowing you to contemplate your place within it and others presence and absence. You realise the possibility of this land to sustain human life.” (Dahrouge B, p19 Date?)

However, the tone of her statement appears to be a disinterested observation that this land can sustain human life. Whereas, for me, I gain a personal comfort from believing that, despite being alone, I am in a place that humans can or have sustained life. Conversely, I would find the total absence of human traces to be itself a threatening experience. For me, the traces are a metaphorical “lifeline”.

Comparing 2 versions of my own images:

I removed the caravan from the first image to expose the value that it has added to the scene. Both images could be considered as beautiful landscapes, but I would argue that the tiny caravan in the second image adds so much more to the meaning and narrative potential. With the caravan it is full of stories about human activities and scale in this vast landscape and a possible point of refuge for myself.

As with Heidegger’s “bridge” the caravan has turned an undifferentiated place into a location of interest and symbolism.

Old Banal images

I was going through some of my old images, from around 10 years ago, when I realised just how my focus, even then, was on the banal human constructs in the landscape.

Most of the following images were taken in and around the village of Sharpness in Gloucestershire. Sharpness is effectively an island with just two small bridges giving access to the outside world. It is a strange place, a mix of industrial, docklands and just 19 houses where humans are definitely there but rarely seen. It feels like the “Marie Celeste” of villages.

This grain tower dominates the whole of Sharpness and there are hardly any places from which you cannot see it.

There is a pub in the outskirts of the village, isolated, with no houses nearby. The image above was my attempt to show this isolation. As usual, the roads are completely empty.

In the image above, I was trying to show the traces of former activity but the current absence of anything moving. The roundabout is a metaphor for being at the end of the road, with the arrows implying no escape, just endless rotation. This really captures how I feel about the place. It is post-apocalyptic, somewhere at the end of time.

The next image continues the banal theme. When I saw the scene, I felt it was also very violent. Again, it is somehow post-apocalyptic with just the largest, now isolated, trees surviving after the hedge was attacked.

The following, captured on the outskirts of Weston super Mare, is just ironic. If this is an example of the brave new world of renewable energy, then we’re in trouble.


Banal, quirky, out of place subjects, traces of absent humans and feelings of being remote and isolated have been features of my photography for longer than I had suspected.

However, thinking back, I now realise that these are subjects I was photographing because of the narratives they evoked within me. I could not explain myself at the time. I could not defend why I had taken such banal, some said ugly, images yet I thought them beautiful.

My researches into my practice and into the practices of other landscape photographers has, at last, helped me articulate my own motivations and given me confidence in the value of my practice.



Cramond 9 – Fragments


It was a bright, high contrast day so I decided to focus on “fragments”, small indicators of human presence rather than the larger view. To emphasise these fragments, I found myself using very shallow depths of field.

This pot was lying in the remains of a circle of stones that had been a “camp fire”. Unfortunately, the leaves have covered any signs of the former fire. I could have taken a wider view and included some blackened rocks but then the pot would have disappeared, becoming insignificant in the surrounding leaves. This lack of context has limited the narrative potential of this image.

This image includes a wider view and so, suggests a degree of remoteness to the building. The graffiti, the missing brick and the bush growing up the side of the building all imply dereliction, which is, in fact, the case.

Overall, I feel this image attracted me more because of its design than for any meaning or narrative. Consequently, this is unlikely to be an image with any long-term appeal for me.

As above, this image includes a wider view that implies a degree of remoteness. There is also an encouragement to narrative with the rust (implying great age) and the rope, also the second, out of focus pole seen in the distance, raising questions about the purpose and who might have installed the pole into the rock.

However, the lighting is such that the image lacks any mood appropriate to the potential narratives. The bright, high contrast, light seems to contradict the messages of the content. In itself, this is not a fault, but it raises questions about whether this image fits with most of my other Cramond images. I think it probably fits better with the following two Icelandic images which were taken in similar light.

This final image is the most pleasing for me.

Probably, because it is the most mysterious. Why is the rope there? Why is it frayed?

The rope is the only sharp element in the image. Also we are looking up at it. These factors give the viewer has an intense focus upon the rope and this could suggest it has a sinister purpose. The overarching of the trees adds to this impression by seeming to enclose and look down upon the viewer. Yet the quality of light implies a playfulness that contradicts these ideas. Hence the mystery.

I wonder how the loss of the leaves as we approach winter will affect the mood of this image? It would be interesting to try it again on a bright winter’s day.


I chose to photograph fragments because of the bright light draining the wider shots of colour. This decision has not enabled me to achieve my usual mood as the lighting is still in control. However, I have achieved shots with added mystery as the lighting appears to contradict the narratives implied by the content.

The detail shots, without distant views, do not suggest the remoteness I normally look for as they lack the usual context.

The idea of light qualities opposing the content narratives is a possible path to follow to add mystery to my images. Limiting the field of view adds to these effects.


Banal Art, Robert Adams, and his influence

My friend, Neil Patton, has questioned my use of the term “Banal Art”. This was bothering me too, as it feels more likely to be read as “art that is banal” whereas I mean “art of the banal”.

I started to research the word banal by looking at other photography related uses of the word. One of the first references I found was a paper by Cecile Whiting called “The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West”. In this paper, the book, “The New West” by Robert Adams, is discussed at length. This was a useful lead, as Robert Adams was an early and key influencer of my own photographic style and choice of subject matter. In the paper Whiting describes Adams’ work as the “aesthetic of the banal” (p58).

Adams’ images in The New West are of urban development in the prairies, West of the Colorado Rockies, and show a sprawl of monotonous, flimsily built “tract houses” with the occasional views of the distant mountains. Talking about the chapters of the book Whiting says:

“These sections catalogue the ways in which human-made things – utility poles, power lines, strip malls, billboards, trailers, tract houses, commercial buildings – overwhelm the entire region of The New West.” (p59)

To see images from the book, go to:

Similarly, many of my photographic subjects are also of ordinary, functional, practical things, constructed by humans, but that appear idiosyncratic, out of place when set in the remote, sparsely populated and sometimes sublime landscapes, I choose to photograph.

My choice of subjects, and the way I present them, may be highly influenced by Robert Adams but until recently, there have been significant differences in our motivations. In Adams’ images, the “banal even seems to spread beyond the photographic frame” (p59). He is emphasising the scale of the impact of human constructs upon the landscape whereas I tend to focus on how small the human influence is within my chosen landscapes. Whilst Adams is raising awareness of the effects of too many humans I am typically trying to celebrate the pioneer spirit of the few people trying to make a living in remote landscapes.

“Adams either approached his motifs at such close range that he captured only parts of a house, car, or commercial building, or he remained at such a distance that the suburban development sprawls laterally beyond the photographic borders.” (p60)

Either way, it is the banal elements of the composition that dominate the “natural” landscape. I put “natural” in quotes because, today, it is virtually impossible to find any landscape, anywhere, that has not been modified in some way by human activity. Whiting makes the same point in the following quote, summing up Adams’ work:

“Sublime wilderness may be nothing but a fantasy, but the banal, by coexisting with nature, may be more than banal: transforming a natural setting that has never been timeless or pristine, the banal is, in a sense, naturalised.”

This quote strongly resonates with my own attitudes towards human activity and the environment.

These two images, from Iceland, are examples from my work where I am attempting to show the banal human constructs as insignificant impositions within a large, powerful, and empty landscape.

Here “nature” is not overwhelmed.

My most recent images have taken a new turn. Instead of showing insignificant human constructs, that barely impinge on their environment, with the Lammermuir Windfarm, I was now following Adams’ motivations and techniques. Here I allowed the subjects to flow out of the image frame to imply their endlessness. Like Adams, I have used a strong, banal, foreground element, plus other distant turbines in order to have the windfarm appear to overwhelm the landscape, even beyond the frame.

The message here is of an environment being taken over by humans, rather than my usual message of humans pioneering against the far more powerful landscape.

Here again, the turbines and their service roads appear to spread beyond the edges of the frame, implying their domination of the environment.

Conclusions – Neil Patton’s questioning of my use of the words “banal art” have led me down a very fruitful research path. I have been influenced by Robert Adams for many years but finding this paper has really helped me to understand the ways he has directly influenced my practice.

This exercise has also helped me understand how I can better use scale, quantity and placement of my subject(s) to actively guide (I could never control) the meanings I would like viewers to find.

Regarding subject matter, it is reassuring to read Adams’ quote:

“Many have asked, pointing incredulously towards a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but implies a difficult issue – why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?”

As a landscape photographer who focuses on apparently banal subjects, I have often been asked similar questions.


Adams R. The New West, Aperture; New Ed edition, 2008

Whiting C. The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West, American Art published by The Smithsonian Institution, Vol27, Number2, 2013


“Silence is not just an absence of noise. It opens dimensions of experience everyone can take sensual pleasure from.”

This is a paraphrase taken from the trailer for the film In Pursuit of Silence.

I recently read a description of Edward Hopper’s paintings as being “metaphors of silence” and that they are about “tension and isolation” (Renner 2002, p85).

My own photography has long been influenced by Hopper, also Andrew Wyeth and, more recently, by the work of Hale Johnson. All American Realists who have created landscapes where the silence is profound and, even when people are included, they are images of isolation and loneliness. I do not consider these to be negative attributes, rather I find them comforting. Their paintings induce a tranquillity within me of a sort that I also want to convey through my photography.

Here are two images by Hale Johnson who specialised in paintings of New England.

Like Wyeth, and to a lesser extent, Hopper, Johnson uses a muted colour palette. This, along with his simple, austere compositions, helps evoke the silence in his paintings.

The isolation and loneliness come from the positioning of the houses on a hill, above the viewer, the empty space around the subject and the blank windows and open doors.

I have started to realise that I also use these techniques in my photography, albeit intuitively rather than as a conscious tactic.

The following painting is by Andrew Wyeth. I include it because it is a contradiction. Despite the obvious, stormy wind being implied (after all, the painting is called “Squall”), to me, it is a silent, comforting image.

The rain coats and binoculars seem so peaceful and calming, hanging there that the whites-horses seen through the window can be ignored. Even the open door does not evoke any sense of noise or even disturbance.

Wyeth wrote about this painting, in his autobiography. “…that strange quality reflected inside the white kitchen became more luminous as the squalls grew stronger”. (Wyeth 2002, p129). Perhaps it is that warm light, against the dark exterior, that creates the comforting calm.

In the Outdoor Photography magazine, issue 217, May 2017, page 104, there is a selection of 13 images on the subject of “Quiet Landscapes”. All of these images have muted, or B&W colours, a very simple composition with a single focal point that has a lot of space around it. Most images are further simplified by mist.

Conclusions – A muted colour palette and an austere composition are strong drivers in the creation of silence. Isolation and loneliness are helped by having a simple main subject and giving space around it. Blank windows and open doors give an impression of the buildings being unoccupied and so even more isolated.

I finish with one of my own “silent” images.






New Topographics?

I have long been inspired by the “New Topographics” photography. In particular the photographers, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke with their ability to conjure beautiful images out of banal subjects.

When I saw the following scene at Laugarbakki, Iceland I immediately thought it was something that might have been taken by Adams.  The new lamp post, the part-made road and the emptiness of a landscape rolling into the distance all reference his critique of urban expansion into the prairies around Denver, Colorado.

This is NOT an intuitive composition! I saw the potential for an image and then it was a case of trying several different compositions until I achieved something I felt was appropriate for an homage to Adams. I will show the initial attempts further on in the blog.

Adams always used B&W film and so I felt the need to convert my image to B&W as well.

Far from being an Icelandic scene this looks much more like the baking hot prairie as the grasses are so light in tone. The sky is heavily overcast and would never be the same as Adams, Coloradan, wall to wall, clear blue skies, which added to the emptiness of his images.

Here are 3 earlier compositions that did not work.

There is no shape to this image and the tyre tracks, far from adding interest, just appear confusing.

This is better as I now have the triangle of grass on the left providing something of a zig-zag shape to the foreground. The single lamp on the right, appearing to look into the image, is OK but feels too comfortable an arrangement. The distant hedge touching the lamp post is just wrong.

The foreground shape is now more powerful but the composition still lacks something. It feels flat, too symmetrical.

In the final version, shown again below, the base of the lamp is now at a fulcrum point around which the weights of the other image elements could rotate. The lamp itself is now looking out of the image and this feels like a tension point (imagine a rope from the lamp to the left edge of the image) which is supporting all the weight of all the image to the right.



Auchencorth Moss – An image Deconstructed using Savannah Theory & Jay Appleton’s “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

I feel strongly that the composition of the following image works but cannot yet articulate why. Viewed traditionally the composition appears to break several “rules”. The horizon is almost exactly across the middle and a tree splits the image into two separate halves. The image also has multiple elements, none of which are on any of the “1/3rds”. Finally, what are we supposed to be looking at? The image appears to be a jumbled set of elements.

Yet the image works for me. I will use these notes to analyse the composition using two different but related methods to gain a better understanding of why this might be.

Auchencorth Moss by Neil McCoubrey

Viewed using Savannah Theory

Here is a scene where the two sides of the image have very different opportunities when considered using Savannah Theory (Mansfield 2014).

Both sides are being viewed from a high vantage point which should be beneficial for seeing any threats and or benefits (prey, for example) from a great distance. This is true on the right side of the image. However, this side also has relatively little cover (refuge from threats). It also has several horizons beyond which there may be invisible threats.

There are parallel tracks, mid ground, just left of the dead tree stump. Being parallel tracks they are likely to be human, not animal constructs and so indicate that people have travelled towards the horizon on a regular basis.

On the left side, there is water, one of the basic requirements for survival and so an attractive prospect. However, the water is in a narrow valley and once someone is in this valley to collect water threats could approach quite closely without being seen.

There are tracks made by either humans or animals heading along the fence towards the mid ground trees and, presumably, onwards to the wooded area in the distance. So, this side has lots of refuge opportunities but these refuges could also be hiding threats and the fence would impede any escape out of the image to the left.

Due to the difference in the colours of grass to the left of the fence, this area looks less fertile than the rest of the image. That may be an illusion but, emotionally, it would drive the viewer towards staying on the right of the fence. It is a strong inner frame.

There are two light coloured rectangular constructions at the centre of the image. Being geometric these are most likely to be human constructs and therefor attract the eye. There is also some form of derelict brick construction between the stream and tracks in the foreground. Both, evidence of human presence and, presumably, survival in this landscape.

Viewed using the “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

Jay Appleton’s techniques look at the scene in terms of the paths made by the light towards the viewer’s eye and classifies the different elements around the:

“…relationship between the observer and the observed landscape in so far as his view is encouraged or impeded by the content of the intervening environment.”

(Appleton, 1975, p.85)

Note – a panorama is wide view from a good “vantage point”, typically with a 360o view, whereas a “vista” is a view bounded by a frame.

In this image, we have a high vantage point of an “interrupted panorama”. Interrupted implies an object is hiding a portion of the view but not so much as to destroy the overall impression.

The fence, a path and stream form strong regular and irregular “vistal axes”, which guide the eye towards the mid-ground woods. However, progression is blocked by several scrubby trees and the derelict brick construction. Our eyes will not, naturally get to the woods from here. On the left side of the fence there is also space to move but once in there we are visually trapped in a triangle formed by the edge of the image, the fence, and the distant trees. The colours on the left of this fence are cooler than those in the rest of the image which would be less attractive to the eye.

If, instead, we follow the stream it forms a “deflected vista” guiding us passed the near trees and towards the mid-ground woods and the light coloured, geometrical constructions.

The two central trees effectively split the image into two different vistal themes, the left relatively close and contained and the right open and distant. The strong sunlight on the reddish bark of the central tree accentuates it role as a dividing line between the two sides of the image.

To the right of the trees we have several “magnetic lines”. These are the 2 horizon lines, without trees, which attract the eye because they are “secondary vantage points” from where we could also view the scene from a high place. The third horizon appears heavily wooded and, as such, will only work as a vantage point when viewing outwards, from the trees. It is less attractive as it cannot provide a 360o panorama.

On this side of the image there is also a vistal axis, resulting from an imaginary line starting at the base of the central tree going through the fallen tree, its stump and then on to the horizons.

Appleton also notes how “clear light”, as in this image, aids our ability to see everything, even at distance, and this helps when perceiving hazards or threats.

Triangles & Balance

The two previous methods have allowed some interesting analysis of the image content but not of the composition. In fact, Appleton’s analysis suggests that the composition may not work because of the visual blockages that do not allow the eye to flow around the scene. Instead I will try a less analytical and more graphical approach.

I have converted the image to B&W in order to focus upon shape and tone and remove the complexities of colour.

I see two primary, visual triangles in the scene. Both are roughly the same size. They are shown in white and are connected by a secondary triangle, shown in red.

Triangles are always an appealing arrangement in an image.

The left triangle is very solidly sitting on the base line. Being such a firm base and connected by the foliage (red triangle) to the central tree. It appears to act as a support for a mast (the central tree) with the right-hand triangle (being lighter in tone) seeming like a sail.

For me the three triangles together form a delicately balanced structure, with the red triangle as the fulcrum. Whilst, at first glance, the central tree appears to divide the image, it is actually these triangles that hold it together. I believe it is this imaginary structure that is the foundation of the image’s compositional appeal to me.


Savannah Theory suggests that, for a human, this scene has a good balance between potential resources, open views and refuge and any areas of risk are fairly obvious. Therefore, as a scene, it appeals to our basic human instincts as somewhere we can exploit. We like the content of the scene but what of its arrangement?

Appleton’s analysis techniques don’t talk about our likes and dislikes, the threat versus benefits, but about the processes we use to survey and evaluate the scene. These techniques show how our eyes move around to capture and so enable analysis of what we are seeing.

In using Appleton’s techniques it is clear that, in some directions, the route our eyes take around the scene is blocked and we have to jump over visual barriers, from one area to another. Such discontinuities are not generally considered to be a sign of good composition. So, there must be some other factor that makes the composition appealing to me.

I believe my enjoyment of this image is largely driven by the delicate structure formed from the three imaginary triangles and how this structure links the two halves of the image across the apparent dividing element of the central tree.


Appleton J. The Experience of Landscape Wiley & Sons, London, 1975

Mansfield J. Landscape and Evolutionary Psychology, 2014. viewed at on  19/01/17.

Why I am a tourist – Issues around being a photographer in a remote environment. Part 2

Dereliction has become a popular subject for photographers. I will not discuss why, but I will talk about the ethics and my personal positioning. To quote from Alice Mah’s paper on “The Dereliction Tourist”:

“Dereliction tourism is the act of seeking out abandoned industrial sites as sites of aesthetic pleasure, leisure or adventure”

“Ethical problems….. including voyeurism, romanticisation, and reproduction of negative stereotypes about marginal people and places.”

“to call the ruins aesthetically beautiful is already to put oneself at a distance. It is a privileged position”

My photography does include elements of dereliction in the form of abandoned farms and other constructions that have become impossible to operate or have lost their usefulness. From my position they are evidence of past success (rather than current failure) and should be included, along with modern, currently functional constructions, for example; Geo-thermal power stations, Hydro-electric dams, Harbours, etc.

The derelict farm at Vidburdssél , shown below, is a substantial structure with a double width, two-storey main building. This was not a short term project, that failed quickly but a family, perhaps more than one, lived here and built the farm over many years. The tyre tracks show that the farm land is still in use but perhaps the main farm buildings are now located elsewhere. I see this as evidence of past success in overcoming a remote location, relatively poor land and a harsh climate.

So, am I a “dereliction tourist”? Probably!

I admit to my photographic experiences being sometimes “voyeuristic”. I always build a narrative around my images and that is so much easier when the subject is a derelict construction that has obviously been the site of human experiences and emotions. I do feel a sense of presence when I enter such a location and that I am invading someone else’s privacy, especially when there are personal objects still lying around.

I am, in effect, using these “found” objects to build a story about the building and its former occupants. This story is unlikely to contain much truth as it will be based solely upon my own experiences and limited knowledge rather than the reality of the people who actually lived there. I will be “romanticising”.

And finally, I do find such sites “aesthetically beautiful”. It is about how nature begins to take over, lines soften, colours mute and the structures start to be absorbed back into the earth. That process is beautiful and I find it comforting that nature will erase all human signs, eventually.

When photographers visit places of dereliction, like the heavy industrial sites in the former Soviet bloc, their images can (possibly accidentally) reinforce negative stereotypes about industrial backwardness and its (assumed) contribution to the collapse of Eastern European structures. Photography of similar sites in the US and Western European “Rust Belts” may be intended by the photographer to garner sympathy but can also be seen to imply Luddite tendencies in the local communities.

Reinforcing, even suggesting, such negative stereotypes is something I want to avoid.


I am a “tourist” with baggage.

I could never put myself into the mind-set of a local, which is an advantage as, per Tuan, as this will give me a clarity of vision greater than a local could achieve.

My “baggage” is that I am not neutral. I do hold the position of regarding the locals with great respect and I want to celebrate their tenacity and self-reliance. This baggage is not a disadvantage as I am not trying to be dispassionate about what I see.

It would be easy to make images that can be interpreted negatively. I cannot control all interpretations but I need to direct viewers away from negative conclusions about my subjects or the local communities.


Mah A. The Dereliction Tourist. Sociological Research Online, 19 (4), 13 viewed at on 28/02/2017

Tuan Y F. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota, 1977.