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.



Diary of a Landscape shoot

I’d seen these derelict Cod Drying Racks just south of Husavik. These were far less densely arranged than those at Olafsfjordur, where I had found it very difficult to extract any good compositions. In the end I walked away from Olafsfjordur without any decent images but this was much more promising.

Here is the first, the “intuitive” composition.

Although quite pleased with the arrangement I felt there was too much of a coincidental meeting of the timbers and this attracted my eyes. See where the two arrows are pointing.

Initially, I tried moving about 1 metre to the right. This resolved the overlap but the various elements now seem far too disconnected, the nearest poles too prominent and the overall composition just messy.

Moving back towards the original position I found a good compromise.

The problem overlap is now removed but another created further down the pole. However, this bothers me less as it is closer to the ground (not in the sky area) and so is less noticeable. I now wish I had taken a step back as well because in this version the top pole feels too close and I would now like to have had more sky and more foreground. Another missed opportunity as I did not see this issue at the time!

At this point I was starting to feel more confident with the subject and wanted to find some more radical, less “record shot” compositions. I composed several more images but the following was my final and, I believe, the most successful one.

The purpose of the wooden structures is now, even less obvious than in the previous images. I have now included the Husavik lighthouse and just a few houses, none of which are easy to see. They are just suggestions of a community some way off. The cod drying racks now, to me, appear like some sort of medieval siege weapons that are pointing at the settlement. They are watching from a distance, also from a high vantage point, as if preparing for an attack.

This composition has become quite surreal and raises far more narrative questions than it answers.

Finally, the parallel lines of the horizontal poles, the horizon and, to a lesser extent, the foreground cliff edge form a pleasing repetition.

I spent about an hour at this location. That’s not long compared with other landscape photographers but it was my second “Cod Drying Rack” location and I had already discovered what I didn’t want to do when at Olafsfjordur. Overall I took about 8 different compositions but space limits what is worth discussing here.

Images analysis – Gestalt?


I read the following at

“Gestalt means when parts identified individually have different characteristics to the whole (Gestalt means “organised whole”) e.g. describing a tree – it’s parts are trunk, branches, leaves, perhaps blossoms or fruit. But when you look at an entire tree, you are not conscious of the parts, you are aware of the overall object – the tree.”

This is a very simplistic description of Gestalt Theory but the idea described here set me thinking about some of my compositions, especially those where the individual elements seem trivial but their arrangement, size, colour, tone, etc., make for an integrated whole. For example:

There are 4 key elements in this image: the fence, the hillside, the worn patch of earth and the sky (with small cloud). None of these is particularly interesting on its own but together they form a calm, balanced, and satisfying composition that suggests warmth, quietness, even silence. The elements make an “organised whole”.

The image may not immediately grab the viewer’s attention but it does have intrigue. The view of hills beyond the fence suggests height but there is no other indication of the location. Where is it? Why is the fence here? What caused the worn patch? What lies beyond that horizon? Is it a cliff edge?

The image was, in fact, taken about ½ way up Aonach Mor mountain, near Fort William and the fence is snow fence for a ski run.

The following example is similar but has an additional, and disruptive element.

Without the bulldozer, this image would be about the marks, shapes, and colours of the quarry. That humans are involved in the creation of this scene is obvious from the tracks. Also, the conical gravel piles, which can be created by natural (volcanic) forces, are more than likely made by humans.

The bulldozer is a disruptive element because its straight lines and sharp edges are distinctly mechanical. It immediately attracts the eye for its own qualities and not because it is part of the whole scene. Bulldozers have aggressive associations and the way this one is placed, slightly hiding behind a gravel pile, it could be a mechanical dog, guarding the quarry. It is not facing the viewer but there is a sense in which it is aware of the viewer, waiting, prepared. These feelings are enhanced by the tyre tracks leading past the front of the bulldozer. These imply there is a specific path the viewer should take into the image and this path goes in front of, and close to the bulldozer. Is this safe?

In this image, the quarry has become a canvas upon which the bulldozer sits. The whole is really two images which, when combined, produce a single narrative.

Conclusion – The first image asks us to view it as a whole, as a collection of shapes and colours. There is no dominant narrative element. It is the arrangement of the whole that creates a narrative.

The second image would be similar if it weren’t for the presence of the bulldozer. The bulldozer, its associations and its position dominate the image and create a new narrative that is not present when the bulldozer is absent.

Aonach Mor Ski Resort

Again, I am visiting a ski resort “out of season”. The aim is to show the man-made constructs against the natural hillsides, without the cosmetic effects and contextual information provided by snow. I am attempting to minimise context and create more room for conjecture about the actual purpose of these constructs.

The weather was very sunny and windy, neither of which helped me in creating my usual mood. There was certainly none of the mist that had helped with the sense of isolation I achieved on my visit to the Glen Coe ski resort, last October.

Do these images support my thesis that man-made constructs become attractive focal points for photographic compositions? I’m not sure that is still valid when the constructs are the only really significant elements in the images.

This first image was the “intuitive” composition. There was little active thought about its composition except for the positioning of the pole lying on the right edge.

It was the curves, the complex construction of the fences and the implied path over the horizon that attracted me. I deliberately cut off the pole (right side) as it exited the image. I saw this as a way of holding the right edge, as if it was a support for the white frame of the page. For me this makes the edge seem like a wall stopping the eye from leaving on that side.

There is little, except the small glimpse of ski matting through the fence to indicate the purpose of these fences.  The distant hills help with the impression of remoteness.

I then tried the following composition that includes more contextual information. More ski matting, a metal bridge and a coil of wire are now visible. There is now also a hint of a tree plantation on the distant left side as further evidence of human presence.

Next I abandoned the “curves” in favour of focusing on the fence and, in particular, the gaps in the fence. These gaps look intentional (not due to weathering) which suggests a purpose other than the containment livestock but there are no longer any obvious ski references.

In this final version, I have tried to simplify and remove the context from the image even more. Now we are just left with an isolated fence and a worn piece of earth.

The distant hills are inaccessible (behind the fence) and the sky far more prominent, both of which increase the sense of isolation. By moving further into the scene, by removing the right-hand piece of fence and our inability, now, to clearly see the distant hills, the horizon line seems closer and much more of a cliff edge. There is a sense of danger about this image.

Conclusion – This exercise has shown, again, the value of starting with an intuitive composition but then refining it by working out the narrative and deciding what I want to emphasise and conceal.

I took the images in the order shown here. The second and fourth compositions, I think, work best but in very different ways.

In the second image the plantation and the right-side fence are bowed to the right and seem to be both echoing and balancing each other. Also in this image, the distant hills are balancing the hillside to the right of the fence whereas, in the first image, there is no relationship or connection between these features. Consequently, the second image is the more complete composition.

Similarly, I think the fourth image is better balanced than the third. In the third image the several bits of fence, land and sky are not well balanced and lack coherence. However, in the fourth image the weights of the various shapes (fence, hill, bare earth and sky) fit together such that they could rotate around the point where the gap in the fence meets the ground. Also, in this image a nice addition is that the central cloud now seems to be a statement whereas in the other images it is just a minor feature of the sky.

Finally, I now think my thesis is valid. The fourth image has convinced me that, rather than seeing the fence as the “only significant element”, the patch of bare earth, the hillside, the sky and even the tiny cloud are all equally significant elements. It is the way that they all balance, complement and fit with each other that makes the whole composition work.