Assignment 1: Dendrology

Brief: Produce a series of 6-12 photographs that convey your own interpretation of beauty and/or the sublime within the context of landscape. You may choose to support, question or subvert accepted definitions of these terms. 

Initially I had found it difficult to start this assignment. I was waiting for 'nice' weather to take photographs that would represent beauty. For example a sunset. However, the wintry weather and dull, grey sky has made it difficult to find suitable conditions. 

I was intent on waiting for sunny weather to take the 'beauty' photographs and then look for the sublime. However it was during my course reading, and reflecting more about this assignment, that I realised I could concentrate on the sublime. Before starting this course I had always considered the sublime to consist of awe and wonder. However Edmund Burke's (1757) view of the sublime being 'whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger', made me realise that these types of images can allude to a sense of terror, and at the very least make the viewer feel uncomfortable. I started to research this in more depth. 

In terms of art history, a preference of the sublime over the beautiful marked the transition from the Neoclassical to Romantic period. Caspar David Friedrich (1774 - 1840) was a 19th century German Romantic landscape painter who said:

The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him
— Börsch-Supan, Helmut (1974)

For example Friedrich's painting (below) of an abbey surrounded by jagged, intimidating trees, looks like the scene from a horror movie. The trees are silhouetted against a very muted, grey sky. There is a very small palette of colours used to produce this sublime affect. 

The Abbey in the Oakwood (1808-10) Casper David Friedrich.  

The Abbey in the Oakwood (1808-10) Casper David Friedrich.  

Years later, Caspar David Friedrich continued with this depiction of trees in his 'Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon' (1830–35). In this painting (below) it is difficult to identify the couple who are dwarfed by the tree stretching towards the top right hand corner of the frame. The silhouetted tree, with its twisting branches, creates a threatening presence in the landscape. 

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1830–35), Caspar David Friedrich

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon (1830–35), Caspar David Friedrich

Whilst creating a sense of isolation, I also considered there to be an element of beauty in the way Friedrich's trees were shaped, stretching across the picture. I wondered whether it was possible to create images that encapsulated both beauty and sublime.

Meanwhile Théodore Rousseau's: The Forest in Winter at Sunset addresses this theme of an untamed landscape, with ragged trees and limited use of colour in a forest setting. In addition to this, Andrews (1999) referred to the Salvator Rosa's wild, turbulent landscapes when he stated that:

The experience of the sublime is...one that subverts order, coherence, a structured organisation.
— Andrews (1999, p. 321)

Some of the Rosa's sublime motifs included shattered trees and bleak skies. This sublimity really appealed to me. There was a sense of energy and trepidation in the scenes. Andrews (1999) translated this scenario as:

...the near loss of visual and intellectual control over one’s environment...
— Andrews (1999, p. 132)

The theme of trees creating a sense of the sublime was something that I wanted to explore further. Thinking back to my first exercise for Landscape, a tree was one of the elements in my preconception of what a landscape is. There are many landscape images that contain trees, but they are not often regarded as the main subject. Instead they provided a backdrop/setting for a collection of other elements.

However, Mary McIntyre's 'A Contemporary Sublime' is one such study that involves depicting trees in inhospitable terrains. She photographed overgrown marshland scenes, barren branches and pale skies. Her photographs don't contain any reference points to determine the location of the view, unlike some of the picturesque scenes that would be akin to a 'picture postcard'.

This theme of trees was something that I wanted to explore further. Whilst visiting Ireland I decided to visit Glenveagh National Park, in Donegal. As an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, I was bound to find some appealing views. Instead another grey and dull day meant that I had to reconsider my interpretation of the brief. I started to think back to my initial research and the sublime aspect of landscape. Trees were a prominent feature in sublime landscape images, and I was captivated by the twisting, tangle of branches that lined the shore of Lough Veagh. 

Whilst their tortuous shapes created a strong sense of the sublime, there was also an element of beauty about them. I began to wonder whether an image could be both beautiful and sublime. Maybe it was because I was alone that there was a greater sense of sublimity. The possibility of the sublime being appealing was considered by Andrews (1999, p. 134) who thought that:

for the sublime to be attractive as an experience...there needs to be some reassurance that...the person is not in actual mortal danger.
— Andrews (1999, p. 134)

As I walked around the landscape I looked for views that focussed on the shapes that the trees made and the mossy boulders that lay on the ground around them. I was alone, but not in danger. Just captivated by the unique setting I was experiencing. 

Thinking back to my drawing for Exercise 1.1, illustrating my preconception of 'a landscape', I wanted to produce images that went beyond this cliched view. I also wanted to consider my images as a series, that included different viewpoints and perspectives. Therefore my final image includes a view of Mount Errigal, that is barren and treeless. It is a juxtaposition of the previous images.

My Final Selection

1. f/8   1/45   24mm   ISO 200

As I walked along the edge of Lough Veagh, I came across this misshapen tree that had been crafted by the strong, persistent wind blowing down the mountains and across the water. I crouched down to achieve a low angle view. The dull, bleak sky provided an ideal backdrop that illustrated the shape of the tree. Meanwhile, the mountains in the background provided a sense of the sublime. 

2. f/9.5   1/45   20mm   ISO 200

Further along the footpath, trees stretched and twisted overhead. They felt intimidating. At this point I realised that I was responding to how I was feeling as well as what I was seeing. 

3. f/19   1/4   20mm   ISO 200  

Steep, protruding rocks and gnarled trees surrounded me. I kept using a wide angled lens to try and capture as many trees as I could, looking for particularly interesting shapes.

4. f/16   1/4   19mm   ISO 200

As the ground became steeper, the trees appeared to be even more threatening. I intended to photograph the branches spreading across the entire image. 

5. f/8   1/30   17mm   ISO 200

Whilst the first few images in this set created a sense of the sublime, I started to view the beauty of the landscape. Maybe I had got used to the trees, so they were no longer threatening, or maybe it was the unusual mossy boulders beneath. I kept a low viewpoint to capture the steepness of the sloping backdrop.

6. f/19   1/6   24mm   ISO 200

7. f/11   1/30   17mm   ISO 200

8. f/16   1/30   16mm   ISO 400

9. f/11   1/180   40mm   ISO 200 

Walking back towards Glenveagh, I came across this scene, it was a stark contrast to the previous views of trees, despite being the same location. I framed the image so the slope of the mountain led down and across to the trees across the frame. No longer threatening, they looked vulnerable in comparison to the surrounding landscape.  

10. f/8   1/125   20mm    ISO 200

Finally I took this image of Mount Errigal, in case some of my tree images didn't work out. The cloudy summit and boggy foreground reminded me of Mary McIntyre's images. I included the telegraph pole, to the left of the mountain, to give a sense of scale and add to the sublime nature of the image. 

Evaluation

My research enabled me to respond to the landscape I was intending to photograph. Having concentrated on the subject of trees, I was able to stick much more tightly to the brief, rather than photographing a number of views. 

Choosing the correct location for this assignment was a very important factor. Also, the weather made a difference. These images wouldn't have been successful if it was a bright sunny day with a cloudless blue sky. 

Whilst reviewing and selecting my final set of images, I was conscious of choosing a variety of different views. However, there may be a couple of images that are too similar to be included together (possibly photograph 3 and 4).

Editing my chosen selection was a challenge, because I wanted to produce 'dark' images, but not too underexposed that they couldn't be viewed clearly. I used the dodge and burn tools to mark slight adjustments to the trees, highlighting the branches and darkening shadows.

In conclusion, before I started this course I would never have created these kind of landscape photographs. The theme of trees is something I would like to pursue further, beyond this course. I would consider photographing them in different weather conditions and at different times of the day. This would enable me to experiment with varying light and movement. 

Response to Tutor Feedback

Click here for tutor feedback.

It's always a relief to get the first assignment completed and check that I'm heading in the right direction. My tutor felt that I had demonstrated:

very competent technical and visual skills, all of the images meticulously composed and well exposed.

I have already learnt a lot about image creation during my Level 1 OCA courses, so it is reassuring that it is showing through in this course. However my tutor did feel that some of my images were too similar. This may have been due to the brief that I had set myself, or not researching widely enough. I had a clear vision about what type of image I wanted to create, which meant that I hadn't left enough opportunity to experiment during the shoot. 

The lack of variety of image also meant that there was less scope to show a wide variety of creativity. Looking back through my photographs I could have spent more time varying the angle of view and focal length at a particular scene, rather than composing and capturing the image, and then moving on. Therefore in my next assignment my tutor has asked me to develop my own viewpoint and increase the number of images that I take. This will enable me to choose the strongest images.   

References

Andrews, M. (1999) Landscape and Western Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Börsch-Supan, Helmut (1974), Caspar David Friedrich, Twohig, Sarah (tr.), New York: George Braziller

Burke, E. (1757) A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

http://marymcintyre.org/gallery6b.html [accessed 1.3.15]