The Intimate Landscape
Somewhere between the grand vista and panorama on the one hand, and the realm of macro and close-up imagery on the other, lies the intimate landscape.
Sometimes you go out looking for that grand vista but when you get there the clouds have other plans and the mountain peak is obscured. Other times the scene just doesn't inspire you as you thought it might and you start searching for other prospects.
Generally shot with mid to long focal lengths, intimate landscapes rarely include a horizon line, or if they do, it conveys only a hint of where the image was shot. Subdued, overcast light is often best in order to avoid harsh contrast obscuring details that you want to convey. Small changes in camera position and perspective can have a significant impact on the success or failure of an image in order to control depth of field as well as avoid merges and other distracting elements from intruding in a shot. I have found that digital photography makes achieving good shots easier than with film. Iteratively shooting and evaluating the results can help refine composition, even when such evaluation is limited by the size of the camera LCD back.
Such photos convey both details and a sense of place, although generally not a distinct place. They rely on seeing what is right in front of you but what others generally miss. It simplifies the complexity of nature while still retaining some degree of complexity beyond the single-subject shots common in the world of close-up photography. Intimate landscapes succeed based on composition, pattern and texture. They work by conveying a mood or impression more than by depicting any specific subject.
The details of any such image are hard to replicate since the landscape on the intimate scale changes more from year to year than it does on the large scale. Mountains and rivers more or less stay put while flowering plants and fallen logs come and go over time. This makes the quest for intimate landscapes an ever renewing one that can bear fruit long after you have duplicated all the postcard shots possible in a given area. Often the best intimate landscapes are taken in areas you are most familiar with. Slowing down can be key — even sitting down in order to absorb a sense of place for a while before starting to work the shutter release. You want your sense of appreciation for a location to come through in your images taken there.
While they may lack the immediate impact of the scenic vista photographed from the same place everyone else has, intimate landscapes can provide rewarding viewing that increased with time. The viewer is drawn back again and again and is often rewarded by the combination of simplicity and complexity, order and randomness such images often have.
The term "intimate landscape" is often credited to American photographer Eliot Porter, although many have practiced this type of photography quite successfully. After graduating in 1929, Porter became a researcher in biochemistry at Harvard University. His father was an architect and his brother, Fairfield Porter, was a painter. He had a longtime interest in the natural world and took up photography, at first concentrating on birds but later moving on to capturing images of the New England woods near where he lived. He was encouraged in his pursuit of photography by both Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams after being introduced to them by his brother. Porter died in 1990 but his reputation lives on.
Regardless of what leads a photographer to try their hand at intimate landscapes, it can be an area well worth exploring. There are a lot of people photographing the same locations these days. Honing in on your own personal vision can help set your images off from all the others.