I have just finished reading Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity by Liz Wells. It has taken a while. She is rarely an easy read and it has been heavy going in places – sometimes dry and uninspiring, to be truthful. But, the first read of a book such as this is often about familiarisation – with what is there and where it is – so that one knows what to consult it about and where to go for the information. It is good to see a contemporary theory book on Landscape. It brings the genre right up to date (well almost – she says that the manuscript was completed in 2007) and so gives an excellent point of reference through which to link contemporary landscape practice with cultural thinking. I have just re-read her personal comments in the Preface and it made me recognise that, through all the (often dry) surveying of modern landscape photography, the book does retain some sense of the personal interest and enthusiasm, which is good to see.
It opens with a general introduction on the landscape genre – history, context, theory, cultural links with painting. This will certainly be a good chapter to re-read, at some stage, for its theoretical and contextual overview. She follows with four lengthy chapters that are, essentially, surveys of landscape practice in North America, Britain and Scandinavia (and the Baltic, actually, to be accurate). A great deal of ground is covered with many examples – some of these will be worthy of follow-up, particularly the last of these sections, covering Northern Europe. The photographers she discusses there, from Scandinavia and the Baltic States, are, almost without exception, unknown to me before; and she links the landscape photography of the region with national identity, which was also interesting alongside the current BBC TV Series on The Vikings. It’s probably fair to say that, despite the historical and cultural contribution that we inherit from the very North of the European mainland, we don’t always pay it the attention it deserves.
In the final chapter, she pulls it all together under the heading ‘Sense of Location’. It’s a chapter that is “... concerned with the inter-relation of image and memory.” I feel that the sense of the personal comes back strongly here. Yes, the work is learned and academic; yes, she is writing in a theoretical context; but I also get the sense of landscape photography happening in a highly personal sphere that relates to the individual’s (photographer and viewer) own space, emotions, senses, memory, etc – even some sense of her own personal response.
I’m glad I’ve got this book and have read it; I will be going back into it on a regular basis, I’m sure – for both resource and inspiration. It is an academic book, and so it does require effort to read and study, but that is no bad thing. And there are rewards for the effort, in terms of understanding and enlightenment.