Peopled Landscapes

As an extension of Conceptual Street Photography, I recently saw a gallery show here in Atlanta that reminded me of an idea I want to try and define. The idea, not the show, is “Peopled Landscapes”.

Historically, street photography is about the convergence of people and the city. More often than not, one dominates. There’s a picture of a person within an urban environment, with the person being the dominant subject.

Occasionally, the city’s landscape and the people within it will combine forces to create an entirely new whole in which neither dominates. It’s not really a picture of the city, or a picture of people. It’s a peopled landscape! And “landscape” means they don’t have to occur in cities. In fact, most of the following examples probably fall-off street photography’s map, but that’s just because the map’s too small. Traditionally speaking.

The earliest example I can think is this one (found in everybook on the History of Photography) by Paul Strand. It’s street photography, but as a photograph it doesn’t prefer people over the cityscape. By perfectly balancing both, it depicts something else entirely.

Paul Strand

The show I saw was Massimo Vitali. He takes large format pictures of people on holiday. It’s hard not to feel that his photographs exploit the “Where’s Waldo?” gimmick (I love that stuff as much as any ten year old!) but they’re incredibly fun to look at up close. Stolen glances between people connect. Narratives erupt.

Massimo Vitali

Somehow Vitali uses tiny apertures and fast shutter speeds with a big camera in a way that stops motion. Must be fast film! And in the prints I saw, there were many great moments. As wall pieces, I was surprised that they didn’t have much force from afar, apart from their own gravity. Their main strength is overpowering you with their size and then pulling you in, I guess.

For examples, there’s always the Kertesz pic on the cover of Bystander. Previously mentioned, Gus Powell has a fine one here:

Gus Powell

Again, from Sternfeld’s American Prospects. (It’s within arm’s reach, E.)

Joel Sternfeld

Christian Patterson has one on his blog from Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky, as well as one of his own:

Christian Patterson

One of mine which teeters on being unpeopled:

Michael David Murphy

Let me try and describe what a peopled landscape might not be. Examples that fall off either end of the scale would be Koyaanisqatsi -style pictures of people on escalators, which are more about infrastructure of the megalopolis. Or Gursky’s party crowds, which lack the context of engaging backgrounds, as do Vitali’s party hordes. There are plenty of pictures online that depict “the solitude of the individual” within a cityscape, but that’s something else, as well.

Here’s how these pictures (good examples and statistical outlyers) might fall on a graph of this idea. # of people on the Y-axis vs degrees of familiarity/recognizability/intrigue of the background on the X-axis:

Yes, I drew this and it shows.

Where might one find these places? Vitali and Sternfeld show they needn’t be in a city, and they can be as much about the moment as any kind of street photography.

For flickr’ites, I’ve started a group for them. Other examples are welcomed in the comments. There are plenty of “people looking at Mt. Rushmore” photos that probably fit the bill (I think Greta Pratt has one), but the trick would be for the peopled element to be just as interesting as the background/landscape element. Chime in if you’re thinking of an example or two…

Next Week: Density

10 thoughts on “Peopled Landscapes”

  1. Enjoyed this. Great selection of photographs too. And no workshop on street photography will now be complete without your little graph being included in the talk.

  2. By the way, I have always loved that Sternfeld image. Is it just me, or have you noticed how it can sometimes look like the man is looking at a giant poster on a wall? In fact there’s nothing there to say he isn’t. Which would arguably put the photo into a different category on your graph 😉

  3. Whats so great about Xaviers work? I did see some unfortunate wasted opportunities for interesting photographs though on some of the frames, rest are desolate snapshots no story nothing that grabs at me.

  4. I especially like the blobby yellow confidence interval on the graph. So a question: does this automatically mean that peopled landscapes involve a level of detail requiring larg(er) formats than plain old digital or 35mm film? Because all of the examples cited seem to be view camera guys. It seems to me that many of Robert Franks images from way back in the 50’s played with this concept of the people in landscape in a very grainy, low-res kind of way. Remember the miners leaning against a wall in some Welsh town? Sorry not to have a real cite. But clearly the idea has been around for a long time, if not explicitly discussed. Now that I think about it, some of my favorite William Henry Jackson images put somebody into the landscape, if only to give it scale, although he clearly understood that the visual potential went beyond that.

  5. Nils, it’s a poster of the space shuttle. Trust me! 😉

    Chuck, that blobby confidence required layers work in Pshop. No stone unturned!

    To your question, I don’t think these necessitate large cameras, though the extra detail doesn’t hurt. Andrew Long’s placed a bunch of Robert Frank nodes on the map on flickr, for what it’s worth.

    Didn’t Timothy O’Sullivan put people in the photos for scale? My thought was that these could be more than a placing, for scale, that the human subject was as important as the landscape and both would combine to create something new.

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