Realities Of The Landscape - An Interview With Joe Cornish

What is the landscape photographer’s role in climate change? How can images help us to reconnect with our world? Fotospeed photographer Joe Cornish talks about the perceptions and realities of landscape photography.

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On creating images that reflect the realities of the landscape…

I studied fine art at Reading University back in the 1970s. We were encouraged to use photography to record our work (painting, drawing, sculpture, alternative media), but the moment I started looking through a film SLR it felt like much more than simply recording things. Once I figured out how to process film properly, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

The personal statement for my Finals show focused on the energy in nature through pattern, gesture and symbols. Nearly 40 years later these preoccupations remain, and have developed to embrace the cycles of life and death, flowering and decay. I’m also concerned with human domination of the earth’s environment, seeking out wilderness which remain free of it, as well as landscapes which epitomise this domination.

I intend to make photographs that are immersive, that feel physically connected to the light, textures, colours and tones that we experience in the real world. My motivation to make pictures this way is because I see photography as a search for beauty and meaning based in the experience of real life.

On which landscapes are important to him in demonstrating the coexistence of man and nature…

I can genuinely find interest in all landscapes - even ugly ones - but the most important to me are the wilder places close to home. Absolute wilderness is my benchmark of what is beautiful and real, and so the wild margins that prevail in the north of England and elsewhere in the UK are a reminder that nature can still redeem things once rampant exploitation recedes. These places give me hope that wild nature inevitably adapts and returns, however grim the circumstances. The wildlife reserves that now occupy abandoned industrial wastelands at Teesside, close to where I live, are an example of this. I find inspiration in the contrast that can exist between an abundance of self-seeded wildflowers in the foreground and an industrial or urban backdrop.

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On the paradox of an indifferent universe and our dependence on the earth…

The landscape is fundamentally indifferent to us, and it helps to learn a certain reciprocal detachment when studying it. This indifference forces us to be philosophical, to accept our impotence in shaping events. Perhaps counter-intuitively a detached, analytical approach allows us to be more effective as artists. This might seem at odds with living in a culture where our emotional response to everything is emphasised above all else.

Yet if landscape is the earth, air and water that’s all around us, we are utterly dependent on it. Perhaps because it usually appears passive we have yet to really accept just how dependent we are on its balance and cycles. In my lifetime as a landscape photographer there have been notable changes in the weather, and these weather patterns reflect a warming climate that could ultimately prove catastrophic if human societies fail to change course.

On the relationship between the landscape, the digital world, and print…

The physicality of the print appeals to human instinct – to our need to touch and hold. While an on-screen image has utility, the print has more permanent meaning and represents a moment in the creative process, a commitment to the image and the way it looks. Its permanence gives it an additional value and beauty that an on-screen image can never have.

Photography’s illusory connection to real life is its strength, but also a problem; the relationship between the landscape and the image must be understood as incomplete and (metaphorically speaking) highly filtered. The photograph is not the landscape, it is simply a considered, selective and partial representation of it. My pictures inevitably reflect my prejudices, preferences and aesthetic judgement. The print is likely to tell the sophisticated viewer as much about the photographer as it does about the landscape. The camera may be a machine, but with a RAW file as the ‘score’, the photographer is undoubtedly still a very human, and therefore subjective, ‘performer’.

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On balancing the contradictions of being a landscape photographer…

As someone who has done more than their fair share of travelling, my carbon footprint is heavy and I feel ashamed of my transparent hypocrisy; but without travelling, how do we bear witness? In addition to the climate crisis, I see all too much evidence of another diabolical by-product of our civilisation - plastic waste accumulating in the high tide line. It seems we are now waking up to the disastrous consequences of this type of pollution, and here at least there is scope for optimism, thanks to awareness raised by the BBC’s Blue Planet II, and many environmental campaigners. However depressing is the news on the environment, the resilience of nature and its ability to return with abundance each spring is inspiring.

On how photography can help appreciation of the environment…

Photography is a medium which encourages me to go outside, to walk, see and engage with our world. It can be a positive, therapeutic pursuit for those whose lives have become too inward-looking, because it does the opposite.

Photography has already played a key role in both scientific understanding and an aesthetic appreciation of the world, and a political one too when used in campaigns to protect cherished landscapes from industrialisation. Wildlife photographers would no doubt point to the enormous inspiration and advocacy that great wildlife photography has given, especially in recent decades.

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On creating meaningful landscape images…

What makes a photograph timeless and meaningful is often the result of a passion for a theme that has encouraged the photographer to go further and deeper into nuances of interpretation. Admittedly, luck and circumstance play a role in photography, but the lucky photographer is usually the one who has worked that bit harder, spent a bit longer, researched a bit more than the rest of us. Like beauty, perhaps meaning is in the eye of the beholder, so what is symbolic, powerful and significant to one person is shallow and pretentious to another. But there seems little doubt that the relatively few who are able to consistently produce genuinely meaningful work have a burning commitment, especially to their photography, and expressing their world, intellectually and emotionally.

So, improving your landscape photography is, in a practical sense, mostly a matter of devoting more time to its study. In this context, no time spent outside with a camera is wasted time - it should feel valuable to be there, whether or not it’s a successful session photographically (and in my case it often isn’t!). Without a true appreciation for nature it’s hard to find the willpower to stick with the time-consuming task of being in the landscape.

In summary, the landscape photographer seeking to make meaningful landscape images probably needs to spend more time practicing their photography; to engage their minds and hearts totally in what they are doing; to be tireless in their research; and to have a deep philosophical and emotional commitment to this great theme.

And did I say they should spend more time in the landscape practicing their photography?

Joe Cornish has been a professional photographer since 1983, living in North Yorkshire since 1993. He is an honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, currently Chair of its Fellowship Board, and a Fotospeed Signature Photographer. You can find out more about Joe’s Signature paper, Platinum Cotton 305, here.