A Very Fine Line

This was a discussion in The Guardian between David Hockney and the art critic Martin Gayford about what turns a picture into a masterpiece.


It was an interesting article and one quote from David Hockney struck me. In a discussion on landscapes in general and Monet’s Sunset on the Seine in Winter in particular, he said “Renaissance European perspective has a vanishing point, but it does not exist in Japanese and Chinese painting. And a view from sitting still, from a stationary point, is not the way you usually see landscape; you are always moving through it. If you put a vanishing point anywhere, it means you’ve stopped. In a way, you’re hardly there”.

I found this to be a fascinating point and one which made me reconsider my whole values regarding landscapes and landscape photography. Are most landscapes “a view from sitting still”? I guess that a painter, with an easel, stopped at one point and reproduces his or her interpretation of the scene from that point. A photographer would do the same, plant their tripod at a particular point and then frame the scene they want to reproduce using a different focal length to obtain the exact scene.

What is the alternative? Hockney mentions Japanese and Chinese paintings and it is certainly true that the landscapes on the Sotatsu screens I studied earlier in this course were very different from those produced in the traditional European landscape mould.

This made me wonder if photography could emulate the Japanese and Chinese tradition rather than the European tradition of perspective and vanishing point? I guess the closest I’ve seen to this is Jeff Wall’s “A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) 1993” which takes as its inspiration “Travellers Caught in a Sudden breeze at Ejiri (c.1832) by Katsushika Hokusai. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wall-a-sudden-gust-of-wind-after-hokusai-t06951

In the original the plane of the landscape is very flat with limited recession into the scene. Wall’s version attempts to achieve a similar effect by using a grey flat sky, a river or canal that is cut off at the front and rear of the scene by ground giving a very limited feed of being led into the picture. Instead the viewers’ attention is drawn straight away to the tree, papers and people right at the very front of the image.

Wall is well known for the degree of digital manipulation that goes into his images and this may be the key to producing effects such as those achieved in Japanese and Chinese landscapes. In thinking about my next module for this course I was considering the level II module of landscape photography. I may just have discovered a very fruitful area of investigation for that course.