Intimate Landscapes: What They Are

My photographic interests are many and varied, in terms of both subject and style. Like many photographers, it’s easy for me to fall into the trap of making photographs of every interesting thing I see without much idea of why I’m doing so. At the same time, I’m an easy prey to self-doubt about whether I’m developing a personal style.

A way to combat these tendencies, I’ve found, is to set certain goals for my photography, to have one or more “projects” I’m working on. One that seems to fit both my need for focus and also my stylistic preference is to create intimate landscapes.

Intimate landscapes are a genre used by many photographers; some specialize in them, while others shoot them on an occasional basis. Despite that, I’m finding that this style of photography is little understood by many, and perhaps most, of us.

So, what is it? At its simplest, an intimate landscape is the opposite of what might be called a grand landscape, the sort of image that takes in the whole of a scene. If you think lake, mountain, sky, and foreground rocks, that would be an example of a grand landscape.

This infrared photo made in Virginia’s horse country exemplifies a grand landscape

An intimate landscape is simply a smaller selection of a scene. It might be a composition of the foreground rocks in an otherwise grand landscape setting or an interesting stand of trees or patterned image of just the trees’ branches abstracted from the entire forest. It might also be a close-up of colorful lichen on the rocks or the leaves on the forest floor.

The term “intimate landscape” was coined by early color photographer Eliot Porter, whose exhibit of the same title became the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (MoMA) first exhibit of photographs. A book of these photographs was produced, which sells for high prices on eBay and elsewhere. A digital copy can be downloaded for free from the MOMA website. Porter specialized in intimate landscapes and published several books of his wonderful photos, available secondhand at reasonable prices. They are well worth studying to understand his fascinating genius. Other photographers who often chose this format include William Neill, whose most recent volume, Light on the Landscape, explores intimate landscapes and his techniques for creating them. Freeman Patterson also published many books on the subject. Other photographers whose work appeals to me are Craig and Nadine Blacklock, who often chose this format to express their connection with the natural world of their Minnesota surroundings.

I’m gravitating toward intimate landscapes in part because my opportunities to make grand landscapes are quite limited, especially in this era of restricted travel. The chances for composing smaller scenes—intimate scenes—is higher and sometimes I can even work in my own back yard.

The examples I show here illustrate some of the range of what I consider intimate landscapes. I’ll have much more to say about them in future postings.

This photo in the woods of Maine is an extraction of a larger scene and focuses on selected details of interest in the scene
The ferns make up a much smaller portion of a larger scene and are an even more intimate view
This shot of a toadstool is about as intimate you can get and was made by moving in close with a macro lens

Published by Norman Reid

I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years in the field of rural community and economic development. I retired a few years ago and have been devoting my time to photography and writing. I've been a semi-pro photographer for more than 25 years and sell my work on the Web. I live in rural Virginia not far from the Shenandoah Valley.

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