Flattening the Picture

I’ve been taking photos of woodland damage caused by larch felling and subsequent storms. This landscape would often be captured with a romantic view. In fact, the place I’m photographing is cultivated as a picturesque landscape. I didn’t want to make images of beautiful decay, so I thought I’d try something more confrontational. 

I thought I’d share some of my thinking and experiments – as well as reading about other photographers’ work – here.

The Picture Plane

First, some terminology:

In traditional illusionistic painting using perspective, the picture plane can be thought of as the glass of the notional window through which the viewer looks into the representation of reality that lies beyond. In practice the picture plane is the same as the actual physical surface of the painting.


Most landscape photography follows this ‘illusionistic’ tradition, and attempts to create depth in the flat plane of the photograph and lead the viewer’s eyes across and into the image.

Nowhere to rest, no easy way through the image

Rather than leading the viewer into images full of depth and with comfortably arranged resting spots for the gaze, I tried to create images that push back; that are hard to read, and uncomfortable to view. 

No escape

If you’ve been lost in the woods, you know the feeling of relief when you glimpse some light through the trees. It signals the edge; once you get to the light you can orient yourself; spot a landmark; the car; a pub. By removing these glimpses of light from the image, through framing, cropping or manipulation in post-production, you can deny the viewer this glimmer of hope, the possibility of escape.

A rough prototype shows this effect:

Depth of field

The camera, having a limited depth of field, inherently creates the illusion of depth. You could arrange yourself and the subject matter so that everything in shot is on the same plane (although then you’re making an image of something that is itself flat). Or you can shoot with a sufficiently small aperture that the depth of field covers everything that’s in shot. In these examples the pile of stumps rakes back away from the camera. Shot at f/4, the depth effect is preserved, even with few other cues as to the arrangement of logs (only that those at the bottom of the frame occlude those at the top, so must be in front of them). Shot at f/22 (the smallest I can go on this lens), the depth of the pile is harder to read, and the eye is less comfortable.

A preference for small apertures was taken to extremes by Group f/64, the school of photographers operating in the 1930s who reacted against a pictorialist tendency in photography, and saw the camera as a tool for recording the world with pure objectivity. They wrote in their manifesto:

Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.


Their motives were different, but there is some overlap in both intent and effect. A purely objective (as much as that’s possible) image can be difficult to read, and a more painterly approach can lead the eye in with cues of shade, detail, contrast and composition.

Shooting position and depth cues in the frame

Looking at the same log pile – if we step back a couple of paces, there is some minor detail at the edges of the frame. Enough to give cues as the the situation, the arrangement of stumps, and their overall size. The image is much more legible. A tiny amount of detail is enough to give the game away, perhaps just a few blades of grass at the bottom of the frame would orient the viewer and remove the sense of discomfort.

I’m reading the Ed Burtynsky retrospective, Essential Elements, which includes excepts from many essays about his work. He often uses his shooting position to force the viewer into an uncomfortable position in relation to the subject:

He knows what he’s doing, he knows his art history and politics, and he knows how to use paradox to lure and bewilder viewers. He photographs elegies, but horrific ones, like postcards from the post-apocalypse. He gives us documents in the great photographic traditions, but we don’t see them as evidence, we see
them as pattern, color and vanishing points. They are enclosed and timeless. They are composed with the flatness of modern art in mind – Burtynsky shoots at dawn and twilight and on cloudy-bright days when there are no hard shadows to model things. He shoots from the air, looking down onto an Earth flattened by his altitude. And he stays out of the way – so distant from mountains of bald tires or rows of pumpjacks or junked fighter planes or the fearful symmetries of suburbia seen from above or road signs in Breezewood, PA, that we’re left feeling oddly alone, even doomed, in front of the pictures.

Henry Allen, ‘Burtynsky’s Fuel For Thought: What Are We Thinking?’ 2009

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