Intimate Landscapes

Detail of stream flowing through colorful brush

The term Intimate Landscape was coined by Eliot Porter. It was the title of the first one-person color photography show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, back in 1979. By convention it refers to isolating one small part of a scene rather than the entire vista. Even though it is called “Intimate Landscape” the technique can be used for almost any type of subject.

Details rather than sweeping whole

Landscapes can generally be approached at 3 levels: whole scene, micro/macro view of extreme details, and “in between”. This “in between” area is what we will be discussing. Some consider it the Goldilocks region – not too big, not too small.

It is easy to pull up to a beautiful, vast landscape view and immediately want to pull out your widest angle lens and capture the whole sweeping scene. That’s great. It will probably be a beautiful image. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with that. But unless there is something really magical going on, it tends to look like every other visitor’s picture of the same place.

I am also going to ignore the macro end of the spectrum for now. This is the domain of the crazies with specialized gear and their own language, who will set up a strange looking rig with focus stages, wind blocks, multiple flashes, and run a 200 image focus stack set. You know who you are 🙂 – I’ve been there too.

To me the distinguishing characteristic of intimate landscapes is the focus on details rather than the whole.

Describe the whole by a part

In formal logic intimate landscapes are related to the process of inductive reasoning. That’s just for free, there is no real reason you need to memorize that. Inductive reasoning is making broad generalizations from specific observations. In logic this can be dangerous – Harold is a grandfather; Harold is bald; therefore all grandfathers are bald. This is a non-sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the facts.

But we are not talking about formal logic, we are discussing art. Art is what we feel and perceive. Using parts to give insight on the whole is a valid and very useful technique.

For instance, let’s say I am looking at a beautiful mountain scene in Colorado, because I hang out there a lot. If I shoot the whole scene it may be very beautiful, but it is a very specific location. You may have been there and seen the same thing. You expect to be able to go to a map and pinpoint the exact spot and be able to go there and see it.

But what are the features and details I am drawn to? I find that when I focus on these details it helps me to interpret the whole. The details become much more general. They are views of things we all have seen and relate to rather than just a particular place. They are vignettes, glimpses into the grand scene. The detailed scenes represent the concept or essence of the place without pinning it down to a specific location. To me this is more powerful and easier for us to relate to. The part really can represent the whole.

Telephoto eyes

Jay Maisel was the first I can remember to express the concept of having “telephoto eyes”. He is not the only one. What he is saying is that he has a natural tendency to zoom in on details in a scene. I discovered that this is my natural inclination, too.

For many years I shot almost exclusively with a moderate telephoto lens. Recently I have made myself use a wider angle much of the time. This is more to train myself to be able to see other options than because I switched my perspective. And because the Nikon Z 24-70 f/2.8 I am using is a really sweet lens.

But my instinct to to isolate details. It is the way I perceive scenes. I have to interpret it by deconstructing it into component parts. It requires some patience. To look beneath the obvious beauty of the whole and find the parts that make it up. To me, the parts represent and describe the essence of the scene. And they transcend a particular location and bring out what is interesting about places like this.

An intimate scene, to me, focuses our attention on nuggets of significance. Guy Tal has a book entitled “More Than a Rock“. He describes that a picture of a scene can take on significance greater than the obvious object. That is the way I feel about intimate landscapes. If I isolate a cascade in a larger scene, it can become more than just a particular place. It says something about mountain cascades in general.

Opportunity for interpretation

This generalization process is very attractive to me. I can stop just making pretty pictures of particular places. Now I can respond to the parts individually and emotionally. I can interpret the details in their own right. It is my reaction to and view of cascades or trees or rocks, regardless of the specific location. They take on a life and meaning of their own.

The process involves deliberately paring away everything that is not adding to my interpretation of a particular detail. The details become independent of any certain location. Without the context of the whole scene they represent the things that catch my attention and that I want to share with viewers. For example, the image in this article of a brook meandering through willow bushes is very representative of many typical locations in the part of the world I hang out in a lot. It is very characteristic of the area, not of the specific location.

So for me, I view it as a process of breaking a wide scene down to the individual components that make it interesting to me, interpreting the parts, and from that coming to a greater appreciation of the whole scene. I don’t claim this is a conscious process I do methodically or deliberately for every scene. I’m just thinking through how I seem to react to views and trying to understand why.

We all should seek to understand what we do and why. Even if we are not entirely successful we might learn something about ourselves.

Intimate landscape

Maybe it’s quirky and peculiar. Maybe me and Jay Maisel and Eliott Porter and Guy Tal and a few thousand other photographers are the exception. I tend to see the world in details, in bits and pieces. These details come together for me to paint a picture of the whole.

Sometimes the whole scene is necessary. But more often I find the details help me take it apart and decide what is important to me.

Anyway, that’s the way I perceive things. I’m glad for the concept of intimate landscapes. It makes me feel a little sane. If you approach the world differently, that is fine, as long as it works for you.