Subverting the Picturesque

Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography (Required Reading Range). (01 edition) (s.l.): Fairchild Books (Bloomsbury).

In the chapter “Defining Nature” Alexander points out that the term “Picturesque”, rather than just being about perceived ideas of beauty, is really referring to the idea of depoliticizing the landscape. As he says, Picturesque means the removal of “evidence of the relationship between the land and the social, political, or economic conflicts of interest of those who use it” (Alexander,2015:64). He gives as an example of the idea of subverting this definition the work “A.O.N.B” by Keith Arnatt, where the photographs place items in the foreground that negate the idea of beauty that would otherwise be typical of accepted ideas of picturesque beauty.

I wanted to see what happens if the accentuation is reversed; if an ordinary image of modern scenery features an object that might not look out of place in a Constable painting. These are two photographs I took to explore this idea.

This is from an ordinary housing estate in Lichfield.
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I don’t know the history of this area – I was just walking through on my way to somewhere else and got a bit lost – but following Occam’s razor it seems most likely that the estate has sprung up around the timber framed house. The effect though is more as if the house has been dropped in from elsewhere. It looks quite out of place and gives a jarring quality to the image.

This is from my own neighbourhood in Oxford.
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Although this is perhaps an even older building, the effect is not quite so pronounced here. Other buildings here look as though they are from a range of periods, so that the thatched cottage is just one of a number of unmatched buildings.

Neither scene could be described as beautiful in the traditional sense, but it is easier to accept something that seems perhaps out of place if the remainder of the scene would not otherwise suggest a specific idea or emotion. When the scene is of a piece – whatever the time period – anything out of that period will work against any usual response we might give to that scene.

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