Is Modern Landscape Photography Really Art or Is It Fake?

You can learn so much about yourself and photography by briefly getting familiar with art history. But is photography art in the first place? 

Since I became a landscape photographer, my enjoyment of visiting art museums has increased by a lot. Danish art history is rich and is reflected in the art history of the world and past trends. One of my favorite museums is the Skagen Museum, and you will find it in northern Denmark in the small town of Skagen. In Skagen, a group of painters formed a colony in the late 19th century. Their paintings are arguably the most famous in Danish art history and also some of my favorite paintings.

Do not worry, I will get to the photography part in a bit.

A three-exposure photo. Focus stacked and the birds are blended in from a third exposure at high ISO.

This colony of painters painted their families, the daily life in Skagen, the surrounding landscapes, and the fishermen who lived in the town. The painters were mainly inspired by impressionism, which is known for an emphasis on accurate depiction of light, ordinary subject matter, movement, and some different painting techniques. The main point was not to depict a subject matter as seen by the eyes, but as perceived by the painter; it was the impression of the painter, which is depicted.

In one of the most famous Danish paintings (see below), the painter PS. Krøyer painted a get-together of some of the painters from the colony. He was inspired by the real events captured in the photo, but the painting is not an exact depiction of what happened on that day. No, Krøyer was much more interested in giving an impression of the friendship and social bonds of the colony, which led to his painting “Hip, Hip, Hurra.”

Even though there are many photos from the late 19th century, we humans have a tendency to look to paintings to understand the past. However, paintings from the past — no matter how realistic they look — are still a product of the painters’ skills, impression, vision, and purpose.

Photography

This is the same for all the artistic fields, no matter if it is painting, sculpting, or modern arts like photography or even computer graphics. Photography does not have to be a single thing with a single purpose. Yes, it is fantastic for documenting events and even better if the photograph is accompanied by text. However, journalistic photography is not the only purpose of using a camera, just as a “truthful” depiction of an event in the 16th century was not the only purpose of painting (it very rarely was).

No humans experience water as long streaks. Some photographers may disapprove of the long exposure effect, but you cannot deny that it has certain aesthetic value to it. It is your artistic decision to use it or not.

Contemporary landscape photography is arguably much more about the impression of the individual photographer than depicting the landscape as realistic as possible. You may not like this. It is often important to remind my co-photographer that nobody in the entire universe has the authority to decide how an individual should use their camera. Not even National Geographic who is often celebrated as a kind of "standard of nature photography." National Geographic decides what they want to publish in their magazines based on their criteria, which you can choose to follow. National Geographic is known for more “realistic” depictions of places and events, but they are not to decide whether you want to or should photograph like that.

I will bet that in 80 years (or even earlier) some art historians can say a whole lot of things about the tendencies within landscape photography in the early 21st century. How people made fantasy-esque landscape photos because they are influenced from growing up with cartoons and fantasy movies, how many photos are taken during travels because people were not limited to their own backyard, how many photos look alike because social media helped push the most popular landscape photos and the internet made it easier than ever to learn the skills of the most popular landscape photographers? There are likely even more tendencies to point out. As I am writing this, the world moves on, as it always has, and in a few decades, we can look back and analyze why things were as they were and we can keep discussing what good photography is and what good art is, as we always should.

My photo from Eystrahorn in Iceland is made up of several exposures (a so-called time blend). I experienced all of it and put it all together in one image. The post-processing helps balance tones, colors, and light, and make it "pop."

There is a tendency to label this kind of impressionist landscape photography as “fake” because it reminds some people of fantasy that they cannot see it in reality. Here is a surprise for you: art requires imagination! Just because the photo depicts more (or less) than the eye can see does not make it fake. It is as narrow-minded as labels come. The point here is that there are several different approaches to photography, and they are all valid. Some are more artistic than others, and that is all fine. When impressionist paintings first started to hit the world stage, they were ridiculed and met with harsh opposition too from the conventional art community.

Be sure to check out the above video, where I discuss my approach to impressionist and contemporary landscape photography even more. Let me know down below what kind of photography you enjoy doing and why.

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77 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

It's not a question that matters unless you are trying to increase the value of your work; however, have you noticed how the vast majority of landscape photography looks the same?

Michael Fraser's picture

They’re all photographs of planet Earth, so it’s a bit difficult to change things *that* radically.

By extension, all classical Western music sounds the same because it’s all based on the same twelve notes.

Deleted Account's picture

Let me rephrase; Marc Adamus did it first, then everyone else did it. Style on social media is largely driven by a feedback loop betweeen artists and viewers.

I am inclined to suggest if you view a photograph as nothing more than a representation of the subject depicted then you are incabable of comprehending any question pertaining to photographic art.

James Michael's picture

Off topic but, what do you mean by "classical Western music"?

Paolo Bugnone's picture

Well I don't think the question is whether it's art or not.
It is art for sure, there is no technical rule defining art.
Photography on the other end has a definition, and when you're starting to blend together various time of days and adding other stuff like birds, lightnings, nonexisting lights etc you aren't taking a photograph anymore, you are composing an image which might look good, might be art, but it's not a photo, it's a work of graphic design.

Sadly landscape photography is more and more victim of editing abuse, it started with stuff that could be justified for the purpose of going beyond the camera limits (like HDR and bracketing) but it now "evolved" (or involved?) to time of day blending, focal lenght blending, shameles stretching of landscape features in Photoshop etc... and the worst thing is whan said manipulations are hidden from the viewer which thinks he's looking at a real landscape and then builds an unrealistic expectaion that makes hard to appreciate simpler real landscape photo that aren't made on a computer.

James Michael's picture

I understand your point and it's obviously valid from your point of view but, objectively, how can you say the kinds of manipulations you have described are not photography? Photography, literally, means painting with light, which is at the heart of every action in the process of taking a photo. Your camera either manipulates the recording, internally, or, if you've captured in RAW, you will do so with your software, even if all you do is open it with a RAW editor and immediately save it out to some other format.
I think, rather than limiting the definition of "photography" it would be better to apply a name to the kind of restrictions you describe. I'm not aware of any effort in that regard but I'm sure someone has made an attempt, some time or another.
I do, however, completely agree with your comment regarding hiding the manipulations.

PC B's picture

How can Paulo say that? It's there in your definition of photography: painting with light. Once you start compositing, stretching, blending, etc in photoshop, you are painting with PIXELS, not light. What about Ansel Adams and his heavy manipulation of landscapes in the darkroom? He was dodging and burning and therefor still painting with light. What about Gary Ulesman who composites his landscapes in the darkroom? It could be argued that he is still panting with light. But if Ulesman were to start using photoshop to create his art, it would drift further and further away from actually being "photography".

James Michael's picture

My point is this: if you allow any manipulation, you have to accept ALL manipulation.
I don't see how you can distinguish between dodging and burning in the darkroom and dodging and burning in Photoshop. The light we're painting with is either during the capture or anything and everything after that. If you don't allow Photoshop, you can only accept Polaroids etc.

Rory Sheridan's picture

I think that's a drastic exaggeration. Not all manipulation changes things to the same degree. And I think it is completely rational that at a certain degree the manipulation has extended into the realm of digital art, passing limits of photography. Not recognising that is just a justification for an unnecessary categorisation. Just call it what it is, digital art.

I mean, why even take a photo if you're going to manipulate the picture so heavily? Taking things from other photos is just adding things that aren't there. Why not just draw mountains, fake an ocean? All manipulation is valid, right? Is something completely created using graphic design considered photography? No, it's art. So why would something that starts with a photo but uses similar methods to produce its results be considered photography rather than art?

In my opinion, for landscape photography, in particular, it necessitates that the photographer actually represents the landscape. That includes the sky when the photo is taken, time of day, relative colors, etc. There's some freedom within that. But once you start adding stuff that isn't there, you aren't representing the natural world the landscape is in, and therefore not representing a landscape at all! Only a fantasy. Which is totally fine, but it's digital art, not landscape photography, because photos can't capture fantasy, but fantasy can be created digitally. Ansel Adams could only doge and burn what he had photographed. Digitally we can dodge and burn invented content. Yes, there's a difference.

And if we're making comparisons to painting. We can say that realist painters aren't impressionist, and impressionists aren't abstract. Why do these differences exist if it's all just "painting"? Because lines between their definitions do exist. The reason for such a possible range is simple. Painting begins within the creator and is materialised. Photography is the opposite. It begins with the material and is captured. So the definitive lines are completely different from the outset. If you are materialising things from your mind into your photo, yes it's "painting". But it is painting more than it is photography. Therefore, art.

James Michael's picture

Just to get this out of the way, I try to keep my photos as true to reality as possible, editing them to reflect what I remember seeing. My point, however, is, if you're going to call things what they are, and I think we should, then you need more specific labels for specific ideas. While Patrick was referring to Landscape photography, at the end of his comment he wrote, "photography". How can anyone decide what amount of manipulation makes it no longer photography? But even among Landscape photography, how does one set that line? It's a slippery slope.

PC B's picture

I don't distinguish dodging and burning between darkroom and photoshop, I distinguish all the other tools available in photoshop that have noting to do with quantity or quality of light. And absolutely no, you don't have to allow ALL if you allow some. That is absurd.

James Michael's picture

Actually, this argument is absurd. Have a great day! :-)

anthony marsh's picture

Painting with light is one thing, painting with PHOTOSHOP and LIGHTROOM is not photography.

James Michael's picture

Traditional dodging and burning of film photography aren't photography either; they're something you apply to photography, after which, along with a few other processes, you have a photograph.
I promise I'm not trying to be a jerk here but, there is absolutely NO WAY to create an unmanipulated photograph because any process that results in a photo is a manipulation and representation of the reality being photographed. Of course anyone could, and should, decide how much manipulation is required to achieve their representation but you can't decide that for others.
The purpose of language is to convey an idea so I understand people have different connotations for common words but unless, and until, we can agree on a denotative definition for photography, and I'm disinclined to leave that task to Daniel Webster, if there's a camera involved, in MY OPINION, it's a photograph.

PC B's picture

But there is a way to manipulate a photograph so much that it is no longer a photograph, but rather something else.... something beyond... and I think it's the position of that line between "photograph" and "other" that we are all discussing. That line does indeed exist, and it lives somewhere in photoshop... it also lives on the drafting table, the scrap book, the collage, the canvas, etc, but it does live. If all it takes is for a camera to be involved, is a statue built from cameras a photograph? Is the light projected inside a camera obscure a photograph? Is a lifelike painting created by an artist using a camera obscure as reference a photograph? Is a printed 3d model that was originally mapped using cameras capturing a subject from different angles a photograph?

James Michael's picture

I will never agree with you and you will never agree with me so let's just let it go, shall we? Have a great day!
BTW, were is Vagabond, AS? I looked but couldn't find anything. I guess AS is American Samoa but I couldn't find a place named Vagabond, there.

PC B's picture

Sure thing, James. Peace.

Cool Cat's picture

The true meaning of Photography is "the practice of creating durable images by recording light, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film". So it has nothing to do with painting of light, it has nothing to do with manipulating light. But everything to do with capturing light through the lens. Better double check the dictionary.

James Michael's picture

Some time ago I stopped regarding dictionaries as the final word on, well... anything. Various dictionaries will often disagree, provide multiple definitions and even change meanings by some process, I'm unaware of. From what I can tell, they often codify connotative uses at some degree of general use which, again, I'm not aware of.
As you undoubtedly know, the word "Photography" comes from the Greek photos (light) and graphe (drawing) and thus, "light drawing". Beyond that, I'll stick with my definition of, "if there's a camera involved, it's a photograph."
You, of course, are free to differ and I'd be disappointed if you didn't. ;-)

Rory Sheridan's picture

In my post I was specifically writing about landscape photography. I think if you alter a landscape to any point in which it doesn't represent a true landscape, encompassing the whole reality, then it's not really a landscape, is it? It's imagination.

Landscapes are real physical existences that occur within set contexts and are formed by defined rules. I'm all for giving photos alterations to represent an emotive context, but there is a limit, a line.
IMO, changing sky boxes is already too far for landscape photography. That land, in that season, has a set kind of weather which impacts the world around it. I don't want to see tropical sunsets in Norway during winter for landscape photography. They don't exist. And if they did that landscape wouldn't exist either.
Ihe line sits somewhere in a grey area, I know. Cool.

Once you start to go deeper into the gray area though, certain kinds of photography become something else. Nature, Landscape and wildlife photography stop being what they are.

They become artistic photography with landscapes, nature and wildlife as the subject. Is it photography? Sure, absolutely. Should it be in the same category? No. It stops representing what those categories are about.

You can't even really change a bird's color without making it a fantasy creature because the color is part of the definition of the species. Is it wildlife? No, because wildlife is a fixed definable concept in reality. There's not so wiggle room to interpret it because there isn't a grey area.

We all, as artists, creatively interpret the world through our camera (and PC), so it's just a habit we have. But these things are definable, so a category should represent them. If that's not the goal, just stick it in a more versatile category, no probs.

James Michael's picture

I can certainly agree there's a limit but again and again, each individual needs to set it for themselves. As usual, I'm sorry I commented and will refrain from doing so except to say, "Yeah, you're right! You're always right!" I'll have some peace and you guys will be happy.

Rory Sheridan's picture

I dunno why you're so flippant and argumentative? It's unnecessarily adversarial. Others are just chatting on the concept, the point of the article. I didn't even disagree with you? I just expanded the discussion.
And if you agree there's a limit, who are YOU even disagreeing with?

You even wrote in a previous post, and I quote:
"if you're going to call things what they are, and I think we should, then you need more specific labels for specific ideas".
🤔

That's literally my entire post. Specific categories exist, so use them as they are, they're all photography.

I suppose you're right, you should refrain from commenting, especially if you can't have an adult discussion... 🙄

James Michael's picture

You're right. I was getting aggravated by the various responses which, to my mind, don't make any sense. Along with others, your comments seemed to be discussing personal taste rather than concept.

So, starting over:

1. William Turner is a famous painter of Landscapes. Even among his paintings of actual locations, his highly stylized renderings were nothing like what one would see in those locations. Point being, a landscape does NOT have to look like the reality or even be of a real place to be considered a landscape. Turner died in 1851 - why is this controversial? As for specific labels, until there's a broadly understood and used sub-category for realistic vs impressionistic landscapes, you can't realistically exclude either.

2. In photography, the various genre are defined by the subject and not how true they are to reality (thinking about all the requests I've fulfilled in my portraiture 😂) with the exception of documentary purposes (brochures, newspaper, etc.)

And that's my position. I will not change it. Yes, I have considered everyone else's arguments and reject them.

Rory Sheridan's picture

If you're as close minded and ignorant to not be open to discussion, you're absolutely right, don't comment. You have nothing to gain through communication and nothing to contribute to a beneficial discussion.

Honestly, I think you don't have a good idea of genre, category or what people are even writing. I'm not surprised the responses don't make sense to you. You literally haven't made sense of them. Nobody is talking about "what is or is not photography". We're all saying where things belong in category within photography, and you just keep responding to something else you've invented. Whatevs, man, keep it easy.

P. S. A person who writes like you has clearly not considered anyone's arguments. They don't even understand the word "considerate".

James Michael's picture

Perhaps if I were more considerate I would accuse you of being close minded, ignorant, flippant, argumentative, adversarial and incapable of having an adult conversation. As it is, I did none of those things. Maybe I should work on it, but I won't.

PC B's picture

His definition of painting with light predates the English dictionary itself... he was looking at the origins of the words themselves: photo + graph. Phos means light and graphe means drawing or writing, both from latin / greek.

David Love's picture

Coming from a troll that has no images.

Cool Cat's picture

Still can't get the wrinkles out of your panties?

David Love's picture

Still using lines from middle school?

Javier Gutierrez's picture

i COMPLETELY agree with you. The photograph above that the author posted in my opinion that does not mean anything, is ART. It is no longer a photograph. Nothing wrong with that though.

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