Formulae are not good recipes for photography, least of all landscape photography, which is already overloaded with too many clichés (fiery sunsets, over-photographed ‘best’ viewpoints, long-exposure ‘misty’ seas, to name but three). A small figure in a large landscape, which is essentially the theme for this article, sounds suspiciously like a formula, but I’m not treating it this way. Figures in landscapes are an extension of a long tradition, not just in photography but in painting, from which we can all learn. It’s a special tradition that actually precedes landscape imagery, and you could argue that it stays separate. I’m tempted to think of it as a genre in its own right, not quite landscape and not quite anything else, either.
The idea is simple enough, placing a small figure in an expansive landscape —small enough so that there’s a slight delay in recognising it, yet distinct in the way it’s positioned and contrasts with the setting, so that ultimately it’s an essential subject. The human face, human body, human anything carry strong visual weight, meaning that the viewer’s eye is automatically attracted, and that’s a useful advantage if you’re composing a landscape image with a small figure. Provided that you handle the composition well — positioning, lighting, contrast, colour and so on — you can, as we’ll see, have the figure very small in the frame and yet still have it stay noticeable. In fact, this is nearly always the technical issue for this kind of picture, balancing and locating the figure within the much larger landscape, and there’s nearly always a wide choice as to how you frame, from pulling back to closing in. Getting that choice right is a large part of what this article is about.
Yongfu Temple, Hangzhou, China
First, though, why is figure-in-a-landscape important at all? Isn’t it just a device to give scale? Well, you could treat it like that, but that might be missing an opportunity with a bit more weight and interest. In the history of Western and Eastern art, it came to mean much more, and it became so familiar that doing it now in photography calls up memories and tradition. And these are quite different between West and East, even though the end result physically is similar. In European art, until well into the 16th century landscapes were almost always the backdrop for religious scenes, and so from the start were populated. Even when the Bible was abandoned in favour of contemporary life, the tradition was set, and painters like Claude Lorrain and Turner, whose success was built on their artistry and eventual fame, included figures. In Chinese art, the scroll-painting tradition was quite different, and artists focused not on on representing real scenes, but on landscape compositions that were in a way idealised — to show an arrangement of mountains and water that were an expression of the painter’s appreciation and feeling. Whether vertical or horizontal, scroll paintings were meant to be viewed by scrolling along them, from bottom to top or right to left, so that the landscape unfolded, and within them an essential ingredient was the human figure. Partly this was because of Daoism, which stressed the unity of man and nature, with man in a minor role, and partly so that the viewer could identify with the very small figures and walk with them through the scene.
Section of scroll painting, by Ellen Kong
Back in the West, when the Romantic movement got under way in the 18th century, and painters started to travel to wilder places like the Alps, the idea of the sublime took hold. The sublime is a special case in which we experience a sort of fascinated delight, difficult to pin down, at scenes and situations that are overwhelming, vast, even terrifying. These are not hard to find, as anyone would agree who has stood on the edge of volcano’s crater as the earth starts to shake, or been caught out in the open with lightning strikes getting closer. It was these kind of natural forces that inspired many Romantic artists and poets of the late 18th century to create an art of the sublime. It shared something with the mountain-water (shan shui) landscapes of Chinese art, in which peaks and cliffs towered above tiny human figures climbing or walking lower down, In the hands of painters like J. M. W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, and Claude-Joseph Vernet, certain techniques run through this. Making frequent appearances, although not all at the same time, are the large scale of the pictures themselves, low horizons to give pride of place to towering skies, small figures lower down, large areas in low key (dark, brooding stormclouds), a preference for backlighting whenever the sun does occasionally appear, dynamic skies (Turner a master at this), or distances dissolving into mist and formlessness (Friedrich known particularly for this. The idea was also included in Romantic views of ancient ruins, as in this engraving of Angkor.
Photography inherits all of this, although it works quite differently. On the one hand, you can’t construct landscapes as you’d like them, and that extends to not always having a figure conveniently walking through it, but on the other, there’s the huge advantage of the surprise at finding landscape views that you probably wouldn’t be able to imagine entirely by yourself. From the very start, photographers were travelling to show remote parts of the world to audiences back home who would never have the opportunity to see them for themselves, and so the grand landscape was always considered special. This part has changed recently, of course, because exotic travel is now so widely available, that the effect of a dramatic and unusual landscape photograph is to inspire the audience to travel there. And the effect on figures in photographic landscapes? Interestingly, the main era of the dramatic landscape, which began around the middle of the 20th century, actually pushed the human figure out of the scene. With Ansel Adams, the first really famous photographer of the wild, as rôle model, specialised landscape photographers started to concentrate, hardly surprisingly, on remote and exceptional wild landscapes, travelling further and more commitedly to capture landscapes that were physically exciting and unique. Quite simply, the human figure stopped being a part of the experience. The camera took its place, so instead of being invited to identify with the figure small in the frame, the viewer was simply being asked to share the photographer’s point of view.
One of the problems of the exotic is that it doesn’t stay that way for long. Think for a moment of exceptional landscapes, such as Antelope Canyon in Arizona, Delicate Arch in Utah, the Sierra Paine in Chile. The first pictures people saw of these were memorable, but they are now well over-photographed. My argument is that if the search for the physically spectacular is not yet exactly a dead end, it’s definitely losing its power. Back then, to imagery that depends more on the photographer’s idea and composition than simply being in the right place at the right time. There are many ways, of which the place of man in the landscape is one.
The techniques begin with scaling. You may not have any control over who, when and how someone enters the landscape, but if you’re shooting from a distance, you always have a choice of the angle of view — in other words, directly over the size of the figure in the frame, and from that to their position. It’s probably best explained with a worked-through example.
The Khone Phapeng Falls, Mekong River, Laos
These are the biggest falls on the Mekong River, in Laos, and this is an attempt to give scale. Seen alone, as a landscape image, they don’t impress as much as the real thing because they lack comparison — the trees could be almost any size. What shows their size is the tiny figure of a fisherman, doing his dangerous daily work with a net, in the lower right. He was worth a close shot on his own, from closer, but despite this, the needs of the bigger view won, and I framed the scene to show his relationship to the falls, and their size and power. Even so, there was the question of whether horizontal or vertical, and how small the figure could be in the image and still be seen. Too small and the point would be wasted. In the end, I settled for two versions. The vertical is probably the more impressive because the rocks and falls stack up above the man, but this wide horizontal also works under one condition — it has to be printed big. One more thing is the moment of action as the fisherman throws his net. It makes a difference, as you can see from the set of closer views, and the shot I chose has, to my mind, more energy than the others.
This matter of the scale of the figure involves the idea of delay, and a certain amount of risk as to whether the viewer will see the figure. In cinematography, there’s a technique called the Reveal. This is a sequence during which the audience is made aware of something just by the camera movement. It pans slowly to one side or tilts up or down, to reveal an actor or something that the audience had not expected, so changing the meaning of the shot. There is always some element of surprise, of the unexpected, and it is the director who takes charge of how this is presented to the audience. It works because of control, because the audience is captive and has nowhere else to look but through the camera. The reveal is a powerful and frequently used dramatic device in cinema, and it relies simply on being able to manage exactly where and for how long the audience will look. The only choice we have is not to look (as some people do when the suspense is too great), not where to look. And this is all because a movie is linear.
If only we could make a still photograph work like this, so that the viewer approaches it, looks for a while, then starts to notice that there is more to the image than first thought, finally noticing something that was not obvious at first glance. The problem is twofold: first, to delay the viewers’ reading of the photograph (while not losing them entirely), and second, to direct their attention to the right point in the image. Painting has some useful examples, and here are two: The Sermon on the Mount by Claude Lorrain (c. 1656) and The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, probably by the Antwerp painter Matthys Cock (c. 1540) are essentially landscapes, but embedded in each is the action of the title and the subject. The striking features of Claude Lorrain’s painting are the diminishing perspective of the spectators on the grass, the distribution of brightness (brightest in the corner) and their gaze all lead the eye to where it would not immediately go — the top of the dark hill under the trees. And there is Christ giving his sermon.
Left: The Sermon on the Mount: schematic of the painting by Claude Lorrain described in the text: an archetype of the slow reveal in classical painting. Right: The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine: schematic of another painting in the classical landscape tradition, with the declared subject hardly visible
Similar techniques are at work in The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine. The brighter foreground and darker distance encourage the eye to start in the foreground, with the additional distraction of a seaside town, ships and prominent rocky crags off to one side. Ultimately, though, the diagonals, the horizon line and a violent storm lead the eye to where the action is. And important in both pictures is that titles give us a clue to keep looking.
How can we translate this into photography? In the banner photograph at to the top of this article, It’s a combination of tonal contrast (dark against light) and the positioning inside an obvious empty gap. Below, the same thing, which works even though the horseman is way off-centre.
Both use tonal range to try and start the viewer in a particular place (brighter) that is away from the final subject. Both use familiar compositional devices to lead the eye, and both the subject very eccentrically.
Polo ranch, Bogota, Colombia
Here, using the opposite lighting technique of a small bright subject against dark, is another kind of ‘reveal’, from Sudan…
…and the way it’s supposed to work for the viewer…
Also from Sudan is this remote Roman ruin in the north, Soleb. I liked the idea of treating it in the 19th century Orientalist style, which harks back to the treatment of the Angkor ruins above. But here I wanted any figures to be much smaller, dwarfed by the ruins, and not at all immediately obvious. I framed and waited, because in the distance was a track leading to a village, and sooner or later someone would pass. This is an example of the risk that the viewer might not look at the photograph in the way you wanted. The sequence of illustrations below the image show the intended way of seeing: first the eye goes to the silhouette of the central pillar, massive an unmissable. Then, the eye should go toward the light, and the shot was positioned so that the sun just flared from behind another column. Next, wth luck, the eye goes to the lower right.
Finally, returning to the Chinese scroll-painting tradition, this following was an assignment for a book on fine tea, and here we’re in the depths of the mountains of Anhui Province in China. Our hosts the tea growers were taking us up this attractive but difficult trail; basically the best tea grows high on the mountains. When we reached this point on the trail, the view was obviously impressive, though there were no people. So, as a landscape shot it was just OK. But my friend and coordinator pointed out what should have been obvious to me: that this vertical arrangement had all the makings of a typical Chinese ‘mountain water’ brush-and-ink scroll painting. There’s a particular form to these, involving graphics that are intended to lead the eye upward, vertical stacking so that more distant upper levels appear to sit on top of the lower ones, and tiny figures.
So, where are the people? This involved a lot of kind effort on the part of our hosts. Cellphones didn’t work here, so someone had to climb much higher to find out when the pickers in that upper tea garden would be returning, so that I could be prepared for the shot. Everything else in the shooting—timing, framing and later cropping, focal length and some subtleties of processing—was re-directed toward this idea of a traditional ‘mountain water’ painting.