What is a picturesque photograph?

Over the years, the term picturesque has become so intertwined with the medium of photography that it's easy to forget its roots are in painting. That said, some of the early exponents of picturesque image making used an apparatus more like a camera than a canvas. Tourists who, in late 18th century, went in search of picturesque views among the wilder regions of Britain were often equipped with a Claude glass. This simple, hand-held device was a means of transforming the terrain into a flat, contained image. The user stood with their back to the scene and the glass – a tinted, convex mirror – reflected the view in a way that framed it and applied a unifying tone, giving the effect of a painted landscape. Variations in the unifying colour caste were possible by making use of the range of coloured glasses available. A scene, for example, could be viewed through the warm tones of a summer evening or a cool blue glass denoting moonlight. Thus, although the period of burgeoning interest in ‘capturing’ picturesque scenes pre-dates the invention of photography, it is interesting to note that techniques were used that bore some resemblance to a photographic capture of images - framing the image in a viewfinder and filtering the light to effect a certain mood.

It is perhaps an over-concern with mood that has led to the vilification of the picturesque photograph. Emotive landscapes so beloved by manufacturers of calendars and jigsaw puzzles are felt to represent the lowest common denominator of aesthetic value. The more rarefied negotiation of photography's expressive potential, so we understand it, keeps a respectable distance from such language. It scorns the easy deployment of motifs that sentimentalise the image. Quite aside from the visual repetitiveness of the picturesque formula, such an approach to photography is one-dimensional in its communicative intention. Bringing home its message with sledgehammer certainty it severs its ties with photography's more multi-faceted relationship with the world. But the picturesque seeps into our experience of photography not so much through the bric-a-brac depiction of rustic charm, which we know to cognitively steer around, but through the work of contemporary documentarists such as Edward Burtynsky and Nadav Kander. To explain this contention it is necessary to set aside the popular understanding of what the 'picturesque' encompasses and return for a moment to the original principles of the movement.

The Reverand William Gilpin, who is credited with being the originator of the picturesque aesthetic and was instrumental in its popularisation, held that the word 'roughness' sums up its unique concern. Gnarled oaks and crumbling walls were the kind of surfaces rapturously embraced by the 18th century followers of the new aesthetic. Gilpin's position on the importance of roughened surfaces is perhaps best summed up by his remark that Tintern Abbey, the key site on his Wye Valley tour, could be improved through judicious use of a mallet (Gilpin 2005: 42). For Gilpin, regularity and smoothness were to be avoided when looking for beauty in the landscape. The crevices found in fractured stone or ancient trees, or the roughening effect of ivy on otherwise naked walls were all to be celebrated. Needless to say the recognition that decaying forms hold aesthetic appeal is far from being an affectation of the past. Any photography student (or teacher) in the current day will testify to the fact that almost anything old and dilapidated will deliver visual interest through its emphatic display of form and texture. For the theorists of the picturesque this was a guiding principle and one that pointed towards the ruin as the apotheosis of pleasing decrepitude, its textures of age and decay offering a gratifying visual effect but also an indulgence in melancholic reflection. It is in these terms that 'adornments of time' like ivy are more than a trap for the play of light (Gilpin 2005: 42). They signify nature's reclamation of the site of human endeavour where human toil and aspiration are spent and nature, at its stately pace, closes in and buries the evidence. Such an inference might be drawn from Wynn Bullock's image Typewriter (1951) where the machine has lost its metallic definition and the keys now appear like funghi sprouting from a compost of discarded ambition. Or more recently in Joel Sternfeld's Walking the High Line images where overgrown rail tracks in Manhattan evoke a post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

In Edward Burtynsky's photograph Oxford Tire Pile #8, Westley, California, USA (1999) we are confronted with a mountain of discarded tyres. Worn and muddy, their densely packed form creates an intricate texture that stretches to the edges of the image. As is common in his work, Burtynsky provides us with a spectacle of broken surfaces and decaying forms but at the same time hints at a bigger picture of decay, the decay brought about by global-scale consumption and over-zealous industrialisation. The monumental excavations of open-caste mining, the vast, rusting hulks of oil tankers fill us with awe and lead us to surmise that health and safety is given scant regard as we begin to detect signs of working life from our helicopter viewpoint. We feel a similar critique of the determinants of ruin in Gabriele Basilico's shots of overgrown, empty shell buildings in Beirut and Guy Tillim's depiction of life among the crumbling modernist buildings of Avenue Patrice Lumumba in Mozambique. Such works document and bear witness but aesthetically exploit our fascination with collapse and decay.

Such rejection of the smooth and unimpaired would surely have met with Gilpin's approval but it may seem a little reductive to argue that any sign of ruination is an inheritance from the picturesque. At this point the question needs to be asked 'who is this for?' Who, in the depiction of dilapidation and decay reaps the aesthetic benefit? The question did not get overlooked at the time of the picturesque movement. Uvedale Price, in Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared With the Sublime and the Beautiful (1810), addresses his readers with the expectation that, as in his own case, the appearance of villages is within their control. His advice on where to find picturesque effect is spelled out clearly in his assertion that “an old hovel, an old cart horse, an old woman are often, in that sense, full of picturesque beauty” (Price 1810: 48). In other words, the picturesque, according to Price, requires observation and discovery. Needless to say an appreciation of ruinous forms was found chiefly among those who had no need to live in their vicinity. It was dilapidation at a distance that was aesthetically rewarding; at a distance but fully revealed.

Key to the revelation of the picturesque was vantage point, either in the physical sense where an all-encompassing view is achieved or in the sense of social advantage from which the world can appear expansive and endlessly interesting. An image that perfectly illustrates a conflation of the two is Roger Fenton's The Terrace, Harewood House (c1860). Fenton's camera looks down from an upper window of the house and captures a group of people on the terrace who in turn have an elevated view of the estate. The grounds have been landscaped in a naturalistic style and for any observer from the house the large lake and surrounding woodland give the impression of nature in its wilder form. It is a prospect that is tailored to deliver picturesque beauty to anyone who surveys from this particular position. In another Fenton photograph, Mill at Hurst Green (1859), a high viewpoint enables a deep recession within the image. Pictorial conventions within the picturesque include a distinct fore, middle and background that allow the depths of the scene to be visible. Side screens, usually a dark mass of trees or a craggy outcrop help to steer our view into the centre and give the impression that the viewer just happens to be perfectly placed. As with landscaping in the picturesque style an illusion is proffered where careful construction masquerades as something natural and authentic. The viewer enjoys a 'haphazard' but unrestricted penetration of the image. Whilst the villagers' view of Hurst Green is local and occluded ours is one in which the scene lays itself before us in its entirety and in a sense points towards us, anticipating our inquisitive eye.

In Tire Pile #8 Burtynsky composes his shot in such a way that we are able to see the horizon. A break in the tyre pile is aligned with our position as viewer and we feel a sense of mastery as the parted sea of tyres seems to confirm our right to visually penetrate with nothing in our way. In the original picturesque a clearing in the landscape permitted a deep, omniscient view and this seems to have carried through into its contemporary photographic equivalent. In Oil Fields #22 Burtynsky uses side screens of trees to guide us to the centre where our eye follows oil pipelines zig-zagging their way into the distance. The compositional structure of Nadav Kander's photograph Bathers, Yibin, Sichuan (2006-7) also uses this device. The left-hand side of the image is dominated by a side screen in the form of a huge rock face that runs down to the water's edge. This extends to the foreground where an edge-on view of its sedimentary layers contributes an expanse of roughened texture. The rock face extends almost to the middle of the picture but is just to the left to enable our distant view. On the horizon a faint outline of a bridge disappears into a Claude-like misty haze. As in Mill at Hurst Green the focal point of the image is human activity, in this case a small group of bathers standing on a rock, starkly outlined by the river behind them. On the right-hand side, in the middle ground, is the farther bank of the Yangtse. On it we see a factory with a tall chimney where ordinarily there might be the ruin of a castle or abbey if this were a picturesque painting rather than a photograph.

Kander's bathers astonish us because, although not in the water and merely perched on a rock, they seem at home with the idea that the murky waters of the Yangste represent a credible bathing spot. The difference between us and them here is significant. Fundamentally, the original picturesque was about landscape, nature in a kind of disorderly order. But as already stated the picturesque was thought to exist also in discrete places - tumbledown cottages, the inside of old barns, the characterful faces of rural inhabitants. In the case of people any driven purely by economic gain offered the observer minimal picturesque reward. Gilpin was clearly disturbed by the presence of a savvy poor amid the ruins of Tintern Abbey who seemed well-used to relieving the tourist class of their money in exchange for guidance to lesser-known points of interest (Gilpin 2005: 43). For connoisseurs of the picturesque it was shepherds, gypsies and vagrants - always at a distance - who had the power to enhance the landscape. Those who had the appearance of being indifferent or oblivious to economic culture were thought to be more at one with their wild surroundings. If they viewed their condition as hardship their picturesque appeal was lessened but when they endured in a stalwart way, unable to even see themselves as another might see them they had much to offer. In his essay Of The Turnerian Picturesque John Ruskin identifies uncomplaining endurance as a quality of the truly picturesque - drawing a distinction between higher and lower varieties (Ruskin 1862). Ruskin uses the clock tower of Calais as his example of endured hardship but Wordsworth gives us an instance of this in human form in the leech-gatherer of his poem Resolution and Independence (1807), a pitiful figure eking out a living by catching leeches on a desolate moor. Wordsworth's narrator recognises him as  being self-absorbed and entirely without self-pity. The beauty for the reader here is in the otherness of this raggedy figure, oblivious to the way that others might see him. Kander's bathers enhance the picturesque qualities of the scene by being at ease in their 'alien' environment. They do not seem disgruntled or envious of our position. They do not even confront our voyeuristic stare. They merely go about their business and allow us the sense of mastery and inquisitive wonder that our vantage point allows.

I have so far avoided using the word gaze in this discussion even though a connection with postcolonial notions of otherness is no doubt becoming clear. There is for sure an approach to documentary photography that could easily stand accused of a capitalisation on difference; projects that entail going in search of some outsider type, preferably in some far-flung place, and capturing them within surroundings that provide a treasure trove of oddness and worn 'simplicity'. In such work a documentarist intention might well be there but this does not mean the aesthetic reward is not at the same time intuitively sensed. In discussions of the gaze the term is usually taken to mean the objectifying look of an empowered subject but in the true Lacanian use of the word le regard belongs to the object rather than the subject. It is the imagined feeling of being observed oneself, scrutinised and objectified. In a photograph we may feel it when our look is confronted. When we are made to think of ourselves as an observer with a vested interest and implicated in that which is represented. When we are allowed our anonymity and our invisibility - looking in from outside the picture - the gaze does not interrogate us and it is then that the picturesque effect is at its best.

Burtynsky's distant viewpoints, in this sense, ensure our viewing pleasure. And in Kander's Yangzte Long River images those pictured are invariably dwarfed by their surroundings and as a result their identities are assimilated into the landscape. One exception is Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic). In this image a group of young people are seated around a table in the foreground. We are again urged to marvel at their indifference to the urbanness of their recreational space. The tables are dressed with lace cloths and sit on a 'beach' made of rubble. Behind them is a forest of concrete pillars supporting an elevated road, their vast scale and flaking paint affirming the idea of industrial ruination. Whist the majority of the group seem at ease and oblivious to the photographer's presence, one member looks towards the camera, seemingly bothered by the intrusion. It is only now that, in feeling ourselves discovered, our pleasure in looking becomes less easy.

Eye contact with those who are pictured, however, does not rule out a picturesque effect. Here I would site Steve McCurry's Afghan Girl (1984) as an example. Although she stares piercingly towards us any sense of confrontation is defused by our attunement to the image's aesthetic language. Arguably, the image says nothing unique about the Afghan/Soviet conflict, nor offers anything specific about Sharbat Gula's experiences as a refugee, but the appeal of the image (for Western eyes at least) is undeniable. Appearing on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 it also went on to be the cover image of the Amnesty International Calendar in 2002 and of National Geographic's The 100 Best Pictures, a product launched in the run up to Christmas in 2002 (Edwards 2007: 87). The image also continues to feature on the cover of McCurry's book Portraits published by Phaidon who, as a spin-off, have the image available as a box of 24 greetings cards. Our involvement in such images clearly extends beyond their documentary content and perhaps what they offer is more important to us than any declaration of truth. They may help to evidence what we already know but their meaning, I would contend, is more confirmatory than elucidatory. They confirm an aesthetic principle more than they reveal something unknown.

The critique of widescale industrialisation that is implicit in much contemporary documentary is not dissimilar to 18th century romanticist thinking. It was the rapidly advancing industrialisation at this time that led many to believe that something precious would soon be lost forever: agrarian tradition, village life, a more natural order. This had an impact on photography quite early on in its development, as is illustrated by a cartoon that appeared in Amateur Photographer magazine in 1887. Captioned ‘the photographic craze: a village under siege’ we are shown quaint village life brought to a halt by an invasion of photographers, positioning their tripods in every conceivable place to find the perfect viewpoint (see Taylor 1994: 38). Such photographers, we might imagine, were intent on archiving a disappearing way of life but most probably had also an aesthetic interest and perhaps a personal one since that which stood to be lost would have an impact on their own sense of what the world is. Captured as picturesque, the end is deferred. The existence of a place outside of 'normal' urban experience is proven. Its textures of age, tradition and beguiling inexpediency are there to be enjoyed as a counter position to informed, systematic development. Composition is used to place the observer in an ideal position to receive the effect, partly through delivery of an all-encompassing view but also through an arrangement of elements that imply a 'terrace' of privileged spectatorship.

An entry taken from Dorothy Wordsworth's journal in 1807 describes how she, her brother and Coleridge had been trekking in the hills around Loch Lomond and all day had been disappointed by their experience. Finally, however, the perfect picturesque composition seemed to present itself and now feeling themselves ideally placed they all declared 'That's what we wanted' (Wordsworth 1897: 231). The picturesque, whether in the guise of romantic landscape or documentary photograph, acknowledges our presence and affirms our status as ennobled observer.


Edwards, H. (2007) Cover to Cover: the Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture. In Reinhardt, M. et al. (eds.) Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gilpin. W. (2005) Observations on the River Wye, London Pallas Athene

Price, U. (1810) Essays on the Picturesque, as Compared With the Sublime and the Beautiful, Vol. I, London: J. Mawman

Ruskin, J. (2005) Modern Painters:Volume IV. Of Mountain Beauty, New York: Elibron

Taylor, J. (1994) A Dream of England, Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wordsworth, D. (1897) Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth Volume I, New York: Macmillan

Wordsworth, W. (1984) William Wordsworth the Major Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press