Women in landscape photography
How pursuing a love of the wild lead this photographer to question the role of gender in landscape photography.
Being out in Scotland’s wilderness is what makes my heart beat faster. I find it almost a form of meditation. Hiking through undulating landscapes and rich green vistas made lush by an over-abundance of rain. Methodically placing one foot in front of the other until all elements combine and l stop to take it all in and use my camera to try and capture that feeling of wildness, especially apparent in the Scottish highlands. More often than not, I’m drawn in by the light. That transient light that I’ve yet to experience in any other country, caused by multiple weather conditions whipping the landscape on a daily basis. Rain, hail, storm clouds, sun, mist, haze and snow: I’ve experienced most of these in one day out on the Scottish hills. The unpredictable weather can be a source of frustration but find yourself in the right place at the right time and you’ll experience photography nirvana. You will see light dancing across the land, illuminating mountain tops, a lone tree, a herd of stags, acting as nature’s spotlight, providing intriguing visual contrasts. This is why l love landscape photography.
Landscape photography has always been one of the most, if not the most popular branch of photography. It has universal appeal, allowing viewers to transport themselves to locations and vistas they might never otherwise have a chance to see. It’s still a relatively new genre to me and having dipped my toes into this wonderful visual medium, I’m now hooked. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise to me to find that there are so few female landscape photographers, or certainly few ‘recognised’ female landscape photographers. Whilst women have made huge inroads into certain fields of this historically male dominated environment, we are still lagging behind in the landscape genre.
Does it matter whether an image taken is produced by a man or a women. Yes and no. This is a question that is relevant across the whole creative genre. More women than men are represented at entry level in the creative arts but further down the line and into art galleries, art collections, competitions, museums, auctions, significantly more men than women are represented. To give some context to that, in 1985 the Guerrilla Girls were formed by a group of female artists with the intention of drawing attention to sexism, racism and corruption in the arts. They launched a poster campaign targeting the MET Museum with the headline Do women have to be naked to get into the MET Museum? accompanied by the following statement:
Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.
Interestingly enough, they carried out the same exercise in 2012 and found that less than 4% of the artists were women and 76% of the nudes were female. Clearly it’s an issue that requires a more in-depth discussion than this paper allows, but one that l feel we are all qualified to contribute to and help move towards removing the obstacles to women entering and remaining in creative professions. Personally, it’s a hugely relevant issue for me for two reasons:
- I’m inspired by a huge number of photographers of this genre (virtually all male). I have had fantastic support from them and have witnessed knowledge sharing, support and camaraderie. I view inspiring images on a daily basis and it never occurs to me to question whether they are taken by a woman or a man BUT l have struggled to find a photographer that l can relate to. One that can tell me how they managed to develop or maintain a career in landscape photography whilst also being the primary carer for a young family.
- I have two children; one daughter and one son. l want role models for them. l want my daughter to know that she will have access to the same opportunities that my son will. But it’s hard to say that with any authority when l see so little representation of women in landscape photography.
I have heard many reasons given as to why there are so few women pursuing this career path from the nonsensical such as ‘the equipment is too heavy for women’ (clearly these people have never had to carry around 50lbs of children on a regular basis) to the unbelievable ‘women are just not that interested in this genre’. But the most realistic one is that it is difficult to balance traditional landscape photography with childcare. Waiting for long periods of time for the perfect shot, being there at golden hour and travelling away from home. All of these are incompatible with family life. These are undeniable real-life barriers but barriers are there to be broken. Yes it’s going to be difficult to pursue ‘traditional’ landscape photography but you know what? Traditional landscape has been done and it’s been done a 1000 times before. Want a pin perfect shot of the Grand Canyon. Search on google. It will bring up thousands. Women have a significant contribution to make to this genre and we are limiting our role if we let these barriers hold us back. l prefer to think of such limitations are challenges. I’m stepping away from the conventional and looking for ways in which l can do it differently. My aim is never just to make a visual record of a scene but to create an image with emotional pull, one that captures the mood and feeling of a place. Our landscape isn’t always a picture postcard and l have found that some of my most popular pictures have been those that most realistically represent my country.
One of the best ways to create unique images is to shoot in what most would consider ‘unfavourable conditions’. You don’t tend to see many landscape images taken in the rain. Why? Some of my most atmospheric shots have been taken in the rain. l specifically seek it out when shooting in the wild glens of Scotland such as Glencoe, which has a rich, dark history of massacre, famine, exposure, drama and love. Using a slightly longer exposure, you can turn that rain into a soft mist, really adding to the story. Camera protection is of the utmost importance but l prefer to not over-complicate things and mostly get by using a large golf umbrella to shield my camera from the worst of the elements and a lens cloth for cleaning rain droplets off my lens.
On those rare full sun days in Scotland, instead of putting my camera away, I’ll head to the coast where the conditions really enhance the blues of the sea. I also seek out interesting textures, shapes, patterns and contrasts. If it’s not conditions conducive towards getting a portfolio worthy shot, I’ll use the opportunity to work on my craft, studying the curves and lines of the landscape, and using online tools to work out when the best light is likely to hit the location so that l am fully prepared when the right conditions do arise.
Instead of seeing my children as a limitation, I incorporate them into my work. It’s not easy and realistically, l would be able to give a lot more time to my craft without them there, but for the time-being, I’m their primary carer and I’m in a fortunate position of being able to give them a taste of adventure. We camp, we build dens, we hike (small distances), we splash in puddles and climb trees, we run from waves and toast marshmallows. What better way to live your childhood. Often I’ll incorporate them into an image, providing perspective and scale and recording what their Scottish childhood looks like.
l also spend a lot of time working close to home. Long road trips and weeks out in the hills waiting for the perfect moment is not workable for me. Instead, I focus my energy on trying to shoot locations close to home in new and unique ways. This is pushing me creatively and helping develop my photography skills even further. It has also given me a new appreciation for my hometown.
There are so many ways in which we can break down these barriers and produce memorable and evocative images of our own landscapes. There has never been a better time for women to try out this genre, to push themselves to get out there and ‘feel’ the landscape and experience the meditative effects for themselves. I’ve no doubt that by the time my daughter is a young woman, there will be a multitude of female role models across all genres of photography to tell her about.
First published in ONE | TWENTY-FIVE Vol 4 - Oct 2015