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Essay: Differences between picturesque landscape and sublime landscape

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  • Subject area(s): Photography and arts essays
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  • Published: September 7, 2021*
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  • Differences between picturesque landscape and sublime landscape
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There are many different landscape photographers, past and present, whose work is known for its particular style and characteristics. Each landscape photographer generally takes only one style of landscape photograph, i.e. a picturesque landscape or a sublime landscape. This is because each type of landscape has a very different approach, and represents different elements of the landscape when taking the photograph. This could also be because the landscape photographer prefers either picturesque or sublime landscapes themselves, and therefore enjoys the experience of capturing that type of landscape more. The ideas and issues of landscape photography, in relation to the picturesque and the sublime, will be discussed throughout.

In his 1757 book ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful’, Edmund Burke makes a distinction between the picturesque landscape and the sublime landscape. Burke explains that “They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure;” (1757, page 182). This was later developed in David Bate’s 2016 book ‘Photography: The Key Concepts’ where it is explained that while the picturesque landscape is viewed as relaxing and a place to unwind, the sublime landscape can be seen as threatening and fearful to the viewer. The picturesque landscape tends to be “idealized scenes” (Bate, 2016, page 94) of the landscape; which is why it is often used in tourism and advertising because it is a romanticised view of the world to make people want to go and visit. Whereas, the sublime landscape is “something that threatens to overwhelm you” (Bate, 2016, page 95) due to the level of fear it is capable of making the viewer feel. The sublime landscape is viewed as powerful and dangerous, but this level of emotion can be tolerated by the viewer because the sublime is contained within the photograph. It is evident that there is a clear distinction between the picturesque landscape and the sublime landscape; while the picturesque stimulates enjoyment, the sublime evokes fear and pain onto the viewer.

British photographer, Fay Godwin, was best known for her black and white photographs of the countryside and coast. Her early work consisted of romantic representations of the British landscape, which primarily came from her love of walking and this was reflected through her photographs. In Figure 1, the West Yorkshire countryside has been photographed. In the foreground of the photograph there is a thin brick path heading to the centre left of the composition, and a large dark piece of shrubbery taking up much of the bottom right hand corner of the frame. The thin brick path is crucial to the photograph, because Godwin has included it to direct the viewer around the composition; guiding the viewer through the hills and past the lake as if they were actually stood looking at the same view. The middle ground is covered by an array of sectioned fields presumably owned by farmers, numerous hills to the left, which looks level to the hill Godwin is stood on to take the photograph, and a small lake that has been lit up by the sky on the right. In the background, there are hills that have a foggy look which has been formed by the sun rays, or possible rain, that can be seen coming from the sky and falling down in the distance. Although the sky has a dark cloudy look, it does not affect the picturesque elements of the photograph because the countryside is still bright and airy. On the Amateur Photographer website they discussed how Fay Godwin’s “images were noted for their clarity, careful composition and expert control over tonal value” (2010, November 9th) which comes across clearly in this photograph.

As David Bate explains “the picturesque, a word of Italian origin meaning the point of view of the painter, was elaborated as a theory in England between 1730 and 1830.” (2016, page 111). During this time, English travellers toured around Europe and brought back with them Italian paintings to fill their homes with. This is what caused garden designers, such as Capability Brown, to transform home gardens into pieces of artwork (Bate, 2016). People believed that the landscape was to be ‘read’ by the individual who was walking around it, and should be felt as if it were a journey. This idea of the picturesque landscape wanting to be ‘read’ by the viewer can be seen in Fay Godwin’s landscape photography. The path that is in the foreground of the photograph leads you into the landscape, making you follow the path and then directing you down to the right, through the hills, and towards the lake. The composition of the photograph helps guide the viewer, or reader, through the landscape as if you were actually in the same setting yourself. This kind of composition is common across all picturesque landscape artwork, because it makes it much easier to look at and understand the photograph. Once you are aware of the prevalent qualities in a picturesque landscape, it becomes very easy to distinguish a picturesque landscape from a sublime landscape. These qualities used in picturesque landscapes make the viewer feel more connected, and at ease with the photograph.

Furthermore, picturesque landscapes are very similar to Arcadian landscape paintings, where they reflect a romanticised view of the world. For example, what it should look like, not what it does (Bate, 2016). This romanticised view of the world is a coherence of form, compositional symmetry, proportion and balance that has been created within the picturesque landscape. This form and order that is within picturesque landscapes, could be said it reflects the form and order that people want to see in themselves (Bate, 2016), and is why people find the picturesque to be calm and relaxing. These qualities are evident in Fay Godwin’s landscape photography, and many other pieces of picturesque artwork. For example, through the way the photograph has used the rule of thirds to separate the land Godwin was stood on to capture the photograph, the hills that can be seen in the distance and the sky at the top of the composition. Another example is that the hills in the background are in proportion with everything else in the photograph; they are not overpowering or daunting because Godwin has taken the photograph on a hill of the same level as the ones in the photograph. As this has made clear, the picturesque landscape is precisely designed so that all elements being photographed look beautiful, making the viewer feel at ease and calm when looking at it.

On the contrary, one alarming issue with the picturesque landscape is tourism. In Snapshot Versions of Life by Richard Chalfen, in 1987, he “discusses the way that tourists are directed towards particular sites in which to take photographs” (Bull, 2010, page 88). The picturesque landscape, so meticulously created and shared with the world so that they can see the same beauty the photographer or artist saw, is quickly ruined by tourists who want to see the landscape with their own eyes and get the exact same photograph just to say they have been there. The picturesque landscape, originally captured by a photographer or artist, gradually becomes less and less picturesque as more tourists decide they want to visit; traipsing across the once beautiful and untouched earth that can now be seen to have man-made paths scattered across it. Many picturesque landscape do not have people within the composition, as evident in Fay Godwin’s ‘Paved paths above Lumbutts’ (1979). However, if you go and visit the landscape yourself you might be disappointed to find it is not as calming and relaxing as you once thought because there are crowds of tourists. This shows us that while the picturesque landscape is beautiful and calming to look at from afar, i.e. in a photograph or a painting, it may not be so picturesque in person because from the simple task of photographing the landscape it has thereby made it less peaceful.
American photographer, Ansel Adams, was best known for his black and white photographs of the American West. Similar to Fay Godwin, Ansel Adams was also an environmentalist and therefore his love for the outside was expressed in his work. Figure 2 is one of his best known photographs, the ‘Half Dome’ taken in 1927 at the Yosemite National Park, California. In the foreground of the photograph, we see the side of the cliff face four thousand foot up from where Ansel Adams climbed to take his photograph. In the bottom third of the composition, there is evidence of snow gathering around the bottom of the cliff face, where the ground begins to flatten and snow can lay. Behind and to the left side of the cliff face, a darkened sky can be seen which suggests that the photograph was either taken in the early morning or later at night. As stated on the Ansel Adams Gallery website he wanted “to express the emotional and aesthetic feelings he felt at the time he made the photograph.” (2014, June 27th). This is shown through the way Ansel Adams has organised the composition, making the photograph an example of the sublime, because the height and size of the cliff face makes you question how big the entire cliff is, where Adams was stood when taking the photograph and etc. The sublime holds this fear against the viewer, because the photograph makes you aware of its power even when you are not looking at it in real life.

As Bate explains the sublime “has a set of characteristics more akin to what the English Highway Code designates as a “black spot” sign” (2016, page 116). Many people can understand the sublime landscape to invoke discord, a sense of threat, a contained fear and a sense of one’s own mortality. This is all caused because the photograph reflects as if you, the viewer, were actually in the photograph yourself. However, this fear can be contained because you are aware you are only looking at a photograph and not at the real thing. This is evident in Ansel Adams’ ‘Half Dome’ (1927) photograph from Yosemite National Park, because he has organised the composition so that the cliff face covers the majority of the frame. Therefore, expressing the extensive size of the cliff. Sublime landscapes are often viewed to express a more real picture on the world, compared to the picturesque landscape which gets romanticised for the viewer. When capturing the landscape in a painting or a photograph, the artists are able to choose which elements they want to represent which then deciphers whether it be picturesque or sublime (Bate, 2016). This is what Adams has done with this photograph, he has chosen to represent the intensity and power that the cliff face holds through his use of frame, vantage point and composition.

Furthermore, David Bate makes references to Salvator Rosa’s paintings which he says were “invoking “nature” as something which is far from calm and with the potential of a totally destructive force” (2016, page 116). Even as early as the seventeenth century, painters were using specific codes to highlight elements, therefore creating a landscape as either sublime or picturesque. These early painters could be seen as influencers on photographers such as Ansel Adams, inspiring them to create these sublime landscapes using a camera instead of by hand. Even though Ansel Adams’ work is in the form of a photograph, rather than a painting, influences can be shared across genres. For example, some of Salvator Rosa’s paintings had “threatening, half broken, overhanging trees or rocks” (Bate, 2016, page 116) which can also be seen in Ansel Adams’ ‘Half Dome (1927) photograph. The cliff face has been framed so that it is the clear focal point of the photograph, and objects in the background seem out of proportion and insignificant compared to the scope of the cliff. It is clear that overtime, the codes of the sublime landscape have not changed and still create and invoke the same fears within the viewer, and threaten to overwhelm you. The sublime landscape manages to make the viewer experience the fear, yet they are able to tolerate and contain it because they understand that they are looking at a photograph of the sublime landscape, and are not actually stood in front of it.

The sublime landscape has a very similar issue to that of the picturesque landscape: tourism. While the picturesque invites and guides people into the landscape, which makes the viewer want to visit and experience the calm and relaxing feelings themselves, the sublime landscape also has an effect on the viewer. The sublime, with all the fear and threat it invokes onto the viewer, is capable of reflecting extraordinary landscapes that the viewer wants to experience in real life, in person. Even though the viewer is aware of the landscapes power and intensity, many people want to experience these feelings when looking at the landscape in front of them. Therefore, the picturesque and sublime landscapes are similar in the way that they are both capable of making tourists want to visit the landscape, which in turn makes the landscape more into a tourist site than an untouched landscape.

Additionally, one other issue with the sublime landscape is that painters and photographers can find it very hard to not make a landscape picturesque. As David Bate discusses “the non-aesthetic landscapes nevertheless found it hard to avoid the issue of composition” (2009, page 98). This is when the photographer needs to ignore the traditional elements of a photograph, i.e. composition, framing, rule of thirds and etc, which makes a landscape picturesque, to create the sublime. Therefore, there are a few landscape photographs that can be referred to as both picturesque and sublime. One example of this is Figure 3, ‘El Capitan’ by Ansel Adams in 1952 of Yosemite National Park. In this photograph the viewer can experience both a picturesque landscape, from the lake in the foreground of the composition that guides the viewer into the landscape thereby creating a relaxing and peaceful setting, and a sublime landscape, which due to the way Adams has framed his photograph you get an understanding of the immensity of the cliff face next to the trees cowering beneath it. This example indicates how there can be crossovers between the coding of elements for the picturesque and the sublime. As Bate concludes “The relation of any spectator to these tendencies depends on the way the scenes have been pictured, or ‘coded’” (2009, page 107). Therefore, an issue occurs when the photographers uses elements from the picturesque and the sublime, within one landscape, because it can confuse the viewer.

As discussed, there are notable differences between the coding of elements for a picturesque landscape and a sublime landscape. This has been supported by researching, interpreting and analysing the work of two very well known landscape photographers of the twentieth century; Fay Godwin and Ansel Adams. Their landscape photographs have provided evidence that the same landscape can be photographed as picturesque and sublime. It can be understood that it is based on which elements the photographer wishes to represent in his photograph that creates either a picturesque or a sublime landscape for the viewer.

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