What Does "Intimate Landscape" Mean?

What Does "Intimate Landscape" Mean?
By Shannon Kalahan.

What does “intimate landscape” mean? The loose definition is focusing your camera on a small scene within a larger scene, like a single stand of trees or a small section of beach. I say loose definition, because there can also be some overlap with macro and abstract photography, but it doesn’t necessarily need to include either.

Clear as mud, right?

Let’s start at the beginning. American photographer Eliot Porter (1901-1990) is generally considered to be the father of intimate landscapes. He began to specialize in color photography in 1940 and, over the course of his life, created countless color intimate landscapes showing his affection and respect for nature. For context, intimate landscapes are sometimes compared to poetry—small, accessible, and engaging. In Porter’s first monograph, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (1962), he sought to create visual equivalents of the Henry David Thoreau passages that inspired him. His work was different from other well-known photographers at the time, such as Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz, in that he often highlighted small scenes in nature that other people overlooked. In Tim Parkin’s words, “Eliot Porter developed a vision of the landscape that looked closer, caught the natural chaos of the wild but in a way that showed the hidden structures.”

Generally speaking, there are a few qualities that intimate landscapes share. First, unlike grand landscapes, they don’t typically include much sky. So while you may include some sunset color—highlights on subjects in the frame, colors reflected on water, that sort of thing—the sunset is not a primary focus of the image. Because you aren’t relying on a perfect sky, intimate landscapes can be made in almost any light. I’ll say that again: these photos can be made in almost any light.

For grand landscapes, certain lighting scenarios are king. Golden hour, for example. Blue hour and moody days, for example. But even harsh light can turn a small scene into something magical. Some examples of the varied light found in intimate landscapes are:

  1. Light shining through a subject, like grasses or leaves.
  2. Reflected light, like on water or wet rocks and sand.
  3. Backlight, which will create a rim of illumination (rim light) around your subject
  4. Sidelight, often from close to the horizon, which emphasizes texture, and adds depth to an image via shadows.
  5. Flat light, like that found in shade or diffused through clouds.
  6. Direct, harsh light that emphasizes contrast through bright highlights and deep shadows.

Because an intimate landscape photographer isn’t beholden to a fiery sunrise, there are more opportunities to create, at any time of day, in any type of weather. One of the joys and challenges of being a grand landscape photographer is that we are often at the mercy of the elements, and find ourselves working with whatever weather scenario presents itself, pretty much up to the standard of “whatever won’t kill us”. By looking for smaller scenes and expanding the types of light we can shoot in, we also naturally—and safely—expand our opportunities for play and experimentation.

Intimate landscapes also tend to incorporate a lot of patterns, repetition, texture, and details. In that way, there is overlap with abstract photography. Traditional grand landscape photography aims, to some degree, to realistically capture the beauty of an environment. Abstraction, on the other hand, abandons definitive subject matter, scale, etc. Rather, an abstract photo uses things like texture, detail, perspective, movement, and light to transform a scene into something less representational. The goal is to create something unexpected or thought-provoking. Often, intimate landscapes land somewhere in between those two concepts.

Some of the abstract qualities I tend to look for in my intimate landscapes, beyond the obvious patterns of repetition, textures and details, are things like:

  1. “One of these things is not like the others” - This could be a dead tree nestled among a series of live ones, or a spot of color on otherwise bare branches. The duality of this vs that is often used as symbolism for the artist’s message or worldview.
  2. Isolation within a scene - this can be an extension of “one of these things is not like the others”, but more often it is the use of negative space to isolate your subject both within your frame and from the chaos outside of your frame. As photographer Gary Randall says, “In paintings as well as photography, it’s not what’s included in the frame but what’s excluded that strengthens a composition. And this is very true in simplifying complex or, at first glance, generally unappealing scenery.”
  3. Mimicry - identifying what an object or light or captured movement reminds you of, and intentionally creating an image meant to portray that idea. This is similar to Eliot Porter’s homage to Henry David Thoreau’s works.

Sometimes, a small scene can be, quite literally, a physically small scene. It’s important to note that while an intimate landscape does not need to involve a macro lens for isolation or extreme close-ups, it can. If you pair macro with lower apertures, like f/2.8, you can add abstract qualities to your images due to a narrow depth of field.

Finally, while not all intimate landscapes need to be color images al la Eliot Porter, one of the things I’ve observed is that successful images are often masterful examples of color theory. Without a big-shiny-distracting sunset, I find myself studying the intricacies of an intimate landscape in greater detail. For me, harmonious color schemes (and poorly executed color schemes) are more noticeable in these types of photos. No matter what you’re shooting, it’s good practice to think about colors when you’re framing your scene. Doubly so for intimate landscapes. If you struggle with color theory, photographers Ted Gore and Erin Babnik both have great write-ups on the subject.

So now that we know what an intimate landscape photo is, how do you create your own? Well, here are some tips.

  1. Study the work of other intimate landscape photographers. Eliot Porter’s work is a must-see, of course. For examples of wonderful scene isolation, I recommend photographers Charlotte Gibb, Thomas Heaton, and Jennifer Renwick’s work. Regarding finding patterns in nature, photographer and art historian Erin Babnik put together two wonderful write-ups on the subject via Photocascadia. For examples of beautiful intimates made with a macro lens, I recommend checking out photographers Sarah Marino and Beth Young’s work. All of these photographers manage color within their scenes beautifully.
  2. Be prepared to work at it. Just like any other type of photography, creating compelling intimate scenes takes practice. Start by observing the grand scene, looking for patterns, details, repetition, or harmonious colors. Some people even go so far as to sweep through a landscape with their zoom lens (for far-off isolation) or macro lens (for isolation within a close scene, maybe at your feet, or among some plants) in order to identify potential photos. Challenge yourself to take a certain number of unique images in one location, which will force you to start thinking outside of the box.
  3. The obvious side effect of really working a location is that you slow down and actively engage with your creativity while you hunt for a composition. Developing the habit of slow, thoughtful observation will make identifying future intimate scenes easier. By moving without a timeline, you can also try new things—ditch the tripod, lay on the ground, play with bokeh, get closer…no even closer, etc.
  4. While gear isn’t necessary, because this is an opportunity to experiment, having a variety of equipment on hand will help. A zoom lens and a macro. A polarizer to cut glare on water (negative space, perhaps?!) or to emphasize foliage color. A tripod to ignore most of the time. That sort of thing.

Intimate landscapes are a wonderful opportunity to practice your photography or flex your creative muscles, during almost any light and weather. More importantly, because of its inherent flexibility, you can walk away from those sessions feeling like you’ve accomplished something—which is not always the case for grand landscapes. In that way, the skill of intimate landscape photography is a wonderful tool to have in your photographer’s toolbox. Photographing small, overlooked scenes allows you to be productive and feel accomplished no matter how crappy a sunset is, and what unexpected weather you stumble across. And who knows? With a little practice, you might discover you’re the next Eliot Porter.