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Mist and Reflections, Crummock Water, Cumbria, England by Tony Bennett - Landscape Photographer of the Year 2013

Landscape Photographer of the Year

12 December 2013 Charlie Kenber

“They raise the camera as a kind of impulse or compulsion to want to preserve their emotional experience.”

Flying in the face of those who think that ‘once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all’, this week sees the return of the Landscape Photographer of the Year Award. Featuring 156 carefully selected images, the exhibition – on display at the National Theatre – is proof of the unique power of landscape photography to communicate so much more than a ‘pretty picture’.

The Award was the brainchild of renowned photographer Charlie Waite, author of over thirty books, and recognised around the world for his work. It’s a unique opportunity for photographers, whether professional or amateur (as they mostly all are), to showcase their work and compete for the prestigious prizes on offer.

Arriving in the exhibition space, one is immediately struck by the range of the work, as well as the contrast and diversity that runs through all the pieces. For Charlie, this immediacy is inherent in the form, “it’s for the people…it’s accessible.” Keen to distinguish its fundamental beauty from fine art photography with its “gaunt peasants standing in rubbish dumps looking forlorn,” he adds, “the art world embraces it but only on their terms. It’s very odd.” He feels that fine art critics and galleries tend not to like 'beautiful', and therefore mistakenly overlook good landscape photography.

Charlie has a keen eye for what he calls ‘unravelling’ of the images: noting the effect of various elements in the work that the photographer themselves may only have subconsciously been aware of. As we move through the exhibition his skill and passion for the work is clear: he can’t help but dive from image to image, highlighting the beauty inherent in each.

Stopping at the winning photograph, a striking piece by Tony Bennett (above), Charlie says, “It’s romantic, it’s poetic. It’s a fairytale image of the imagination…there’s a tree and it’s reflected, and right on the other side there’s a bit of mist, and that bit of mist’s reflected. But both take up exactly the same surface area of the overall image. I said I love the way that happens to the photographer and he said ‘oh’. It never would have occurred to him…he would have taken it in but not consciously.”

Autumn Colour, Surrey, England by Christopher Page - Young Landscape Photographer of the Year 2013

Autumn Colour, Surrey, England by Christopher Page - Young Landscape Photographer of the Year 2013

Some images in the exhibition are especially remarkable for being in the Young Photographer of the Year category. The winning photograph, taken by a fifteen-year-old is “particularly lovely, firstly because it’s to me secretive and private, and because the outside world isn’t there…it’s more contained. You are now going here and you’re going to open that gate and you’re going through to the other side.” He adds, “at a tender age he identified beauty.”

Most of the photographs, far from being a ‘quick snap’ take a remarkable amount of time and thought to produce. “The orchestration of a photograph is much more complicated than people think,” Charlie tells me. “The person isn’t just rocking up and going ‘oh that looks nice’. They’ve definitely got a pre-visualised idea.” The great American photographer Ansel Adams coined the term, describing the process as ‘recognition and pre-visualisation blended together in a single moment of awareness.’ “I absolutely love that,” Charlie says.

But what of the technological changes that photography has undergone? With mobile phone cameras capable of remarkably sophisticated photography, everyone can capture a moment in an instant. For Charlie however, as long as the proper care and attention is paid to the act of photography, it improves, rather than obstructs, direct experience and interaction with the environment. “Interestingly enough when people go to somewhere beautiful what do they do? They want to own it so they raise the camera as a kind of impulse or compulsion to want to preserve their emotional experience.”

Charlie agrees that “there are those people who think photographing disengages you from the experience…[that] it interrupts your exchange which could be quite a poignant one. I think actually it immerses you far more profoundly in the experience, because you’re using the cameras as a catalyst to get right in there. You’re really looking at raindrops and the way wind has an effect on the grasses and the sky and light and the whole orchestration of all of those elements coming together for you and for your photographs.”

Ultimately, it’s this emotional experience that needs to be present. Joining us, Diana, Creative Director of Take A View, the body that oversees the competition, adds “that’s how the judging is largely done – obviously all of the composition, the lighting is important – but it’s the emotional pull that the image has. So a successful image is when the photographer manages to transfer some of the emotion they felt when taking it to the viewer.”

It seems then that the Award will continue to go from strength to strength, so make  sure to catch it at the National, and you may well be surprised at what you find. As Charlie puts it, “It’s not just a photograph. It’s not just a record. It isn’t just describing what it looks like. I think it’s choreographing the elements.”

The Landscape Photographer of the Year exhibition, sponsored by Network Rail, is on at the National Theatre until 9th February 2014. Entry is free.

Additionally, a book accompanying the exhibition - Landscape Photographer of the Year: Collection 7 – is on sale now.

Charlie Waite will also be giving guided tours of the exhibition. Details here.

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