William Gilpin and travel photography
Yes, I know that William Gilpin, about whom I wrote in my last post, died before photography, though only just. He died in 1804 and, according to Wikipedia, the first permanent photograph produced by a camera was made in 1826. However, the notion of cameras – through the camera obscura – was already well known. This, however, is not really the subject of today’s post. The subject is the third essay in his Three essays, which is titled “On the art of sketching landscape”.
The thing is that this essay reminded me of travel photography because his main focus is “taking views from nature” the intention of which, he says
may either be to fix them in your own memory – or to convey, in some degree, your ideas to others.
Aren’t these our two main aims in taking travel photographs? That is, to help us remember our travel and/or to share out experiences with others?
He then goes on to give advice about how to sketch, some of which is specifically about the tools and implements of sketching, but some of which relates more broadly to composing pictures. For example, he writes of getting “the best point of view” for the scene you wish to sketch (or, for us, to photograph), stating that “a few paces to the right, or left, make a great difference”. He’s right there. There are times when I’ve been too lazy, or felt I didn’t have enough time, to walk about looking for the best aspect, only to be sorry later when I’ve seen someone’s better photograph of the same scene.
And he talks about “scale”, that is,
how to reduce it [the scene] properly withing the compass of your paper: for the scale of nature being so very different from your scale … If the landscape before you is extensive, take care you do not include too much: it may perhaps be divided more commodiously into two sketches …
Today of course we can take panoramic photos, and we can enlarge (or crop) to our heart’s content when we download our images onto our computers. Still, the better the original photo, the easier later editing is, eh?
His advice then starts to get more interesting, because he goes on to differentiate between making a sketch that “is intended merely to assist our own memory” and one “intended to convey, in some degree, our ideas to others“. These latter sketches, he says, “should be somewhat more adorned”. Now, part of this adornment is simply about the detail. A sketch to remind us of what we have seen may only require “a few rough strokes”, while one that is to convey something to others who have no idea of the place, needs “some composition … a degree of correctness and expression in the out-line – and some effect of light”.
But, he then goes further to suggest that “nature is most defective in composition; and must be a little assisted”. In other words, it is alright “to dispose the foreground as I please”. Yes, fair enough. We do this often, don’t we, in composing or enlarging/cropping photos? But, it is also alright, he says, to take further liberties:
I take up a tree, and plant it there. I pare a knoll, or make an addition to it. I move a piece of paling – a cottage – a wall – or any removable object, which I dislike.
He qualifies this, though, by saying that “liberties … with the truth must be taken with caution”. We should not, he says, introduce “what does not exist” but can make “those simple variations … which time itself is continually making”.
All this made me think of photography, digital in particular, and how easy it is to remove or modify or manipulate an image to make it look better … and made me realise that no matter what tools we have to hand, this is something we have always liked to do. And this is the point that Gilpin is making with his theory of “the picturesque” because, if you remember the definition I gave in my previous post, it is about “that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture”.
What I take away from all this – ignoring Gilpin’s tendency to pomposity and prescription, for which he was, fairly I think, satirised – is that he is talking about the difference between “reality”, or what is actually there, and an aesthetic “truth” relating to the ideas (and even feelings*) conveyed by the scene. And that makes sense to me.
* There is, I believe, much academic debate about whether Romanticism rejected or extended the ideas of the Picturesque. I’m inclined to think it’s not a case of either/or but a more complex development.