The Language of Landscape Photography 

We must first start by defining the language that we are going to speak in. And we often hear that there is a language to landscape. But no one seems ready to explain it to us. This is partly because each image and photographer can require you to learn their specific language to understand their photographs fully. And as all of you know, learning a new language is a long process. But there are some basic generalities and structures that we can identify to help us get started. 

First, let’s clarify how a language is constructed or framed, then we can figure out how to use it to create our images. In a work of art – a painting, photograph, video work, sculpture, etc. – artists use signs and symbols to represent ideas. There are exceptions to this, but in general, this is the case. The storm on the horizon foreshadows calamity. Or, the field of wheat in the bright sunlight indicates a good harvest. These two examples are pretty straightforward, but it can get complicated when artists use visual ideas personal to their history or culture. An excellent example of this in art history is where Timothy O’Sullivan worked as the photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel under Clarence King. King was a huge proponent of the geological theory of catastrophism, the theory that the Earth has largely been shaped by sudden, short-lived, violent events. O’Sullivan used his work to help King share his ideas. Through the often canted angle and layering of foreground elements, O’Sullivan used created pictures that reflect the instability of the landscape. Without substantial research into the work of O’Sullivan and the United States Geological Explorations, these references can go over the heads of most viewers of O’Sullivan’s iconic works. 

Fortunately for us, there have been some truly great minds who have thought about all of this. Ferdinand de Saussure, 1857-1913 and Roland Barthes, 1915-80, worked on a linguistics study called semiology. In short, semiology or sometimes called semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings. In the early part of the 20th century, Saussure created a structure to the way that we analyze and interpret language. By identifying a simple rule, we can understand the basic meanings of signs. A sign is the combination of the graphical idea (the signifier) and the concept that it represents (the signified). For instance, a stop sign (the sign) is the combination of the red octagon with the letters STOP in white paint (this is the signifier) and the idea that it represents, which is the action of stopping the car (the signified).  

Signifier + Signified = Sign
In art, the connections between the Signifier and Signified are subjective to each other, the surrounding ideas, and the artist’s influences. Each photographer creates their vocabulary that builds up into a language or system of formal relations. They often borrow from the location, culture, and influences of the region they are in without conscious thought. For instance, there are cultural references to photographing an old barn in the Western United States. But that that same barn in the North East references something entirely different. In the West, that barn is a sign of the cowboy, while in the North East is a little more convoluted but possibly works as a stand-in for the Mennonite culture. Context is vital in connecting specific signifiers to unique signified ideas; each attains meaning through its relationships with the other. 

While the study of semiotics is more complex than I understand and entirely more complicated than I will get into here, the idea of the sign is a clear place to start when trying to decode landscape imagery. Signs are visual information that represent or are a stand-in for something else. Those stand-ins can be linked together into complex thoughts that we call language.  

In photography, we use this language of signs as vocabulary, combining them within the frame to form complete ideas. But those ideas are not entirely fixed within the bounds of the artwork. The artist and viewer bring their own understandings of history and cultural nuance to the experience of a work of art. These personal and cultural cues can influence how an image is read. For instance, when looking at Thomas Cole’s 1836 painting, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, the cultural climate at the time would have understood the reference to westward expansion and manifest destiny, built within the dark and stormy wilderness on the left hand (or western) side of the painting. It was painted in 1836 – the Whig Party, opposed to U.S. territorial expansion, was competing with Democrat Martin Van Buren, the chosen successor of Andrew Jackson. And while I don’t know how Cole voted in this election, I would anticipate that a political reading of this painting at the time would have instructed to at least a cautious approach to westward expansion. It is interesting that and should be noted that Cole places himself at the bottom center of the painting as the fulcrum between wilderness and civilization.  

Cole was a painter. He spent long hours on preparatory sketches and studies. But in photography, we don’t deliberately compose our images. We often photograph the landscape as we find it with some combination of planning and luck. But we choose what, how, and more importantly, when to make the image. These choices can be just as purposeful. You as a photographer must read the landscape you intended to photograph while in the field – previsualizing the final printed version of this work and include or exclude information as necessary. 

The signs that you include, or in other words, the language that you use, is personal to you as the artist. In the image below Alley Project A-Frame, 2010, I used the urban vernacular landscape of an alleyway in a specific location of Lubbock, Texas, to reflect on histories, memory, and recent local economic hardship. This image of an A-Frame building shot in a square film format has many various readings. The first level of reading is the shape of the building. The shape of the signifier reads specifically as the shape of an older Whataburger restaurant. But the Whataburger colors of orange and white are painted over with yellow. So, in this case, the signifier is broken, resulting in a visual hiccup or disunion between the signifier and the signified. The hiccup here can be read as a reference to what Roland Barthes called the punctum; that which pricks or bruises the visual bubble created between the artist and the viewer. This reading is furthered by the asymmetrical cloud on the upper right-hand side of the frame. This cloud interrupts the ridged symmetry of the triangle furthering the discomfort. Another reading of this image is through the open narrative of the chairs left out to be rained on. But if you look closely, there is a black chair cushion on top of the brown chair where someone sat presumably recently because we still see the puddle on the ground. One can presume that a smoker sat on the chair to a smoke a cigarette, but no evidence of butts or a butt can. All of these signs point towards a narrative but leave the viewer open to intemperate for themselves. Both of these readings draw elements from a technique called formal analysis.  

Lubbock Alley Project in Lubbock Texas on Friday, September 17, 2010. Photo By Tom Turner

Formal analysis is a way to take everything you know and organize it into an evaluation of art. This four-step method of analysis asks the viewer to describe a work of art, analyze the relationships between what is seen in the image, interpret the meaning of the work of art as a whole, and then finally evaluate or make a personal judgment about the quality and worth of the art. In my opinion, one of the best primers on formal analysis of photography is Criticizing Photographs by Terry Barrett. I think of formal analysis as a method of decoding the work of art. In my first goal is to figure out the language being used by the artist, then I need to assemble the structure of significance. At this point, I usually begin adding in my own historical and cultural connections to the artwork, coming up with a meaning for the work of art. Finally, I evaluate the work, asking myself a simple question, “Is this good?”. 

Ideas of formal analysis and semiology are always a good starting point in helping you understand what a language for landscape might be. But pointing at things only represents communication, not language. Grammar, syntax, and vocabulary combine to create a language. 

In language, grammar and syntax are a set of rules for communication. In photography, we call these rules the principles of design. The principles of design establish a visual hierarchy within the frame. They tell the viewer what is important and how that thing is linked to everything else within the image. Sources vary on the exact number of principles of design, but The Getty lists the following nine; Balance, Emphasis, Movement, Pattern, Repetition, Proportion, Rhythm, Variety, and Unity. These might sound vague, but working through these ideas when composing your images will improve the quality of your images. You might try to use these as a checklist when in the field. Find your subject, a waterfall, barn, mountain peak, etc., then as you are setting up your composition and exposure, run through these ideas. 

Is the image balanced? If so, what type of balance are you employing? Symmetrical or asymmetrical? If you’re not sure, then recompose your frame. 

What is the most important subject of the work? Is there enough light and contrast in the image to make it out? Should the light or composition be changed to add more emphasis to this subject matter? Are there any post-processing techniques that you are planning on including to bring out or add emphasis? Compositionally, should you lower your camera to add emphasis to the foreground? Should you raise the camera’s position to decrease the emphasis of the foreground? 

Compositionally are there any leading lines that you might use to encourage the viewer’s eye movement?  

Have you looked for movement between the foreground, middle ground, and background? How is your shutter speed set? Are you going to show/reveal the motion of the world by slowing your shutter speed down? Or are you going to freeze the motion by speeding it up? 

Pattern / Repetition / Rhythm
Are there any patterns or repeated structures that you can take advantage of in the frame; trees lined up at the edge of the road, rolling hills in the foreground, fence posts that border the pasture land? Patterns can add both reptation and rhythm to the world and will help you create dynamic images. 

Are you using the correct lens for the image that you want to make? Telephoto lenses compress the world and can be very effective in landscape photography. And wide-angle lenses show the foreground larger than they do the background. So, wide lenses need either a very large or very close structure in the background for it to be a factor in composition. 

Is there a way to break up the composition to add more elements? Is that the correct thing for your images? Variety in art is about more than just adding more types of things into your work. It’s about jolting the viewer out of their expectation, adding surprise to your images. Are there any surprises that you can include for the observant viewer? 

What is holding the image together? Are there any compositional, exposure, or post-processing changes that can be made to create a more compelling image? Could I under or overexpose the image to wash out or darken the background? Will this add unity and emphasis to my subject matter? Or will it only serve to distract? 

Concepts such as language are only metaphors for what we understand through images, but they are as close as we can get. The structure of linguistics, formal analysis, and the principles of design help us understand what is significant about our photographs. I find it necessary for my work to contemplate and clarify what it is about, often not coming up with the words until days or even years after images are made. But this contemplation will help you frame the subsequent work; it will help you clarify what language you are speaking and help you understand how to become more fluent. 

Tom Turner








Tom Turner is an artist and educator based in Eagle River, Alaska. Turner has taught at the Art Institute of San Antonio, Northwest Vista College, Saint Mary’s University, Texas Tech University, and The Creative Light Workshops in San Antonio, Texas.

Turner’s artistic practice, which is principally in the medium of photography, focuses chiefly on the landscape, how we perceive time, and how our memory alters that perception of the natural world. His fascination with image-making began during his undergraduate studies at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. He continued this pursuit at The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. After completing his education, he spent the next seven years working as a photojournalist. He worked for newspapers and magazines in Michigan, Southern California, Central, and East Texas. In 2010 Turner began his graduate studies at Texas Tech University, where he completed an MFA in Photography.

Turner, known for landscape imagery, which uses color and time to abstract the scene, his subjects range from national parks to appropriations of scientific imagery. He has exhibited locally, nationally, and internationally. Turner feels honored to have his work seen in Wired Photo4th International Photography Annual (INPHA 4)Juxtapoz Art and Culture Magazine, and most recently in Fraction Magazine. Check out Tom Turner’s website at

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