The genre of landscape photography usually involves cliffs, gorges, mountainous peaks, and other monumental natural formations captured from the panoramic perspective of a wide-angle lens. The inaugural Natural Landscape Photography Awards’ (NLPA) selection for Photograph of the Year is an unexpected and delightful break from tradition. What at first glance looks like an icy snow cap gleaming underneath a rust-tinged, amorphous moon is actually the tip of a miniature iceberg lying atop a black sand beach in Iceland, decorated with an orange pebble nearby. The photograph’s friendly parody of perhaps the most common compositional silhouette in landscape photography makes for a tongue-in-cheek winning entry in an oftentimes self-serious category. “Landscapes come in many sizes,” photographer Steve Alterman wrote in the statement he submitted to the competition.
Despite no shortage of landscape photography contests, the organizers of NLPA felt that few competitions placed value on keeping post-processing to a minimum. They hoped that instating stricter rules — such as banning the practice of compositing images, in which elements from different images are combined in one photograph, as well as the use of distortions and other manipulations — would allow more realistic photographs to shine. “This is a competition for digital and film photographers who value realism in their images and edit with this in mind,” the organization emphasizes on its website.
“I’ve grown more and more frustrated with the state of landscape and nature photography over the last 10 to 15 years,” Matt Payne, an NLPA organizer and host of podcast F-Stop Collaborate and Listen, tells Hyperallergic. The photographs that win competitions and go viral on social media, he’s observed, “have mostly been manipulated in Photoshop to grab your attention and blow you out of the water.” As such, NLPA guidelines use the same standard as the one adopted by the National Press Photographers Association in 1991: photographs should not “deceive” viewers.
Payne worries that the dissolving line between photographs loyal to their moment of capture and those altered in post-production are eroding public interest and trust in landscape photography. “It’s like if you were to go on Netflix… and you were like, ‘I really want to watch a really good documentary tonight,’ and you end up watching this documentary and it’s amazing. And then you find out a week later that it was all just made up,” Payne analogizes.
The NLPA — which doled out awards in seven categories spanning best Grand Landscape, Nightscape, Aerial, and more — celebrates under-decorated naturalist photographers. And the winning photographs demonstrate that they can induce as much awe and splendor as photos that undergo more creative wrangling.
One photograph by Eric Bennett, winner of Photographer of the Year, foregrounds two dying, brown leaves set on what appears to be an abstractly-patterned rock that shines under blue light. But, as Bennett explains, it actually depicts a puddle in which leaves have fallen into and decayed. “As these leaves decay, they release these oils, and these oils were allowed to build up and have different densities,” he explains. “I like… to create more mystery — ask questions rather than give answers.”