Landscape and the Absence of Humans

You may have already thought that this month is going to be an exceptional month, that nothing is coming out in December. I’ve been busy, with a bit of this and a bit of that, attending a funeral, doing requested and suggested changes to a manuscript, that seemingly never ending task that it tends to be, having to or getting to temp, this time going through undergrad essays, doing the photo assignments that I do to make money as I sure as hell I’m not getting any grant money nor paid position to do my thesis, learning all kinds of things about videography, doing more reading on assorted topics and listening to podcasts when I don’t have the opportunity to read (cooking, when on a bus, working out etc.). Oh, I managed to do a second interview this year.

Anyway, now that I listed all those excuses for slacking, it’s time to indicate what this essay will be about. As I haven’t had the time to focus on anything substantial, say a chapter or two of that book by Valentin Vološinov, or that even bigger book by Deleuze and Guattari, I think it’ll be fitting to do something short. I’ve mentioned it a couple of times in the past, but I haven’t addressed ‘The Biography of Landscape: Cause and Culpability’, an essay by Marwyn Samuels, as included in ‘The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays’ edited by Donald Meinig, despite it being part of the first book that I read specifically on landscapes.

If you want to know the gist of that essay, Samuels goes on and on about the absence of humans in the landscape. To be more specific, it is not exactly that there are no humans, that the world is empty, but that we tend to think or imagine landscape as something that is essentially empty of people or at least the people are not of primary interest. This is what puzzles Samuels. Also, the title is a bit of a spoiler. It’s just way too informative for my taste. Anyway, the title tells you, the reader, that he is interested in how some landscape came to be, as well as who is responsible for it. That is the gist of the essay. Well worth the read, even if you don’t agree with him. I don’t and I still recommend going through it. It’s not unlike other the essays contained in the book, in the sense that there’s a sentence in the essay that I keep returning to. Samuels states (52):

“However rational, there is something unreasonable about a human landscape lacking in inhabitants; something strangely absurd about a geography of man devoid of men.”

The old fashioned wording aside (not humans, but men), this hits home with me. It is more than just a bit absurd but landscape is indeed rational, yet unreasonable at the same time. It’s actually something you could call a hallmark of rationality, having its underlying principle rooted in geometry, as explained, perhaps, best by Denis Cosgrove in his article ‘Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea’. That said, I think Samuels (52) is very perceptive as he turns our attention to the absence of people.

To me, landscape is exactly “a geography of man devoid of men”, in the sense that when we look at the our surroundings, when we engage with landscape, or so to speak, it’s always without the actual people. Yes, yes, the buildings are still there, so are the roads, the lamp posts, the street signs and the ditches by the roads, etc. All that is human is there, in the landscape, even when we think there is nothing human or, dare I say, cultural, as even the bits of nature that are out there are arranged by us humans. Those neatly trimmed lawns, bushes and trees are not there by accident. Now you might object to that and you are right, not all those elements are there as planted by humans. Then again, in a sense, they’ve been left the way they are, by humans. In a way they are there, as they are, wherever they happen to be, but only because humans let them be. So, all that is human is there, in the landscape, everything, everything except humans themselves.

When I started doing photography, that is to say take photos with a DSLR and not just point and shoot with a compact camera, I took a lot of photos of my surroundings, wherever I happened to be. There’s nothing odd or off about that, at least not at that stage. A lot of people do that. What’s interesting about it is that when you are out there, out and about, you want to capture that scenery.

Despite having no recollection when it was, which year it was, I remember the moment quite vividly, taking a nice summery photo by the river here in Turku. The sun was shining, the weather was perfect. I was walking by the river, on the western bank. It’s a pedestrians and cyclists only street, cordoned off from cars. I’m facing down the river. I stop. I grab my camera, go for the wide angle on the kit lens, frame the photo and press the button. I take a couple more. There is nothing remarkable about this. It’s not even memorable. I only remember this because someone who walked into the frame and was captured in my shots walked up to me and loudly objected to me photographing him, telling me to delete the photos. I was going to say that I actually would prefer if he wasn’t in my photos but the man went his way before I managed to say anything. This is exactly what landscape photography is, “a geography of man devoid of men.”

To be fair, there are, at times, people in landscape photos, just as there are in landscape paintings. However, they are never the main thing about them. It’s strange really, how the main thing in a landscape photo or a landscape painting is the background. It’s only in portraits that the humans are the main thing, as presented in the foreground. This also applies to everyday life, not only to photography or painting. As we look around, we don’t pay attention to anything in particular, unless we encounter and engage with someone, closeup. The people themselves are missing, curiously absent, as if they had been removed from the scene, just so that they don’t ruin it, like the man who walked into my frame from the side so that I had to take another … clean … photo. It’s a strange thing, how people come to ruin landscapes. It’s something that I feel that I need to look up to better understand how that came to be. As Samuels (52) puts it, it’s “strangely absurd”.

It’s worth noting that in this essay Samuels is not actually concerned with landscape art. I reckon his (52) objection has more to do with something else, something that I haven’t mentioned so far. This book can be considered pioneering work in landscape research. Published in the late 1970s, it certainly contains influential essays that helped to revive or, perhaps, rather reimagine landscape research in the English speaking circles after it had become marginalized in the mid 20th century. I know I’m generalizing this quite a bit here, but by that point landscape had been attributed to culture and/or nature. Later on the book he (57) addresses this explicitly, noting that:

“[H]uman geography everywhere [has] focussed on generic man, man-in-general, and man-in-mass[.]”

Related to this, he (52) notes that:

“The thing is, [landscape] represents a certain pattern, style or motif that emerged in the wake of other patterns, styles and motifs.”

To be more specific, he (52) continues by clarifying that:

“We can trace its aesthetic and institutional origins and be satisfied that it ‘derived’ under the influence of Chinoisere and Physiocratic idealism.”

What he (52) is referring here is actually Kew Gardens and Blenheim Palace. Anyway, he (52) goes on to explain that:

“Or, we can assign the landscape various economic, social, political and broadly cultural ‘forces’. We can assign its ‘underlying impetus’ to such ‘processes’ as the industrial revolution, the spirit of capitalism, the doctrine of progress, or to the ‘nature’ of homo economicus, homo politicus, homo laborens, homo ludens, and of course, homo sapien.”

The point here is that humans have a tendency of being absent in the landscape. Samuels points out that landscape is thought of as a product, a telos, caused by various forces or processes, typically so general that, despite all the talk about homo this and/or that, it just comes across as having very little to do with actual people. They appear missing, or so to speak. You may object to this, but here, if anywhere, it would thus be fitting to characterize landscape as being ‘no homo’ because there seems to be a lot of talk of humans, yet there is a clear absence of actual human beings. Samuels (52) continues:

“We can, as it were, explain the landscape without so much as a passing reference to anyone particular who happened to live in, pass through, influence, or even make the landscape.”

As you can see, from the previous passage, the one before this one, landscape tends to be attributed to something grand and overarching, yet unspecific, as culture, as if actual humans weren’t involved. In the words used by Samuels (52):

“All such individuals become ‘meaningless’ as they are explained away in the wake of one or another all-encompassing ‘process’ that ‘alone makes meaningful whatever it happens to carry along’.”

Here he (52) is actually referring to Hannah Arendt’s book ‘Between Past and Future’ in which she (63-64) laments that we’ve come to rely on misleading “generalities [such] as the disenchantment of the world or the alienation of man … that often involve a romanticized notion of the past” and that “[t]he process … has thus acquired a monopoly of universality and significance.” The problem for Arendt (64) is that in modernity, as juxtaposed with the antiquity (the Greeks and the Romans), causality and context are separated from actual events (when something occurs) and thus process has come to be considered as having a life of its own and event a mere surface expression of the process. In other words, as she (64) puts it, the general is taken as explaining the particular.

This is exactly the problem with concepts such as culture, nature and ideology. They end up being used to explain and justify why something is the way it is or someone acts the way the perosn does rather than being the things that needs explaining. The way it works is what Baruch Spinoza calls sanctuary or asylum of ignorance (asylum ignorantiae) in the first book of ‘Ethics’ (see appendix, 1883 translation by R.H.M Elwes)

“So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God – in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance.”

Spinoza speaks of taking refuge in the will of God but culture, nature and ideology work equally well in this regard. As I implied already, I’m not against these words, or others for that matter, inasmuch as they are the things that need explaining, namely how they came to be the way they are at some point in time and space. I’m against them when they are used to explain and justify why something else is the way it is. For example, I don’t see an issue when someone says that this or that practice is part of this and/or that culture, a practice among a set of practices if you will. It becomes an issue when this gets reversed, when a practice is explained by the set of practices, also known as culture. It’s the same as stating that a practice, why someone does this and/or that, is because ‘God wills it’, as explained by Spinoza.

Oddly enough, this is also my gripe with Samuels in this essay. It’s very clear that it is a humanistic text, unabashedly so. There’s no veneer to it, so, even though I find myself disagreeing with him, at least I can appreciate that he is very open about how he comes to conceptualize landscape. I hope to expand on this in the next essay. That’ll be within a week or so, so either late this year or early next year. I may want to rearrange some things, but we’ll see.


  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. New York, NY: The Viking Press.
  • Cosgrove, D. E. (1985). Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 10 (1), 45–62.
  • Samuels, M. S. (1979). The Biography of Landscape: Cause and Culpability. In D. W. Meinig (Ed.), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (pp. 51–88). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Spinoza, B. ([1677] 1884). The Ethics. In R. H. M. Elwes (Ed.), The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza: Vol. II (R. H. M. Elwes, Trans.) (pp. 43–271). London, United Kingdom: George Bell and Sons.