Reading Landscapes

Aaron R. Vicencio
3 min readSep 2, 2015

Reading the landscape as text through symbols and signs is done with semiotics, where it is a branch of the study of culture that explores the communication of meanings and how messages are encoded and decoded. But this intellectual privilege of reading and seeing can be done only by repeated practice and active looking, a sensuous call for mindfulness in geography. I embrace the apparent urgency of sight and visuality but I also agree that the bias not cover the other senses. In an editorial in Social Geography Journal (2009), A Schlottmann and J. Miggelbrink address an important conflict, “The content of the visual geographies can therefore be defined with regard to the role of visual in the study of spatial issues. That means the inclusion of the visual in human or cultural geography must be framed in and issue that itself is not primarily centered on visuality. The theoretical basis of visual geographies should then provide opportunities for reflection on the relationship between images and space.” The authors offer three opportunities for research that will give illumination for this ‘critical and reflective’ perspective.

These are: First, role of the material visual images in the everyday, second, a focus on the symbolic interior of the image, and finally, focus on the spatial identity and strategic behavior with underlying locational logic and truth claims.

Tourists come to Bali to experience an imagined perfect tropical holiday. A. Vicencio, 2015

In the introduction of Routledge Companion of Landscape Studies (2013), it notes the compendium of meanings by different geographers, notably; Landscape is ‘multi-faceted, at once an object, an idea, a representation and an experience’ (Knudsen et al.), ‘Landscape is tension’ (Harvey, quoting Wylie), and Landscape is ‘process rather than object’ (Crouch). From the same page, a widely accepted but admittedly vague definition from The European Landscape Convention (2000) and states: “‘Landscape’ means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.” Combining these definitions, landscape is a visually biased perceived area and shaped by specific processes with different contexts thus creating tension and multifaceted objects. This creates multiple ways of reading the landscape and ultimately how one relates to the landscape. Dennis Cosgrove (1988) argues that geography is everywhere.” It is the view from a window, a renaissance painting of that view or a critical reading of why one can see such a view. It is cultural at the same time political, yet still inherently personal. Establishing quality of vision, sight and site is very important in photography and the recognition that landscape is more than just the horizon. It is the active and learned ways of seeing and recognizing the everyday and celebrating it. In Cosgrove (1988)

A landscape is a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing or symbolizing surroundings”,

but anthropologist Tim Ingold (1993) has countered this with

“The landscape, I hold, is not a picture in the imagination, surveyed by the mind’s eye; nor, however, is it an alien and formless substrate awaiting the imposition of human order…As the familiar domain of our dwelling, it is with us, not against us, but it is no less real for that. And through living in it, the landscape becomes a part of us, just as we are a part of it.”

Cosgrove and Ingold’s dialogue about landscape and the dwelling perspective has been illuminating in discussing photography as means of perceiving landscape, rather than just by seeing it. Photography, in using light, provides a window in understanding what landscape, but at the same time creates more discussion and analysis.

As my overarching question, How does photography contribute to understanding space, place and landscape?
Aaron R. Vicencio

Photography with space, landscape, and memory. Currently teaching at Ateneo de Manila University