Ismo Luukkonen

Time of a Photograph

Time of a Landscape



Photography is thought to have a special relation to time, different to any other mean of visual expression. For example, every photograph is tied to a special moment of time by the time of the exposure. And the spectator, looking at the photograph, knows that the moment in the picture is gone.

In my artistic work, dealing with prehistoric places, time is in a central role. Time creates my subjects, and the time gone is a major source of interpretations of my works.

I have a question: How to present time in a landscape photograph?

So that the time is not only in the photographer’s mind, but also in the visual appearance of the photograph. And how to present the experience of time in a photograph?

In this presentattion I will introduce the concept of layered landscape. I will have a quick look how the interpretations of photographs are created. And I will present four different approaches to the question of time, prehistory and landscape.

In my work I am photographing a landscape with a long history. My choices are meant to emphasise this point of view. For my work it is essential to recognise the existing temporal structures in the landscape.

Layered landscape

Landscape is a process in time. It is never ready or finished. The natural forces and human activities make changes both in the physical landscape and its visual appearance. Geological and cultural changes have shaped the landscape we are observing. In many cases we can read history from the landscape.

The concept of layered landscape is commonly used in landscape studies and archaeology. It defines a landscape with traces of different eras.

We can divide the layers to two groups by their origin. Historical layers
that are results of human activity, and geological layers that are results of the natural forces.

Some of the layers are visible, so that the temporal structures can be seen in the landscape. But there are also hidden layers, where the temporal structures can only be found with archaeological or geological methods. Thirdly there are conceptual layers. In conceptual layers the temporal structures are based on knowing. Something has happened in the place, but there are no visual or material remains.

My main interest is in visible and hidden prehistoric layers. Such as rock art, ritual places and temples, tombs, graves and cemeteries, houses and settlements, hill forts etc.

I am also interested in possible contacts between prehistoric and present layers. Sometimes we can even talk about conflicts.

A landscape photograph is an encounter of two approaches to time. A momentary appearance created by a continuous process is transformed into a fixed image. The process continues, but the image remains.


When I am seeking time in landscape, or talking about time in photographs, I am talking about interpretations. Interpretations created by the photographer and interpretations that arise when a spectator is looking at the photograph.

My purpose is to find what kind of visual clues in a photograph lead to such interpretations, and what kind of choices the photographer can do to create such photographs.

My methods are the analysis of works of other photographers with similar interests,my own photographic work concerning prehistoric layers in landscape and analysis of my own photographs and working processes.

Roland Barthes (The Photographic Message 1961) has claimed that photograph is analogon, a message without code.

I disagree.

A photograph is not analogical to the original scene. Its visuality is defined by the choices of the photographer. Photograph is a point of view, a photographer’s interpretation on the scene.

The visuality of a photograph is a kind of code. But the code is weak. It can only suggest an interpretation to the spectator. A photograph always has a possibility to many interpretations.

Photographer’s interpretation defines what can be seen in the photograph and what it looks like, but it does not mean that the spectator’s interpretation is similar. Only the visual appearance of the photograph is same for each spectator. Spectator’s interpretation of a photograph is also effected by spectator’s knowledge, worldview, personality, experiences, etc.

I will now return to my question: How to present time in a landscape photograph?

I will introduce four approaches that can be found in my own work and also in the works of other photographers. However all my examples today are from my own work. In all examples the photographed landscape contains visual or hidden prehistoric layers.

1. Topographic approach. In the topographic approach the photographer captures the appearance of the landscape. Often in a “straight photography” -style. In a topographic photograph the structures of the landscape can be read like from the map.

An ancient structure defines the landscape and the photograph. And a spectator with similar interests may share the interpretation without other clues.

Topographic photographs are descriptive, almost neutral. Nothing is emphasised. The spectator is free to have a look.

But a topographic approach is often depending on the context the photograph is presented. For example showing the photograph with a descriptive text makes the interpretation of course more obvious. Like in this case.

Topographic approach is commonly used in landscape photography. For example Francis Frith and Paul Caponigro have photographed ancient monuments in topographic style.

2. Comparative approach. In the comparative approach the photographer creates a comparison between layers of different ages in the landscape. A photographer shows the ancient in contrast to the contemporary structures, and so gives an extra hint to a spectator. Like in the photograph of Rautvuori rock painting. A modern yellow graffiti is placed on top of the ancient red painting.

I usually see the comparative approach as a contrast between two visual elements in the photograph, but it can also be a contrast between a photograph and a text. Like in the photograph of Iron Age settlement in Turku. Comparative photograph can be used like a claim, or even like a political statement.

3. Pictorial approach. In the pictorial approach the photographer emphasises certain aspects of the landscape. It is related to pictorial traditions. A photographer creates a feeling of passed time or myth for example by lighting or by processing the photograph with analog or digital means.

In pictorial approach all disturbing elements in the landscape are carefully cropped or covered. And the mythic connection between the sky and the ground is emphasised. A spectator familiar with such imagery finds a reference of time gone and agelessness.

4. Temporal approach. In the temporal approach the photographer emphasises the time the photograph was taken – the moment of exposure. The photographer creates a comparison between the continuous time and a moment. In the panoramic photograph of Juusjärvi Rock Painting a wanderer in the ice makes the moment special. Or the moments. The image is combined from several photographs and the wanderer is doubled.

In the photograph of Piscos Rock Carvings the scene has momentary additions, a team of archaeologists at work and a herd of sheep with dogs.

During my work I became more and more aware of this kind of incidents. In my project “Experiences of Time” I extended the moment of exposure. So that there is a comparison between continuous time and a moment. The time becomes visible in the appearance of the photograph.


Making a photograph is a sum of many choices. The choices are in relation to the photographer’s intention.

My subject – prehistoric layers in landscape – and my intention to photograph time in landscape led to different types of images. From topographic straight images to poetic pictorial photographs.

All these approaches have their own character. Topographic approach displays the scene with its temporal layers, it seems to be based on facts. Comparative approach can be used to make a claim, or even a political statement. Pictorial approach invokes feelings or moods. And the temporal approach emphasises the moment of exposure.

To present time in a landscape photograph I ended up to join these approaches. In the series “Experiences of Time” the results of my work are visible.



Ismo Luukkonen is an artist photographer living and working in Turku, Finland. He also works as a senior lecturer of photography in the Arts Academy at the Turku University of Applied Sciences.

This introduction is based on a presentation given in the Helsinki Photomedia 2012 conference at Aalto University in March 2012.


© 2012