A Green and Pleasant Land, a major new exhibition in Eastbourne, explores our ever-evolving relationship with the land around us. By EDWIN GILSON

WHEN you think of typical British landscapes, rolling green hills and windswept coastlines come to mind. But, of course, that’s not the whole story. A new exhibition at Towner Art Gallery is seeking to subvert the expectation of landscape photography as something you might see on social media as the backdrop to a cliched motivational quote.

Comprising shots from all corners of the UK, by more than 50 photographers, A Green and Pleasant Land considers the ways in which our views of the land have changed since 1970. Co-curator of the exhibition, Greg Hobson, says the display is a direct reaction to generalisations about our surroundings and those who capture it on camera.

“There is an assumption that landscape photography is something that would appear in calendars, what people might describe as ‘chocolate box photography’. In fact, there is something really interesting going on with how these photographers see the world – it’s all about what ideas they bring to it. There’s very little that might be described as traditional, romantic rural landscape in the show.”

While it might seem like there is a lot of scope for – and interest in – photos of the landscape in the UK, and especially Sussex with its expanse of downland, Hobson reckons work in that form is strangely overlooked on these shores. “I don’t think landscape photography has been represented in the UK in the past, whereas some of the people showing work in the exhibition have received a lot of exposure abroad. This display addresses that.”

Hobson thinks the exhibition will surprise people for a few reasons. Firstly, the photographs show a mix of rural and urban areas, broadening out the word landscape to include city life as well as the countryside. Some of the shots are also in black and white because colour photography was not widely introduced until the mid-1980s.

It was the intention of Hobson and his co-curator Brian Cass to examine the intersection of human activity and the natural world. A number of shots exemplify this agenda. John Davies’ portrayal of Agecroft Power Station in Salford (bottom right) not only features the looming water cooling towers on the horizon but also a group of footballers playing a match on the terrain below.

“The water towers have a monumental, almost church-like status in the picture,” says Hobson, and it’s difficult to disagree. More generally, the curator hopes that visitors to Towner will see the “beauty” in the man-made constructions that impede upon the natural landscape. Some people might look at those buildings in these shots and think they’re incredibly ugly but I think some of them are incredibly beautiful,” he says.

Other notable photographs that exemplify the human impact on rural sites include Theo Simpson’s Tree in Field, Lincolnshire (top left) and Paul Hill’s Legs Over High Tor (bottom row). These photographs are undeniably arresting. But isn’t there a certain sadness in accepting that unspoiled nature is more and more rare with each passing year?

Isn’t it difficult to stop a little melancholia at this fact creeping in to the photographer’s work? Hobson insists the shots on display are “non-judgmental” and that they don’t constitute an “environmental critique or message”. At any rate, he adds, it is the photographer’s job to document the ever-changing nature of the world around us.

“The landscape is a constantly evolving entity,” he says. “It changes depending on what kind of human interaction there has been; tourism, for instance, or farming. I think it’s fair to say that throughout history people have always depicted human activity and emerging industry in connection to the landscape. With the exception of some very small areas of wild, you will see signs of that activity everywhere. Even if it’s a wall that’s been built.”

For the photographers, there are benefits to increasing industrialisation and agriculture on the land. Simpson, the creator of the newest work in the exhibition, uses the materials he finds along the way to enhance his work. “He takes metals from disused agricultural areas and uses them as frames for his pictures,” says Hobson. “There’s an agricultural structure on display in the show.”

Sussex features in the show but Hobson and Cass were keen to touch every corner of the UK in the exhibition. Hove-based Simon Roberts is on hand to represent his county, however, with shots of Eastbourne Pier and paragliders from Devil’s Dyke. Hobson has been a fan of Roberts’ work for a long time and is happy to be presenting it. The photo of Eastbourne pier – which is a permanent fixture at Towner – was part of a larger collection documenting the “English at leisure”, and the iconic structure will be familiar to “staycationers” around the UK.

In general, the photographs in A Green and Pleasant Land capture the stark beauty of the land in all its forms. Of course there is much more to the collection that its name suggests. The British landscape continues to intrigue and amaze.

A Green and Pleasant Land: British Landscape and the Imagination, 1970s to Now, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, tomorrow until Jan 2018