“Where’s the subject?” he asked, flatly.
A photography professor at a small college in California was asking me what I’d taken a picture of, and where in the photo was he supposed to look. It was a large claw-shaped dead tree branch, arching across the night sky, lit by the glowing street lamps of nearby suburbia as dim stars carved curved trails in the sky beyond. The image was dark, otherworldly, spooky, and exactly what I’d intended to capture. For me, the emotion was clearly there. The branch reached out menacingly, while the star trails incited vertigo and time-lost unease. I was proud of it.
“What do you mean?” I was confused, and a little hurt.
“What’s this a picture of?”
I was bewildered. It was obvious to me that the entire scene had value, that each item in the scene contributed to the overall experience, and, come to think of it, that was the goal of my photo: to create an experience. Like the experience of a scary movie or a creepy story, I was trying to take the viewer to a place they’d never been, and cause them to experience a set of emotions. I couldn’t clearly articulate this point of view in words, but I thought my photograph did the job.
Apparently it didn’t — I got a C, mostly for showing up with a completed assignment. My ego was bruised (typical of young artists), but I was also surprised by what I felt for my professor: pity.
I understood in an instant that he had no connection to the world around him, no appreciation for stories told by inanimate things. He was blind. Not visually, but mentally.
Humans are social creatures, so it’s understandable that we gravitate toward photos of people. We like to look at faces. Advertising is more effective if there’s a face featured in the pitch. For most people, pictures of family members are among their most prized possessions, and that’s a beautiful thing. Portraits are priceless, but does that mean landscapes are completely bereft of value? Hopefully, we can understand that landscapes don’t happen at the expense of portraiture. That it’s not a competition. Both have a reason for being and can beautifully coexist. It’s sports photography that should be ridiculed (just kidding!)
Landscape photos provide a connection to our environment. They give us a glimpse of the larger context within which humanity exists and reminds us that we’re a small part of the larger universe. They can illustrate immense natural forces, remind us that change is constant, time is deep, and life is fragile.
I look at landscape work as fulfilling two obligations:
1) Experiences. I want to transport the viewer to a specific location, and show them what I saw when I shot the photo. I want the viewer to feel like they could walk into the photo and experience standing in that location. That’s why my compositions often have some foreground space. As I stand in a location I feel an emotional connection to what I see and hope to convey that same feeling to the viewer.
2) Recording for posterity, and unintended photojournalism. There are photos we can see today of Mount St. Helens before the 1980 eruption that were taken by amateurs on vacation. Those images are an historic record that clearly illustrates the destructive force of volcanoes, and can even serve as scientific data that may be used to save lives. Many photos I take today are an excellent record of the sizes of glaciers that will likely disappear due to climate change.
I like to think of my work as being valuable on its own. Yet, more and more I think of it as a single data point included with others that help to record an even bigger picture. While we certainly like to look at ourselves, landscapes can help us to look past our own reflection to the world we live in — and what we’re doing to it.