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Learning to See Again

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Crash! I tentatively turn my body in the direction of the sound already aware of its cause. There, a few feet away in the rocks, lay one of my cameras, its lens akimbo.

The camera had been capturing a time-lapse of the sunrise. The raging wind had picked up the tripod to which the camera was affixed and lifted the entire enterprise a few feet off of its rocky perch before depositing it on the edge of the cliff on which I stood. Instantly, I sprung into action, grabbing the tripod before it could complete the 500-foot drop. I gently set it all on its side for the moment (away from the cliff) and, with a smile on my face, turn back towards the splendor which all my cameras, eyes, and heart were fixed.

Standing on the saddle between Cathedral and Kipp Peaks in the heart of Glacier National Park’s backcountry, overlooking Sue Lake and dozens of sharp peaks, as the still-hidden morning sun gave light to the upper atmospheric clouds, was nothing short of transcendent (hyperbole withheld). The moment marked a several weeks-long journey of learning to see again. That is, learning to really look at the landscape and see order, meaning, harmony, disharmony, connections, terror, and beauty, in all of its forms.

I have two modes: stop and go. Go is my primary way of being. When I am stopped, I am sleeping. When not sleeping, I am moving. I generally walk quickly and for long durations without a pause. I can’t be bothered to stop, not even for a spectacular vista. I’ve carried my body 30, 40 and 50 miles without so much as a rest stop. Through my mid-20s, I assumed that that was the ONLY way for me to be. That is, until I picked up landscape photography.

Landscape photography demands the participant to stop. To look. To really look. A glance won’t do. The art of landscape photography lies in the photographer’s pursuit of making sense of the myriad elements presented within the landscape and to organize those elements – choosing which to include/exclude and how they are arranged – into a single still frame that is capable of communicating the spirit of a place. I love that challenge, and, what’s more, I love what it does in the way of seeing more generally. Certainly, it is very rewarding to return from the field with a strong image, but more rewarding still is to have tuned into the essence of the place. To have seen, really seen, the place. The resulting image serves as a memory spark, taking you back to that place and time when you were fully tuned into the moment. It’s great if the image is strong, but even better that it is at all. Its mere existence represents a moment in time when you were engaged with the spirit of place.

For example, in the above image, I was presented with a spectacular panoramic scene with the promise of a dynamic sunrise. Camera in hand, I was forced to consider how to translate that scene into a single still image. I considered how my eye would move around the frame, what elements might be present around the edges to create a natural frame around the lake, using the cirque itself to round out the bottom half of the frame. I experimented with moving closer or further away from the cliff edge, ultimately opting to leave part of the cliff edge on the bottom of the frame to anchor the image. The mountains on the left and right of the frame provided obvious bookends to the shot. After determining the composition, I proceeded to shoot some composition for 30 minutes as the sunrise progressed. Minute-by-minute, the mood of the scene was changing with the coming of daylight. I knew that I didn’t know which moment would be ‘the moment’ until the sun had risen to a degree where the light was no longer compelling.

Those 30 minutes of photography were strictly a warm-up. When it was clear that the most dynamic light had passed, I set down my camera – out of the wind this time – and looked. Breathed. Smiled. Felt. That warm-up looking through the viewfinder of my camera provided insight into the layout of the basin: where the peaks were in exact relation to the lake, where and how the cliffside plummeted its 500 feet, how the light variously streamed – first orange, then yellow – through the hanging valleys in the center of the scene, how the mist skimmed only the summits of the peaks 8500 feet or higher before evaporating into oblivion. I took it all in, without my camera, feeling I had gained entry into a deeper knowledge. I understood the complex beauty of that mountain cirque and its relationship to the autumnal sun infinitely better than I would have without the process of landscape photography. What’s more, I now had a fixed still frame on a memory card – a fitting name for that piece of technology – that could be revisited in perpetuity to reinvigorate the feeling of that morning. Because the actual experience of being there was better than whatever the resulting image may be.

You see, I have been learning to see, again. I had taken something like a 5-month hiatus from photography – with a few exceptions – through the spring and summer as we completed building out our van and adjusted to our new, nomadic way of life. That is to say, I have been in ‘go’ mode. I had zero creative brain space to spare (my bandwidth, at the best of times, to embrace creativity, is limited). It was go, go, go. Over the past several weeks, feeling settled and comfortable, I have begun to happily reengage with landscape photography. It is, at the moment, my sole tool for going slow. I love it. When I starting actively shooting again two weeks ago, it was awkward. I was out of practice. I hadn’t looked closely at the landscape for quite some time. It took me two days of shooting the same subject – a waterfall – to tune into finding compositions. I had to retrain myself on what it meant to slow down and enter into deep observation of landscape: the interplay of light and form.

Whatever the actual merits of an image matters less than the profundity of the experience. In the end, I am grateful to have landscape photography as a tool for going slow, observing and, ultimately, gaining an appreciation for this stunning world that we inhabit. I am grateful to be learning to see again.


About the Author: Brian Christianson’s first love – after his spouse, of course – is the landscape. His second love is photography. He derives great joy from getting to intimately understand a place: its light, seasons, topography, flora, and fauna. As a medium, photography promotes seeing, really seeing, the interplay of those factors.

In August of 2020, Christianson and his wife moved into a van and began a two-year road-trip around the country. For him, the goal of the trip is to shake up his understanding and expectations of the country and the landscape and lean into the challenge of growing as a landscape photographer.This story was also published here.

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