The development of personal vision in photography often gets mired in thoughts of what to avoid, the suppression of familiar ideas, and the desire to do something different. Instead of trying to move away from what we want to avoid, it is usually more productive to move through familiar ideas that operate as creative catalysts. This article presents two approaches to seeing the grand landscape that can leverage the familiar in the service of the new.
My photographs are intended to represent something that you don’t see.
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Breaking trail after a heavy snowfall, you delight in the conditions of a clearing storm. The sky that was previously a grey, textureless ceiling is now showing warmth and structure, and the sudden play of light and soft shadows around you begins to shape the terrain. The river you are following provides a corridor through the snow-flocked forest and is all that indicates the nearby mountains that swell the river with runoff from their hidden heights. Slowly, the clouds begin to dissipate, and your thoughts turn to positioning yourself for a photograph of the drama that is sure to unfold once the jagged peaks begin to break through.
This scenario describes a crucial point in the creative process of photographing a grand landscape scene, the point where seeing becomes transitional to everything that follows. This moment often seems reducible to a simple act of composition, of maximizing visual appeal. Other layers of intention, however, are always at play. Learning to tap into those layers can be fruitful in the same way that practicing composition helps you to see opportunities in the field, even when you aren’t thinking about aesthetics. In my own work, I find it helpful to practice two approaches to seeing photographic opportunities: via formalism and storytelling. Both approaches leverage a process of recognition, evolving and combining familiar ideas to arrive at something new. What follows is an explanation of those approaches and how you might apply them when photographing a grand landscape scene.
In this article, I define the grand landscape as any view of nature taken from a terrestrial vantage point and including an expanse of land larger than most indoor spaces. As one of the earliest genres of photography, the grand landscape is especially traditional, yet it never seems to wane in popularity. It owes much to the development of landscape painting and shares with it an evolution stretching back to early antiquity. With such deep roots, it might seem to be a genre set in its ways, but today’s examples stand alongside a remarkable stream of landscape photography that succeeds in making even the most familiar places seem new again.
Indeed, all art making is essentially a negotiation between old and new, combining familiar references with personal input, so the process of seeing is never wholly separate from recognizing creative solutions that other photographers have already explored. As long as seeing is part of the process, even a grand landscape image that oozes tradition sparkles with originality. Therefore, it can be helpful to practice a range of options for priming your personal vision for greater agility in the field.
Formalism: Seeing Motifs and Patterns
Landscape photography has a certain repertoire of motifs and patterns that tend to work well within the limitations of its medium, but the options for using these structures for the variety found in nature is limitless. The scenario that I set up at the beginning of this article, therefore, places us at a moment of opportunity limited only by the decisions that preceded it. Those earlier decisions include choosing where to go, when to head out, and what camera gear to bring. Along the way to a final framing, positioning your feet is just one point in a narrowing course of decisions driven by personal vision. They are all likely to owe something to the precedents of existing imagery. The process of seeing coherent forms is often like recognizing a musical scale and being able to hum the missing notes. The more patterns you recognize, the greater the potential for creating a photograph that appeals to you and to viewers. It does not mean landscape photography is formulaic but that patterns are inherent in all art forms as the structure that allows understanding.
Composing a landscape photo is usually a process of simplification, so it can be helpful to think reductively in terms of grand forms and the minor forms that support them. An article I wrote in 2015 formulated this idea in terms of patterns with regard to the grand landscape. Called Five Compositional Patterns Worth Finding in Nature (Photo Cascadia Blog), it was the first of a two-part series describing organizational structures that are easy to find in grand landscape scenes. To make them memorable, I gave each one a name. The Plunge, the Echo, the Layer Cake, the Arrow, and the Hub comprised the first five patterns; the second article presented a set of four regarding small scenes and abstracts. Of course, many more possibilities exist as starting points for composition, but patterns can get you going on a first draft of sorts.
For me, refining that first draft involves four aesthetic concepts that are particularly helpful: hierarchy, balance, immersion, and containment. Each concept refers to compositional advice not uncommon in discussions of landscape photography. Thinking only in terms of these aesthetic refinements can be like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without its box top showing the complete image, which is why I introduce the idea of patterns as an initial organizing principle.
All these concepts have in common the fact that they fall within the bounds of a formalist way of seeing and, for most people, are the easiest types of concept to understand and to practice. Nature is notoriously chaotic, meaning it is a creative feat to combine aesthetic principles in taking a compelling photograph. The results are nearly always photographs that make the viewer feel as though they are seeing an image they have not seen before.
Storytelling: Seeing More Than Meets the Eye
Responding to formalist impulses is difficult, as our thoughts are more than the sum of the visual input from our eyes. As individuals, we bring with us a collection of ideas about land and nature that influence everything we see and these interpretations work for us (or possibly against us) whenever we assess our surroundings. Therefore, consulting familiar ideas about a landscape can be a useful way to practice evoking your own imagination.
My background in art history means I cannot help seeing opportunities to interpret a landscape when I’m out with my camera. Any mountain, tree, or cloud appears to be a character in a setting. Natural features gesture toward each other as if in dialogue, and light sets the mood and suggests emotions these characters might express. Similarly, any feature signals the natural process that created it: first this happened, then that, and then the feature took form. Ranging from whimsy to the sublime, these ideas sometimes precede more formalist thinking, but often help me to develop an impulse rooted in pure aesthetics.
This type of storytelling, as I call it, is an essential part of my approach in the field. I use that term to include everything about creating a photograph that involves interpretation or imagination. Many people find it is easier to read a story into an image if it includes a person or an animal, but landscape photographs featuring only land still suggest stories. From structured narratives to symbolism or allusion, photographers can express at least three types of story: a photographer’s personal story, the story of nature at work, and allegorical stories that cast natural elements as protagonists in the setting. I have numerous articles and recorded talks that delve further into describing these different modes of expression with examples from my own portfolio, but for this article, it is important to concentrate on why and how anyone might find them useful as approaches to seeing.
The subjective nature of visual storytelling suggests an inherent lack of predictability in how a photographer’s ideas might translate for viewers. In other words, the story or meaning a visual artist has in mind may not be the same as the one a viewer sees or understands, and that open-endedness is what makes art so powerful. An artist does not need to speak in great detail in order to have something to say. To demand that a photographer’s intended story be legible is to put too fine a point on the idea of visual expression. If viewers find a photograph sufficiently compelling, each will read something into it that speaks to them. Embracing these possibilities is sure to be helpful for any photographer, so long as they are comfortable with ambiguity. In the words of Stephen Covey:
Unless people have a high tolerance for ambiguity…they find it unnerving and unpleasant to be involved in highly creative enterprises. Their need for structure, certainty, and predictability is too high.
To be sure, the idea of invoking the imagination through landscape photography is at odds with the genre’s potential for documentation, but not all landscape photographers want to create objective documents. If you are willing to ponder the possible stories in landscapes, you can prime the mind to see more than meets the eye by recognizing natural features as relatable characters or remarkable allusions.
Photographers who have practiced composition through formalist principles will gain greater fluency in the field, enabling them to make creative decisions without always having to dwell on aesthetics. The same is true for interpretive impulses – practice leads to fluency. With either approach, photographers can explore ideas through the power of recognition, drawing on personal preferences and experiences that make recognition possible. Ultimately, the more we explore and internalize familiar motifs, patterns, and interpretations, the more options we find for producing photographs that build on familiarity to create personal work.
The article is courtesy of ELEMENTS Magazine. ELEMENTS is the new monthly magazine dedicated to the finest landscape photography, insightful editorials and fluid, clean design. Inside you will find exclusive and in-depth articles and imagery by the best landscape photographers in the world such as Freeman Patterson, Bruce Barnbaum, Rachael Talibart, Charles Cramer, Hans Strand, Erin Babnik, and Tony Hewitt, to name a few. Use the PETAPIXEL10 code for a 10% discount off the annual subscription.
About the author: Erin Babnik is known internationally as a leading photographic artist, educator, writer, and speaker. Her ambitious and expressive style of landscape photography brings together an unusual integration of adventurous exploration, progressive techniques, and formal education in the arts. In her writing and public speaking, Erin explores topics with a unique blend of art historical, philosophical, and instructional ideas, an approach that has made her one of the most notable voices among the current generation of landscape photographers.
Erin travels worldwide to teach photography workshops and to give talks about her work and about the genre of landscape photography. Erin is honored to be a Canon Explorer of Light and is also a member of the illustrious nature photography team Photo Cascadia.