What Are We Trying to Achieve?

Las Torres at sunriseDo all photographers, amateur and professional, have a goal for their art? Some recent events have me thinking deeply about the level of photography I wish to achieve in my life and what kind of images I want to produce as the apogee of my creative efforts. The exhibition I wrote about a couple of weeks ago had some very high level work but also a lot of mundane photography that didn’t impress me. I had recently written the draft for an article I plan to submit about the cultural differences in the approach to landscape photography in various countries and I had praised Japanese nature and landscape photography for having “Ki,” a special kind of spirit that seemed to me was absent in the works of western photographers (or at least it hadfn’t occured to me that western nature and landscape photography had “Ki”). But considering what I saw at the exhibition I felt I had perhaps sung too many accolades to the work of Japanese photographers. Then came the latest issue of Outdoor Photography Canada with some awe-inspiring images from home. I pined for the mountains of my home country and felt almost a regret for ever having left. Finally this week I picked up the January/February issue of Yama to Keikoku (山と渓谷)magazine which, as usual, was replete with the kind of nature and landscape photography that originally fuelled my inspiration to come and practice photography in the Japanese landscape.

The exhibition prompted me to consider what I hoped to achieve in my work and for several nights I walked home thinking about how often the images I captured reached the level of photography I am striving to produce, and how often I am simply filling up my files with uninspiring and ordinary images. If I consider the results of each outing I can see there are times where, from the perspective of wanting to bring back a bagful of excellent images, the outing was nearly a waste of time and money (I don’t actually consider any outing a complete waste because the joy of being in nature, the things I see and the experiences I have make the trips worthwhile). On other occasions I come home with such a collection of fine images that I can easily separate and allocate photographs for various purposes.

So, how would one choose to present his or her ultimate collection of photographs? Would it be a book? An exhibition? A special feature in a magazine? I have always enjoyed looking at photo art books and early on I gave myself the hypothetical task of being able to produce the same book with high level photography using my own photographs. Though I had not visited some of those places in the books I looked at, I searched my files for images of similar composition, colour and light. That was many years ago. Then the other night I asked myself this: if a publisher approached me and said they would do a 200-plate book of my best works, would I be able to supply enough images that I could truly say my book would be a volume of what I would consider master works? The answer is, yes, I believe I could put together a suitable collection of images. After 20 years of shooting slide film in 12 countries using four different formats of film cameras I am confident that I have what I would deem necessary to create a book of which I could be proud. But how do I arrive at this conclusion?

The first step is to set a goal for myself. What are, in my opinion, images that satisfy my particular thirst for landscape photographic art? I set my goals based on the images that move me and inspire me most among the pages of the many books I have, as well as a number of magazines. Looking at the works of photographers from eight countries that have collectively captured images from all seven continents, and over the oceans as well, I have no shortage of images to ignite the fires of deep emotional appreciation, the heat of which warms my soul and stokes my creative side. There are images that simply take my breath away and leave me in awe as I marvel the circumstances that created the scene and the skill of the photographer who captured them. It is those images that move me most that are the standard for which I aim.

I think it is important for each photographer to have an idea of what level he or she wants to elevate his or her work. However, while there are people like me who crane their necks to see those lofty heights of fine art landscape photographer, I get the impression there are plenty more who are content to satisfy themselves with achievements that are deflated nearly to the point of mediocrity when compared to the works of master photographers. This is pardonable because there are many individuals who are content simply with following the guidelines for good photography and pleased when their results meet the criteria of those guidelines. As far as pursuing the joy of photography there is nothing wrong with that. Before anything else, photography should be fun and without the burden of the pressure of contributing to a higher art. Photography should be for all, whether professional or amateur, still a hobby that we do because we love it. For me, however, these marginally interesting shots are not satisfying. I want more from my work. I am sure I come across as a photo snob when I say things like this but it is because I want to produce images that have the same affect on me as my favourite images by my favourite photographers. I am reaching for a higher level.

As I see it, that high level of fine art landscape photography has some strict requirements, all of which must me met in order to achieve success. The first is absolute technical perfection. That means correct exposure, focus being accurate for the intentions of the photograph, and a credible rendering of colour. I say credible, meaning realistic to one’s own perceptions, because a great number of photographers enjoy tweaking the colours in their photographs either with special effects filters or with computer software. While these amendments can result in splendid imagery, I believe that each of us must decide for himself or herself to what degree we can acceptably manipulate the colours of the natural world in our photography and still say with honesty that our works represent a true depiction of Nature. Some people feel justified in using filters for every exposure, arguing that the filters make up for the limitations of film and digital cameras. At the other extreme are photographers who abstain entirely from the use of filters, saying that using filters falsifies the image of nature they wish to capture. Whatever the position in the argument, I agree with what Peter Watson had to say about using fill-flash and filters: as with filters, the use of fill-flash should never be detectable. So I would say the same for any manipulation done with software: it should not be detectable. It’s not that I believe altering the appearance of nature too much is a photographic sacrilege, but rather I recognize that there is a distinction between a pictorial photograph, which permits tampering with colour, and a documentary photograph, which is more strictly bound by the scruples of honesty. (Please note here that when I say documentary here I mean an honest representation of the colour of the natural subject or landscape and that even in documentary photography there is still plenty of room for creative vision.) But this is not meant to be a detailed discourse on the subjective topic of colour manipulation in landscape photography. If the image is believable to the viewer then it succeeds.

After technical excellence comes compositional interest. A successful image may be achieved following the basic concepts of composition such as the Rule of Thirds; however, there is always room for a more creative approach to composition and the photographer with experience and a vision of his or her own will be able to conceive of compositions that go beyond the basics.

Next I would say light is of extreme importance. In fact, it is often said that it is the quality of the light in a photograph that determines whether it is a winner or a failure. I have shot fascinating subjects using compositional techniques I immitated from the photographs I admired most but the photographs were made in the wrong light. None of these images are included in any of my photo projects. Imagine, for example, a fox leaping in a grassy meadow to pounce on its prey. Under overcast skies this image is of little more than a novel interest. But in the light of morning with the fox’s fur backlight by the sun and the seed heads of the tall grass rimmed with gold the image has a lot more impact.

Following light an essential ingredient is atmosphere. This can be clouds drifting around or tumbling over mountains peaks; dark clouds on a prairie horizon; godbeams streaming through punctures in a ceiling of clouds over the sea; mists enshrouding a lake in the morning; damp and wet air in a rain forest; or any other condition that adds feeling or mood to a photograph. Each subject under each kind of weather in each season at each time of day has its own requirements. The point is to identify with the atmosphere of a scene and evoke the feeling of that atmosphere in your photograph.

I can cite an example from the exhibition I recently attended. One photograph of the Matterhorn had captured the famous mountain peak as the light of dawn touched one side. The photograph was quite simple in composition: the peak jutted up in the centre of the image flanked by the silhouette of a tree on either side. The sky was clear blue. I have made a number of exposures like this of other mountains. Morning simply occurs without any pomp and ceremony. There are no wild clouds tearing themselves around the summit; there is no mist hanging over the forest to catch the light; there are no reflecting surfaces to magically and naturally enhance the image with additional colour. I take those blue-sky-morning photographs because that is the best nature will offer me that day and I know if nothing else I may use those photographs in a slide presentation one day or perhaps, hopefully, as a minor supporting image in some future book project documenting a specific area or theme. But to submit such an image to an exhibition would be outside my sense of responsibility to myself as a photographer attempting to promote his name. If my work has to be represented by one, or at the most only a few images, then I would choose something that was not a consolation record shot. I do understand, though, that for the author of that particular image the moment may have been special and the photograph was for him a success. For my taste, I preferred other Matterhorn images that had more atmosphere.

I have covered technical excellence, creative compositions, light, and atmosphere. The final quintessential ingredient in my opinion is impact. This is perhaps the most subjective point of all, for what has impact on one person may fail to impress another. The photographs that inspire me most are usually images of mountains, rocks, water and ice, clouds, and also trees. These are my favourite subjects. I can enjoy photographs of flowers, wildlife, insects, or the stars but they usually don’t have me burning with the desire to get out and photograph. Other people may skip over rock photographs and gravitate to images of birds or flowers. Whatever the subject, I think that a successful image will capture the attention and imaginations of even those people who normally don’t consider those subjects of interest. This is where impact has the power to draw in a great many of viewers because there is something in the image that speaks across the borders of personal subject preference.

These are the five criteria that I believe make certain photographs stand out among others. If any of these five points are lacking the image is not as inspiring, not as remarkable, though it may still be very good, even great. Reasons for substandard results (the standard here being a high level of landscape photographic artistry) may be due to technical error manifesting itself either as an error of the photographer or equipment troubles; unsuitable or poor weather conditions; an tired or uninspired photographer or one with his “eye” not fully open (I have been that many times); and a lack of experience or a lack of goals and no concept or comprehension of a higher level of artistic achievement. I aspire to gather a great collection of images that meet these criteria and so far I believe I do have a small but sufficient collection. But viewing the images in the Yama to Keikoku magazine or in some of my books reminds me that there is still much work to be done. There are moments and settings in nature I have yet to discover for myself and capture on film. How nice it would be to come home with a bag of great photographs after every outing. Perhaps if I shoot less of the ordinary and concentrate more on taking time to seek, find and capture the extraordinary I will feel satisfaction with the results of all my outings again.

2 responses to “What Are We Trying to Achieve?

  1. An excellent distillation of what every photographer should be aiming for – I’ve made mental notes of each, and will carry them with me in my quest to become a little better each time.

  2. Thank you, Chris. I was thinking of some of your photographs while writing this. You have some very inspiring works. As a matter of fact, I am mentally composing my next entry and plan to refer to your Kaikoma hike. I would like to add a link to that post of yours in my post. So far, I think you are my only reader, but nevertheless I want to mention your photography at Kaikoma.

    Thanks for the link to that very long but enjoyable blog about the climb up Houou, by the way.

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