On the Philosophy of Landscape Photography
My journey is different from other photographers. For me, landscape photography is linked to my love for painting and graphic arts.
Some critics believe that photography is inferior to other arts such as painting, cinema, literature, or even design. They look down on the infinite reproducibility of photographic printing as compared to the uniqueness of the pictorial canvas, or the modest economic and social success obtained by photographers compared to movie stars. In response, fans of photography denounce the comparisons, saying it is its own art form and should be treated as such. These lines of logic are, in my opinion, sterile. Both will lead to re-proposed stereotypes, not artists developing their own style or message.
The first interdisciplinary approach to photography, meant to lend it artistic dignity, is attributed to the French Pictorialist Gustave Le Gray. Alfred Stiglitz’s publication Camera Work and his group, Photo Succession, also furthered the Pictorialism movement. Using printing techniques such as bichromate gum, albumin, and platinum printing, Stiglitz freed photography from being a merely mechanical industrial process. Ansel Adams later criticized Pictorialism and founded the F64 group, which adhered to the concept of Straight Photography.
The drama between and criticisms of such influential photographers have led many to view the contamination between photography and graphic painting as taboo.
Despite his preference for Straight Photography, Ansel Adams also spoke of previsualization of the subject before shooting. This is similar to the optical camera used by Caravaggio (today some studies even assert that the painter took rudimentary photos on his canvases). Adams further asserted that “Preview is more precisely seen as an attitude towards photography, rather than a dogma. It is assumed that the photographer has total freedom of expression, in no way restricted by my idea, or that of anyone else, what art is about.” So the great American photographer criticized Pictorialism, but not the starting point of artistic interpretation. Erroneous knowledge of Ansel Adams' thoughts has led many photographers to close themselves off creatively. To avoid falling into this trap, it behoves photographers to be self-analytical and open-minded to cultural and aesthetic influences. That will free your creativity, letting the poetry that everyone has within themselves shine.
For me, what Michal Kenna said about his photographs was illuminating. In his famous book, Form of Japan, he defines his photography as Visual Haiku (Japanese short poems). His awareness that his own style is so deeply rooted in his cultural background prompted me to reflect on my photography and on the path I wanted to pursue. Like Kenna, I am passionate about the poems of Basho, Joso, and Fuson. I am also inspired by European art. However, it took time to see how these things influenced my photography, poetics, and aesthetic sense.
Most of my images are made in black and white, so my work starts with an expressive approach that is not a faithful reproduction of the places photographed. Often, in fact, when I find myself developing photographs of a peak in the Dolomites, or of a waterfall, I don’t even remember the name of the mountain or the river. I know that will horrify many fellow landscape photographers. However, I am more interested in conveying the feeling of wonder, melancholy, or strength that I felt in that moment than the location itself. I rarely have a precise photographic destination in mind. I like to travel along new paths to be amazed by what I encounter for the first time. This approach is inspired by the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli and his theory that artists must listen to their inner child or fanciullino. Pascoli encouraged artists to see the world as children do, with a sense of wonder and amazement when they discover something new. I am, therefore, not a documentarian. I am a person who seeks peace and emotions in nature as a refuge from everyday stress.
In recent years, I have combined Pascoli’s philosophy with my passion for Japanese and Western culture linked to Romanticism. Both of those cultural concepts have helped shape my photographic journey and informed my choice of techniques.
Japanese Aesthetics - Yūgen
The concept of yūgen is the least definable of Japanese aesthetic ideas, as its exact definition depends on the context in which it is used. The term translates to “slightly dark”, but that doesn’t convey its full meaning. Yūgen not only describes the charm of dimly lit things whose limits and details cannot be fully understood, but in a broader sense, also indicates that which is unfathomable, mysterious, or inscrutable. It implies mysterious abilities in Japanese art that cannot be put into words. In fact, the literary term "symbolism" is considered the closest comparison to this Japanese word.
In low key photography, yūgen refers to the shadows that create a photographic chiaroscuro effect, similar to Caravaggio’s paintings. In minimalist photography, it refers to the negative space, which is devoid of information. Light, dark, and negative space all encourage the viewer to imagine what cannot be seen. We are meant to wonder what may be hidden in the shadows or in the negative space generated by a blanket of snow, fog or strong light. In doing so, we detach ourselves from the straightforward, descriptive perception of a photograph. It instead becomes symbolic of what we have imagined in those light, dark, negative spaces. A lone tree, for example, can be made to evoke the feeling of an entire forest, the loneliness of the passage of time, or eternity.
The European Sublime
During the Pre-Romantic period, the concept of what was considered ideal evolved. Europeans no longer yearned for art with perfect proportions, as was common during the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance periods. Rather, they wanted to see the reaction of Man in the face of nature’s strength and majesty. The sublime, therefore, coincides with the sensations that invade the human soul in the face of grandiose natural phenomena. This can be things like violent storms to volcanic eruptions, but also includes minimalist landscapes such as deserts, endless plains, or snow-covered fields. During the Pre-Romantic period, grandiose natural phenomena were considered a manifestation of the divine. As such, they were beyond the purview of human intellectual abilities and could be intuited by the human soul but not explained in a rational way. Man is often represented alone in front of the majesty of nature as in David Friedrich’s paintings. The sublime romantic brings with it the desire to feel part of something greater, the desire to immerse oneself in the mystery, and the desire for spirituality. This push for transcendence was a reaction to both the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment/positivist philosophy that will later be defined by the conservative philosophers as “the dictatorship of reason”.
Wild nature as a way to access the divine also characterizes the Japanese religion of Shintoism and, in part, Japanese Buddhism which evolved syncretically. In fact, Shinto gives the landscape a sacred value as an intermediary towards transcendence. Representations of nature, such as Sumi-e painting, Bonsai, and Haiku, are also tools through which to achieve greater spiritual awareness.
The sublime European and the aesthetics of Japanese art both consider landscape as an expression of transcendence towards the divine. Therefore, landscape photography follows an ancient path matured both in the East and in the West.
Ways to Incorporate Both Philosophies
From a photographic point of view I think that some compositional methodologies derived from Eastern and Western painting and some photographic techniques can be very useful for tackling this photographic journey:
- The Japanese minimalist aesthetic of Sumi-e painting is particularly suitable for intimate landscape photography. In particular, it is important to understand how to use negative space. Negative space enhances the subject of the photograph and creates a sense of incompleteness that evokes a reality beyond the image itself.
- Focus on the texture of a subject. If we highlight the signs of ageing left on a log or on the rocks, we exalt what the Japanese define as wabi/sabi or the "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete beauty" that characterizes the world in which we live. This ties into the Buddhist doctrine of the impertinence of matter.
- Using a high key exposure helps to create an ethereal, rarefied, and dreamlike negative space. The portrayed place seems to almost become the passage to another reality beyond time.
- Use of wide angles up close to enhance the shapes of your foreground subject.
- Long exposures change the way the elements of the composition are captured, especially in seascapes. Long exposure can also increase the contrast, giving the image a very dramatic tone.
- For broad vistas, I prefer to use an approach closer to the aesthetics of European romanticism, such as low key/chiaroscuro exposure, or the Japanese aesthetic of yūgen. Areas shrouded in shadows encourage the viewer to make sense of the areas shrouded in the mystery created by the use of chiaroscuro. The chiaroscuro also simplifies the composition by reducing the disturbing elements. It is important to note that the use of shadow is not the same as a vignette. I don’t like artificial vignettes because they often give a heavy and sometimes caricatured aspect to the photo.
- Infrared photography gives a particular drama to the skies, but at the same time enhances living subjects such as trees, grass, etc. that shine with their own light, symbolically conveying the power of life.
- Using the golden spiral in your composition gives your final image a harmonious feel, especially in mountainous landscapes.
- Finally, the photographic printing technique can also act as an homage to the Japanese aesthetic. For example, using photographic techniques such as the Palladium Platinum print and the Vandyke Brown print lend prints a Sumi-e feel, accentuating the pictorialist character of the works. This is particularly true when using Japanese washi paper or heavy watercolor cardstock.
In the literary world, you can write a novel, a poem, or a dirty word on a wall. Photography can be similarly used to create varied images–it is a language with which to communicate different things in a different way. To that end, it is appropriate to have a solid cultural background from which to draw inspiration, sometimes even in an unconscious way. Deepening our non-photographic interests only serves to expand our expressive abilities. Doing so in a conscious way gives us rigor and a scientific method that will give our work a unique style. When you love a photographer, it is more important to study what his cultural background was than to simply reproduce his shots. People may not know, for example, that Brassai was also a sculptor, or that Stiglitz was the first to exhibit works by Cézanne in his photo gallery in the USA. By accepting that cultural influences will impact a photographer’s creative process, and that those influential works of art can elevate–rather than detract from–their photography, we all give ourselves the grace and space to grow as artists.
Sources of Inspiration
Painters: Caravaggio, William Turner, Monet, Caspar Friederich, Salvatore Fergola, Roberto Ferri, Agostino Arrivabene
Poetry: Giuseppe Ungaretti, Giovanni Pascoli, Ugo Foscolo, Giacomo Leopardi
Sumi-e Paintings and Ukiyo-e paintings: Hokusai, Hiroshige
Haiku poetry: Basho, Buson, Ryota
David Lynch, Wong Kar-wai ( in the Mood for love), Ang Lee, Takeshi Kitano, Ridley Scot, Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa
Michael Kenna, Simon Marsden, Brassai, Ansel Adams, Fan Ho, Kenro Izu, Alfred Stieglitz, Sugimoto, Vittorio Sella.