2020 was a year of extraordinary change that effected each one of us at all levels of our being: physical, emotional and mental. The year started out ordinary enough but then came COVID falling seemingly from the sky igniting a global pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in about a century. With businesses, schools and even parks closing along with the need to social distance and wear masks, life as we once knew it came to a screeching halt. If this were not enough, as the year unfolded many of us found ourselves wading through the deep water of a toxic political environment primarily centered around the Presidential Election. Onetime friends turned against each other strengthening even more an already formidable great divide as many of us sought refuge in our social media bubbles. We started unfriending and blocking people left and right across a wide virtual field of social media acquaintances with little or no actual physical contact. During this period of time I also witnessed the slow decline of my Father and his eventual passing in September. He lived a good life but he was highly impacted during the pandemic by rules that helped keep him safe from COVID but also contributed to his isolation. My Dad introduced me to nature and the outdoors through hiking and photography at an early age and is one of the biggest influences in my life for my love of nature.
The one thing I now realize more then ever is the importance of Nature in each of our lives–Nature as a refuge from day to day troubles, Nature as a source of inspiration and creativity, Nature as a mirror and window into our own souls. Even in this Pandemic Nature is still there for me to discover. Nature is within myself, and in all places including my own yard, the woods where Julia, Caroline and I can access right out our front door, and places within walking distance of our home. As the initial stage of the Pandemic passed parks were soon reopened as long as we practiced social distancing and wore masks as appropriate. I actually spent more time in Nature in 2020 than any previous year that I can recall. In nature there is a beautiful stillness where we can experience who we truly are as person. In nature there is also impermanence and change which causes me to appreciate its beauty all the more. Much of the beauty of a flower or the colors of autumn is the knowing that this beauty is temporary. We can only experience this still, quiet, changing and impermanent beauty in the here and now, face to face with nature where we are nature and nature is us.
Here is a collection of my favorite images from 2020, not in any particular order. Thanks for looking!
#1. The Lantern
A Japanese Maple lights up like a lantern as the morning light bursts through an opening in the canopy of the small tree by a pond. It is a wonderful experience to get under a Japanese Maple and explore with a ultrawide angle lens different composition possibilities. Small movements left or right, up or down, can make major differences in the look and feel of the composition. It was a creative challenge for me to find an opening in the canopy where a sun star would be possible, along with just the right amount of natural light to illuminate the inside and outside of the tree. I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment when it all came together in this image including a good perspective of the tree, a sun star, and wonderful backlit lace-leaf leaves lighting up like a lantern. In this image you will also see a small stone Japanese Garden Lantern. In Japanese Culture these small garden lanterns symbolize nature through the concept of finding beauty in the impermanence of the natural world. At no time was this more evident to me than underneath this Japanese Maple Tree, with its leaves now fully turned a bright red, catching the rapidly changing light, and ever so slowly starting to fall to the ground, one by one.
#2 Hot August Meadow in the Goat Rocks
On a hot August day, I started my long loop trip hike into the Goat Rocks at sunrise and did not finish until well after sunset. I suppose I could have finished sooner, but what is the hurry? In the evening I passed through this happy meadow just below a ridge top and decided just to hang out and enjoy nature at her finest for an hour or so. Hiking down from the ridge to the car I eventually had to use a headlamp and in order to not surprise animals I played Neil Young music through my JBL speaker attached to my belt. No sooner than I set up the headlamp and music I peered out onto the trail about 50 feet ahead and saw two narrowly spaced bright eyes staring at me. At first I thought it a person because the eyes were fairly high off the ground. Then I saw a big and long bushy tail. It could have been a wild dog or a cat, I do really know for sure. The animal would not move so I turned up the music a bit more , now Neil Young’s Natural Beauty Song. The animal then slowly with grace, almost like our cat Precious, started moving up the rock talus and then perched onto a flat rock and sat down like a royal cat still looking at me. Amazingly calm I proceeded back out onto the trail but it later occurred to me that if this was a cat it may have just positioned itself in prance position. Nevertheless it was all ok and good—Perhaps thanks to some mellow Neil Young music!
There are moments when my soul is a mirror to everything around me. Forms, shapes and patterns bathed in light rise out of the dark void and return again in an endless cycle. In such moments I feel I am the mountains, the sea, the setting sun, and the tree spread out over the bay. There is no me, mountains, sea, setting sun, or tree spread out over the bay–Satori.
#4 Beauty in My Backyard
This image of Mt. Rainier was taken on a hike right from my home through the forest and up to an overlook with a view of Mt. Rainier. A long 200mm telephoto perspective compressed the layers in this scene sufficiently to capture the same emotional impact this scene has on a person when he/she stands at this site for the first time.
#5 May the Light Always be With You
In the early morning at Cape Disappointment the sun finds an opening in the clouds to fill the entire atmosphere with wonderful angelic light. Every day in life is such a blessing and it is in moments like this I remind myself to live each day to the fullest. Every day is a new beginning. Who knows what is around the corner. Plan for tomorrow, but always live for today as if it were the last and welcome the light of dawn!
#6 Deception Pass November Sunset
In late November I decided to do some hiking winding my way through various trails crisscrossing Deception Pass State Park. I eventually reached this viewpoint and decided to stay to sunset, hiking out with head lamp. There is something about late fall/winter sunsets, especially when most of the day is cloudy and overcast, that make them seem more special to me!
#7 Twin Peaks
“To me dreams are part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive but expresses something as best it can.” –Carl Jung
Fog creeps across the pond and begins to fill the Snoqualmie Valley on Winter evening after sunset. Images with atmosphere especially with fog, mist, low clouds, haze, sand, and rain can all evoke a sense of dream like mystery. What all of these atmospheric conditions have in common are particles in the air interacting with sources of light. This awakens our feelings and emotions to cultivate the sense mystery. Particles in the air soften the scene, and with the interaction of light this helps direct our attention to essential forms while hiding others which deepens the mood. It would be a mistake however to reduce our reaction to the scene’s atmosphere to just feelings and emotions. The mystery also points to something beyond even what we are feeling at the time, to a sense of wonder at the experience of being in nature. With the softer rendering of the scene made possible through atmosphere, the scene can often seem dream like and a little other worldly.
#8 Moon Rising Over the North Cascades
This is from my August backpacking trip in the North Cascades. We were treated to a wonderful sunset and moon rise on Saturday Night. After the sun set the mercury rapidly dropped bringing on a very cold night at close to 7,000 feet elevation. I laid one of my water bottles outside my tent and it was frozen the next morning! I think we felt a bit of autumn approaching in the air.
#9 Dances with Fog and Light
On a foggy morning at Deception Pass State Park I noticed this tree growing out of a eroded seawall, although large, bonsai like in its shape, with two needleless arm like branches reaching out to the rocks on the shore and in the sea. Through minimalism and the process of subtraction I knew I could get to the essence of the scene and the use of black and white would help as a medium to emphasize the contrast of light and shadow to bring attention to essential forms.
Subtraction is strongly related to both improving the composition and deepening the mystery. Subtraction is the notion that less is better, and there is a beauty and elegance in removing as many elements from the scene as possible. In photography, the world as it presents itself to us is often cluttered with extraneous detail. But the skilled eye using a good choice of lens and angle of view can always simplify the scene to primarily include those elements which are integral to the composition and deepening the mystery. This does not necessarily mean always using a longer focal length lens with a narrower field of view, as that would be an over simplification of the process. But it does mean a keen awareness of what attracts you to the scene and the skills to arrange as few elements as possible in a pleasing composition. What is left out strengtheners the mystery for the elements that still remain. With mystery there is almost always something concealed and held back.
#10 Madrone Spread Out Over the Bay
A Pacific Madrone rises from the edge of a steep undercut bluff and reaches out over the bay, and out further still to Puget Sound’s Rosario Head and Bowman Bay. Madrone trees prefer to grow along bluffs in fast draining soil close to salt water where the temperatures are also warmer in the Winter. They are always doing something, shedding bark and leaves year long, growing leaves, displaying beautiful white flowers in spring and red berries in fall and winter. Madrones are among my favorite trees. They have so much character that reflects their intimate connection with their immediate environment and no two trees alike.
#11 Sunrise at Big Cedar Tree
I pass this tree just about every day while walking through the woods close to my home. Somehow it was sparred during the logging of this area years ago. It looks so tall, beautiful and majestic at sunrise, rising above all the other trees of a different generation.
#12 The Larch
I remember watching an episode years ago of the British comedy, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” where an image of a Larch would keep popping up before, during and after various comedy skits with the narrator uttering the words in a British accent–The Larch. Perhaps this is where the expression Larch Madness has its roots! I am thinking that this Larch Tree here may be a good specimen for any new revival of the Monty Python show! I have always been attracted to a trees with character that stand out from all the rest but also appear as harmonious and organic parts of their larger environment. This Larch certainly stood tall and majestic above all the surrounding trees offering a clear subject and focal point and blended in beautifully in with its forest and mountain home. The autumn blueberry leaves in shades of burgundy, orange, red and gold provided a beautiful carpet leading my eyes to the golden larch and the mountain background helped place the Larch in its environment without also competing for attention. I love the way this Larch is seemingly reaching for and into the cloud filled sky above the mountains. Larch trees have needles like evergreen conifers, but these needles turn from green to yellow and gold in late September and early October in high alpine areas east of the Pacific Crest in Washington State.
#13 Light in a Mossy Forest
There is nothing like hiking on a late fall day when you round the bend and find a mossy forest catching the brilliant light of the sun already starting to set in the late afternoon.
#14 Daffodils Under the Tree of Spring’s Golden Light
On an early March evening in the Skagit Valley, Spring welcomed me with Daffodils under the Tree of Spring’s Golden Light! A chorus of Geese were flying all evening overhead, heading north. Although none flew into my shot, the music was welcome in the cool air of the fragrant fields of gold.
15. The Great Pacific Northwest
This image has some of the best things I love about the Pacific Northwest and Washington State: Wild Rhododendrons in bloom, the beautiful waters of the Puget Sound and Hood Canal, Islands, and Mt. Rainier!
#16 Glimpses of Summer Paradise
From the slopes of the North Cascades, as I approached this meadow I thought I was seeing glimpses of what might be paradise, or at least as close as we mortals will ever see.
#17 The Flow and the Way of the Glacier Lilies
When the snow melts on the fields of Mt. Rainier, yellow Glacier Lilies are among the first wildflowers to bloom, sometimes rising right through a thin layer of snow, eventually forming vast colonies that flow through the meadows and lead the eyes to the beauty that is everywhere at Mt. Rainier National Park.
# 18 Lilac Tears of Joy
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.” Walt Whitman
For many of us 2020 has been a year of mourning. We lost many of our loved ones due to the pandemic and other causes. I personally lost my Father who passed away at age 92. He live a good life but he was highly impacted during the pandemic by rules that helped keep him safe from Covid but also contributed to his isolation. His spirit lives on in all of his children and grand children, my loving Mother, and many others in his life. My Dad loved nature and the outdoors, never gave up on anyone–always being willing to help regardless of the circumstances or what one might have done. Family always came first. He introduced me to nature and the outdoors through hiking and photography at an early age and is one of the biggest influences in my life for my love of nature. Luckily I was able to talk to him in person outside a week before he died. The flowers were blooming at a dooryard and he was very lucid. He reminisced in vivid detail about a hike we took years ago to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness as if it were yesterday. My Dad was also very disciplined and I am so happy at least some of this wore off on me! Papa has gone on to a better place and is now in peace. Papa we miss you very much, but your spirit will always remain in our hearts forever.
#19 Blue Forget-Me-Nots
This is dedicated to all our frontline workers in the medical field who have served us so well during this pandemic.
Rise and shine, this is your sunrise from the top of Steptoe Butte in the Palouse.
#21 Small Stream in an Ancient Forest
With some areas of Olympic National Park opened after initial pandemic closures, in May I decided to take a visit. I am glad I showed up early as there were few people there and all camping facilities remain closed further reducing the crowds. The few people I saw were polite in their willingness to socially distance. Although I visited a few iconic sights, I felt drawn to this small stream cascading through some old growth, moss and rocks. The water seemed as pure as one could hope to find anywhere, likely one of the benefits of taking the trail less traveled through a rain forest.
#22 South Falls Backlit Maple
As the sun sets before dipping below the distant forest above the canyon wall, the leaves and moss of a big leaf maple are backlit taking on a luminous quality. Scattered light also illuminates South Falls against the dark background of the canyon walls.
#23 Lakeside Larches Turning Gold
The Larches this year in Washington seem to have started turning gold a bit later than usual but at the time I took this image they were well on there way to their golden splendor!
#24 Blinded by the Light
This image is looking out from Hurricane Ridge’s Observation Point out toward the first flank of the Olympics rising from the ocean waters of the Straight of Juan De Fuca. I am staring right toward the sun softly filtered through layers of clouds.
A flock of birds fly through a foggy forest and into a small inlet before heading out into Bowman Bay. The song of the seagulls slowly passes through the misty air.
#26 Bare Tree Reflections in the Winter Light
The soft light of a winter sunset works its magic on a group of bare trees next to a small pond.
#27 Alpine Pond Autumn Moods
In early October, Julia and I took a hike into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in some of my favorite conditions: clouds and fog. Autumn is still hanging on, but there were signs that it is slowly making its exit with many leaves on the ground. The blueberries were perhaps at bit beyond their peak ripeness, but still well worth spending an hour picking!
#28 Grazing and Sleeping in the Pasture
A herd of deer settle into a carefree evening in this idyllic setting under the Olympic Mountain and colorful skies.
#29 Tumwater Canyon Visions
In early October, I took a drive over to Leavenworth and the Tumwater Canyon. I just love how still sections of the Wenatchee River reflect the surrounding trees and foliage now transitioning to the colors of Autumn. I decided to experiment with this nearly abstract composition with just the reflections. I flipped the image to get closer to my Monet like vision for this scene.
#30 The Colors of Autumn
This image has some of the best things I love about the North Cascades in Autumn: a mountain lake, morning light, reflections, orange mountain ash, burgundy blue berry leaves, and larch trees! This lake lies just below the east side of the Pacific Crest where in early October the green needles of the the Larch Trees turn to gold complementing the colors of the the deciduous leaves of the orange orange mountain ash and burgundy blueberries. These larch trees only grow in high alpine elevations usually above 6,ooo feet. On this day there was wind on the water but I found this gorgeous secluded spot on the lake where the water was protected and the fall foliage wrapped around the foreground of the scene to help frame the image of the lake, reflection, and the surrounding peaks.
#31 Russian Butte in the Mist
This is from an early morning adventure in late November hiking trails above the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River. I was taking some images of the forest when I turned around to this momentary opening in the clouds, fog and mist and was easily distracted into taking a different picture, this one!
Green Fields of the North Cascades
This image was taken in August, but Spring arrives later in the North Cascades with the transition to Summer only a few weeks later, and not long after that Autumn!
Thanks for reading this blog post. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on The Tao and Landscape Photography. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this post. If you think others would be interested in this post, please share it with your friends and other acquaintances. All of these images are available on my website for purchase and are located in the following link: 2020: Reflections on Change and Stillness. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the wonder and awe of nature be with you!
The Tao of Landscape Photography is about the recovery and the illumination of the path to creativity. I say recovery because the way of the Tao is also a recognition that the path was always there. Along our long way we have acquired various forms of learning and knowledge that have helped us grow not only as individuals but also as landscape and nature photographers. But this learning and knowledge has also helped to restrict our awareness of nature. The Tao of Landscape Photography is about rekindling some spontaneity that brings back a more child-like sense of wonder and unrestricted awareness. This leads to a new awakening as we move away from well known formulas and instead experience and photograph the natural landscape with the eyes of a child.
In this post I will discuss what is the Tao and introduce two key source texts, The Tao Te Ching and Chuang Zu. I will then use direct passages from these source texts translated into English to explore eight Taoist ideas and how they relate to Landscape and Nature Photography in our own time: (1) Return to Nature; (2) Negative Space; (3) Yin and Yang; (4) Flow “Wu Wei”; (5) The Simple Life is the Best Life; (6) Perception: Is this Life a Dream?; (7) Reality is a Seamless Whole; and (8) Self Understanding.
What is Tao?
The Chinese word Tao means “the way”. One might ask what kind of way? First and foremost, it is the way of nature including our own nature. It is also the way of harmony with others and the way of self understanding. Taoism is the study of the way. Its origins trace back to the philosopher-hermits, called Xian, who roamed the mountains of ancient China. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese ancient pictogram for Xian (僊) represents a person in the Mountains (1). Although Taoism eventually developed into a religion complete with rites, rituals, and practices including meditation, Feng Shui and Tai Chi; in this blog post I am primarily interested in Taoism as a philosophy that sheds some light on my own relationship with nature and how nature provides inspiration for all of my photographs. In this regard I stay close to the original source texts for Taoism where one actually finds very little about religious rites, rituals, and practices.
For me Taosim is part of what Aldous Huxley calls the Perennial Philosophy (2). This is a perspective views all of the world’s spiritual traditions as pointing to a common truth. In this regard I have found echos of Taoism with its emphasis on a direct, immediate and intuitive experience of nature as the way in both Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. It should not be surprising that one sees similarities of Taoism in Zen because the practice of Zen came to an already Taoist China by way of India and only later moved to Japan and eventually the West. Zen’s exposure to Taosim helped transform Zen into the spiritual practice that we know today. The similarity with American Transcendentalism is purely coincidental and there is no known evidence that either Emerson or Thoreau had access to any Taoist writings. To me this is actually a good thing because it demonstrates that the teachings of Tao need not be tied to a specific historical and cultural tradition and are relevant in all times and places including our own time.
Although there are many ancient texts on Taoism, there are two primary texts that have informed my understanding of Taoism
1. Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way) attributed to Lao Tzu
2. The Inner Chapters attributed to Chuang Tzu
The Tao Te Ching is generally regarded as the central text of Taoism (3). It was written in the 5th Century BCE. Although it is attributed to the sage Lao Tzu, we do not know for sure if such a person even existed and most scholars believe it was compiled by several authors. The book is rather short consisting 81 brief chapters and only 5000 Chinese Characters. Perhaps as a testimony of the difficulty of translating the Tao Te Ching, it has been translated into English by more different translators than any book other than the Bible. Each Chinese Character in the Tao Te Ching has a very nuanced meaning making a precise English Translation virtually impossible.
The Chuang Tzu is named for its primary author, Master Chuang. Composed in the 4th or 3rd century BCE, the Chuang Tzu also focuses on the person of Lao Tzu, who is presented as one of Chuang-Tzu’s own teachers (4). Although both the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu’s writing are paradoxical in nature, in Chuang Tzu the paradoxes rise to level where they are often humorous and perhaps also a bit irreverent. Many of the chapters come in the form of parables and stories. But one cannot fully appreciate or even understand Chuang Tzu without first reading the Tao Te Ching. So if you choose to read the Chuang Tzu Inner Chapters (it is short and makes great bed-time reading!), make sure you also have close at hand the Tao Te Ching!
(1) Return to Nature
A central theme in the Taoist perspective is a return to nature. At a more personal level this also means a recovery of our own nature. I say recovery, because our own original nature, a sort of childlike primordial state, was always there. Taoism points to several factors that stand in the away of awareness of our true nature. Chief among them is our contemporary culture that surrounds us and other trappings of society. Society convinces us as we grow up that the path to both success and meaning involve the acquisition of material wealth along with work accomplishments and recognition. Unfortunately this path according to Taoism also leads us further and further away from nature. What we need instead is a return to a life more anchored in spontaneity, passion and intuition.
Taoism is also deeply suspicious of both language and thought. Our words, thoughts and concepts can literally never describe our experience of nature. The first words of the Ta Te Ching are “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way.” Taoism always emphasizes the importance of direct experience. In this regard a landscape image that best reflects our direct experience of nature is also one that is in a more natural alignment with the Tao.
Chapter One of the Tao Te Ching: What is the Tao? Translated by Sam Tarode
The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way.
That which can be named is only transient.
The nameless was there before the sky and the earth were born.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
In nothingness you will see its wonders;
In things you will see its boundaries.
These two come from the same origin, although they have different names.
They emerged from somewhere deep and mysterious.
This deep and mysterious place
Is the gateway to all wonders.
This passage introduces the heart of the Taoist perspective. The Tao, or the way of nature, cannot be named. Any attempt to do so is transient, bound not only to a particular moment in time, but also to a particular person. Words cease to be relevant the moment they are uttered and are not to be confused with the Tao itself. Chuang Tzu put this more humorously when he said “A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker and a man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker!” In the Tao there are no boundaries and limits, but in our attempts to describe our experience using conceptual thought we establish just that, boundaries and limits. Does that mean we should abandon our attempts to name and describe our experience? Certainly not, but be aware that the mystery and wonder of Tao and nature is ultimately beyond any kind of logical description.
In this next passage Lao Tzu likens the Tao to the spirit of Perennial spring linking the Tao to nature itself and to what the poet Dylan Thomas alluded to when he wrote in his poem Fern Hill, ” a force that drives through a green fuse a flower.
Chapter 6 of the Tao Te Ching: The Source, Translated by Sam Torode
The Spirit of the Perennial spring
is said to be immortal.
She is called the Mysterious One.
The Mysterious One is the source of the universe.
She is continually, endlessly giving forth life,
The spirit of the Perennial spring is the source of all that is . Some may refer to the Perennial spring as mother nature and she continuously brings forward life. She is also mystery. In the best of our nature and landscape photographs we share glimpses of this mystery of the spirit of perennial spring. But neither our images or words can unravel the mystery. At best we can evoke in our images and words some of the spirit of the mystery of the perennial spring. For more on Mystery see my post Mystery: The Holy Grail of Landscape Photography.
As previously mentioned, The Tao Te Ching likens the return to the more spontaneous rhythms of the natural world to a recovery of our child-like nature. Consider this next passage.
Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching: Become Childlike, Translated by Sam Torode
The virtuous are like innocent children---
poisonous insects will not seize them,
wild beasts will not seize them,
birds of prey will not attack them.
Their bones may be weak,
and their muscles tender,
but their grasp is sure.
They know nothing of power,
yet they are bursting with life.
Their spirits are strong indeed!
They can sob and cry all day without becoming hoarse;
their voices are harmonious, indeed!
To know this harmony is to know the eternal.
To Know the eternal is to know enlightenment.
To increase life is to know blessedness.
To increase inner vitality is to gain strength.
As creatures grow and mature,
they begin to decay.
This is the opposite of the Tao----
the Tao remains ever young.
As a metaphor, the child represents the eternal beginning and the ever springing source of all life. To some the notion of returning to the innocence of our youth may seem overly idealistic and for most of us just not practical. But the message here is that as we grow and mature we move gradually out of harmony with the rhythms of nature that are second nature to the child. This movement away from the rhythms of nature takes us also away from the Tao and our inner vitality and strength. This sets the stage for rigidity and ultimately decay. This is so unlike the child who is flexible, growing, and open to all the world. The child may have no awareness of self and is part and partial of the flow of everything which surrounds him/her. The child lives and breathes in the Tao. How would your your life change if every day you greeted the new morning with the eyes of the child? In Landscape Photography, how would your approach to the landscape and the wonder of nature change if every day you approached life with the eyes of the child-with no restricted awareness, being genuinely open to whatever comes your way?
2. Negative Space
Chapter 11 of the Tao Te Ching: Negative Space, Translated by Sam Tarode
A wheel may have thirty spokes,
but its usefulness lies in the empty hub.
A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty center.
A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.
Matter is necessary to give form,
but the value of reality lies in its immateriality.
Everything that lives has a physical body,
but the value of a life is measured by the soul.
For most of us, when we approach a beautiful landscape, we immediately start picking out subjects against a background. In doing this we are experiencing nature and the landscape as discrete and separate parts. The Taoist perspective, however, informs us that this process of picking out and naming subjects in the landscape may actually be getting in the way of us experiencing the true nature of reality, in other words experiencing nature and the landscape as a seamless whole. Many of you will recall this image that is often used to help shed some light on figure ground relationships and the potential for confusion or misrepresentation.
In this image you will likely first see a couple of silhouetted faces facing each other. But on second glance you will see that the image is also of a vase. The Taoist perspective will take this even a step further and place importance on paying attention first to the background and the negative space. Without the background and negative space no subject or subjects can have any form. “A wheel may have thirty spokes, but its usefulness lies in the empty hub” and “the room is made of four walls, but its usefulness lies in the space between”. When a Taoist first approaches a mountain landscape, he/she is likely to first notice the valley below and the sky above rather than the imposing mountain looming as a primary subject. Focusing first on the negative space and background can go along way toward transforming how we view nature and the landscape and it is my belief that this will be for the better. This helps move us away from our habitual way of viewing the world, glorifying certain objects in the landscape, rather than experiencing what every landscape actually is, an integrated whole. Focusing on the negative, brings us back to a more primordial and intuitive way of experiencing the world, it brings us back to the source of all that is, it brings us back to the eternal Tao.
The use of negative space is especially apparent in the long tradition of Chinese landscape paintings. The painting above is by artist Ma Yuan active from c 1190-122. Ma Yaun was a leading artist at the Southern Song painting academy in Hangzhou. His painting titled Scholar by a Waterfall, shows a gentleman in a mountainous garden like setting with the wind sculpted and somewhat jagged rhythms of the pine tree contrasting with the quiet mood of the scholar, and both are looking out into the flowing water of the cascading river and the emptiness beyond. Notice the considerable amount of negative space enveloping all parts of the image. The use of negative space is a consistent feature of Chinese Landscape Painting, where space, emptiness and the void are inseparable from forms, with each depending upon the other. It is out of the Tao and negative space that forms emerge. A recognized authority, Wucius Wong, on Chinese landscape painting in his book, The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting (9) puts it this way:
“Truth, to the artist, is both mass and void, both the material world and the artist as he fuses himself completely with his subject mater. Void (negative space) is hsu, the opposite of shih (mass/forms), and is generally considered by artists as more important than mass in painting.”
3. Yin an Yang
Chapter 42: Yin and Yang, Translated by Sam Tarode
The Tao produces unity;
unity produces duality;
duality produces trinity:
trinity produces all things.
All things contain both the negative principle (yin)
and the positive principle (yang).
The third principle, energetic vitality (chi),
makes them harmonious.
Yin Yang is the principle of natural and complementary forces and patterns that depend on one another and do not make sense on their own. The original meaning of yin and yang is associated with the dark north facing and light south facing sides of a mountain. These two sides of the mountain are of course inseparable as all mountains have north and south facing sides and one side, be it the light or the dark side, will always imply the existence of the other. We cannot have light without dark, or dark without light. Although Yin and Yang are often thought of as as feminine and masculine forces and it certainly includes these two, Yin and Yang encompass just about everything that we think about and experience in the natural world.
Yin and Yang are opposites that fit seamlessly together made harmonious through the flow of natural vital energy called “Chi”. The yin yang concept is not the same as Western dualism, because the two opposites are not at war, but in harmony. Yin and Yang are a unity. One cannot have the Yin without the Yang! This is often difficult for the Western mind to grasp, because we are accustomed to thinking that good is better than bad and that ultimately good should triumph. But Taoism teaches “When everyone knows good as goodness, there is already evil” and “When everyone knows beauty as beautiful, there is already ugliness” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter Two). At this point it will be helpful to hearken back to this popular ancient symbol of the Yin and Yang.
The dark area contains a spot of light, and vice versa, and the two opposites are intertwined and bound together within the unifying circle. Yin and yang are not static, the balance ebbs and flows between them – this is implied in the flowing curve where they meet. Yin contains some of the Yang and Yang some of the Yin. This applies to ourselves as well as the natural world. Yin and Yang forces are in each one of us in a constant ebb and flow. Likewise Yin and Yang are in the natural landscape in a constant ebb and flow of light and shadow, negative space giving rise to form, high and low, near and far, soft and hard, chaos and order, permanence and impermanence, life and death, feminine and masculine. The Taoist photographer will bring the forces of Yin and Yang present in the landscape and themselves into a harmonious ebb and flow in their photographic creations, mirroring the natural world that is after all a reflection of the Tao.
4. Flow “Wu Wei”
Chapter Thirty Two: Where to Stop, Translated by J H McDonald
The Tao is nameless and unchanging.
Although it appears insignificant,
nothing in the world can contain it.
If a ruler abides by its principles,
then her people will willingly follow.
Heaven would then reign on earth,
like sweet rain falling on paradise.
People would have no need for laws,
because the law would be written on their hearts.
Naming is a necessity for order,
but naming cannot order all things.
Naming often makes things impersonal,
so we should know when naming should end.
Knowing when to stop naming,
you can avoid the pitfall it brings.
All things end in the Tao
just as the small streams and the largest rivers
flow through valleys to the sea.
One of the enduring symbols of the Tao Te Ching and Taoist literature in general is flowing water. Water, like the Tao flows naturally, easily moving around, under, over, or through obstacles without resistance from stream, to river, to sea. This Taoist notion of flow is also known as “Wu Wei” or effortless action. It is not the same as inaction or passivity, but rather going about life in a simple and flowing manner, not trying to force things, but instead living in tune with the rhythms of nature. In his landmark book, Tao-The Watercourse Way (6), Alan Watts said this about Wu Wei: “The art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them.”
This notion of Wu Wei and going with rather than against the flow of course also applies to vocations including the practice of nature and landscape photography. This is not to say we go out into the field without any intentions or expectations. Although some photographers claim this is what they do, I think at this point this is somewhat of a platitude. Of course we have some intentions and expectations. We are not literally flowing into nature and the landscape at random. At a minimum we have made a choice of when and where to go. What is important is that once we are at our choice of location we are navigating freely with the vicissitudes of nature–not trying to fight it when nature does not cooperate with our expectations. We move more freely with acceptance and a minimum effort cooperating with the ebb and flow of nature.
5. The Best Life is the Simple Life
Ancient Masters, Chapter 15, Translated by J H McDonald
The Sages of old were profound
and knew the ways of subtlety and discernment.
Their wisdom is beyond our comprehension.
Because their knowledge was so far superior
I can only give a poor description.
They were careful
as someone crossing an frozen stream in winter.
Alert as if surrounded on all sides by the enemy.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Whole as an uncarved block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Turbid as muddied water.
Who can be still
until their mud settles
and the water is cleared by itself?
Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
For only those who are not full are able to be used
which brings the feeling of completeness.
In this passage, Lao Tse talks about the qualities of the sages of old who were examples of living a life in harmony with the Tao. Although these sages were alert, careful, courteous, and fluid as melting ice; they also were likened to the image of an “uncarved block.” The metaphor of the uncarved block” is one of the most enduring and frequently found metaphors in all of Taoist literature. The uncarved block represents nature in its original, unchanged, and natural form. Benjamin Hoff, in the Tao of Pooh, writes “The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed (7)”. This fits in well with the Taoist emphasis on negation and the importance of negative space. Living a life of the sage is not so much about cultivation of various practices such as mindfullness meditation and the like, as it is about the stripping away of much of the baggage we have collected in the process of fitting in with society and getting back to a much simpler and spontaneous life close to nature. The paradox is that when we return to the uncarved block we also unlock our potential to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. An uncarved block has the potential to be transformed into something extraordinary and worthwhile. But this will only happen when one moves with rather than against the rhythms of nature. In the words of Lao Tsu: “Who can be still until their mud settles and the mud is cleared by itself, Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?”
As a landscape photographer I have found that return to the “uncarved block” is also the best way to grow in the art and craft of photography. Nature after all is what my photography is about, so would not it make sense that living life flowing with rather than against the currents of nature would best support my creative endeavors? Even the creation of good imagery has more to do with pairing down, stripping away, removing distractions, and getting back to a simpler more elemental state of elegance than it does with introducing layers upon layers of additional elements and complexity. Less is more and I have found for me at least simpler is better.
6. Perception: Is this Life a Dream?
Chuang TzuChapter Two, Verse 24 , The Butterfly
“Long ago, a certain Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly— a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Chuang Tzu. Then all of a sudden he woke to find that he was, beyond all doubt, Chuang Tzu. Who knows if it was Chuang Tzu dreaming a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu? Chuang Tzu and butterfly: clearly there’s a difference. This is called the transformation of things.”
In this often quoted passage, the philosopher Chuang Tsu dreams that he is a butterfly fluttering about, moving around from here to there wild and free. When he awakens, however, he is utterly confused. He does not know if he was a butterfly dreaming of Chuang Tsu or if he was Chuang Tsu dreaming he was a butterfly. From the perspective of the Tao our perception of our individual self or ego, as something separate from nature and the environment that surrounds us, is in itself a kind of dream or illusion. Whether he is Chuang Tsu or a butterfly in a way does not even matter. What matters is that all of us live life in accordance with the rhythms of nature.
This story provides a beautiful visual image that most of us can instantly relate to that illustrates the Taoist point that distinctions, such as butterflies, us as individuals, reality, dreams—are all just projections. In a sense we live in a dream world all of the time. When I see two butterflies, I am seeing my own perception of two butterflies. The butterflies are not literally in my mind. Experience never puts us in direct contact with reality (5).
As a Landscape and Nature photographer, this story of the the butterfly is especially dear to my heart and I believe it will also be to many of you. How often have you gone into the field with camera and had the feeling that you are part and partial with everything that surrounds you: the air you breath, the trees in the forest, the flowers at the lakes shore, and the birds flying overhead? For many of us this is also the moment where we transcend our individual self and live more in the spirit of Wu-Wei. We move about with effortless action and seemingly unbridled creativity because we are in harmony with the rhythms of nature. We do not resist but rather embrace what nature has in store for us this day, whether it be rain falling in the forest, a glorious sunset, or merely another overcast day.
7. Reality is a Seamless Whole
Those Who Divide Cannot See, Chapter 17 of the Chuang Tzu, Translated by David Hinton
“A sage inquires into realms beyond time and space, but never talks about them. A sage talks about realms within time and space, but never explains. In the Spring and Autumn Annals, where it tells about ancient emperors, it says the sage explains but never divides. Hence in difference there is no difference, and in division there’s no division. You ask how this can be? The sage embraces it all. Everyone else divides things, and uses one to reveal the other. Therefore I say: “Those who divide things cannot see.”
In this verse Chuang Tzu speaks of the sage as someone who focuses on the whole of nature, not dividing nature into its constituent parts. The very act of dividing the world into specific objects of this and that can prevent us from truly seeing: “Those who divide things cannot see”. Although Chuang Tzu had no awareness of Gestalt , the influence of Taoist thought is evident in Gestalt including the Gestalt Principles established by its founder Kurt Koffka and the Gestalt Psychology of Fritz Pearls. Gestalt refers to a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts. This complements beautifully the Taoist perspective of nature.
As mentioned earlier, the Taoist does not immediately focus on picking out the subject from the background. Attention is first on the background and the associated negative space and only then on the forms that emerge from the background. But the Taoist does not view these forms as discrete stand-alone parts but as part of an integrated whole, in other words as a Gestalt.
The Gestalt Principles include: (1) Similarity –Objects and elements including shapes and patterns that are similar are perceived as a group; (2) Proximity–The eye perceives that objects close to one another as belonging to a group; (3) Continuation–the mind sees lines and curves as continuing even if visual information is missing or there are objects in the way; and (4) Closure– The mind completes shapes that only exist partially in the image, such as a partial circle or triangle.
The kanizsa Triangle shown above has often been used by Gestalt psychologists to demonstrate the principle of closure, which maintains we see objects grouped together as whole even when they are incomplete. In the Kanizsa Triangle we see two triangles and three circles even though technically there are no complete circles and triangles in the image, only three pac-men and several incomplete triangles. Our holistic vision completes the gaps in the shapes. This image challenges the reductionist approach to vision that what we see in a image is merely the sum of its parts. We actually perceive objects/subjects that from a purely objective point of view are not even there. This is similar to the Taoist perspective that councils us to pay attention to the background and negative space as much as the figures and the subjects. Both Gestalt and Taoism challenge our limited way of viewing the world that focuses on discrete objects. Both Gestalt and Taoism challenge us to see a world holistically rather than just the sum of its parts.
Some gestalt principles that bring unity to a landscape scene can be seen in the above image titled Autumn Passage. There is a similarity of shapes between the granite rock in the foreground, the upper half of Valhalla, and the top of Lichtenberg peak in the upper left. The proximity of the granite rock with the harmoniously colored sections of golden yellow green and orange red foliage helps form a unified foreground group. The triangular granite rock partially hidden by foliage (closure) points (continuation) down the slope to the lake and peak aided by slightly diagonal lines in the mid ground. The lake itself and the peak point to the sky and warm clouds of sunset (continuation). For more on Gestalt and Landscape Photography, see my blog post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact.
As a landscape and Nature photographer I have always thought that presenting my image as well balanced and integrated consistent with my experience in nature is more important than forcing all attention onto a subject. When I see some popular landscape images today the single minded focus on the subject often seems aggressively forced as if the photographer is screaming for our attention. Backgrounds are heavily darkened and directional light is manipulated to the point where the contrast between the subject and background is so strong as to seem unnatural. Some of this may be done to get instant attention on social media where people judge your image in a second or two then move on. This is not the way of the Tao. The Taoist perspective is more about turning down the contrast and volume, focusing first on the background, revealing the often subtle path of light, and creating a well integrated and balanced image where the rhythm and flow of the landscape is presented manner that seems as natural as nature itself.
The Taoist notion of the world is that it is organic and changing in never ending cycles of growth, decay and renewal. The world is an organism where every little thing is related to everything else. In this world there are no truly lone actors, and reality is a seamless whole. In this sense Taoism foreshadows the views of the modern environmental movement. For more on the Environmental Movement see my blog post–“Landscape Photography: Inspiration, Preservation, Conservation and the Environmental Movement.”
8. Self Understanding
Chapter Forty Seven: Explore Within, Translated by Sam Tarode
Without going abroad,
you can have knowledge of the world.
Without gazing at the stars,
you can perceive the heavenly Tao.
The more you wander, the less you know.
The wise explore without traveling,
discern without seeing,
Finish without striving,
and arrive at their destination,
without leaving home.
In this passage we hear echoes of Thoreau’s message of Walden’s Pond. Thoreau found self understanding at Walden Pond within close walking distance of his original home in Concorde, Massachusetts. For more on Walden’s Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World. The path of self understanding need not involve going outside of where we are at in the here and now. Travels to distant parts of the earth are not necessary. This is because as we travel in the spirit of the Tao we realize the entire world is also within us. Alan Watts put it this way: “We have been brought up to experience ourselves as isolated centers of awareness and action, placed in a world that is not us, that is foreign, alien, other—which we confront. Whereas, in fact, the way an ecologist describes human behavior is an action: what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place you call the here and now. You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.” We are part and partial of the world. The idea of ourselves as separate from the world from the Taoist perspective is an illusion. For more on living an authentic life close to nature see my post Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.
In Taoism, self understanding is paradoxically related to freedom from a sense of self. Self cultivation involves more a stripping away of various ideas and behaviors we have acquired along the way to help us dominate and control what we perceive to be the external world than it involves adding anything new. The stripping away involves: (1) Surrender–the recognition that ultimately our ego is not in control, (2) Wu-Wei or effortless action–going with the flow in a manner that recognizes there is no separation between our self and the world: (3) Simplicity-the recognition that we can best experience our connection to nature when we live a simple life, free from the weight of excessive possessions and vain pursuits of fame and glory, (4) Grounding–living our life close to the rhythms of nature and the earth, (5) Humility–living an authentic life with integrity that recognizes the limits of our individual self and the corresponding recognition that we are part of something much greater than our individual self, (6) Spontaneity–a return to our more child-like sense of wonder and playful experience of the natural world.
The recent covid pandemic brought home to me this idea that we can arrive at our destination without leaving home. The pandemic, especially initially, placed limitations on my movement and for a few months I took images of only places within walking distance of my home. I began to realize now more than ever how much that goes into creating imagery is drawn from internal sources of inspiration. When I or yourself take an image of a landscape close to our homes, it is not just what is out there, it is also our emotions and passions of a moment in time that are coloring our perception of what is out there. Our internal world can be beautiful and when the photographer integrates the internal and external worlds through an image this is a manifestation of the all inclusive Tao— it is also the art and craft of photography. What might otherwise seem ordinary and mundane receives the inspiration of the life force of the Tao and now seems uniquely attractive and aesthetically interesting, worthy of sharing through the creation of photographic art. For more on the pandemic and landscape photography see my post: Growing Creatively during a Global Pandemic. For more on Sources of Inspiration including Internal Sources see my post on Sources of Inspiration.
There is no time better than here and now to embrace the eternal Tao and the freedom it offers to rekindle a sense of child like wonder, to bring back unrestricted awareness, to experience nature and landscape with fresh eyes and to reflect this experience in our nature and landscape photography. Now is the time to experience the “Watercourse Way”, move in the spirit of Wu Wei, and bring forward your image of the uncarved block. In the words of the late great motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, “Do the Tao Now (8).”!
Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2020
Thanks for reading this blog post. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on The Tao and Landscape Photography. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this article. If you think others would be interested in this post, please share it with your friends and other acquaintances. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the Tao of nature be with you!
References and Additional Resources
(1) Taoism: Essential Teaching of the Way and it Power, 1999, Allan Cohen, Audio Book
(2) The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley, 1945
(3) Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way, Translated by Sam Tarode, 2013
(4) Chuang Tzu, Inner Chapters, Translated by David Hinton, 2014
(5) The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions, Great Courses, Jay Garfield, 2013
(6) Tao, The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts, 1975
(7) The Tao of Pooh. Benjamin Hoff, 1983
(8) Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, Living the Wisdom of the Tao, Dr. Wayne Dyer, 2009
(9) The Tao of Chinese Landscape Painting, Wucius Wong, 1991
The recent outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has effected all of our lives in significant ways. The immediate effect was quite stark: schools closed, non essential businesses closed, and State and National Parks also closed. We could still go to the grocery stores, but we limited our visits, wore masks, and maintained at least 6 feet of social distance. The crisis also hit professional nature and landscape photographers very hard. Workshops were canceled along with trips that were meticulously planned long ago. Sales of products such as prints and tutorials also declined during a very challenging economic environment. Many people lost their jobs and few wanted to make a non-essential purchase such as a print during these uncertain times. But this is just the business side of photography. The crisis also has had a major impact on the creative lives of all nature and landscape photographers. We received a wake up call that one our primary sources of our inspiration, access to state and national parks, was now cut off.
My Experience during the Outbreak
During the first couple of weeks of the lock down I struggled to process many changes impacting me and my family. My daughter Caroline was suddenly out of school and her preparations and dreams of a successful track season came to an abrupt end. Suddenly we were all trying to live our lives as best we could only occasionally leaving our home-my wife Julia working out of the upstairs office, and Caroline logging into online school. Julia dusted off our old sewing machine and began creating face masks for our family and circle of friends using some of my old Boeing dress shirts that I hardly wear any more! I could no longer make frequent visits to my aging parents, and not at all to my 92 year old father who is in a long term care home. I stated to communicate with him through FaceTime, not at all easy with someone of his generation. I learned of two friends and colleagues who actually contracted the corona virus which was a wake up call that this thing was real and not some abstraction we just hear about through the news media. Clearly my family needed to take the necessary precautions of social distancing, wearing masks, and keeping travel to a minimum.
Prior to the shut down, I had just gotten my business to the point where it was beginning to grow rapidly and I was well on my way fulfilling my vision of having a successful side gig after taking an early retirement from the Boeing Company almost five years ago. Wow, how time flies!. Although I receive immense satisfaction helping others grow in the art and craft of photography and when someone cares enough about my work they would venture to purchase a print, I can easily deal with the loss of business. There are far more people who have suffered true economic hardship during this crisis, along with people in the medical community who are putting their lives on the line who deserve our support. A far more serious situation for me was being cutoff from one of the major sources of my mental and emotional well being, nature itself.
With the passing of a few weeks I began to realize that the pandemic could not possibly cut me off from the source of my well being and creativity. Nature was still there for me to discover. Nature was within myself, and in all places including my own yard, the woods I can access right out my front door, and places within walking distance of my home. Creating images that I would find personally fulfilling and that would also inspire others would clearly, however, require a different focus. I needed to be receptive to the beauty in places many people would consider quite ordinary and mundane. It was time once again to find beauty in small scenes and places that previously I overlooked. It was also the time to explore processing these images somewhat differently incorporating some new skills I picked up watching video tutorials while staying at home. My fresh vision required an approach consistent with where my head and heart was at this time, during this time period of the 2020 Corona Virus Pandemic. How could one possibly just carry on as business as usual? Clearly this was a time for seizing upon new a different ways of experiencing a now suddenly changed world. It was also a time to channel this experience into a fresh approach to photography concentrating on the world immediately around me rather than far off in distant places. Here are a few recommended ways for growing creatively during this pandemic that grew out of my own personal experience.
1. Explore areas within walking distance of your home.
Even during the stay at home order and shutdown, Washington’s Governor Inslee encouraged people to get out and experience the outdoors in areas within walking distance of their homes while practicing social distancing. I heeded this advice and am glad that I did. Getting out into nature is so important for our sense of well being and the strength of our immune system. I would bring along a camera and a small tripod but mostly took my images quickly so as not to interrupt the flow of foot traffic. We need to keep things moving! Occasionally in places where I would arrive early and no one was present, usually before and at sunrise, I would setup my tripod for a series of shots. It is possible to live next to nature for years and take her beauty for granted, or worse still not even notice that her beauty is there. Sometimes it takes something like the COVID-19 crisis to alter our perspective and see the familiar and mundane with fresh and open eyes. There is beauty, both subtle and bold, behind the veil of the familiar and the ordinary.
2. Explore the Macro World One can explore the macro world of small things just about everywhere including our own back yards. Although it helps to have a dedicated macro lens, this is not necessary. Even a kit lens can get fairly close to a small subject and one can always crop in post processing to get closer still. I have witnessed in others some of the biggest strides in creativity when they enter the world of macro photography. In some ways it may be easier to hone in on developing ones compositional skills through photographing small things. “It is a a small world after all” It is easier to identify the primary subject, and the need to minimize distractions is more obvious. Most of the rest of the guidelines for composition of grand scenes still apply, including the use of leading lines, repeating patterns, transitions, maintaining image balance, etc. But you may find that working the macro scene helps sharpen your eye for composition, growing your skill set so when you later go out and photograph the grand scene once again you will be seeing it with fresh eyes.
(3) Explore the world of small scenes. Exploring the world of small scenes is similar to the macro world except here we are talking about small vignettes or pieces of a much larger scene. The vignette could be the size of a small room, it is just a piece of a much larger landscape. Even in areas that seem devoid of any kind of distinctive landmark such as a mountain, lake or river there will be a multitude of small area scenes. There are literally thousands of them even in a relatively small area of a couple of blocks. Picking out the small scene or vignette that is meaningful to you will go a long way toward developing your eye for what works in any image. As in the macro world most of the guidelines for composition of grand scene will apply here as well. You will still look for leading lines, transitions from cool to warm, along with patterns of light, texture and color, etc. The more you practice taking these small area images the better photographer you will become and this will have a huge impact on your skill-set when you go back out and photograph the grand landscape.
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” ― Henry David Thoreau,Walden
The mystery of nature has inspired poets, artists, and song writers from the beginning of recorded time. But the mystery of nature often moves in ways that go beyond our common understanding of mystery. Much of our conventional understanding of mystery starts with the notion that if we could just find out more about the mystery, more information and more clues, we will eventually solve the mystery. But the mystery of nature ultimately cannot be solved.
With nature we are not just talking about figuring out what lies just beyond the edge of the frame, even though that may help convey a sense of mystery in a landscape photograph. With nature we are also not just talking about concealing important details in darkness and shadows, even though that might also contribute to the sense of mystery in a landscape photograph. With nature, we stand in awe of its mystery in both the light of day and darkness of night. To those who welcome the message of nature, they sense her mysteries throughout the day and in all environments and places, in the brightest highlights and the deepest shadows and everything in-between. We welcome the mystery of nature both where nature reaches the pinnacle of beauty and in her more widespread and typical humble abodes.
What is Mystery?
The poets likely come closest to describing at least verbally the mystery of nature through their use of evocative language. One passage that immediately comes to my mind is this one from Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill:
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill.
Dylan Thomas’s words in Fern Hill are full of feeling and rich symbolism to describe the mysterious forces associated with new growth and energy of spring which brings to us an appreciation of the mystery of nature. It is impossible to rationally describe what the mystery of nature means in a manner that gives justice to the wonder and awe one feels in the midst of the mystery of nature. For the writer, this is why the use of evocative language is so important, and in the visual space this is also why it is so important for the photographer in pursuit of the art and craft of photography to bring to the viewer an ability to sense the mystery nature.
A standard dictionary definition of mystery goes something like this:
” Anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown”.
But are the mysteries of nature really secret or unknown? Some scenes certainly convey the feeling in the physical sense of something secret and unknown, for example in the above image I titled Twin Falls in the Mist. But when we utter the words “I am in awe of the mysteries and wonder of nature” are we just taking about certain manifestations of nature, lets say dark and foggy scenes punctuated with light? I think not. We are talking about a sense of mystery that pervades all of nature. It may be impossible to describe through rational means or represent through an unedited raw image the mystery of nature, but we all have the capacity to directly experience the mystery of nature. We all also have at least the potential to share this experience through evocative writing and through the art and craft of evocative photography. Evocative photography moves us beyond the visual representation of the scene and evokes emotions, feelings and moods that are associated with the experience of the mystery of nature.
Access to the Mysteries of Nature through Direct Experience
In the current debate over how much is enough in processing images, several photographers who I know and respect maintain that their goal in nature and landscape photography is to create images that are true to their experience of the scene. I find this interesting because in this same discussion many of these photographers maintain there is a close linkage between their “experience of the scene” and “what was really there.” When I look at the work of these photographers, especially images of places I am very familiar with, I notice there is actually quite a gap between their “experience of the scene” and “what was really there.” Sure these photographers shy away from more aggressive manipulations of the image, but nevertheless the images are heavily edited with shifts of hue and saturation, and alterations of highlights, shadows, brightness and tonality to help direct the the viewers attention to parts of the image, along with removal or deemphasis of distractions, etc. Now this actually does not bother me in the slightest, because it is as it should be. We edit images to bring to the viewer something that can transcend a purely accurate journalistic documentation of the scene. We introduce mystery.
A purely accurate representation of the scene will rarely evoke the sense of mystery we experienced in the field . This is because our highly individualized perception impacts how we experience mystery in ways that simply cannot be recorded by our highly accurate camera sensors. Our emotional state at the time and who we are as individuals both shape our perception of reality resulting in our “experience of the scene”. This does not mean that mystery is not inherent in a purely accurate rendering of the scene, but it does acknowledge that this mystery is significantly transformed through the mechanisms of human perception. The experience of the scene to me has everything to do with expressing some of the mystery of nature that I felt at the time of capture. For more on human perception and photography I recommend the book: Perception and Imaging by John Suler and Richard D. Zakia (1).
Elements of Mystery
In the sections that follow I will discuss some steps we can take as photographers to bring to our images and the viewer the sense of mystery we felt during our our experience of the scene. These steps will help lead the viewer closer to the mystery of nature, in other words evoke moods and emotions that we felt in nature’s presence. But the results of applying these steps should not be equated with an exact visual representation of the mystery. After all, if that were the case, then the image would no longer be a mystery! Think of these steps as a tool set from which we can select to help lead the viewer to a greater appreciation of the wonders and mystery of nature. Here are the steps I will discuss.
Shadow and Light
Motion and Blur
Use of Metaphors
“If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.” J.R.R. Tolkien
In the review of the elements of mystery I am putting wonder in the first position. A sense of wonder is the common denominator of all of nature and the starting point for mystery. There are many factors that contribute to the feeling of wonder: nature in seasonal transitions, changing light and weather, patterns, colors and shapes. As photographers we want to feature elements that help instill in the viewer the same sense of wonder that we experienced at the scene. In the above images I feature a lone leaf, flower, or tree as elements that bring a sense of wonder. The first image is titled Aqua Leaf. How did this single almost tropical leaf rise from the water in front of this waterfall at Mt. Rainier? Nature knows the answer. The second image is a lone Trillium in the Forest. How did such a beautiful flower establish itself in such a shady environment devoid of lower story life other than moss and ferns? Nature know the answer. The third image is titled Lone Larch. It is not common to see a lone larch in the open meadow as larches are a communal tree. One wonders how this tree established itself in this meadow when no others were able to do so? Nature knows the answer. All of nature is filled with wonder. Find the element or elements that bring to you a sense of wonder to be featured in your image and you will also communicate mystery.
“When I’m ready to make a photograph… I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there… I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.” Ansel Adams
Through the imaginative use of perspective and angles the photographer can bring to the image some of the mystery of nature that might otherwise go unnoticed. The above image I titled “Spider Man” because the branch extending from the lower right appears to be reaching out in several directions in a manner that looks both human and spider like. With the wide angle lens I used, this perspective would have been lost if I stood further back and attempted to capture the entire tree. Imagination and composition are often closely related. The composition approach can magically transform a scene which stirs the imagination to marvel at the mysteries of nature. In the image below titled “Spirit Angels in the Forest”, this view would not at all be apparent looking out from the top of Tiger Mountain where I took the image. A long 500 telephoto lens allowed me to isolate a small portion of the forest emerging out of the clouds at the transition point of the cool light of dawn and the warm light of the rising sun. Diagonal layers of clouds and forest lift the eyes up and out to the light spreading inwards from the upper right portion of the image. For more on the Imagination see my blog post: Forest in the Mist: Windows into the Active Imagination.
Shadow and Light
“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” Martin Luther King
The large sensors on our modern cameras often allow us to open up our shadows to a degree that we can see all details in even the deepest shadows of the image. But in doing so we may be unwittingly also removing the chance for mystery. Mystery often demands some areas be kept dark. Highlights only stand out and draw our attention when there are contrasting shadows. But just as a good mystery novel offers the reader some clues, the darker areas of our image should not be devoid of all clues. We should still be able to see some subtle texture and detail, however dim, in some of the shadowy areas-this will help build a little suspense and tension into our images that will keep the viewer interested. The one exception to this would be in high contrast usually black and white images where we are concentrating on the form of the subject.
Letting shadows be shadows helps preserve the mystery of the scene where there are strong and contrasting highlights and shadows in the original scene. This is especially true for backlit landscapes and seascapes when looking right into the rising or setting sum. I however do not advocate exposing for the highlights and letting the shadow go pure black. This made sense in the film days because with a high dynamic range scene, the photographer could either expose properly for the highlights or shadows, but not both. With digital photography it is possible to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene in a natural and believable way without overplaying the deepness of the shadows or the brilliance of highlights.
Shadows almost always look best when they kept looking somewhat airy and natural with some areas remaining almost but not entirely opaque. With natural shadows some detail will be evident in at least some of the shadowy areas, but this detail will be dim and only barely visible. Aggressive exaggeration of the difference between shadows and highlights almost always looks overdone and preserving the sense of mystery will require a more subtle treatment. Proper treatment of shadows and highlights represents a fine line that is easy to cross and is one of the biggest challenges in photo processing even today. Few of us, including myself, get this right 100% of the time, but effectively conveying a sense of mystery in our images demands that we do the best job possible.
“To me dreams are part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive but expresses something as best it can.” –Carl Jung
Images with atmosphere especially with fog, mist, low clouds, haze, sand, and rain can all evoke a sense of dream like mystery. What all of these atmospheric conditions have in common are particles in the air interacting with sources of light. This awakens our feelings and emotions to cultivate the sense mystery. Particles in the air soften the scene, and with the interaction of light this helps direct our attention to essential forms while hiding others which deepens the mood.
It would be a mistake however to reduce our reaction to the scene’s atmosphere to just feelings and emotions. The mystery also points to something beyond even what we are feeling at the time, to a sense of wonder at the experience of being in nature. With the softer rendering of the scene made possible through atmosphere, the scene can often seem dream like and a little other worldly. In post processing, contrast must be carefully and selectively controlled to preserve this dream like mood. We may need to actually lower contrast in some areas to capture the mood and only strengthen the contrast in selective areas where we want to attract some added attention.
Motion and Blur
“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” – Francis Bacon
When it comes to still imagery photography there is no illustrative way to capture motion that is truly realistic. When taking still images we have a couple of choices, we can either arrest motion or blur motion. Both of these are departures from reality, but therein also lies their strength and ability to tease the viewer with mystery and stir the imagination. Just as the use of shadows and particles in the atmosphere have the ability to hide details, simplify compositions and focus our attention on forms, patterns and or the primary subject, blurring motion can do the same. This is evident in the image above titled “Dream Time Stepping Stones”. The blur smooths out the movement of the ocean and focuses attention to the seaweed covered rocks leading out into the vast ocean under a cloud filled horizon just after sunset.
The effect of blurring motion is often all the more mysterious when the effect is subtle and perhaps not even detectable. Such an image can leave the viewer with a sense of mystery even if the viewer does not fully understand why the image is mysterious. When it comes to mystery incomplete understanding is a good thing and helps deepen the mystery and light up the imagination.
In the above image “Secrets of the Forest” I took several images in the early morning light at different slower shutter speeds and blended the images together accentuating the impression of cloud movement and subtly altering the shape of the cloud forms. This blending of several images with blurred movement was an important factor creating the sense of mystery in this image.
Creating a sense of mystery of course is not limited to blurring motion. A sense of mystery can also make itself apparent through arresting or freezing motion. This is evident in the above image “Flock of Birds” where one of the layers in the image are birds flying in from the right side of the church and heading out to the west into the Skagit Valley. The church, birds and Mt. Baker all catch the side lighting of the setting sun. A large flock of birds flying in a narrow directional pattern almost always seems somewhat mysterious, and the juxtaposition of the church, village and a partially visible Mt. Baker under the clouds deepens the mystery.
“Every Aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe.” Carl Sagan
In some ways Bokeh is similar to the effects of motion blur, fog, haze and other atmospheric conditions. In all of these details are softened and sometimes darkened, often to the point where they are barely visible or even hidden. Bokeh, however, is somewhat unique in that it is created optically through the use of a lens and a wide open aperture to transition between areas of the image that are in focus and out of focus. I say transition because the hallmark of good bokeh is a smooth and almost undetectable transition between in focus and out of focus areas.
Bokeh can contribute to the sense of mystery in many ways. When the bokeh is darker than the main subject of the image we sense the presence of something emerging out of near darkness or the void. There may be hints at what lies beyond, but these hints are only vague and somewhat ambiguous. Blurry elements, some suggesting movement, challenge the viewer to figure out what these blurry elements might be. How might these blurry elements also shape the viewers attitude about the element/s that are in focus?
In the above image Jade Vines, we see blue green mouth like forms with spiked tongues emerging out of opaque dark bokeh patterns. Would the effect be the same if details in the background were clear-absolutely not. In the next image the use of bokeh effects our perception of the in focus areas to the point where these subjects are no longer recognizable and become almost abstractions. These are actually tiny autumn colored red leaves of a plant that grows on mountain boulders, but most people have indicated to me that they look like flowers. This is a good example of how the use of bokeh can alter our perception of reality and in doing so deepen the mystery of our experience in nature.
“Nature conceals her mystery by her essential grandeur.” Albert Einstein.
Subtraction is strongly related to both improving the composition and deepening the mystery. Subtraction is the notion that less is better, and there is a beauty and elegance in removing as many elements from the scene as possible. In photography, the world as it presents itself to us is often cluttered with extraneous detail. But the skilled eye using a good choice of lens and angle of view can always simplify the scene to primarily include those elements which are integral to the composition and deepening the mystery. This does not necessarily mean always using a longer focal length lens with a narrower field of view, as that would be an over simplification of the process. But it does mean a keen awareness of what attracts you to the scene and the skills to arrange as few elements as possible in a pleasing composition. What is left out strengtheners the mystery for the elements that still remain. With mystery there is almost always something concealed and held back.
There are varying degrees of subtraction, from a moderate tightening of elements and tones in the scene as in the two images above, Mystery at the Seashore and Quiet Morning Mist, to a major emphasis of just the subject and its form silhouetted in black and white, as in the image below titled: Tree Dances with Fog and Light.
Abstraction takes the process of subtraction to an extreme degree and can often result in images with a heightened sense of mystery, especially those images where we are in awe and wonder at the beauty of the small intimate details of nature. But some would argue that for a true abstract photo we need to have no idea whatsoever of what the larger scene from which the abstraction was derived represents. Although still possible, such images are less likely to be mysterious. With mystery some but not all clues lie hidden. It is the subtle interplay between the two that deepens the mystery.
Using the principles of subtraction, ones composition approach itself can imaginatively transform the scene to bring into view the mysteries of nature. An example of this is the image above titled Rock Tapestry. Walking through a slot canyon I noticed some most interesting patterns over a small section of the canyon wall. It was, however, not until I got very close and studied even smaller sections of the wall did I find the strong diagonals, the X shape and patterns featured in this image. In the next image I found some beautiful Monetesque reflections on an Autumn day at a slow moving portion of the Wenatchee River. Through isolation and careful choice of area selection I was able to capture these mysterious almost brushstroke like patterns of the river’s slow moving waters.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” T.S. Elliot
The seasons are filled with mystery and symbolic meaning and often the natural world mirrors our own emotional states. With Spring there is rebirth and the sense of excitement of having one more life to live. With Summer there is a sense of comfort and maturity in having arrived at the prime of our life. With Autumn there is a sense of warmth, change and letting go. Winter is a time of reflection and detachment with the realization things have come to and end. But there is also a beauty in the silence and quiet of Winter, knowing that the seasonal cycle will repeat itself as long as the world turns. But as mysterious as the seasons are in and of themselves, the mystery is all the more deepened during the time of seasonal transitions. With seasonal changes there is a movement from one state of life to another, part of what was will now be hidden, and part of what will be has not yet come into to view. As in our previous examples throughout this article, when something remains hidden and unknown, the mystery deepens. But the mystery also comes from what is in view, as we stand in awe and wonder of the new season beginning to unfold. It is the interplay between what we see and do not see that creates the ultimate mystery of seasonal transitions.
Use of Visual Metaphors
In Landscape and Nature Photography visual metaphors are powerful means of communication because they raise the possibility of a shared vision. This shared vision moves beyond a visual message that is purely personal and finds a path that touches upon common experiences of all of humanity while in nature. Because visual metaphors invite participation through a shared vision, we often hear responses to such images like “I feel I am right there with you”. As a longtime landscape and nature photographer I can tell you that there is no greater source of inspiration and fulfillment for both the photographer and the viewer when someone feels they are right there with you, participating in your image at both a mental and emotional level.
The best way to demonstrate the concept of a visual metaphor is to provide a couple of examples.
The above image, Walking into a Dream, was taken at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mount Rainier National Park. This cabin is in as beautiful setting as I could ever imagine and is like walking into a dream. In this dream I am finding my way back to where I truly feel I am more at home, in Nature and the Wilderness. This is a common dream shared by many as was evidenced by the thousands of reactions I received from this image. Indian Henry, known as Soo-Too-Lick, early on (1883) guided several familiar names to Mt. Rainier including the Hunting Grounds, these familiar names include James Longmire Philemon Beecher Van Trump and John Muir. Indian Henry was a Cowlitz Indian, beloved by many people. For more on the metaphor of finding our home in nature see my blog post: Journey to your own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.
Not until we are lost do we understand ourselves.–Henry David Thoreau
Looking into a scene like the image above just before the image was taken, when the mountain was still lost in the clouds, to me is like soul searching and the process of self discovery. I know the mountain is out there and will eventually emerge from the fog, clouds and mist. Just as I know my authentic self, the essence who I am, has always been there just waiting to be rediscovered. When the mountain comes into view, this validates the process of self discovery. The image and story is something others can relate to, share in the vision, and participate in the metaphor of self discovery. For more on the authentic self and self discovery see my blog post: Finding your Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.
“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” ― Anais Nin
The use of visual metaphors and the creation of a shared vision moves the photographer beyond the confines of his/her individual self and provides a glimpse of our larger self that is common to all of humanity. Although individually felt emotions and our own personality type help guide the creation of the transcendent vision, the transcendent reaches even beyond feelings and emotions toward something mysterious, inexplicable, evading any attempt to articulate what exactly the mystery is. Nevertheless we experience the mystery as real and the mystery is nature itself. This is no lofty woolly eyed vision, but is anchored firmly to the ground.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.” William Blake
Some may refer to transcendence as pointing to the spiritual realm and for me at least it does just that, but no faith, creed or religion is required to sense its presence. One could be a spiritual person or a non believer and still sense its presence. It is the “force that guides through a green fuse a flower,” and it is what causes us “to see a world in a grain of sand”, it is nature itself.
Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2020
Thanks for reading this blog post. For more on the subject of Transcendence see my blog post: Transcendental Nature Photography and Creating images with Lasting Impact. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on Mystery. I would love to hear your comments, thoughts, and point of view. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the mysteries of nature always be with you.
Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2020
(1) Perception and Imaging by John Suler and Richard D. Zakia, Fifth Addition, Copyright 2018
Every year about this time I reflect back upon the year through a review of what I consider my best and most memorable images. I would not be honest if I said popularity has nothing to do with the selection. I have not met a nature and landscape photographer yet who did not feel a sense of validation of their work when it is well received in the photographic community and with people who follow their work. But popularity alone does not raise an image out of my often daily posts to the Best of 2019 album. I need to also feel good about the image, that it expresses something about who I am as a person, and the image also resonates with others at more of an emotional level. When I put an image into the Best of Album, I must feel reasonably confident that the image is well composed and is a good example of my progress in the art and craft of photography. Ultimately the images must be sufficiently impactful that they have the power to inspire others to share in my love for nature, and the ability of nature to lead us to something beyond our selves, the interconnection of everything on this earth. Here are 16 of my best and favorite images from 2019, not in any particular order. Thanks for looking!
#1 Rising from the Clouds
The moment when something changes after a long day in the clouds and fog, Mount Baker has risen. Looking into a scene like this when the mountain is still lost in the clouds to me is like soul searching and the process of self discovery. I know the mountain is out there and will eventually emerge from the fog, clouds and mist. Just as I know my authentic self, the essence who I am, has always been there just waiting to be rediscovered.
Not until we are lost do we understand ourselves.–Henry David Thoreau
#2 Ever Returning Spring
I always look forward to the Daffodils blooming in Washington’s Skagit Valley. To me their bloom symbolizes the arrival of spring, the long awaited movement out of winter hibernation, and the arrival of new life and energy. Every year we are lucky enough to experience the reawakening of our soul and a kind of rebirth. The daffodils in this image lead to a lone tree. Lone trees have always had a special place in my heart. For me part of their attraction is the sense of mystery that surrounds a lone tree. In this case, why was this tree spared when most if not all of the others were cut down when the valley was cleared for farms? The lone tree is often associated with the Tree of Life, a myth of a tree that connects heaven and earth. Standing at this spot I must say I feel I am as close to heaven here on earth as I will likely ever get, and this gives me greater appreciation of the enduring myth of the lone tree as the Tree of Life.
#3 Flock of Birds
It is such an exhilarating experience to watch about every hour or so the Skagit Valley Snow Geese gather and take up in flight, make of few spins over the fields, and then all land not much further away from where they started to resume their winter feeding. One must be patient, however, as the birds have a mind of their own as to the nature of the time and place for their next movement.
Some summer memories linger and grow long after summer fades away providing memories of warmth and color one can draw upon anytime as the world turns.
#5 Mind Wandering in the Desert
Sometimes all that is needed is to lay down on the desert sand dunes and look up at the drifting sands and sky and let one’s mind wander to and fro. One thing I like about some desert landscapes is that world is reduced down to simple forms, patterns of light and shadow, lines and curves. The simple and beautiful essence of the landscape is made all the more apparent in natural near monochromatic scenes such as this one where the primary colors are gold and yellow tones.
#6 Spider Man
Photographing Japanese Maples in Autumn is one of the things I just love to do. Each tree seems to have its own character that almost every photographer sees in a slightly different way. A good Japanese Maple is truly a tree with a thousand faces. This year I decided to try photographing these trees in a much different way getting as close a possible to some of the more sinewy and well established branches. I call this image Spider Man because the branch extending form the right appears to be reaching out in several directions in a manner that looks both human and spider like.
#7 From Ashes to Nature’s Majesty
I consider this June Sunrise at St. Helens a near miraculous event: beautiful color in in a cloud filled sky, flowers near their prime, little wind, and beauty all around. It is moments like this that I feel so blessed to be fully alive and awake, witnessing nature at her best!
#8 Morning Fog
This Morning Fog image was clearly not one of my most popular images, but it is one from this year that I can relate to most and it also resonated well with several photographers and friends whose opinion I respect. To me the more subdued color pallet and subtle light moving through the grey green forest captures the feeling of walking through the woods on wet, somewhat dreary and cloudy late Autumn day. I have grown to actually like these days where one can walk in the quiet forest with an abundance of solitude, hear even the most subtle of sounds, and feel a close connection with the forest and its individual trees.
#9 Spring Thaw
The advent of Spring in the alpine often comes slowly. Even as one notices a few perennial plants here and there pushing up from bare spots on the forest floor, there is still snow to be seen in most other places. A few yellow glacier lilies will actually point their heads up right through the snow and alpine lakes begin to thaw as temperatures climb revealing beautiful abstract patterns of water, snow, and ice.
#10 Beauty at the Forest Floor
Nowhere do I find more peace and wonderment of the beauties of nature than at the forest floor. This is especially true in deciduous alder tree forests in sub alpine areas of Western Washington. Ample sunlight can make its way through the deciduous forest canopy in early spring before the leaves of the tree begin to emerge. This helps support the growth of a variety of greenery and flowers at the forest floor including bleeding hearts and queens tears pictured here. Later, the leaves of the forest canopy will crowd out much of the light, but at that time the bloom cycle will be about over and the plants will already be mature as summer approaches.
#11 October Multnomah Falls Dream
There is nothing like spending a morning in late October at this spot of iconic beauty that is Multnomah Falls. The Fall color this year was absolutely phenomenal and more beautiful than I can ever recall on previous visits. Although some say that Multnomah Falls is over shot, to me when one is lucky enough to find color and conditions like this, shooting the falls is cause for celebration. It is a little like seeing a double rainbow in the sky! Let us rejoice before the beauty and grandeur of Multnomah Falls in the colors of Autumn!
#12 Alpine Lakes Overlook
This image is looking out to some of my favorite lakes and peaks of Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness area-Kulla Kulla and Mason Lakes, and Bandera, Pratt, and Granite Mountains. For me this is where my journey into Washington’s wilderness began at an early age hiking with my family and often neighborhood friends to the various lakes of this Wilderness Area. It is also a place I am always enthusiastic about returning to. Each time I revisit these beautiful ridges they look both familiar and new. I return a changed person and that seems to also effect my experience of this place. On this trip, the Alpine Lakes seemed more beautiful than ever before!
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Elliot
13. Garden in Paradise
How would you imagine a garden in Paradise would look like? Would it possibly be something like this?
To fully experience the beauty of an wildflower meadow at Mount Rainier’s Paradise flower fields, one must lie in the trail inches away from a patch of flowers. From this low perspective breathe and take in the beauty that surrounds you. Be careful when you are doing this, walk (or lie!) on durable surfaces and leave no trace. It is surprising how many excellent composition opportunities can be found right from the trail. They may not be apparent, however, unless one gets down and dirty very low and close to the ground.
14. Beacons of Light
On this morning at a cloud covered Death Valley, beacons of light lit up small sections of the mountains creating beautiful spot lighting and contrasts of warm and cool light, streaking across the tall peaks and touching the salt sea with spring water below.
Climbing up through a steep and barely visible trail with head lamp I had few expectations for what would await me at the top of this climb. One of my favorite photographers, Erin Babnik, was leading the way to this spot with optimal viewing of Manly Beacon and the Death Valley salt flats below and I followed her steps. It was a cloudy day, but at sunrise shafts of light illuminated sections of the distant mountain and a not at all common site, water in Death Valley. I found the combination of warm and cool light amazing and this is a experience that will linger in my memory forever.
15. Avalanche of Fall Color
Here are swaths of fall color and light along a North Cascades Avalanche Chute. Light illuminating parts of this fall tapestry is a wonderful experience to behold. I could loose myself for hours just following the light as it saunters down the mountain side.
16. Palouse Lupine Dreams
Just after sunrise and the clearing of some valley fog, a beautiful patch of lupine looks out to the green wheat fields of the Palouse. I love photographing in this location and usually I look more for distant telephoto compositions featuring the waves and patterns of the spring wheat fields. But on this day I was drawn to a wide angle perspective of this beautiful patch of lupine along the slopes of Steptoe Butte. The combination of wild nature and the cultivated farm fields seem to live and thrive together in a harmonious chorus underneath a glorious Eastern Washington sky.
If on your next dream excursion you could take just one lens, which would it be? Would you opt for a wide angle zoom so useful in capturing those grand landscapes? Or would prefer the versatility of a mid-range zoom that usually includes in its range everything from a moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto? Although versatile, this lens leaves many bored because it has inadequate range to provide dramatic emphasis to the foreground and also because it is not long and powerful enough to compress and isolate a distant subject. Perhaps instead you would choose a long telephoto lens which would allow you to find within the grand landscape a multitude of potential subjects without having to move around much at all. Or perhaps you would reject all of three three options from the holy trinity of lenses and choose instead a Macro lens to bring to your eyes the often hidden beauty of the micro world.
Although at first this might seem more like a hypothetical exercise, it actually is not. We should all, beginning and experienced photographers alike, periodically travel with just one lens. Although conventional wisdom often associates creativity with the freedom of no barriers and unlimited choices, creatives have long known that creative bursts are just as likely to come through working with limitations. Why is this so?
Introducing limitations to the process of image making is the ultimate defense against creative block. With one lens–we now have fewer choices to make in creating a compelling image. This reduction of choices helps inspire us to see the world in different ways, moving us out of our comfort zone, which allows us to tap into new sources of creativity! Who would have known that the best way to expand our horizons is working within often self imposed limitations? If we instead work with a full array of lens choices, we may never take the extra steps necessary to make a single lens work, for example moving closer or further away from the subject with a mid range zoom or simplifying a cluttered landscape with a telephoto perspective. By way of analogy from the world of music, one would never think that a musician who opts to play a song using a classic acoustic piano is any less creative than another musician who instead chooses instead an electric piano with a full array of synthesized sounds. In fact, just the opposite may be true. The same holds true for the world of photography. We should never prematurely judge a photographer as somehow less creative because he/she chooses to work within the limitations of one or two lenses. Taking along just a single lens will provide the added advantage of reducing the weight of our backpack, making us more agile and nimble in the field!
The Trinity of Zoom Lenses
The Trinity of Zoom lenses is very popular today and for good reason. One can fulfill the vast majority of photographic requirements with these three lenses. The three lenses include a wide angle zoom, mid-range zoom, and telephoto zoom. Popular focal lengths for each of these zooms are 16-35 mm for a wide angle zoom, 24-105 for a mid-range zoom, and a 70-200 (or 100-400 which I prefer) for a telephoto zoom. There is overlap in the range of each of these zooms which is a good thing because it reduces the need to change lenses too often. Frequent changing introduces the possibility of getting dust on the sensor and perhaps more importantly missing out on a decisive moment. Some photographers may opt for a somewhat wider wide angle zoom, for example 12-24mm . I own the Sony 12-24mm extreme wide angle but it seldom gets used because most of the time I can create a superior image with a less extreme focal length. There are times, however, when we definitely need to go wider, but these times are so rare that taking along an extreme wide angle zoom as ones only lens may not be the best choice. In addition to the holy trinity of lenses, we will also want to consider a dedicated macro lens as a single lens option.
Wide Angle Zoom
A wide angle zoom is typically the first lens a beginning landscape photographer buys after purchasing a camera with a standard mid-range zoom lens. He/she wants to go wider and perceives that the kit zoom is not wide enough to effectively capture grand scenes. Disappointment, however, often follows because using this lens effectively will require much practice in developing ones skill set. We are not just capturing wide angle scenes with this lens, but creating compelling compositions that provide a visual flow from major foreground elements, to the mid-ground and background. Lets reviews some of the Pro and Cons of the Wide Angle Zoom.
This lens has received a bad rap lately. Many perceive that the use of this lens to capture grand scenes, especially icons, results in too many quickly captured images that are visually similar and lack creativity. This may be true for the initial spotting of the scene and taking a quick picture, but zeroing in and fine tuning the composition is another mater entirely. Used properly this lens is one of the most difficult but also one of the most rewarding lenses to use. A wide angle zoom , skillfully used, can also highlight your unique vision for the scene even if it is a often photographed location. Another criticism I frequently hear is that with a wide angle zoom one can only pick out one or maybe two compositions for a scene. This criticism reveals more of a users lack of knowledge or experience in the creative use of the wide angle zoom, than it is an accurate assessment of the lens’s potential. As we will soon see, when one gets low and as close as possible to the foreground, even micro movements can and will result in substantially different compositions. The possibilities are virtually limitless. With a wide angle zoom, I can pick out in most situations as many as ten different compositions which is likely a point at which few would even want to venture beyond!
A wide angle zoom definitely requires slowing down as one gets very close, often within inches from the foreground and finds a visual flow from the foreground, to the mid-ground and background. I have been known to spend up to a couple hours in the field fine tuning my wide angle compositions. When the camera is this close to the foreground, a couple of inches this way or that can dramatically alter the composition. One needs to study thoroughly the scene especially the visually predominant foreground to eliminate or reduce visual distractions. It is almost as if one has in the foreground an intimate or macro scene within the larger scene. The larger scene provides context to the image, but it is the foreground that will make or break the image. Getting this close, usually will also require focus stacking. If one focuses on a very close foreground the rest of the scene will not be in focus even at F-16. If one focuses one third into the scene, which is usually the mid-ground, then the foreground will not be in focus.
A wide angle zoom can also be use to uniquely capture just the main subject without a blending of foreground, mid-ground and a distant background. With the lens inches away from part of the subject, the distortions and exaggerations of perspective of this lens can be put to work to bring out the character of the subject as is evident in the image below of a Japanese Maple, titled Spider-man.
There are instances where a 16-35mm wide angle zoom will not be wide enough to capture both the foreground and background, but those instances are rare. The temptation is to go wider than one needs to go, but for most images one can create a more compelling composition with visual impact through selection of a less extreme wide angle of view. In order to do this, however, one is going to need to get real close, focus stack, and set the tripod up at the right height Although one wants to get a low as possible, going too low will potentially take the mid ground out of view resulting in a less than pleasing composition.
Extreme wide angles can render in certain situations the background and also the mid-ground insignificant and in these cases should be avoided. While it is true that to a certain extent we can correct these distortions through warping in Photoshop, I personally believe our aim should always be to get the image proportions as close as possible to the desired result in camera. Some minor warping will enhance the image, but I can usually spot aggressive warping (or perspective blending using lenses of different focal lengths) because it often calls attention to itself and just does not look natural.
Next is an instance where an extreme wide angle was definitely needed to give adequate emphasis to both the foreground leaves and the background of the waterfall. I used a 12mm lens, but as previously mentioned I find such instances rare.
Wide angles excel in scenes where one wants to create a sense of three dimensionalality through rendering objects in the distance smaller. This is closer to how our eyes actually see the world. Our eyes also tend to scan the scene, looking down and close to the foreground and then out at the larger scene, similar to a near far composition.
If one elects to only take a wide-angle zoom along for the creative challenge of this blog post, it is good to know that most of these zooms extend out to 35mm which some consider closer to a normal focal length. When I use my wide angle zoom I tend to keep it on the camera and frequently move out to its maximum 35mm focal length. With some slight cropping of a 35mm image one can easily create images that are more similar to images taken by a 50mm lens. One can do quite a bit with just a wide angle zoom lens!
Mid Range Zoom
I have met a large number of photographers who admit that they almost never use a mid range zoom. This lens lacks some of the allure of a wide angle zoom that can drastically alter spacial relationships through the exaggeration of the size of foreground elements. It also lacks the power of telephoto zooms that can dramatically compress layers in small portions of a distant scene. Nevertheless, both near far compositions and compression of layers within the scene are possible with the lens. In many ways this is the most challenging zoom lens from the trinity to use and the one that many accomplished photographers eventually come back to as their lens of choice. Although one of my specialties is near far compositions, well over half of my images taken in the past year are within the mid zoom range of 24-105mm.
Lets review some of the pros and cons of mid range zooms
Because the mid range zoom lacks some of the drama that comes easily to wide or telephoto zoom, it forces us to think harder about our compositions and the placement of elements within the scene. This is especially true of grand scenes, but it is also true of more intimate scenes.
There are several excellent professional photographers currently active where the mid-range zoom is their lens of choice, one of which is David Thompson. David is known for his excellent compositions and photo processing skills. Although he always exercises restraint in processing and gravitates toward the less dramatic mid range of focal lengths, he is creating some of the most visually compelling and photographically excellent images out there today.
The mid range is also the focal length range that would be consistent with the images from classic landscape artists, the Hudson River School, and landscape painting icons such as Albert Bierstadt. The more extreme wide angle and highly compressed telephoto perspectives evolved more with the advance of lens technology for photography in the later part of the twentieth century.
Most large format photographers also work with equivalent focal lengths that would be well within the range of a modern standard mid range zoom lens. About as wide as one would go in 4 X 5 large format photography is 90mm which is roughly equivalent to 27mm in full frame photography. About as long as one would go in large format photography is 300mm which is roughly equivalent to 89mm in full frame photography. Ansel Adams, who was actually primarily a 8 X 10 photographer, shot primarily in what would be a 35mm equivalent range of 28mm to 80mm. None of this is to suggest we should all aim to emulate the perspectives of these icons from the past, but many of us continue to be inspired by their work and want to include some of their influence in our own creations. Would our own photography take new and better directions if we more often said yes to the mid-range zoom and resisted the temptation for always reaching for lenses in wide angle and telephoto ranges, especially the more extreme reaches of these ranges? Personally I feel we would all benefit from this, especially if we have already spent significant time dabbling in photography using wide angle and telephoto zooms.
A mid-range zoom is often thought as the range that most closely approximates human vision, especially when we are talking about focal lengths with an angle of view of about 40% to 60% which would correspond to the portion of the zoom range on a full frame camera of about 35mm to 60mm. Contrary to popular belief, however, human vision has a very expansive angle of view of about 130% which would be a very extreme wide angle lens. Human eyes, however, are quite different than a lens with large portions of our field of view being blurred and only the central portion sharp. This central portion of our field of vision does correspond to lenses in the 35mm to 60mm range.
Human vision, however, has far more in common with video than it does with a still camera with the human eyes constantly scanning the scene, focusing on different points , and our brain integrating this information into what we perceive as vision. What is important is that the mid-range focal length typically captures images that will be the closest to what we and others who we share images with will recall seeing on location. Although from a creative perspective we are not always wanting to bring to the viewer an image consistent with their own perception, sometimes we are. In those cases we should be using a mid-range zoom, employing the art and craft of photography to create compelling compositions, and skillfully processing these images. Our fans will instantly recognize a shared vision of the location, but they will still be amazed at our photographic and artistic ability to transform the scene into photographic art.
The telephoto zoom is typically the third lens a beginning photographer purchases after a kit standard mid-range zoom and then a wide angle zoom. Although this lens, with its ability to isolate subjects and compress space, opens up manifold opportunities for visual expression, it often it does not get nearly as much use as it should until a photographer further progresses in their photographic journey. This is likely due to the fact that it takes some time to develop the skills to make this an effective tool in capturing landscape images. In this regard you will want to ask yourself, what is it you like about the scene? What parts of the scene affect you more at an emotional level? Then scan the scene with your eyes without using the camera to pick only details that are consistent with what you like about the scene. Only then reach for the camera with telephoto zoom lens mounted and attempt to isolate the subject. Here are some of the pros and cons of the Telephoto Zoom.
With a telephoto zoom we can pick out many compositions within the larger scene–small vignettes or abstracts that allow us capture some of the essence of the larger scene. If you are more of the lazy type, you need not move far at all to work this lens, and from a given location facing lets say a range of mountains with overlapping ridges one could easily pick out as many as one hundred or more compositions. In such a situation it is far easier to do this with a telephoto than either a wide angle zoom or a mid range zoom. It, however, takes real skill to zero in on the one or two vignettes that result in the most visually compelling images and this skill takes considerable time and practice to develop. In this regard one needs to just get out there and with just the telephoto zoom lens, practice, practice, practice! Dare to take just one lens! If the telephoto range does not already figure prominently in your portfolio, going out in the field with just the telephoto zoom mounted to your camera for a day may be just what the doctor ordered to bring new life and creativity to your images.
Telephoto zooms compress layers within the scene often giving them more or less equal visual weight and what we are left with are beautiful patterns of light and shadow, and lines and shapes. This can be seen above in the nearly monochromatic (gold) image of the sand dues. It can also be seen in the next image titled Family Farm that adds color to the mix taken above the Palouse wheat fields. The red color of the farm house immediately attracts ones attention as a contrasting element in the scene.
In the image below taken at a 183mm focal length I focused out toward the center of an alpine lake to capture a beautiful abstract pattern of the melting ice. Telephoto zooms excel at picking out such abstract compositions.
In this next image I was actually at a fairly close range of less than 10 feet from a canyon wall and used a telephoto lens to capture this wonderful pattern of the rocks with diagonal accents. These patterns would be easy to miss just walking through the canyon, but if one slows down one can often spot these small vignettes that come to life through a telephoto perspective.
In the above image, Forest Carpet of Clouds, I not only used the telephoto zoom to isolate the forest and create some simple layers of fog, forest and clouds, but I also included some fairly prominent negative space to give the composition a more minimalist feel without distractions. The telephoto zoom range is the best for more easily removing distractions in an image.
Telephotos are also excellent for exaggerating spacial relationships especially those in the far distance. In the image below the mountain looming very large on the horizon is Mt. Baker. If you saw this scene in person the mountain would be a fairly insignificant element in the distance. Even the church on the right would seem very small to the naked eye. With the use of a 400mm focal length, however, I am able to compress the layers within the scene and give the most weight to Mt. Baker in all of her majesty.
Of course the telephoto effect need not always be this pronounced and sometimes all that is needed is some moderate compression like in the next scene of Gig Harbor in Washington State taken with 156mm focal length.
When weight is not much of a concern, on special occasions I will pack my complete trinity of Sony lenses: a 16-35 2.8 GM wide angle zoom, 24-105 4.0 mid range zoom. and my latest addition the 100-400 GM telephoto zoom lens. But I do not consider this array complete unless I also pack my Sony Macro 90 mm 2.8 lens. On the most special occasions I will only use the Macro lens and wonder why I even took the others! With the macro lens we can open up the often unseen world of small things and easily create unique images that you are unlikely to find in any other photographer’s portfolio. Lets review some of the pros and cons of the Macro Lens.
Although any one of the three lenses from the trinity could potentially be used as a Macro lens, they will not work as good as a dedicated macro lens for this purpose. A true macro lens will have a magnification ratio of 1 to 1, in other words it can capture in focus a small portion of the scene with the size of the object corresponding exactly to the sensor size of the camera. The 24-105 lens would work in a pinch and when one is trying to save weight this would definitely be worth considering as an option. But by way of contrast, the 24-105 closest focusing distance is 15 inches with a magnification ratio at this distance of .32. The closest focusing distance of the dedicated macro is 12 inches (a good working distance) and the magnification ratio at this distance is 1 to 1. The macro lens also has a flatter field which allows better edge to edge sharpness . The zoom lenses all have more of a curved field with critical sharpness only found in the center of the lens. With macro compositions we are often (not always) featuring patterns where it is desirable to have edge to edge sharpness.
Of course we are not always interested in edge to edge sharpness and macro lenses, which usually come with a maximum aperture opening of 2.8, are excellent for blurring backgrounds and minimizing distractions at close focusing distances.
One of the beauties of macro photography is that one can use this lens in all kinds of light all day long, even when conditions would be far less than optimal for one of the other lenses from the trinity. Not only will the lens excel at capturing smaller worlds, but the lens will be able to uncover worlds within small worlds opening up new avenues for creative expression. For this next image, I shot hand held at F 2.8 and took numerous images in manual focus using my body to move the camera in and out of focus. My goal was to capture just a small part of the image in focus with the rest cast in a beautiful bokeh. Using a higher ISO and with the camera’s vibration reduction on, I did not need to use a tripod. In this kind of situation a tripod may actually get in the way of finding the perfect composition through a process that involves a great deal of experimentation. This iterative experimentation is best done hand held.
Although I often prefer to shoot with wide open or nearly wide open apertures for macro photography, I will often take multiple images and then make a decision in post processing which parts of the image I want sharp and which parts to remain blurred. The next image of some tiny Mountain Laurel Flowers in the North Cascades provides an example.
I am making the pledge to use the macro lens as my sole lens on trips into the cascade mountains in the coming year. I am sure it will open up new paths for creation of beautiful images to round out my portfolio. Which single lens will you pick for your next adventure to help you break through to a new creative frontier? Ironically by limiting your choices, your creative horizons may now appear more clearly and seem almost limitless. Once you make your single lens choice, you may find out just like I have many times, that the path to creative growth often involves voluntarily placing limits on your choice of a lenses.
Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2019
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Long waves of blue lupine glistened in the golden hour light as I slowly made my way up Flower Dome. This was a photography oriented Sierra Club Outings trip and none of us were in any particular hurry to arrive at our destination to watch the day slowly to slip back into the darkness of night.
There was plenty of time for conversation along the way and I used this opportunity to check in with Roger about how the trip was going. Roger, a senior trip leader, was mentoring an aspiring trip leader who created this outing as a photography oriented multi-day backpack. Roger showed great enthusiasm about the landscape and spoke mainly about its immense variety, variety that met us at every turn of the trail on this seven day backpack—forested valleys of virgin trees, tall sub-alpine grassy meadows, fields of boulders stretching out to the distant horizon, steep hillsides of mountain huckleberries and stunted trees, Lyman Glacier leading up and over Spider Gap, mountain lakes, passes with views reaching out in every direction, and flower meadows. Roger did not dwell much on the iconic spots of beauty we experienced along the way, Image Lake and Flower Dome, giving them no more emphasis that all the other parts of the ecosystems along our journey. A long unbroken silence ensued and Roger eventually confided that he was concerned about the type of people that his men-tee and landscape photographer was attracting to the trip. Were these photographers more interested in using this trip as a way to get beautiful iconic shots of small slices of this vast Glacier Peak Wilderness Area rather than experiencing the wilderness in its entirety with its immense variety of landscapes? And were these landscape photographers at all interested in learning about current environmental challenges for the region?
This trip was six years ago which seems like almost an eternity in the evolution of digital landscape photography. Much has changed since then and most landscape photographers are now acutely aware of how their role in publishing location specific images on social media can have adverse effects on the landscape. Even a image of a seldom visited site can inspire thousands and sometimes upwards to a million people to think about retracing our steps so they too can take an image of nature at the pinnacle of its beauty. This burning desire to go to these places will still be there regardless if the specific location is shared or not. As landscape photographers, however, it is still difficult for most of us to reconcile the potential negative consequences of sharing an image with our desire to inspire others to develop the same appreciation and love for the environment that got us into photography in the first place. We want it both ways, to inspire others and also to conserve and protect not only these precious environments where beauty is at its pinnacle but also to be good stewards of the earth in general. But is it possible to have it both ways?
I never question the authenticity of a landscape photographer’s belief that they hope to inspire others through their images to participate in the same love, sense of wonder and veneration for nature that they feel while photographing beautiful landscapes. I believe the landscape photographer’s feelings are honest and genuine. But I think it is important for myself and other landscape photographers to recognize that not everyone feels that this kind of inspiration best serves the goals of conservation and the broader environmental movement and may actually be counter productive. The focus of much of landscape photography today is on the sublime beauty of very small parts of vastly larger ecosystems. This is also the case even when we move beyond well known icons such as Delicate Arch, Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lakes, and Tunnel View at Yosemite. Landscape photographers gravitate toward places where nature’s beauty soars toward its pinnacle of beauty regardless whether these places are iconic or not so well known. Even this pinnacle of beauty will not be high enough for the landscape photographer who aspires to go higher still and through composition, photographic technique and artful processing creates a romanticized vision of the landscape . There is no doubt that many of these images inspire others, but do they really support the goals of conservation and the environmental movement that are more focused on protecting larger ecosystems? We will explore this further in the paragraphs that follow.
American Conservation Movement Early Beginnings
To understand the roots of the American Conservation Movement we first must go back to the predominant view toward nature at the time of the founding of this nation. For this underpinning we need to look no further than this biblical passage:
” Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Genesis 1:28”
This of course provides a scriptural basis for the concept of Manifest Destiny. It is our destiny to lay claim to and settle the American wilderness. During this time no one thought much about the consequences of their actions toward the environment. When one looked out west, America contained vast swaths of seemingly unlimited wilderness available for settlement. In his now famous thesis, The Frontier in American History published in 1893 (1), Fredrick Jackson Turner established the settlement of the American Frontier moving further and further west as a stream of events that shaped the psyche of the American People and made them unique-their love of freedom of the frontier, distaste for authority, self reliance and independence—a distinctive willingness to seemingly forever reinvent themselves at places where new settlements met a wilderness frontier. It is somewhat ironic that at the opening of his thesis Tuner announces that at the close of the nineteenth century and with the push of settlements out to the west coast, there is now no new American frontier. While this was true in a geographic sense, the idea of the American frontier even today is internalized in the American psyche as is evident in the attitudes of many that there are vast swaths of unspoiled land out there and no one needs to worry much about developing new land as there is an endless supply. We see this even among photographers who suggest there are an endless supply of wilderness locations of potentially iconic value just waiting to be discovered. At least in Washington State based upon my long history of wilderness travel I know that this is clearly not the case, and yet these attitudes persist–all we have to do is move to the next frontier.
With the rapid industrialization of America in the Nineteenth Century and some of its negative consequences, a group of writers known as the American Transcendentalists, chief among the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, began offering a substantially different view of nature. The transcendentalists held that people through nature could directly experience the spiritual realm without any assistance from organized religion. The path of transcending the ordinary material world was through contemplation and direct experience of nature, both within oneself and in the natural world outside of oneself.
In his essay Nature Emerson describe the experience of transcendence this way:
Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.
If nature provides the window into transcendence and living a more fulfilling life, does it make sense any longer to conquer and subdue nature? After all, a conquered and subdued nature is no longer available to support personal and spiritual development.
“Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine? ‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds In the name of destiny and in the name of God-” The Last Resort by the Eagles Don Henley/Glen Fry
Emerson met a much younger Thoreau at Harvard and encouraged him to explore transcendentalism and start writing a journal. Eventually Emerson granted Thoreau permission to build a small cabin on his land at Walden Pond where Thoreau conducted a two year experiment living in harmony with nature. The written account of this experience in his book titled Walden Pond provided a modern day source text or scripture, for an emerging environmental movement. For more on Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement see my blog post Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.
With the arrival of the twentieth century, the negative consequences of rapid development were becoming obvious to many Americans-soil erosion due to excessive grazing and poor farming practices, deforestation, and polluted air. This spawned a growing back to nature movement and John Muir tapped into this sentiment becoming a spokesperson and advocate of an emerging environmental movement. Muir advocated preserving wilderness areas for their own sake, and much of this effort was focused on landscapes with breath taking scenery, the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountains. Muir started the Sierra Club as an organization to help promote preserving wilderness lands and the club eventually recruited Ansel Adams to be be their resident photographer to assist in this cause. Adams’s images focused on the sublime beauty of the region bringing to many artistically crafted Black and White images of such iconic places as the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras.
From Preservation to Conservation
During the early part of the Twentieth Century a battle emerged between preservation and conservation. Although preservation and conservation may seem like they are addressing the same thing, protecting the environment, there is a key difference. The US Forest Service describes the difference this way: ” Conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, while preservation is associated with the protection of landscapes” Conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use. Conservation focuses on the sustainable use of natural resources and therefore accepts such commercial uses as forestry, creation of water reservoirs, and even eco-tourism as long as these uses are consistent with the sustaining the natural landscape as a natural resource.
These two perspectives came into conflict during the later part of Muir’s life with the proposed damning of the Hetch Hetchy River in the Yosemite National Park. The City of San Francisco claimed it needed the water for the city water supply and also falsely claimed that access to this source of water would have prevented the San Francisco Fire. Muir’s, nemesis, conservationist Gifford Pinoget, argued that damning the river to create a water supply was in the best interest of society. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester of the United States argued that conservation of natural resources was best achieved through management of the wilderness for the greatest public good. With Muir saying “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man” the two view points could not be further apart.
Hetch Hetchy Before and After Photos–the before image reminds me a bit of the Yosemite Valley which managed to dodge a similar fate.
In the end Gifford’s point of view won out, and Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913. But Muir succeeded in the elevating awareness of the consequences of Gifford’s perspective on the environment making it easier to win similar battles in the future including one which would have dammed the Grand Canyon.
From Conservation to Environmentalism
As America and the World for that matter approached the twenty first century and beyond, awareness increased of significant life threatening environmental problems such as destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, air pollution, acid rain, and contamination of the oceans . This helped move the focus of attention beyond local, state, and even national borders. With the recognition of these problems that transcend borders, the environmental movement began broadening its focus beyond just preserving wilderness areas with aesthetic value to taking steps needed to confront these much larger issues. Many began seeing the global environment itself as interrelated organism where the actions of humans were the primary cause of major imbalances. Many started to question whether it was even possible to manage resources in a manner that would keep the environment in balance and began advocating more drastic measures to head off the destruction of the planet (3).
Conservationism, properly understood, employs traditional values of environmental stewardship. A good steward takes care of what has been entrusted to him or her, thereby leaving an inheritance for the next generation. In the past many thought this stewardship could be accomplished in a manner that also protects and even promotes economic interests. As the focused shifted from Conservation to Environmentalism many began to doubt this. A divisive political landscape emerged where some political leaders turned a blind eye to environmental threats primarily because addressing these threats would have an adverse effect on the economy and would also move us closer to what they feared was creeping globalism and loss of national identity. This helps explain part of the reason behind the irrational denial of the reality of global warming by many American citizens.
Preservation, Conservation, Environmentalism and My Personal Journey
As a landscape photographer each of these trends in the evolution of the environmental movement continues to effect me. I no longer seek to conquer the next frontier in landscape photography with daring treks to locations known to no other, in Washington State these locations no longer exist as has been the case for quite some time now. My frontiers have moved inward and have more to do with bringing to the photograph my highly personalized experience of the scene. I am still a big proponent of preserving all remaining road-less places commonly thought of as wilderness areas. Designated wilderness areas represent only 2 percent of the continental America landmass and are far too precious to be squandered for any economic gain. The drumbeat of the economy will not skip a beat if we keep these areas commercial free zones, shutting out potential mining and drilling interests. But I now recognize that many of these areas are wilderness in name only with commercial establishments common around their periphery, and through Eco-tourism including photography workshops throngs of people visit these places every day. The idealized concept of the wilderness, a kind of pristine and untrammeled Eden, exists primarily in photographs from professional and serious amateur landscape photographers, not in reality.
I have also matured in my perspective about conservation and sustainable use of the land. We cannot only focus on preserving areas of sublime natural beauty if this comes at the expense of loosening protections of surrounding areas that provide critical habitat to birds and wildlife. Commercial harvesting of timber in our national forests need not have adverse effects on the environment and may even help control the spread of diseases and provide important fire breaks. Ecosystems extend way beyond National Parks and Wilderness Areas and some lead right up to the door highly populated metropolitan areas. Conservation of these ecosystems and protection of biodiversity out of necessity will need to take into consideration societal and commercial uses of this land. With my increasing awareness of environmentalism and that I live on a planet where all ecosystems are interconnected, I now also realize that although I may act locally I also need to think globally. We cannot solve such problems as global warming and contamination of our oceans without reaching out across national borders. Environmentalism has also taught me that ultimately I may need to make sacrifices to ensure the health of the planet, reducing activities with a heavy carbon footprint such as consumption of meat and use of cars and airplanes to frequently travel to far away wilderness areas.
Back to our original question–Is it possible for landscape artists to inspire others through their creations to be good stewards of the environment? First let us look at this from a historical perspective of how one Landscape Painter, Albert Bierstadt, and one Landscape Photographer, Ansel Adams, had a profound impact through their ability to inspire to also shape the perceptions of the public on the environment in a positive way. Although Bierstadt is not a photographer, in his time painting was the primary visual method of artistically representing the landscape and his approach continues to have a major influence on landscape photographers in the present day.
Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West (2)
In the above image, “The Last of the Buffalo” the legendary artist Albert Bierstadt portrays a dramatic confrontation of a Native American Plains Indian with a large buffalo. In this confrontation both the buffalo and Indian are going to die. The scene itself is heavily romanticized bearing little resemblance to anything real. The landscape itself is a composite of several scenes, with mountains, canyons positioned unusually close to the wide open prairie. Although there is a seemingly endless supply of live buffalo in the distance, old buffalo skulls and fresh carcasses are in the foreground and still other animals look at the confrontation with unusual interest. The image is not only a blend of different scenes but also a time blend of an earlier more Eden like wilderness with the end of the innocence in the decisive moment of the confrontation.
This was Bierstadt’s last painting completed toward the end of the Nineteenth Century close to the time when Turner announced that the frontier in American history had ended. By this time Bierstadt was acutely aware that the once vast heards of buffalo were nearing extinction and that most Native American tribes had already moved to distant reservations of largely undesirable land. Bierstadt intended this painting to not only raise awareness of the blight of the Buffalo and the need for conservation practices to protect remaining animals, but also to raise awareness of how the conquering of the American Frontier Wilderness displaced and brought great harm to indigenous populations.
The painting itself which was very large measuring 6 by 10 feet sold for $50,000, a record price for any piece of American art work in the 19th Century. The Last of the Buffalo in a immediate sense reflects Biersdadt’s reaction to the poaching of the Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. The painting had enormous impact in raising awareness of the near extermination of the Buffalo with influence reaching to the top levels of the US Government and a short time later new measures were put into place to manage and preserve remaining Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park.
Ansel Adams : Landscape Photographer and Conservationist Influencer Extraordinaire
Even today, no other landscape photographer is more associated with efforts to preserve wilderness areas than Ansel Adams. And yet is is difficult to point to any single image as the one that carried the message forward of the need to conserve and protect wilderness. Adams’s ability to capture the beautiful mystique of the wilderness, an emotional feeling that transcends the realism of the physical space that was also accurately represented in his images, is without parallel. When seeing his images, who would not want to preserve the last remnants of America’s beautiful wild places?
Adams’s role in the environmental movement started at an early age, when the Sierra Club took notice of his photos and recruited him as guide and their official photographer. Not long after that Adams was offered a board of directors position which he held from 1934 to 1971. The Sierra Club used Adam’s Images from his 1934 book titled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail to help promote the creation of a new national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada.
The book Sierra Nevada The John Muir Trail influenced both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea. Ickes showed Roosevelt Adams’s book and Roosevelt was so smitten with the beauty of Kings Canyon he kept the book that Adams had originally give to Ickes. When the Roosevelt administration asked the Sierra Club to help support what they envisioned as a road-less and non-commercialized Kings Canyon National Park, the Sierra Club immediately tapped Adams to go to the United States Congress to help promote the idea. Although there was a fierce debate in congress, the bill passed and the park was formally created in 1940. Imagine this today, the executive branch of government and the Sierra Club joining forces in the cause of conservation!
Ansel Adams is an excellent example of a landscape photographer who could inspire others to support conservation causes through the sublime beauty of his landscape images alone. These images did not overtly support conservation causes or document environmental issues. His ability to inspire, motivate and encourage others to aid the cause of conservation rested primarily on the respect he earned through his realistic representation of the natural world in the creation of his emotionally charged black and white images. In this role he is an excellent example for other landscape photographers to use their influence to support the higher cause of preserving and protecting the natural environment.
Reflections on Bierstand and Adams and a Changing Social Environment
These are just two examples of visual artists who had a profound effect on shaping the American perception of environmental issues. There are countless others both in the past and who are currently active, but I chose to concentrate on these two because of their special historical significance. Through their ability to inspire others with their creations, they also helped shape the political landscape resulting in changes the helped preserve and protect the environment. It can be argued that both individuals created idealized representations of the landscape. Their focus was primarily on places where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, not giving much attention to the more mundane aspects of nature. But it is the more mundane nature that is more typical of larger ecosystems that extend far beyond areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty. This might not have been much of a concern during the time period time of these two artists. But as we move forward to the current age where social media dominates as the primary way images are communicated much has changed.
Captivating images of places that are inherently beautiful (even with just a cell phone snapshot) can draw thousands of people to a site in a very short period of time. We saw this recently during the 2019 super bloom in Southern California where in a short period of time social trails emerged where there were none before due to a rapid influx of social media tourists-tourists who find out about a picture/selfie worthy spot of extreme beauty through posts made on social media. In this new social media reality many Landscape Photographers are reconsidering how they share images of beautiful locations. The initial reaction was to stop geotagging or providing specific location descriptions of where the images were taken. An organization called Nature First: An Alliance For Responsible Nature Photography emerged to offer positive principles for Landscape and Nature Photographers to follow:
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
Use discretion if sharing locations.
Know and follow rules and regulations.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles.
Latter developments included public shaming of landscape photographers who violated leave no trace rules especially those who wandered off trail into flower fields. Although I believe both of these reactions, along with including reminders in posts about leave no trace principles, have had some impact in slowing down the pace of environmental damage caused by social media tourists, it has not stopped the damage that continues to creep further and further forward.
What is needed at this juncture in our history I believe is for landscape and nature photographers is to reevaluate what they take images of to begin with, not just focusing on the small areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, but to include in our portfolios a more balanced representation of the larger environment in which these areas of often idealized beauty are located. In short we need to get people excited about protecting and preserving nature in the broader sense, the environmental ecosystem/s, not just specific locations whether geotaged or not. For this we will also need to inspire people to develop a reverence for nature, and share more about our experience of nature and less about specific locations. In the remainder of this article I will discuss these steps in greater detail that landscape photographers can take to help shift the focus of attention and accomplish this goal.
Step One: Create and Post More Balanced Portfolios
Rather than put all your energy into creating a single epic image from a location, aim instead to create a balanced portfolio of images that better represent the variety of scenery in the environment you visited including its various ecosystems. In the pre-social media era this used to be more of the norm. Images were shared in collections often using slide shows, online galleries, or even heaven forbid albums with actual paper prints. It was common to see in these portfolios not only images of specific sites of iconic beauty (weather well known or not so well known) such as high mountain lakes and waterfalls, but also images of the macro world, intimate scenes, geological features, trees and the forest floor-in other words all aspects of the environment one has visited. Social media has reduced our attention span to less than a second per image so most photographers shifted their focus to just putting their most immediately impactful (not necessarily their best) image forward. For some photographers this also meant taking fewer risks and going to specific locations that have a proven track record of yielding popular images on social media sites. We all know some of the sites I am talking about: Mt. Rainier’s Little Tipsoo Lake, Delicate Arch, Oxbow Bend in the Tetons and numerous others that appear all to much in social media posts. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as these posts draw even people to these over visited tiny sections of our National and State Parks–this has got to stop and each of us can help. It will not stop through merely withholding location data-people are far too smart for that. As we publish more balanced portfolios and people get exited about the larger environment and variety of scenery, flora fauna, and geology–we will help stop the stampede and inspire others love for all of nature, not just an overly idealized wilderness Eden that Jackson Turner informs us long ago vanished with the settling of the American Frontier.
Creating more balanced portfolios may at first seem contrary to a highly curated approach to releasing nothing but the best images, but this need not be the case. I have seen excellent portfolios consisting of between three and five images. The portfolio taken as a whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts and some of the images within the portfolio such as excellent macro and intimate scene images may actually be rescued from social media obscurity as they achieve better context through their association with a strong balanced portfolio. Providing a backstory behind all of the images along with some natural history will also help establish needed context. Individual images can have their own stories and descriptions ideally presented as mini chapters of the larger story of nature and the environment. Portfolios where appropriate can also include images that are more documentary, highlighting before and after changes to the environment resulting from either good or bad behavior. The recent trend in including stories with multiple images on Instagram and Facebook is a step in the right direction, but many of these posts at this juncture still seem incredibly shallow to me. We need to take this to the next level of actual portfolio posts of images that can be viewed in more depth for longer periods of time than a quickly disappearing story.
Providing context to images will have the added benefit of helping arrest the sense of burnout many of us feel looking large collections of nothing but once in a life time epic images. After awhile we suffer from epic beauty overload. We appreciate images with epic sunsets, rainbows, and flowers at peak bloom in part because these are rare occurrences. But when we see it all of the time it is no longer rare. The viewer will only be able to participate in the emotions and experience of a rare event if the portfolio also has images that include some of the more mundane aspects of nature. These are absolutely necessary for the unfolding of the portfolios story. Consider it a creative challenge to present some of these more mundane aspects of nature in a creative light that will draw the viewer in. This is far more a meaningful test of ones photographic and artistic skill set that taking a compelling image of what everyone already knows is one of earth’s most beautiful places.
Step 2: Inspire Others to Develop a Reverence for Nature
With Thoreau’s publishing of Walden at the time the settlement of the American Frontier was reaching its end, Thoreau introduced to us a fresh vision of nature-not as a wilderness at the frontier waiting to be conquered (or in modern times something to be checked off of ones bucket list), but rather as the source of our personal and spiritual transformation. Thoreau himself found his spiritual fulfillment not in some faraway place of iconic beauty, but rather along the humble shores of Walden Pond only a few miles from his original hoe in Concord Massachusetts. This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization, can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now. Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered. For more on Thoreau and Walden Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.
In my encounters with Nature and Landscape Photographers I have found that most of them quietly share this Thoreauvian vision of nature as a source for spiritual fulfillment. For most of us Nature and Landscape Photographers Nature is our sanctuary. What better way to inspire others to share in this vision of Nature than taking the example from Thoreau and visiting Nature in close by places? What better way to shift the focus overly visited spots to nature in all of her manifestations than use our photographic and artistic skill set to find and unleash the often hidden beauty of nature in close by and often overlooked places? The beauty of these places in Thoreau’s words may not “rise to the level of grandeur”, but the beauty is there nevertheless. Once others see this beauty in our images, they will not want to retrace our footsteps to the same location but will be inspired to find nature’s subtle beauty everywhere, including in their own back yards.
With the recent COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions upon our movement and the need for social distancing, it is now more apparent than ever for the need for natural areas within walking distance of our homes. In her landmark book, The Nature Fix (4), Florence Williams explains why. Based on her scientific research, Florence creates a solid case that the natural world has the power to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships. Visiting these areas rather than alternative places far away also better for the environment because we do not need to use fuel/stored power to get there.
Step 3: Share More of Your Experience of Nature and Less About Specific Locations
I have found that when I visit a National or State Park and let my own intuition guide me to what excites me about a place, it usually has more to do with the journey of movement through nature and the landscape and less about specific locations. I will call this the personal experience of nature. Getting this experience and associated emotional reactions into an image we share is no small task. It is relatively easy to go directly to known spots along the way the have high image potential, but our strongest images may not be there. Our strongest images will be those that integrate our internal experience of the place, call it our inner landscape, and the outer world of nature. Many of these images will not be at the obvious places of beauty. Creating and sharing our personal experience is also what will make our images more unique and better aligned to our personal vision. For more on personal vision see my blog post: Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self. There will be less emphasis on merely documenting a scene, however beautiful that scene may be, and more emphasis on creating art that although faithful to the material world leads to the transcendent and encourages others to embark on similar personal journeys through nature. For more on the transcendent in photography see my post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact. For more on sources of inspiration including internal sources see my blog post Sources of Inspiration.
Fast forward six years and I am on a return journey to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, once again with my friends from the Sierra Club. We are doing the 50 miles Spider Gap Buck Creek Pass Loop. Much has changed since my last trip six years ago. I notice there are about three times as many people doing this strenuous loop trip. What brought all these people here? Did I help contribute to the popularity of this loop trip through my social media posts? If hoards of people found this arduous multi-day backing trip deep into the heart of Washington’s most remote Wilderness Area is there anything left unexplored? Is there any longer a wilderness frontier for Landscape Photographers willing to go the extra mile or even the extra 20 miles?
As I descend from Spyder Gap down a glacier toward the Upper Lyman Lakse basin I find myself attracted to middle of the day scenes transformed by distant clouds softening the light and changes in my own attitude. I am no longer just going for the iconic shot of Image Lake in epic conditions and am using my intuition and own thought process to help guide how I make my images. But I still feel the pull of social media shaping my expectations. Clearly I have a long way to go in this photographic journey.
I think back on earlier threats to this wilderness environment. Kennecott Copper had a legacy mining claim and planned to build a huge open pit copper mine on miners ridge that would have forever marred the epic view that we now take for granted from Image Lake. Thanks to the efforts of countless environmentalists and a land exchange this threat was ultimately put to bed. I think back when I was in my early twenties and made my first journey to Image Lake when I saw a huge group of long haired nature loving young people, scores of tents were pitched at the shore, and evidence of lake shore trampling everywhere. The condition of the lake is actually much better now. Are the selfie happy Instagram influencers any worse than this bunch of characters from my past?
The long arm of history informs us that it is a mistake to assume that everything that is important and significant is happening right now. The current challenges may seem immense but there is opportunity to make a big difference just as there was opportunity at the time when Turner announced that Americas Wilderness Frontier is no more. It was not destiny that drove Albert Bierstadt and Ansel Adams to choose to use their artistry and influence to advance the causes of conservation. Although both were influenced by people who came before them, they both had free will and exercised that free will for the betterment of the environment. They made positive choices. As nature and Landscape photographers we too have free will. Will we use this free will to rise to the occasion? Will we use the artistry and craft of photography to inspire others to love and protect nature everywhere-not just in those spots where her beauty reigns supreme, but in all of her manifestations, some close to home, even out our back door? If we accept Thoreau’s message, that nature points to the divine, then our willingness to accept this challenge may also be the key keeping this pathway open for the salvation of the world and all of its inhabitants both human and non human, every living thing, even the spirits in our material world—keeping a pathway open to sources of inspiration for our children’s children and more generations still to come.
“None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild”. John Muir
“In Wildness is Preservation of the World” Thoreau
Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright Originally Published September 2019, Revised Earth Day, April 22, 2020.
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(1) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the American Frontier in History, 1893
(2) Peter H. Hassrick, Albert Bierstadt Wintness to a Changing West, 2018
(3) Liz Sonneborn, The Environmental Movement, 2007
I just published my first quarterly newsletter. In this first newsletter I provide some guidance for visiting at peak bloom the wildflowers at Paradise Mt. Rainier. There also is a short article on a method I find very useful in creating compelling images of the wildflowers in their larger environment titled: “To Focus Stack or Focus Stack, That is the Question”. You will also find a summary of my new Apprentice Program where I work one on one with a photographer over a period of time of one year for skill set development and to help the photographer creatively find his/her vision. There are also special offers available only to newsletter subscribers and announcements of upcoming trips I lead for the Seattle Mountaineers.
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I will of course continue to post informative and inspiring article here on this blog, but as has been the practice, blog articles will explore subjects in greater depth. The newsletter will only contain short articles that are easily read in a failry limited period of time. I encourage everyone to also subscribe to the newsletter and in many ways the blog and newsletter are designed to work even better together, although they will also stand on their own. Thanks so much everyone for being part of my photographic journey!
The image of Walden Pond, a serene place of imaginable beauty with a small cabin close to its shore, is somehow etched in most of our minds. Few of us have actually been there or even seen a picture of the actual place. Still Walden Pond has enduring symbolic value that finds its home deep in our personal psyche and our collective soul. We may have recalled hearing about Walden Pond as part of our early education, but few can remember much about what they might have heard or read, and yet the image of the pond in our mind’s eye lingers and may even come into a clearer view with each passing year.
Artist’s Sketch of Thoreau’s Cabin included on the title page of the original book, Walden or Life in the Woods, published in 1854.
This is all consistent with Henry David Thoreau’s vision for the pond. Although for Thoreau, Walden Pond was definitely a physical place, Walden was also a metaphor for an internal journey of self discovery and this metaphor has now been internalized in the hearts and minds of countless individuals. Ultimately Walden straddles two worlds that are in reality a unity The first world is an accurate, literal, and often highly detailed description of Thoreau’s two year stay at Walden Pond. The second is a world of metaphor and symbols that allows us to internalize our own vision of Walden Pond as we travel with Thoreau on his internal journey of self-discovery that points to a transcendent world of soul and spirit. In both the reader participates in this unity, making it a shared experience of transcendence.
Walden Pond Revisited
The journey to Walden pond for each person will be different, but all of us will share in a common vision of transcendence. This pond for me is my Walden Pond close to where I live in Washington State USA. I believe for me that it evokes some of the same mood of the transcendent that Thoreau felt at the shore of the actual Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
My personal encounter with Thoreau began in in my sophomore year of high school. As part of our reading assignment of Walden, the class walked over to a close by wooded area. Each of us was instructed to find our somewhat isolated area in the forest and then to just sit quiet, letting go as much as possible of any preexisting thoughts. With paper and pencil in hand and using all five of our senses, we were then to record in as much detail as possible our observations, thoughts, and emotions-what ever came to consciousness in our newly found forest home. This modest assignment is of course what Thoreau did on a much larger scale at Walden Pond. He left behind what he saw as the corrosive effects of society and moved to a small cabin in the woods close to Walden Pond. His objective:
“I went to the woods because I wished to lived deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die discover that I had not lived.”
Young Tree in the Forest
I thank my High School teacher for encouraging me to go into the woods for this meditative experience. It helped sow the seeds for my almost life-long series of meditative journey’s, some small, others large, into the wonders and beauties of nature. This meditative experience has also been part of my photographic experience since day one. But like most of us, I have had many detours along the way of my journey into nature-impossible work schedules, striving for material success, and periods of time where my day to day activities and relationships with others did little to help nurture my soul and spirit. For a short period of time I attended a New Thought church based upon some of the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. But I found New Thought lacking in one very important area–nature. Although New Thought placed a healthy emphasis on changing our minds to change our lives for the better, there was little or no emphasis on celebrating ones connection to nature that was so important in Emerson’s and especially Thoreau’s thought. Getting married to my loving and supportive wife Julia, raising our daughter Caroline, and a renewed focus on nature and photography has done much to rekindle my spirit in the last two decades. I am forever grateful to Julia, Caroline and living as close as possible to nature for helping reshape my life, making manifest sources of inspiration to nurture and steadily evolve who I am as a person–my authentic self, my love for nature and ultimately the art and craft of my photography.
Forest Carpet of Clouds
A couple of years ago I started reading and rereading Thoreau’s Walden again, It is amazing how a book can take on new life and energy several decades later. His message contained in the chapters of Walden Pond seemed to speak to me like never before, helping me to better communicate thoughts and impressions that have been going on in my mind for some time. In this blog post I will discuss my twelve takeaways from my recent reading and rereading of Walden Pond, offer some probing questions for everyone to consider, along with some questions more directed at nature photographers. This article, however, is intended for a wide audience of people, both photographers and non-photographers alike. We all need the “tonic of nature”!
Before launching off on my takeaways I will lay some groundwork with a discussion of the following: (1) A very brief biography of Thoreau, (2) Thoreau and Transcendentalism, (3) and Walden Pond-a physical and spiritual place.
Henry David Thoreau a Brief Biography
Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, which was center of his life. Thoreau studied at at Harvard University, graduating in 1837. While still in college, in 1835 he contracted tuberculosis and suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life. He made his living by working in the pencil factory, by doing surveying, by lecturing and teaching, and by publishing essays in newspapers and journals. His income acquired primarily through side gigs, however, was always very modest, and his main concerns were his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods, the keeping of a private journal of his nature observations and ideas, and the writing and revision of essays for publication. Thoreau did not identify himself with any of his lines of work and described his occupation this way “My profession is always to be on the alert to find God in Nature, to know his lurking-places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, of nature.”
A Walk in the Forest
A decisive turning point in Thoreau’s life came when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard. The older Emerson introduced Thoreau to transcendentalism and encouraged him to start recording his experiences in a journal. Thoreau was a member of the Emerson household from 1841 to 1843, earning his living as a handyman. In 1843 he was a tutor to William Emerson’s sons in Staten Island, New York, and in 1847-48 he again lived in Emerson’s house.
In 1845, he received permission from Emerson to use a piece of land that Emerson owned on the shore of Walden Pond. He bought building supplies and a chicken coop (for the boards), and built himself a small house there, moving in on the Fourth of July. He had two main purposes in moving to the pond: to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and to conduct an economic experiment to see if it were possible to live by working one day and devoting the other six to his practice of contemplation, journaling, reading, and walking– thus reversing the Yankee habit of working six days and resting one. In the years after leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) but Walden itself was not published until (1854), a whopping seven years after leaving Walden pond.
IMAGE: 37 year-old Henry Thoreau by Samuel Worcester Rowse, as he appeared in the Summer of 1854 when “Walden” was published.
Thoreau who wrote “In wildness is preservation of the world” is often credited with being the father of the American Conservation Movement, not so much because of political advocacy but because he established that nature is essential for society to thrive and for an individual’s own spiritual growth. Thoreau is also widely known as a nature writer and Walden is often refereed to as the urtext, the place where all American nature writing starts. In addition to being a champion of nature, Thoreau is also known for his views on civil disobedience, mainly the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King referred back to Thoreau to help explain their own acts of civil disobedience associated with the Indian Independence and Civil Rights movements respectively. Thoreau himself was an outspoken abolitionist, serving as a conductor on the underground railroad to help escaped slaves make their way to Canada. He wrote strongly-worded attacks on the Fugitive Slave Law (“Slavery in Massachusetts”) and on the execution of John Brown.
In May 1862, Thoreau died of the tuberculosis with which he had been periodically plagued since his college years . Thoreau’s best friend Emerson wrote and provided his eulogy (exerts):
“He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature….The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. … His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”
Thoreau and Transcendentalism
The the principal ideas of the American Enlightenment, the celebration of pure reason and the belief that science (at least how it was understood at the time) has an answer for just about everything, played a key role in the development of the American Republic from its founding until the early part of the Nineteenth Century. The elevation of reason also played a roll even in the practice of religion and this caused many transcendentalists to abandon the Unitarian Church because they perceived the denomination had an overly reasoned approach to explaining mysteries that defy rational explanation. Toward the mid nineteenth century we see a counter movement in American culture and life based upon a Romantic notion more centered on intuition, emotion, and direct experience of nature as necessary conditions for developing an appreciation of the sublime and mysteries of life. We see this in American Art as artists progressed from primarily documentary portraiture to romanticized interpretations of the American Landscape. We see this also in the literary world with the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir and others.
Sunset in the Rockies by Albert Bierstadt
Emerson attributed the philosophical underpinnings of Transcendentalism to the Idealism of German Philosopher Emanuel Kant as explained in Kant’s book titled the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant divided the world into its two aspects: the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. The phenomenal world is the material world we are aware of; this is the world we construct out of the sensations that are present to our consciousness. But if we limit our understanding of the world to appearances only, in other words what we can perceive empirically through our senses, our perception of the world is not complete and may actually be a kind of an illusion, and certainly not what Kant refers to as “the thing in itself”. The noumenal world consists of things we seem compelled to believe in, but which we can never know empirically because we lack sense-evidence of it. Kant also called this noumenal world “the thing in itself”, something that is beyond space and time.
Thoreau as a transcendentalist never denied the validity of the material world, but he also did not see the material world as compete. Both Emerson and Thoreau embraced the scientific method of empirical inquiry as it was understood at the time. This is especially apparent in Thoreau’s work as a naturalist, documenting and categorizing plants. But Thoreau’s inquiry as a naturalist was not limited to the material world, to what can be objectively perceived through the senses.. The path of self awareness transported him beyond the material world and through the embrace of wild nature took him to a noumenal world of soul, spirit and the divine.
Phlox and Sun Flowers in Paradise–Columbia River Gorge
In Walden, Thoreau provides to us his personal story of how in nature he reconnected with his own soul and its inherent divinity, thus fulfilling the potential for an ideal existence in the real world. In doing this Thoreau takes us beyond theory of Kant and Emerson’s often abstract ramblings, and provides us a very accessible example of what our own transcendental journey might look like.
Upon first reading Walden’s pond one may initially get the impression that Thoreau is merely providing a meticulously detailed documentary account of his experience living there for two years. But as the book progresses it is clear that Walden Pond is more than that and is full of symbolism and metaphors for the awakening of the soul and spiritual growth. This is clear in passages such as this one from the chapter titled, The Ponds, where Thoreau describes the water of Walden Pond like this “It is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” It is also evident with this passage also from the chapter the Ponds:
“Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sites by it, and the railroad has infringed on its water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the changes is in me. It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples. It is perennially young.”
What I find remarkable from the above passage is that even in Thoreau’s own lifetime he witnessed the encroachment of civilization at Walden Pond, with a railroad visible from the pond, residences popping up , and the falling of most of the large trees. But even in the midst of these physical changes, Thoreau thought that the essence of the pond had not changed, and in a sense seemed to be outside of space and time. Thoreau suggests here that the spiritual aspect of Walden Pond transcends this material world and even his own perception. It is the same pond where Thoreau discovers the depth of his own nature, that is his spiritual self. Ultimately Walden is both, part of this material world that is constantly changing and something eternal, beyond the material world and even sensory perception. It is the genius of Thoreau that throughout Walden Pond he is able to closely, inseparably, and artistically link real and ideal worlds. In this regard he far exceeds even his mentor Emerson and in my opinion anyone who has since appeared on the literary stage.
Artist depiction of Walden Bond, Frederick Chide Hassan
In the Chapter titled Ponds Thoreau does provide as near to a concise summary description of Walden Pond as can be found in the book:
” The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description. It is a clear and deep green well, a half a mile long and a mile and three quarters` in circumference, and contains about sixty one and a half acres, a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.”
Cedar River Grove–This is a somewhat ordinary place along side a noisy suburban road that was completely transformed by natures gift of some special mid-morning light.
By Thoreau’s own admission, Walden was a place of understated beauty and not what we would now refer to as iconic or epic beauty. It was very humble in its origin. Many people are surprised to hear that Walden was only a couple of miles away from Concord Massachusetts. This was not a remote spot even by the standards of the Nineteenth century. But to Thoreau Walden was extraordinary in a couple of ways, its depth and purity. Thoreau mentions that the shoreline drops so suddenly that one could take one step into the water and already loose touch with the ground and that no none knew for sure the absolute depth of the pond. The water is so pure that in the right light ones ability to see into the water appears almost unlimited. Depth and purity of course are coincidentally qualities we normally associate with the spiritual world. The Walden Thoreau has introduced us to, however, could be just about anywhere, even in our own backyards, and it is in that context I will now discuss my key takeaways from reading and rereading several times the book.
(1) Access to Nature is our Birthright
“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough nature.” Thoreau Walden Chapter 17 Spring
Primordial Forest Flowers
This quotation comes in the closing chapter of Walden titled Spring. With Spring Thoreau experiences a kind of rebirth of his soul. Awakening from the depths of winter, Thoreau experiences an elevation of his spirit in his experience of the wonders and mysteries of nature. With this awakening Thoreau recognizes the importance of nature for all of humanity. Even as science finds explanations for much of what we can observe and study through our senses, there is a part of nature that will always remain mysterious and unfathomable. The path to self discovery and spiritual growth for everyone goes right through Nature in all of her mysteries. This is also a major humane reason why it is so important to protect and nurture nature. If we do not have access to nature or due to our recklessness we cause the destruction of nature, we are in effect cutting our selves off from the source of our spiritual development. Ultimately “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World” Thoreau Walking.
Drawing inspiration from Thoreau and others, I am a big champion of having wild places close to cities and suburban places. I wrote about one such place in Waterfalls of Cougar Mountain. Are there wild or semi wild places close to where you live? How often do you visit these places? For photographers, does your photography practice include frequent visits to nearby places where you can stay in touch with the pulse of nature on a near daily basis?
(2) What we need is a Breath of Fresh Air
” So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say: but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from the center. All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which it taking place every instant. Walden Chapter One Economy”
Olympics Sunset: Come Fly Away
With Thoreau’s decision to live at Walden’s Pond, we see a pattern that was also part of the journey of two other Transcendentalists. The first is Thoreau’s teacher and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the second is the legendary conservationist John Muir. All three of these individuals put different levels of emphasis on Nature as the source of renewal, with Emerson’s Nature being often being more abstract, Thoreau’s more internalized, and Muir’s a kind of mountaintop spirituality involving what are now iconic landscapes. Nevertheless, a major change that brings each of these men into a new and fresh contact with nature plays a key role in their journey of self discovery. What we also see in all three of these individuals is a pivotal point in their lives when they leave an old world behind to embrace a new world where the vestiges and shackles of their old world can be discarded and left behind.
Many scholars are reluctant to count John Muir as a Transcendentalist, but any in depth reading of Muir by those familiar with Thoreau and Emerson will see a close affinity of perspective and thought between these individuals. Muir was a student of both Thoreau and Emerson and actually met Emerson for several days in Yosemite in 1871. According to the Sierra Club which Muir founded, “Muir’s copy of the twenty-volume, 1906 edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau is heavily annotated, underscored, and indexed on the blank pages with extensive commentary by Muir”. Muir’s interpretation of the religious spirit of nature is remarkably similar to the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau as is evident in this passage and others. ““When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” In June 1893, John Muir visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord and laid flowers on Thoreau’s and Emerson’s graves. ”
With the untimely death from tuberculosis of Emerson’s first wife Ellen at the age of only nineteen, Emerson leaves the ministry and sets sail for Europe where he meets the romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. Emerson’s life is forever changed as he leaves behind established religion, and it is at this time that his new transcendentalist vision for salvation through direct experience of nature begins to take hold. Later we also see something similar with Muir. At age 29 Muir was blinded in a factory accident. Although his sight eventually came back, this was a tipping point in his life. He left everything in his life behind, his job as an efficiency expert in the factory, his connection to the Church and his family, and embarked on a 1,000 mile march to immerse himself in nature, starting in Indiana and ending in Florida where he caught malaria. This experience was the impetus to send him out west to California where he found mountaintop spirituality and set in motion his life long effort to conserve and protect the natural world. Thoreau’s journey to Walden Pond, just two miles away from Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts may not seem quite as grand, but this journey also represented his turning away from a society that in the face of rapid industrialization was causing people to live a lives of “quiet desperation”. For Thoreau, the true frontier was not thousands of miles away across the sea or land, but within his own consciousness as he immersed himself in the natural wonders of Walden Pond.
“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, Simplify.” Walden
Thoreau lets us know his original intention for coming to Walden Pond in the second chapter of his book title of his book “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For “
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Window through an Old Growth Cedar Forest
This quote comes after the first chapter of the book titled Economy where Thoreau provides an elaborate explanation of how he was able to move close to the pond, build a small cabin, and largely become self sufficient with a small surplus that he could barter or turn into a small amount of money. Adopting this kind of lifestyle for him was necessary to remove himself from what he saw as the unnecessary distractions of living life in a society that that does not nurture the development of ones soul. These distractions also included not only employment in what was then fast becoming an industrial society, but also the processions that often serve to complicate our life, weigh us down, making it difficult to follow or even hear the still quiet voice within. Ultimately he wished to stand on its head the prevailing work ethic at the time of working six days and resting on the Sabbath, a goal which he successfully accomplished at Walden Pond.
Most of us realize at some point along our journey that the world we have constructed around our self, including such things as expensive homes, cars, well paying but demanding jobs, and even some of our complicated relationships with others-are adding unnecessary complexity to our life and standing in the way of living a more fulfilling life consistent with our true calling. Unraveling this complexity and moving toward a simplified life seems like a daunting task to most and for some maybe not even an option. But living a more simple life will be necessary to create the time and space to move toward a life closer to nature and getting in touch with who we truly are as a person, our authentic self.
Have you ever felt the need to simplify your life, and if so what steps have you taken to accomplish this? For photographers, do you ever feel the life you have built around yourself including your occupation, even if nature photography, limits your access to sources of inspiration, including nature itself?
(4) Daily Practice
A good part of the book Walden is dedicated to writing about Thoreau’s daily spiritual practice. This practice consisted of the following: (A) contemplation, (B) journaling, (C) walking, (D) conversations, and (E) reading. All of these practices helped Thoreau establish a daily rhythm that helped him in the process of walking up to his true nature. This process of waking up was not as much about finding meaning as it was about awareness and feeling fully live in the present moment.
Thoreau would spend hours in front of his cabin and along the shore of Walden Pond engaged in quiet contemplation. In doing this Thoreau was not so much seeking seeking answers, but letting nature reveal itself and speak to Thoreau on its own terms. Thoreau also kept a daily journal for most of his life and these journal entries helped him describe what he was observing not just in a matter of fact way, but also in a more lyrical and evocative way. Moving more toward a poetic description was necessary for those aspects of his observations which eluded a more precise description. For example Thoreau would often feel a surging energy in nature, an experience better suited to poetry than his more scientific descriptions of nature. Walks were a regular part of his routine and these walks were meditative in nature with Thoreau immersing himself and being present in nature that surrounded him.
Foggy Trail-One of the many trails I have close by access to for walking on a daily basis.
Although Thoreau lived a somewhat solitary existence at Walden, portions of the book are dedicated to discussing his conversations with visitors. In Walden Thoreau states: “I had three chairs in my house, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” In the chapter visitors, Thoreau introduces his admiration for a wood cutter who would occasionally drop by for conversation. The wood cutter seemed to be living in harmony in nature, but lacked any kind of intellectual or spiritual awareness. This helped Thoreau realize that he must go deeper in his own spiritual practice, recognizing that it is not sufficient to just be working in nature such as in his own practice of farming, but that a deeper immersion involving deep thought and the mind is necessary. It is noted in his second year at Walden Pond Thoreau cut way back on his cultivation of his fields to open up more time for him to spend experiencing nature without the distraction of work and toil.
Just like many of us take our favorite book on wilderness adventures (often Walden itself!), Thoreau was an also avid reader during his quiet hours at Walden Pond. At Walden Thoreau mentions multiple times his reading of ancient Hindu texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas. All of these texts came from Mr. Emerson’s library and Thoreau read them without any interpretive assistance finding in them what Aldous Huxley famously termed the “Perennial Philosophy”, common themes that ring true in wide variety of ancient texts and cultural traditions. To get a sense of the extent to which these texts captured his imagination consider this passage from Walden:
“I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well”.
Thoreau wrote to his friend Harrison Blake in 1849: “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi!” One actually finds in Walden a beautiful story of one man’s realization of Ātman which is a Sanskrit word that means inner self or soul. In Hindu Philosophy, Ātman is the first principle, the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual, somewhat similar to the previously mentioned numinal world of the nineteenth century German Philosopher, Emanuel Kant. What goes around comes around! Thoreau’s genius is that in the creation of Walden he shared his story that made much more accessible to others this idea of moving beyond ego and the material world to self realization.
Self Realization–Eagle Cap Wilderness Area
I have found in my own life there is nothing like a regular practice focused on nature to keep life in perspective and focus on what truly is important. My practice includes all of the practices that Thoreau discusses in Walden, but I am sure I am not nearly as devoted to these practices as the master Thoreau! These practices have also formed the groundwork for my creative pursuits especially photography. Does your current life include time for daily spiritual practices, especially time in nature? For photographers, do you often spend time in nature, without camera, just observing, listening, and absorbing what nature has to offer?
(5) Follow the Beat of Your Own Drummer
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Walden Conclusion
Thoreau like Emerson and all Transcendentalists puts much emphasis on the need for individualism. But in this passage Thoreau adds his own perspective. If one is not keeping up their peers in what are often competitive pursuits, it may not be because one lacks the ability to keep up, but rather one is drawn to another calling. In other words, the feeling of the need to compete in certain endeavors—for example for jobs that convey a sense of status and for bigger and better homes — may actually be taking us further away from our true calling and who we are as a person. It is following a script set by society that has largely lost its connection to nature. Thoreau points to another way that shuns conformity and this way involves moving closer to rhythms and pulse of nature.
Boulder Garden–This image was taken below Little Si, not exactly an iconic spot, and often quickly passed over on the way to the small peak. But on this day I followed a still small voice of nature that said this is the spot for meditation (and photography!) today.
Are you currently living the life you imagined for yourself? Are there steps you can take, some small and some large, that can lead you to a life more consistent with your calling? For photographers, are the images you are sharing on social media those which express your own voice and calling rather than conforming to some standard, not your own, that is associated with achieving recognition or popularity at little or no risk?
“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” Walden Conclusion
I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude. Walden Chapter Five Solitude
Lone Trillium in the Forest
Walking around Walden Pond, Thoreau experiences solitude in nature, but in this solitude he is not lonely, because he is part and partial of nature. In his participation in nature Thoreau finds freedom: freedom from a societies institutions, competitive pressures, and petty gossip.. Nature prevents him from ever really being alone. In the company of animals, plants, and the elements, Thoreau finds an inexhaustible source of spiritual nourishment. Thoreau is careful to differentiate between solitude and loneliness, which one can feel even when one is in the company of other people. For Thoreau in his experience at Walden Pond, it is solitude, not society, which prevents loneliness. Even in solitude, one is connected to the natural world and web of life.
Do you frequently set time in your schedule to be alone with nature? If not, are there some steps you can take to have what Julia Cameroon calls in her landmark book the Artist’s Way, a date with yourself, just you and nature?
(7) Inward Journey
Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find
A thousand regions in your mind
Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be
Expert in home-cosmography. Thoreau Walden Conclusion
In this passage where Thoreau is reflecting upon his experience at Walden’s Pond, he exhorts us to take the inward journey because this is where the true frontier of self discovery lies. To find this final frontier, Thoreau reminds us there is no compelling reason to travel far and wide to disparate locations around the world. The frontier lies at the intersection of nature and one’s own consciousness where ever one may be, even at Walden Pond, less than two miles from his previous home in Concord, Massachusetts. There is no better way to get to know oneself than through the natural world. But it would be mistake to think one must first travel to a distant place or even a very particular place before taking the inward journey. The right place and time to start the inward journey is close to where you are in the here and now. In every part of nature we can sense the interconnectedness of all of nature, and every part of nature, however, small and humble, can lead us closer to the heart and soul of nature, both within us and without us. We too are nature. For more on the inward journey see Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self
Inner Reflections–Henry M Jackson Wilderness Area
How much to we really know about who we are as a person, our authentic self? What does it mean to you to direct ones eye inward and how might living a life close to nature help this process? For photographers, have you ever noticed that one of your images images of nature reflects both your inner and outer world?
(8) Be Here Now
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” . Thoreau’s Journal Entry, April 24, 1859
Bleeding Hearts of the Forest–I found this scene on one of my countless walks through a forest close to my home in a suburb of the greater Seattle area. We need not travel far to find nature is one of Thoreau ‘s primary messages.
I believe there is no doubt that Thoreau intended Walden as a kind of spiritual guide for finding fulfillment in ordinary places, even one’s own backyard. It is not just a coincidence that Walden’s pond was only a few miles from the Emerson home in Concord Massachusetts, and in the conclusion of Walden Thoreau specifically states one need not travel far and wide to find fulfillment. It is a kind of irony that eternity can only be experienced one moment at a time, but deep down inside I think we all know it cannot be any other way. All of us must work with the life we have and stop trying to be something we are not. Even in quite modest places and facing only the essential facts of life, great things are still possible for each of us and that is a key message of Walden Pond.
Living in the here and now at Walden Pond came easily to Thoreau, and his daily observation of nature using all five of his senses and documenting this experience helped establish the awareness that made this possible. Granted Thoreau’s senses were far more keenly developed than my own and most people reading this article, but living in the here and now is also possible for each of us if we focus on cultivating awareness through a daily practice of spending quality time in nature.
Examine your own life and your typical daily schedule and ask yourself if you can find a regular time in each day to be a witness to the wonders and beautifies of the natural world. For photographers, how might cultivating a greater awareness of nature on a daily basis, employing all five of your senses, help you in continuing to develop the art and craft of photography?
(9) Waking Up
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through we which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” Walden Chapter -Where I lived and What I Lived For.
Dawn of a New Day
For Thoreau the “infinite expectation of the dawn” is a metaphor for spiritual awakening, moving out of our often unconscious lives and living life in a much more conscious manner. In Walden Thoreau states “to be awake is to be alive”. Thoreau thought most of us live lives of quiet desperation, being in a kind of semi conscious slumber, or in the words of Pink Floyd’s lyricist “comfortably numb’. The script for our lives, however, is often not our own, but comes from a society that places more priority on material gain, status and popularity than spiritual development. In this passage Thoreau reminds us there is another way and sounds a joyful and positive note. Through living close to nature, simplifying, and living a more conscious life, we have the opportunity to create and shape our own destinies. Here Thoreau uses the examples of a sculptor or painter who are just replicating in their art the beauty that they see around them and comparing this to the sculpture or painter who carves and paints the very atmosphere and medium through which they look. The later is not just documenting the world that they see around them but through their conscious actions as self aware individuals are creating something new. The artist does not need to conform to the world that surrounds them. The artist instead can become the center of his or her world and actually help shape this world making it a better place “worthy of contemplation”.
What does it mean to you “to elevate ones life through a conscious endeavor’? Is there a relationship between our conscious awareness of each moment, where we focus our attention, and our own potential for growth? For photographers what does it mean to you “to paint (photograph) the very atmosphere and medium through which you look” rather than just to paint (photograph) a few beautiful objects? Is Thoreau talking about the process of artistic creation rather than just documenting a scene?
(10) Follow Your Dreams “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours”. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. ” Thoreau Walden Conclusion
Walking Into a Dream, Mt. Rainier
Once one has embarked on a path of voluntary simplicity, living close to nature and one begins to wake up and discover his/her authentic self and divine nature– it is time to create a vision to develop ones potential for greatness. By greatness, Thoreau of course is not talking about material success or ego aggrandizement, but developing a larger sense of self, ones true nature, grounded in spiritual awareness. Thoreau knows from his personal experience, and admonishes us, that the important thing is to move forward in the direction of our dreams. This is what Thoreau did with his experiment at Walden Pond and in the years following when he created the book Walden, a Life in the Woods, and this path is available to us as well. Each individual’s journey will of course be different. In finding our vision, however, we should not just settle for the ordinary. The vision needs to be challenging and creative. Once we start to move forward, what at first may have seemed impossible will seem less difficult and step by step our larger sense of self and potential will come into view. It is as if all the universe and all of its laws want us to succeed and we will. Transcendence involves creating a new vision of reality and ones relationship to it. Once one realizes this new vision, there is no turning back. It is as though one has passed an invisible boundary and the only way lies forward.
Looking back at the successes in your life that you feel best about, were these also times where you moved in the direction of your dreams without knowing for sure how all the pieces would come together? For photographers, what are your dreams for the future? Do your creative dreams put nature first ahead of plans for commercial success?
(11) Stay Grounded
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them”. Walden Conclusion
Although Thoreau encourages us to dream big and have lofty goals, he places equal emphasis on staying grounded. In a sense with Walden, Thoreau is ushering in the possibility of change and a new vision with nature at its center to help us reach our highest potential. But this new vision for personal transformation needs a solid foundation.
Beauty at the Forest Floor
Emerson wrote in his essay the Transcendentalist “We have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands.” Thoreau gave his dream a solid foundation through multiple actions discussed in Walden, not just the building of the foundation for his small cabin in the woods and his work in his garden, but also his daily spiritual practice of contemplation, walking, conversations, writing, and reading. Living our dream will not be a constant experience of divine ecstasy. Beware of false new age prophets who promise this. A good portion of our time will be spent finding a balance of tending to doing what is necessary to secure our basic needs and in our free time tending to our daily spiritual practice. With this foundation work in place, we can direct the remaining energy to pursuing our creative vision.
What activities and pursuits in your life help you to feel grounded? Is it possible to pursue your dreams but at the same time cultivate those activities which keep you grounded?
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”. Thoreau Walden Conclusion
When Thoreau decided to embark upon his experiment in simple living at Walden Pond, he did so in part because he thought that his life had become to routine. Living at Walden Pond taught him many things not the least of which was the rhythm and cycles of nature. Nature is constantly reinventing itself, not only with the changing seasons, but in the longer term with transformations of the landscape itself. After two years at Walden Thoreau once again thought his life had become routine and it was time to redirect his energies.
From Ashes to Eden
In an area that in recent times was ashes and dust following the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s, we now see beautiful fields of flowers to direct the eye to this still active volcano.
Although Thoreau kept journal entries at Walden Pond, the book itself was not yet written and it would take him another seven years to finish the creative masterpiece that now serves as a modern day myth and guide for achieving personal and spiritual transformation through immersion in nature. Thoreau also firmly believed that personal and spiritual transformation through nature would lead one to a higher moral outlook. Thoreau had much more work to do in gathering and writing his thoughts on the importance of civil disobedience, and his own role in supporting the abolition of slavery. Had Thoreau lived longer we likely would have seen a lot more from this champion of nature. His legacy however is born anew everyday in the lives of millions of people the world over, bringing them closer to nature and its protection, inspiring the quest for spiritual growth, and encouraging people to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with their own conscience.
Do you sometimes feel that you have many more lives to live? Do these feelings cause you to make changes in you life to help you to live the life/lives you imagined?
“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. ” Thoreau Walden
Walden or Life in the Woods, is a spiritual guide for the process for each of us to wake up to our own divine nature. Although Walden was a physical place, Thoreau wanted each of us to embark upon a journey to our own Walden Pond. This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization, can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now. Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered.
Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2019
Thanks for reading this blog post. I greatly appreciate this and would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this posts. If you would like to receive additional posts like this please also follow this blog either through word press or a request for email notifications. If you feel so inclined please help me reach people who may be interested in this post through sharing. Thanks!
References and Additional Resources:
Walden or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau, 1854
The Journal 1937-1861 Henry David Thoreau, Edited by Damion Searls
Thoreau As Spiritual Guide, Barry M. Andrews, 2000
Henry David Thoreau: A Life, By Laura Dassow Walls, 2017
Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists, By Great Courses
During our current digital age with the predominance of social media as the primary way images are now shared, the life span of a popular image can often be measured in just days and sometimes even in hours. This is not surprising when one considers that the average time a typical person looks at an image on social media is measured in just a few seconds or less. Yet even in this fast moving environment, where fame and glory evaporate like rain on hot desert sands, some images have staying power and create their own legacy-these are “Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact”.
This article will discuss in depth each of the following topics that collectively will help you create inspiring images with lasting impact.
Before discussing each of these, however, I would like to introduce my concept of a shared vision. Nature images that have staying power put forward a vision that is shared by both the originator of the image, the Photographer, and the viewer. The attributes of the image invite the viewer to participate in the photographer’s vision. American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson provides us with some insight into how this is possible. The process starts by finding who we are as a person, our authentic self. Emerson and two noteworthy legends he influenced, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir pointed out the way. We must recover our authentic self through separating ourselves from societal influences and immersing ourselves in nature. Emerson thought nature always points to soul and spirit, the invisible world, that is the source of all creation. This may sound somewhat far-fetched to some, but in my experience working and collaborating with some of the best nature and landscape photographers, most have confided in me that that there is more to the world than what is seen, and it is this something extra, an often idealized or romanticized vision of nature, that they want to include in their photographic creations. Because photography, which is anchored in the moment and physical world also points to the universal world of spirit, others can join in and share in the photographer’s vision. Emerson saw a circular and fluid path between Nature, the Self, and Spirit. The conventions and distractions of society can keep us from noticing this flow, but experiencing this continuum is available to all who approach nature on her own terms.
(Unified Field of Consciousness–One = Many)
I will now discuss each of the eight topics.
When someone views one of your images they always have an emotional response, but this response is not always strong and and a viewer’s interest can easily wane. Images with a lasting impact, however, will evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer. There are many reasons why this may be the case. Perhaps they visited this location or a similar location and your image brings back positive memories. Or like in the image above, the mood and atmosphere of the image transports the viewer into a realm of mystery that spurs their active imagination. The viewer pictures him or herself walking into the scene experiencing the sense of awe and mystery of the place as if they were actually there. For more on the active imagination see Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.
“The world is but a canvas for our imagination.” Henry David Thoreau
Next time you are out photographing ask yourself what emotions you feel as you are taking in the beauty, wonders, and mystery of nature. Do you feel uplifted with a sense of joy, or does these scene bring up darker feelings of fear or sadness? Does the scene exude a sense of peace and tranquility, or does it exude more of sense of strong motion and power? Whatever emotion you feel, try to convey this in the image, both at the moment of capture and in post processing.
(2) Self Expression
“Going into the woods is going home”–John Muir
“Be yourself, no base imitator of another, but you best self”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a sense when reading the profound works of Emerson, Thoreau and John Muir that the path to finding our authentic self and expressing who we are deep down inside goes through nature and the wilderness. We recover our true self in quiet moments immersed in the solitude of nature. Once there, nature provides a mirror to our soul and spirit. But the process of self recovery has a few conditions. We cannot recover our authentic self if we approach nature as something to be consumed–locations and photo-ops to be checked off our bucket list. Finding ones self in nature and expressing our true self in our images require that we experience nature on its own terms without any preconditions or desire to control her wildness. Nature also demands that we eventually come to her on our own without any intermediary–workshop leaders, photography gurus, and the like. We come alone because we can only understand her secrets through the powers of our direct intuition. For more on finding your authentic self see my blog post Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self .
Rainy Day Autumn Dream
I spent a weekend at Mt. Baker last September but did not see the mountain once. The thick cerebral layer of clouds and constant heavy rain moved me into a self reflective dimension with this image of the Bagley Lake Bridge best expressing my emotional state.
“Truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it.” ― Emily Dickinson
Images that come with a story almost always have a more lasting impact than images that do not. Sometimes the story arises naturally from the composition of the image, such as two lovers waking along the beach into the sunset. Other times the story is provided in a short written narrative. Stories are successful because they provide context to the image and invite viewers to go deeper into the image and explore how it relates to the narrative. Sometimes a good title for an image is all that is needed to give additional context to the image that is largely already self-sufficient in telling a story. Ideally the written story and story told through the path of light and image composition compliment or even mirror each other. Viewers love a good story even if it is brief. Some of my stories for landscape images have to do with the challenges that often come with getting the shot. But I also have stories that have to do with the history of a landscape. Often stories that have the most impact reveal how a landscape awakens an experience at a personal level that is often shared by others as well, such a journey to one’s ideal home as in the image below. These stories are more archetypal in nature and contain visual metaphors that point to common experiences. With all types of stories, the story not only helps lead the viewer into the image, but also helps reveal what the photographer was thinking and feeling at the time of capture.
Walking into a Dream
Remains of Autumn
On this evening beautiful intense front light at low angle came through a crack in the clouds strongly illuminating the trees, clouds and reflections. The clouds also reflected light back onto the scene.
We live in a time when many of the images that rise to sudden popularity were taken in conditions of underwhelming light. I personally have watched and listened to a few well known video tutorials where the author even indicated that good natural light is not necessary because it can be created in Photoshop. Often these tutorials start with images where the directional and nuanced lighting is for the most part absent except for perhaps some lingering light in the sky such as images taken just before dusk. The reason to start there is because it is easier to manufacture the needed light for these images through painting through a masking in Photoshop. I have noticed recently, however, a trend recently where the best landscape photographers are now featuring images with beautiful and often subtle natural light. One of the reasons for this is that we have become numb to the countless spectacular images manufactured in Photoshop with once in a life time epic lighting. The images now lack context and no longer stand out as they all blend into a vast uniform commonality on platforms such as 500px and Instagram. It is important to note that Transcendental Nature Photography has no prohibition on introducing sources of light that were not there to begin with, ultimately there are no rules. The Transcendentalist just wants to preserve the relationship with nature as it is experienced and intuitively grasped, because it is this connection that points to soul and spirit and ultimately a shared vision.
Autumn Magic: About 15 minutes before sunset front to side lighting came through an opening in the clouds providing spotlighting to the ridge tops and a warm glow to the grayish clouds that reflected light back down onto the mountain ash bushes and Lake Ann.
Images that have staying power and lasting impact will be anchored in the natural light that was present at the moment of capture. The reason for this hearkens back to our earlier discussion of “Shared Vision”. We always start with nature as it presents itself in the here and now. This is what provides us as a mirror to our authentic self and also what transports us and our viewers into a shared world of soul and spirit. This does not mean we cannot enhance the lighting that was in the original scene. If fact, this is necessary to poetically evoke the feeling of nature as the manifestation of the world of soul and spirit. But the idealization and or romanticizing of the experience of being in nature always maintains a “down to earth” anchor in this physical world even as it points to an invisible world beyond.
Morning Dew : At sunrise I shot this image looking directly at the sun that provided back lighting to the tulips and morning dew.
The quality of the light is determined by its angle, direction, color and intensity. Shooting directly into the sun at a low angle may provide dramatic back lighting of elements in the scene. Side lighting at a low angle is best for revealing textures and contrast. Front lighting at low angles can transform a scene when channeled through a small opening in dark clouds. Diffused light from an overcast sky can help rein in excessive contrast and emphasize subtle colors and textures. Before sunrise the lighting is cool but transitions to warm as the sun rises. As the sun sets the lighting gets warmer but eventually transitions to cooler tones. This is why the feel of sunrise can be quite different than sunset. How does the movement and transition of light along with the interplay of light and shadow correspond with your own internal landscape and emotional state of being? Through timing, image framing, and post processing can the external and internal landscapes be brought into a closer union? We associate light with illumination: the ability to see, consciousness, awareness, and transcendence. By way of contrast darkness and shadows can represent a limited ability to see, the subconscious, the unknown, and feeling stuck in one’s personal world. Light and its effect on the physical landscape can be thought of as a metaphor that illuminates inner or even transcendent vision. The possibilities for the effect of light on an image are endless. Learn how to read light and you are well on your way to mastering landscape photography.
Autumn at Spirit Falls
In this image the blue green Red Orange Colors are complementary and green to yellow orange colors are harmonious.
Blotches of bright and saturated color are one of the first things we see in an image which helps explain why certain images capture immediate attention and instant likes in popular social media platforms. It does not take long for many photographers to catch on to to this as they bring overly saturated color into their images through processing. After all the average attention span when scrolling through images on social media is only a second or two and color (along with high contrast) is often what wins out given this short period of time. The problem with these images, however, is that upon closer inspection they do not hold our attention long. Images, however, with rich, nuanced and carefully selected colors are something our eyes can rest on and explore for longer periods of time and perhaps we can even bring into our homes as wall art.
Although perceptions of color can be subjective and also tied to cultural beliefs, there are some archetypal and universal responses to color, both positive and negative, that seem to transcend personal and cultural beliefs. Colors in the red area of the color spectrum are known as warm colors and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility. Colors on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool colors and include blue, purple, and green. These colors are often described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference. Complementary Colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and produce lively attention-getting contrast. Adjacent colors on the color wheel, such as red, orange-red, red-orange, and orange are harmonious. There is red in all four colors. The likeness results in pleasing harmony. Colors can also have many subtle attributes that invite the viewer to explore the image further including tint (any color + white), tone (any color = grey) and shade (any color = black). Excessively high saturation levels can result in the lack of color gradations with fewer variations of color shades, tints and tones.
Next time you are out in the field and framing a composition ask yourself what effect are the colors in the scene having upon you? Are one or more of these colors not consistent with your current emotional state? Will more selective framing of the scene reduce the number of potentially clashing colors? Does the intended framing include complementary colors or harmonious colors, or perhaps some of both?
To a certain extent the color balance, hues, saturation, tints, tones, and shades can be modified in Photoshop. It is usually best, however, for colors to also have a good grounding in the actual scene and to keep processing modifications of colors more on subtle side of the spectrum. In processing one can decide which color/s to bring the most attention to and use lower saturation levels on the other colors. But some of the grace and naturalness of the scene along with its connection to the soul and spirit will be lost with drastic alterations of hues or saturation levels.
North Cascades Aspens
I used my 300mm lens to achieve a compressed perspective of these Aspens that were at some distance away from the dark cliff in the background that was in shadow. I accentuated the contrast between the Aspens and the dark cliff to achieve a better level of contrast helping make the image pop.
There are two types of Contrast: Tonal Contrast and Color Contrast. Tonal contrast refers to the difference in bright and dark areas in a photo. Color Contrast refers to the way colors interact with each other. In this topic I am primarily concerned with Tonal Contrast. Contrast can be both at a macro level with the differentiation of the subject from the background and at the micro level helping to reveal important details in the image. Both macro and micro tonal contrast can help create a sense of depth and a multidimensional aspect to the image.
Liberty Bell Reflecting Pond
Micro tonal contrast in this image helps make it work. Micro contrast is especially evident in the trees and clouds, and to a somewhat lesser extent on the mountain and the red huckleberry bush.
Although contrast in an image can help an image pop and direct the viewers attention to the subject/s and follow a path of light, it can easily be overdone. My experience with my own images and looking at those of others that have staying power and are also brought into people’s homes as wall art confirms that in most cases more subtle applications of contrast create the best images. We do not need a sledge hammer to our heads to direct our attention to what to look at in the image. Excessive contrast (often made possible through the aggressive application of luminosity masks and corresponding curve adjustments) can distract from the organic feel of the image and its connection to the time and place that is the source of our inspiration. But sensible and somewhat restrained enhancements of contrast showing the path of light, separation of of subject/s from background, illumination of gradations of tonal values, and application of a subtle vignette work wonders and can set the image apart.
Cavanaugh Pond Tree Reflections
Some images cry out for lower contrast, as is the case here with the trees and reflections on a foggy day at Cavanaugh Pond close to my home in Renton Washington.
Image composition is simply the arrangement different subjects and visual elements in the frame. A successful composition will provide a visual path through the image that directs the viewers attention on the subject/s and elements the photographer considers most important. In compositions with lasting impact the viewer will not only be guided through the scene, but his/her eyes will also thoroughly explore the image, moving around all parts of the frame to fully appreciate both the whole image and all of its parts. Ask yourself: Is my image strong enough for eyes to wander through all elements of the scene? This is what will happen once an image is hung on a living space wall where it will be looked at again and again. Landscape photography differs from studio photography in that we have limited or no flexibility to alter the physical elements within our chosen framing for the scene. But the Landscape is far more expansive than the studio and there are a multitude of if scenes within scenes and even scenes at the micro level. From all of this we can make an almost infinite number of composition choices. Sometimes just moving the tripod a couple of inches can create an altogether different composition.
Nature provides exceptions to every rule. Margaret Fuller
Guy Tal offers three concepts for thinking about composition in the field: Framing, Perspective and Balance. I have found these three concepts match very well my more intuitive method of approaching composition and will use them to discuss my approach to composition. It is important to recognize there are no absolute rules in composition. While rules such as the “Rule of Thirds” or the need to identify a “Primary Subject” help us to get thinking about composition, they are not absolute mandates. Creation of a good composition is ultimately a more of an intuitive process that flows organically from our experience of the scene. We know good composition when we see it even if it cannot be attributed to specific rules of composition. In this regard we do not look for specific features such as leading lines or foreground elements first and then compose the shot around this. The composition should always start from our experience of the scene, our emotional response, our intuition about its meaning, and ultimately our intentions for the image–these are the compositions that will have lasting impact.
In this composition using a 200mm lens at close range, I chose to emphasis a very small area of the slot canyon wall. This allowed me to create an abstract image featuring diagonal lines, somewhat analogous geometric shapes, and patterns of colors.
Framing. The single most important decision one makes in composition is framing–how much or little of the scene to include in the image frame. When approaching the scene it is best to at first not even take out the camera. How does the scene make you feel? What are the elements in the scene that you are attracted to? What are the elements of the scene you do not like and can these be eliminated or deemphasized? Does the scene stir up memories–joy or sadness? Does the scene leave you feeling calm and peaceful, or is there more of a sense of energy and motion associated with changing conditions? Once you have an idea of your intentions for the scene use your hands or better yet your imagination to build a frame- then think about which focal length would best match your rough framing and intuitive grasp of the scene.
Perspective. Once you have identified the initial framing of the scene, it is now time to determine where best to position yourself relative to the scene. Much of this exploratory work can also be done without a camera. Get down low, and then perhaps even lower as in right on the ground. How does the scene look from different vantage points? If shooting with a wide or normal angle lens, get closer then move away from foreground objects. Often movements up and down, forward and backwards, and to the left or right can result in major differences in the composition including its sense of depth. A very low perspective will provide maximum emphasis to foreground elements but may lack the height necessary to fully appreciate leading lines to a primary subject or place too little emphasis on the mid-ground. Are both your foreground and mid-ground elements equally important or is it more important to place maximum emphasis on the foreground that might also be your primary subject? The key is to keep moving around the scene exploring different alternatives before setting up a tripod with camera for fine tuning of the composition. For more on framing and perspective see my blog post Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty
South Falls Magic Mushroom Discovery
In this image there are two main subjects, the mushrooms and the waterfall. I chose a very low and close perspective to give primary attention to the mushrooms underneath and seemingly looking out to South Falls. The mid-range gets only low to moderate emphasis in this image.
Balance. Image balance is about the placement of the subject/s and elements in the fame to achieve to a natural flow and rhythm. In a well balanced image distractions will be eliminated or minimized, there will be no competing elements, and there will not be excessive negative space. If there is a primary subject, attention will be brought to it through the use of light, contrast, and somewhat more saturated color. There will be a visual flow to the primary subject through the use of leading lines, contrast and or a path of light. In wide angle images, there will be a natural and flowing transition from the foreground to the mid-ground and background portions of the image. Often balance is achieved through simplification, but more complex and even somewhat chaotic scenes can still be balanced through various methods including darkening and desaturating portions of the scene that need less emphasis and more importantly through the use of gestalt principles (more on this in the next topic).
Autumn Cascading Meadows
Color transitions and where the rocks meet the autumn meadow provide a sense of cascading diagonal lines that lead the eyes through the foreground and mid-ground portions of the scene to the overlapping ridges beyond. The overall result is a great sense of depth in the image and an overall well balanced composition.
Boardwalk through a Mossy Bog
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau
Have you ever wondered why one image will inspire us to see beyond the arrangement of subjects and objects within a frame and another will not? Both images are arranged through composition techniques, but only one of the two will move us beyond the literal interpretation of the scene so that we can share in the photographer’s vision and what inspired him/her in the first place. Gestalt theory provides us some clues.
Gestalt refers to a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts. Gestalt helps explain how our vision works in grouping elements into more unified groups and associations. Our eyes and the corresponding processing of vision in our brain work much different than the lens of our camera. We can look into the chaos of a forest and still see a fundamental unity, the camera initially cannot. Often normal vision is identified as what one would see through a standard 50mm lens. But in reality our vision is far different from this. Our eyes move around and within blinks of the eye we go from seeing the world wide to narrow to panning the scene almost simultaneously. This is our perception creating unified images in our mind that seem to evaporate when looking through the viewfinder of our camera at a static image.
There are certain principles of the Gestalt theory of perception that can help us in creating transcendent and unified images.
Similarity. Objects and elements that are similar are perceived as a group. Types of similarities include shapes, diagonal lines, curves, textures, colors, the amount or color of light, and shadows and highlights. It is important to note that these attributes do not need to be identical and in fact it is often better that they are not because this is more consistent with the flow of nature’s often imperfect order. For example our mind will still group together objects with a roughly circular shape even if they are different sizes and dimensions and occur in different parts of the scene.
Proximity. The eye perceives that objects close to one another as belonging to a group and these objects do not necessarily need to be similar.
Continuation. The principle of continuation refers to the mind’s tendency to see complete forms even if a picture is incomplete, partially hidden by other objects, or if part of the information needed to make a complete picture in our minds is missing. The mind assumes that lines extend beyond the edges of the frame. An example of this is a trail or boardwalk disappearing in the distance (as in the image above). In the landscape photo this principle helps create a sense of depth (along with the use of a wide-angle lens) as the mind believes that the boardwalk continues beyond its vanishing point.
Closure. The mind completes shapes that only exist partially in the image, such as a partial circle or triangle. With time one can recognize shapes in a scene that may not be apparent at first and integrate these shapes with other similar shapes in the scene to create a visual thread that helps tie together and unify the image—think of this as visual poetry. Seldom is image making a precise lesson in geometry but rather has more to do with identifying somewhat similar shapes, patterns and colors that can create a balanced whole.
Some Gestalt unifying gestalt principles can be seen in this image. There is a similarity of shapes between the granite rock in the foreground, the upper half of Lake Valhalla, and the top of Lichtenberg peak in the upper left. The proximity of the granite rock with the harmoniously colored sections of golden yellow green and orange red foliage helps form a unified foreground group. The triangular granite rock partially hidden by foliage (closure) points (continuation) down the slope to the lake and the peak aided by slightly diagonal lines in the mid ground. The lake itself and the peak point to the sky and warm clouds of sunset (continuation).
Emergence. Emergence is somewhat different from the other Gestalt principles in that it is something that one sees after initially grasping the unified whole image. Emergence is about going deeper into the image to appreciate the details, subtle gradations of color and light (recall our discussion about micro contrast). This flies in the face of those who argue that details do not matter and suggests that once the whole is recognized we need to give the viewer a place to go for awhile to discover more about the riches of the image. Emergence is a necessary gestalt principle for images with lasting impact. Emergence can be seen in the above image, especially in the foreground, with the details in the granite rock and subtle gradations of color and tones in the foliage. It can also be seen in the forests and rocks of Lichenberg Peak.
Images that have lasting impact go beyond the faithful recording of Nature’s handy work. Some refer to this difference as one between documentary and expressive photography. I prefer to think about it as moving toward transcendental photography. Transcendental photography moves beyond the individual subjects and objects in the image, beyond the faithful recording of color and light values, and even beyond the image where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The transcendent image instills an emotional reaction and evokes an appreciation for still another dimension, the soul and spirit of a place and time and offers the viewer a shared vision. For more on inspiration and vision see Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision The image has strong composition attributes that invite the viewer to come into the image, listen to its story, understand its visual metaphors and explore both the whole image and its subtle and nuanced details. The viewer shares in the creator’s inspiration and participates in the creator’s vision .
Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 4 1836)
A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment in time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm and faithfully renders the likeness of the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 5 1836)
Spirit Angels in the Forest
Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2018
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