Articles

OBSERVATIONS & INTERPRETATIONS

 

Contents

I. Photography and Memory

II. Creation and Appropriation in Photography

III. Adopting the Pace of Nature

IV. Reflection on Representation and Explanation of Images

V. Captions and Captured Images

VI. Romantic Images and Objective Observations

VII. Exercising Selections

 


Continuing commentary appearing on this page will be dedicated to presenting a series of brief essays concerning the process or production of photographs, as well as offering perspectives on the relationship landscape photography has to other art forms. In addition, contributions here will focus on essential connections perceived between pictorial content and personal contemplation, especially when examining specific aspects innate to scenic depiction of natural settings.


 

I. Photography and Memory

“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

 

Sunset Beyond Dunbar Beach

 

A recent Vox article (“What Smartphone Photography Is Doing to Our Memories” by Brian Resnick) examines the influence of nearly universal access to cameras through smartphones on the ability to recollect experiences correctly. As I instruct students authoring memoirs or autobiographical nonfiction in my creative writing courses, whatever we remember arrives as an accumulation of various factors, resulting in some details that might be slightly in variance from actual events or derived from attempts to fill in gaps and supply context. In addition, our depictions of the past can be aided by others’ narratives or by moments preserved in photographs.

Resnick reports that almost 80% of Americans possess smartphones, “and many rely on them for memory support.” However, some studies suggest the process of memorializing everyday events with such pictures “actually diminishes our ability to recall our experiences, diverts our attention, and takes us out of the moment.” Frequently, we forget to feel the wind, listen to the sounds of birds in the trees, or smell the scent of flowers. Consequently, for many individuals an action thought to increase memory instead causes a lessening of accurate recollection.

Indeed, some researchers claim carrying a smartphone and depending upon it too much can cause a distraction and “cognitive offloading,” a situation where folks hope a device “will save a piece of information” for them, so “they’re less likely to remember it for themselves.” Moreover, when an image is captured on smartphone with a conscious knowledge it will be shared on social media—such as Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter—one sometimes views the instance from a third-person perspective, which leads to incomplete or distanced emotions compared to a more intimate first-person perspective.

Of course, for those capturing scenes in the more careful and considered conditions involved with dedicated amateur or professional photography rather than the casual use of a smartphone, the outcome can be exactly the opposite, an enhanced sense of memory. In an experiment conducted by Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University, participants who more actively and deliberately framed the scenery, perhaps by using a zoom lens to focus more closely, found their memories improved.

In numerous experiences, whether patiently preparing to photograph a serene landscape setting or peering through my viewfinder at a sporting event surrounded by thousands of screaming fans, my attention to specifics in the atmosphere surrounding me magnifies, and I am able to isolate the moment for greater concentration. In fact, as I photograph the moment, I am more aware of the environment because I intend to save images that effectively reflect the circumstance and significance at the instant in which they were taken.

 

 

II. Creation and Appropriation in Photography

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”

—Susan Sontag

 

Mt Baldy

 

I find photography, like creative writing, to be a thrilling process of discovery, and this perspective provides one of the primary reasons I enjoy both activities. Just as I never know for sure what I want to express in words until I complete a composition, I’m often uncertain about the value a photo might contain until I do the review during post-processing on my computer. Even then, I frequently discover to my delight that a picture I originally deem ordinary will garner greater reactions from those with whom I share it. Perhaps this response by the photo’s audience can be seen as similar to the considerations proposed by proponents of reader-response theory in literature, which suggests determination of a literary work’s merit or meaning occurs through the reception by its readers.

Moreover, whenever I wander the landscape searching for settings to capture as images, especially during hikes through public parks, I am aware those locations I position within the frame of my viewfinder exist as spots in nature accessible to all. Consequently, the scenery may seem to be something less than unique and easily reproduced by others visiting the same place, particularly a landmark as familiar as Mt. Baldy at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which I include as an accompanying image. However, I believe much of the interest in this photograph results from decisions evident in my individual presentation—chosen angle of approach, exposure, lighting, focus option, etc.

Indeed, I believe the way I produce an image, both as I take the shot and as I prepare a print, contributes to the treatment it receives when welcomed by observers. As in any art form, the inspiration and imagination employed during creation unite to offer a reproduction that is recognizable yet different—perhaps subtly but distinctly—from the source. As Susan Sontag suggested, the object photographed is appropriated by the photographer. Consequently, the camera serves as a tool of transition, changing the actual entity depicted on its sensor into an artistic representation.

Ansel Adams famously remarked: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” When selecting a lens or arranging the camera settings, choosing to use a polarizing filter or graduated density filter, electing a time of day, arriving during weather with sunny or cloudy skies, situating the tripod and adjusting its height, committing to cropping, dodging and burning, and finalizing the print size or paper quality, the photographer in every step envisions and constructs an image almost in the manner a painter might.

Although the photograph sometimes might appear to be a mere documentation of whatever vista an individual has witnessed during a hike, the captured image has its own identity. The photographer takes possession of this specific interpretation of his or her surroundings. Thus, each of the iconic images of El Capitan captured by Ansel Adams in various seasons and under diverse sunlight conditions exists as more than just a precise replica of the well-known tourist site. Likewise, I hope to discover my landscape photos present a personal vision of the environment I encounter.

 

 

III. Adopting the Pace of Nature

“Think about the photo before and after, never during. The secret is to take your time. You mustn’t go too fast.”

—Henri Cartier Bresson

 

Late Sun Above Lake Michigan 1

 

I must acknowledge that I am not inherently a patient person. Although I am sometimes told my public persona appears laid back and easygoing, my upbringing in New York City placed me in an environment that tended toward expectations of a quicker rate of movement and instant results. However, over the years I have transitioned to a more mellow approach during most everyday events, and not just because of my growing older or living away from a busy urban location.

Indeed, I believe I owe much of my increasingly patient personality to the influence of examples set by my wife and my son, both of whom have repeatedly exhibited patience or perseverance. Nevertheless, I know they remain amused at times that I express frustration when stopped and waiting for a train at a railroad crossing or when working awhile to correct the technological glitch in a computer program. I’m aware I also display my underlying impatience daily when continually grazing through television channels on my remote control.

However, I have found the photographic process, particularly when I’m engaged in landscape photography, additionally exists as one aspect that has contributed to my more patient behavior. I have learned from nature the benefit to a calm acceptance of delay or deliberation. Capturing images in natural settings requires preparation and pausing in place until the correct conditions present themselves. As I stand beside my tripod and watch the movement of clouds and shifting angle of sunlight, or I halt as a pair of passersby amble past my field of vision to clear the otherwise empty beach I am photographing, I am reminded of the advice once offered by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “…adopt the pace of Nature. Her secret is patience.”

I have adapted to the necessity involved in observing the development of a sunset sometimes for more than an hour, and then lingering a bit longer for the possibility of an afterglow even as the sun has disappeared beyond the horizon. Similarly, I am willing to accept occasions when the stunning sunset never materializes, despite my time spent passively attending to the setting before me, constantly ready to press the button on my shutter release.

Part of the irony in landscape photography arises with the contrast between the speed of the blade closing the aperture, maybe measured in hundredths of a second, and perhaps the hour or more engaged in anticipation. In fact, the habitual use of a tripod slows the procedure, and the extended time frame permits a photographer greater opportunity for contemplation of the image that will be captured within the camera frame.

 

 

IV. Reflection on Representation and Explanation of Images

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Journal: August 5, 1851

 

Still River in September

 

I have frequently indicated in commentaries accompanying my photographs that Henry David Thoreau’s writings are among the works influencing my philosophy and process of photography or personal appraisal of nature. Along with examples set by landscape painters, environmental authors, and fellow photographers, Thoreau’s perceptive insights into one’s experience with the natural world often have helped shape my attitude toward the interconnectedness between visual representation and interpretative explanation of images.

Throughout most of my publication history, I have been known as a poet who places an emphasis on vivid descriptions of locations with more rustic or seascape settings. Like Thoreau and other early romantic writers, especially those who focused on poetry—whether Wordsworth, Whitman, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, or Dickinson—I find myself following a guidance realized through nature’s example and implied in metaphoric language. As Wallace Stevens suggested in his twentieth-century romantic observation: “All our ideas come from the natural world.”

In an endeavor pairing prose and photography, I believe I bridge the verbal and the visual, applying words and phrases that help with my comprehension or appreciation of the incentive provided by imagery I encounter in the natural environment. Indeed, even as I create a visual composition for my photograph through the rectangular framing of scenery in front of me with the camera’s viewfinder, I am also always conceiving a vocabulary and narrative for composition of a prose caption to accompany the photo.

Consequently, the elements captured on the sensor of my camera might determine particulars mentioned in the description during my commentary, just as my desire to address a specific observation of nature through an impression expressed in sentences and paragraphs sometimes aids in selection of details to be included within the framework of the photograph. Both perspectives become integral, even dependent upon one another, in the act of apprehending and admiring nature’s offering for inspiration.

As Thoreau declared, determining what we “see” when we “look” around us, especially at settings noticed in nature, relies at times upon greater reflection, a thoughtful depth of understanding that supplements superficial two-dimensional depiction of scenery. Similarly, when photographic images complement language, uniting the two media frequently triggers greater interest and involvement among participants, further engaging everyone in the process of communication.

 

 

V. Captions and Captured Images

“…photographs can communicate more instantly and powerfully than words do, but if you want to communicate a complex concept clearly, you need words, too.”

—Galen Rowell, Outdoor Photographer: April, 2002

 

June Sky

 

As I was reading a recent blog entry titled “The Value of Anonymous Places” by the excellent landscape photographer, Bruce Percy, whose work I admire very much, I came across his commentary about how to experience a photograph. He begins his post: “Photographs are much more intriguing if we aren’t told anything about them. No words, and no titles. Intriguing images have the capability to cast a spell upon us, and the beauty of that spell is that it’s a highly personal one. Through a lack of explanation, each and every one of us attaches our own personal thoughts and feelings about what we are looking at. Conversely, being told exactly what the picture is, or what we should get out of it, robs us of being able to attach our own emotions.”

Ansel Adams, our most famous and influential landscape photographer, held a similar point of view: “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.” While I feel I understand this particular attitude, and I even share a bit of sympathy for its rationalization, I also appreciate those fine photographers who propose a photograph as an element in a narrative, which can be aided by language and rhetoric. The great Galen Rowell declared a necessity for the blending of scenery and story: “There’s no question that photographs can communicate more instantly and powerfully than words do, but if you want to communicate a complex concept clearly, you need words, too.”

Master photographer Brooks Jensen, long-time editor and publisher of LensWork, often emphasizes the roles of word and image in his work. One of Jensen’s books, The Creative Life in Photography: Essays on Photography, the Creative Process, and Personal Expression, promotes “storytelling” as a crucial element that might combine text and image the way items in pairings of “melody and lyrics, moving image and soundtrack, or music and dance” supplement one another. Jensen continues by commenting: “The more time I spend as a photographer (and especially as a publisher) the more I realize the irrevocable connection between image and story. This leads directly to the marriage between image and text.”

Perhaps I identify more closely with this thinking because I believe my experiences as an author and editor can complement my practice of photography. Additionally, I frequently define the purpose of my ongoing Indiana Dunes landscape project as perhaps primarily documentary and secondarily as art; although, my main motive for merging the visual with the verbal during the process would be with the hope that both documentary and art are present throughout my endeavor.

Indeed, in my previous essay, “Reflection on Representation and Explanation of Images,” I mention an approach I follow: “as I create a visual composition for my photograph through the rectangular framing of scenery in front of me with the camera’s viewfinder, I am also always conceiving a vocabulary and narrative for composition of a prose caption to accompany the photo.” I consciously use the word “caption” as the term for any explanation or information accompanying my imagery because it originates from the Latin capere for “capture,” which is the way photography is often perceived, as capturing an image.

 

 

VI. Romantic Images and Objective Observations

“Photography could…prompt us to revive, if not rejuvenate, the ancient and difficult problem of objectivity.”

—Paul Valéry, “The Centenary of Photography” (1939)

 

Marsh Bridge in October Light

 

Although known nowadays mostly as a modern poet, Paul Valéry produced numerous essays on contemporary concerns and artistic developments, including commentary in which he spoke about the growth of photography in modern art or as a presence in everyday twentieth-century society. In “The Centenary of Photography,” a study originally published in 1939, Valéry addressed conflicting perceptions of photography as damaging or benefitting the act of authorship.

A popular view at the time intimated that attention to precise detail in a photograph could diminish the writer’s ability to be persuasive, since any writer “who depicts a landscape or a face, no matter how skillful he might be at his craft, will suggest as many different visions as he has readers.” However, Valéry argued “the proliferation of photographic images…could indirectly work to the advantage of Letters, Belles-Lettres that is….” He concluded that “literature would purify itself if it left to other modes of expression and production the tasks which they can perform far more effectively, and devoted itself to ends it alone can accomplish.”

Valéry seemed to think modern literature ought to distance itself from the romantic approach so prominent in nineteenth-century writing, which he believed emphasized an exaggerated articulation of scenic visual description, and move toward a more objective style, perhaps in the manner of Honoré de Balzac. He declared: “…with the advent of photography, and following in Balzac’s footsteps, realism asserted itself in our literature. The romantic vision of beings and objects gradually lost its magic.”

As I have mentioned in previous pieces, my practice of uniting word and image seeks to allow photos to show the landscape in its authentic magnificence, while my accompanying writing presents explanations or offers narratives that provide context for the captured image being displayed. In a manner, this process blends artistic exhibition with documentary commentary. Therefore, to some extent, I follow Valéry’s call for respect of the photograph as principal source of romantic description at the same time that my language attempts to supply more realistic reporting through empirical observation.

 

 

VII. Exercising Selections

“Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation”

—John Berger, “Understanding a Photograph”: The Look of Things, 1974

 

Bailly Bridge in Autumn

 

Almost all serious attempts at photography, especially as an art form, start with three features of the photographic process: shutter speed, aperture opening, and sensor sensitivity. No matter the content frozen within the frame of the viewfinder, this trio of elements primarily determines the final appearance of the image. Indeed, variations on this combination of choices could create pictures of the same scene but with a wide arrangement of depictions, each resulting in a very different impact upon the observer.

Of course, such technical selections occur only after the photographer has already located a subject, picked a perspective, and determined a moment in time to capture the image. As John Berger has written: “Photographs bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation. A photograph is the result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.”

Favoring one angle over another, as well as settling upon what should be omitted from the field of view, suggests a control over composition. Similarly, waiting for the right instance to snap the shutter release allows for command over such aspects as lighting or positioning of moving objects within the setting. Berger elucidates: “A photograph, whilst recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum.” Consequently, though not always aware of it, viewers are impacted by those bits of information left out by the deliberate limitation caused by the photographer’s framing of a scene. Furthermore, a still photo represents a pause in the chronological order, which permits one to linger longer with an instantaneous impression.

Certainly, some options are ruled by the type of photography—portrait, sports, landscape, etc.—and the specific conditions—illumination, movement, viewpoint, etc.— of the surroundings (natural or artificial, outdoor or studio) during which the task at hand is undertaken. Moreover, additional courses of action occur during the darkroom developing or digital processing stage.

Perhaps as I am reminded of all the decisions that must be made to produce a photograph, I am also compelled to recall two well-known quotes by Ansel Adams. The first statement—“You don’t take a photograph, you make it”—leads to the logical conclusion summarized by the second: “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!”