Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Archive for ‘May, 2011’

Musings on: using technology to pre-visualise images

I am now, or so I’m told by certain non-photographer friends, not only ‘fiddling with images’ in post-processing, but also ‘cheating’ by pre-visualising them with the aid of technology. Shocking! I refuted, or made a serious attempt to refute, the former charge in a previous post on the ethics of digital manipulation. I shall now refute the latter.

The charge goes something like the following:

“Using tools such as Google Earth and The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is cheating; you should just find places to photograph by wandering around.”

That is, of course, a paraphrase of what a non-photographer would say, but it’s what I’ve done for a couple of images, making it a reasonable one. In fact, I’ve been using TPE for well over a year now, it’s invaluable in working out where the Sun and Moon will be at a given point in time, at a specific location, and in determining both whether they will be visible and whether they’ll be lighting the landscape in the way that I would like them to. TPE, however, presupposes that I know where I’m going to be, whereas Google Earth, and in particular the relatively new ‘ground level view’ introduced in Google Earth 6, enables me to get a remarkably good idea of what things will look like when I’m standing at my chosen location. By combining the two it’s possible to go a long way to composing an image without even leaving the house. I don’t think that’s ‘cheating’, as such; I’d characterise it as taking advantage of technology to get a good result when it’s not practical to scout a location on foot and in a variety of lighting conditions

A real-world example using Google Earth ‘ground level view’

By way of example, I used both tools in creating the image below, which is of a valley in the centre of the Howgill Fells, in Cumbria, England, an area I’ve described in a post on its photographic potential. I’d noticed the interesting, interlocking spurs of hills on a previous walk in the area, but didn’t have a camera with me, and in any case the Sun was high in a clear, blue sky – less than ideal (and that’s why I didn’t have a camera…..). At the time, I just noted the location and then later, at home, investigated what could be done with it. It’s a non-trivial drive to the Howgills, followed by a walk-in of a few kilometres horizontally and about half a kilometre upwards, so I wasn’t keen on going up there at random and hoping it was worthwhile. To be honest, I probably would have done, but I felt much more confident that I was not about to waste my time, having planned it in some detail in advance.

The first thing I did was find the area in Google Earth, then I zoomed down to ground level, at which point the view shifts to the cunningly-named ‘ground level view’. This isn’t a tutorial on how to use the software, so suffice it to say that you can move around as if you’re walking and that the view you’d see is represented topographically. From my two ‘serious’ uses of this excellent facility, I can say that it’s sufficiently accurate to plan from – at least for the areas I’ve looked at. The following images are, on the left, a screen shot from the precise location I eventually stood to take the photo and, on the right, the image itself. The photo is zoomed a fair bit, so it’s of the top half of the Google Earth representation. No, they’re not identical, but they’re remarkably close if you look at the degree of overlap of the spurs and the shape of the river in the valley. Certainly, they’re close enough that relying on the software to aid visualisation saved me a good deal of hunting around on awkward terrain for a point to set up the tripod.

Google Earth pre-visualisation 'Hidden valley'

To show how close the representation is, I’ve deliberately done this backwards for the sake of this article, using the location data from the photograph to return to Google Earth and make the above screen shot. The on-line investigation I’d done in advance enabled me to mark a point which looked promising, and then drive / walk to it and be within fifty metres of where I ended up. More importantly, it let me play with compositions in advance. I was standing on what might be considered a steep slope which I had, of necessity, approached from above, and in inclement weather. Since I’d already determined, by ‘walking’ down the slope in Google Earth, the lowest level which improved the shot, I simply descended to that contour and then traversed the hillside until I found the composition I’d visualised on-screen as well as, more conventionally, in my head. Running up and down the hillside to see whether the composition would work better from lower down was something I was thoroughly happy to forego!


And what of TPE? Well, what I really wanted was sunlight on the right hand slopes, which means ‘sometime in the morning’ (the valley runs roughly north-south). More precisely, I wanted illumination, but not direct sunshine, so I’d used TPE to determine when the Sun would be low enough to not create harsh shadows anywhere – TPE showed me that this meant that I needed to be there within half an hour of sunrise. Unfortunately, the only place to park – the only sensible place to park anyway – is by an isolated house. Doing so at least an hour before dawn at any time of year might be considered anti-social; in late May, it really wasn’t an option. I settled for ‘any day with grey, high cloud’ instead. As it turned out the cloud was somewhat thicker than I wanted and it was decidedly dark in the valley, so the only thing which was still lacking precision was, as usual, the weather forecast! Oh, and it was raining and very windy too – a couple more things the weather forecast had assured me wouldn’t be the case…

TPE helped me work out what was best, I merely wasn’t able to follow its guidance on this occasion, though having now seen the way the various spurs in that valley lie, I’m sure the early option would be the best in terms of the end result – maybe I’ll return in winter.

'Hidden valley'

That, then, is the combination of techniques, but I’ve not yet actually refuted the argument that using them is in some way ‘wrong’; all I’ve done is say that this sort of planning is very practical and effective, at least for ‘big vista’ type compositions where the overall shape of the land is important – Google has not as yet recorded sufficient detail to enable anyone to decide in advance which trees to include in an image – give it time though.


Would I feel in some way better about the image if I’d not worked out roughly where to stand before I got there? I think not. I might have lost some time in searching around, up and down the slope which, as I’ve mentioned, is verging on being very steep. I might even not have found the spot, or left insufficient time to find it and found the valley even darker than it was when I arrived. If either of those things were true, then I’d possibly have felt some aching of the legs afterwards too. More probably, not being confident of how good the composition would be in advance, I’d not even have left home at six in the evening, aiming for a vaguely-defined point two hours travel away, so I’d not actually have made the capture at all.

Yes, perhaps the process is marginally less Romantic than wandering the fells hopefully in search of surprise compositions, but I’d emphasise the ‘marginal’ aspect quite strongly. It was raining, cold, and windy up there, and getting dark; had I not been near-certain of a good composition, I suspect that I would have turned back. This refutation is perhaps a largely pragmatic one, but I think it’s also convincing. I’m certainly not advocating doing this for every image; that simply wouldn’t be possible. Using the technique for certain types of composition, however, at least as a means of getting an idea of whether it might ‘work’ and where to start, seems to me to be a very helpful addition to the set of methods for pre-visualising compositions.

I’d be interested in hearing your views, especially if you disapprove of using such technological techniques for pre-composition, or pre-visualisation.


Since I first published this article, Stephen Trainor, who wrote TPE, and Bruce Percy have jointly published an e-book in which Stephen describes all the facets of TPE and Bruce relates this to how he uses it in his work, in combination with Google Earth. i.e. exactly the same topic as this article, but with rather more ‘how to’ detail! I recommend it if you’re interested in taking this approach to planning images. ‘Understanding Light with The Photographer’s Ephemeris’

Musings on: categorisation and labelling in photography

I’m not a huge fan of categorisation: it has its place, but the results should be used with care. I’d like to explain my rationale for this aversion, and I’ll use the nature of the work of photographer Simon Norfolk as illustration. I won’t conclude that we shouldn’t categorise work into landscape, portrait, etc., but I shall suggest that

we should not use categories to determine what we look at; at least not exclusively.

So, what’s the problem?

This post is another in the series asking questions about why, and for whom, we make photographs, albeit one which is at a slight tangent, in that it’s about how grouping images by genre influences who looks at them, and with what expectation they do so. I’ve felt for a long time that categorisation, whilst necessary, effectively unavoidable, and often useful, is an inhibitor to fully appreciating whatever it is that’s being categorised; sometimes it may influence how we perceive the work, more often it may prevent us ever experiencing that work at all. This musing is on why labelling should perhaps be both applied and viewed with caution, as an adjunct to the work being labelled, not as an absolute.

The problem with categorisation applies to many things: consider music. It has long been the case that music, particularly contemporary music, has been pigeon-holed by reviewers, fans and shops; it is, after all, quite useful to be able to refer to liking a particular genre, and it’s helpful in searching for new music, whether physically, in shops, or on-line. That’s the good bit; the downside is that, if I’m told that a piece of music is in genre X, then I may well dismiss it out of hand simply based on that label. I certainly used to do that, though now I like to feel that I’m considerably more open-minded about what I may like, at least to the point of ‘giving it a go’ (perhaps thrash metal is now the one remaining genre whose mention equates to ‘don’t bother listening’, for me). I’d argue that approaching any set of work with the attitude of taking a look, or listen, to see whether it’s interesting, is better than dismissing things in advance due to their labels.

An additional problem lies in the margins, the grey areas of overlap where a piece of work falls into more than one category. With music, this often leads to simply adding the word ‘fusion’ to whatever two genres the labeller thinks are being fused. Again, useful in some contexts, but it can also lead to tiny sub-genres which will be either dismissed automatically, by certain parts of a potential audience, or followed to the exclusion of all else by others. Both of these effects narrow the range of things people are likely to sample, and perhaps to enjoy: it reduces potential experience. My contention is that this is not really a good thing in general.

In terms of photography, categories are useful for defining competitions, amongst other things; they’re helpful to some people who want to categorise themselves too, but they can be terribly exclusive. I know that, when I was choosing a title for my portfolio site, I started off having the word ‘landscape’ in there somewhere; then I realised that I’ve taken a handful of abstract shots which simply couldn’t be included if landscape was in the title, so I removed it. I then spent considerable time wondering whether to just say ‘photography’ or ‘fine art photography’ before electing to do the latter, with the conscious intent of excluding things I don’t do, such as wedding photography and architectural photography. Yet, those could be ‘fine art’ too, in some circumstances and from some viewpoints, so those two words become not quite meaningless, but at least potentially unhelpful. Again, I’m not saying that this is not useful in some respects, but it certainly is restrictive, and perhaps viewers need to be consciously aware of this inherent problem with selecting what to look at by its nominal category.

Simon Norfolk

This musing began when Malcolm Macgregor, prompted by my recent article on putting meaning into photographs, made we aware of the work of photographer Simon Norfolk. I’ve since spent considerable time looking at Norfolk’s work and reading his writing on his project-based photography. His current exhibition at Tate Modern in London, ‘Burke + Norfolk’, is particularly pertinent and led me to these thoughts on classification, as well as to others which I may consider in later posts.

Simon Norfolk’s work spans multiple categories, both over his career and within individual images and projects: he started out as a photo-journalist and now, somewhat reticently I believe, describes himself as a landscape photographer. Both those categories, however, conceal a much wider set of subject matter which melds photo-journalism with portraiture, landscape, contemporary political and social commentary, documentary and others. There are several interviews available on-line in which he explains his decision to call himself a landscape photographer, so I won’t seek to do so here; I’ll simply mention that he has stated in interviews that he would be happier not to be categorised. His work spans multiple genres and is not, to me, enhanced by any of the labels which could be, and are, applied, even though they doubtless serve to attract viewers and enable the galleries to present his work in a manner which both suits them and draws in some types of audiences, whilst simultaneously, I suggest, excluding the work from consideration by many people. The label ‘war photography’, for example, which I’ve seen used, would very probably deter some potential viewers who consider themselves only interested in ‘landscape photography’, whereas in fact the images are equally interesting, whether they are viewed as ‘of war’ or ‘of landscape’, as well as ‘of people’.

Considering solely the current Tate Modern exhibition and an earlier project from 2001, the subject of both of which is Afghanistan, any one label is wildly insufficient to describe the contents of these projects. The Tate Modern work juxtaposes Norfolk’s photographs with those taken by John Burke during the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880. The 2001 work, ‘Afghanistan: chronotopia’, illustrates in photographs the effects of decades of war on the people and the landscape. Both of these collections of images use predominantly landscape style compositions to create a ‘look’ which appeals to contemporary sensibilities by using colour, texture and structure to produce images which are strong and appealing, irrespective of content in many cases. Yet both also contain considerable narrative content as sets, plus social and political comment, as well as being of obvious historical relevance. They span, and use, numerous categories in order to attract viewers and to engage their interest. I feel that, in order to attract the full gamut of people who would enjoy his work, the list of categories would need to be unreasonably long. The work goes way beyond simply ‘landscape’, and it’s not conventional ‘war photography’.

That last point returns to the theme of my earlier musing on actively putting meaning into photographs: I deliberately confined that discussion to ‘fine art landscape photography’ and proposed that deliberate use of metaphor and allusion in ‘pure landscape photography’ was at best difficult. Simon Norfolk’s work is emphatically not ‘pure landscape photography’, however. Both in these Afghanistan portfolios and in his others covering landscapes affected by war and militarism (such as the Outer Hebrides….), he very effectively uses the tools of various photographic genres, in particular landscape, to engage an audience which might not be immediately interested in his observations and message but may become so through being drawn to the beauty of his work. Norfolk uses a large format camera and this, I strongly suspect, enforces a working method and pace which produces photographs that are as much ‘art’ as they are documentary and commentary. The messages he conveys through this combination of tools and methods is very much stronger for this inclusion of an artistic sensibility and they have, I’m sure, wider appeal as a result.


To return to the theme of this article: I’m not remotely suggesting that all categorisation is bad in photography. What I am suggesting, however, is that we should look beyond those labels which are given, inevitably, to particular bodies of work and consider the work on its own merit, not simply as ‘an example of genre X’. Inevitably, our emotional and intellectual responses to portfolios, or to individual images, are shaped in part by the genre-association they have been given by their creators, or by anyone involved in presenting them in a particular place or format; but it’s good to step back from that, when viewing a set of images, just in case there’s a wider, or merely different, context which makes them more significant, or more interesting. Beyond that, I feel that it must be desirable to avoid dismissal of any category, both because the label may have been attached inappropriately, leading to missing out on interesting work, and because the assumption that “I don’t like genre X” may itself be incorrect. (Not that this means I’m planning on being over-receptive to thrash metal in the near future, but I would listen to something if it was recommended – perhaps.)

So, the message from this, if there is a single message, is to

occasionally take a look at work which, on the basis of its labels, you don’t expect to find interesting; you may be surprised once in a while.

The best example I can find in my own work is the following abstract. I think of it as some grass, a boat and the Moon in Ullapool harbour, since that’s what it is and this image is merely what I visualised when I made it, but I’d really prefer to not label it as either, ideally!

Red abstract

The exhibition ‘Burke + Norfolk‘ is at Tate Modern until 10th July 2011, and various images from it, as well as much discussion, can be found on-line. Lastly, here is a link to Simon Norfolk’s site. As always, I’d welcome your thoughts on any of the above.

I intend this blog to be largely about the ‘art’ of photography. Musings on specific images and on places where images can be made both definitely fit into my vision of what I would like to write about here, as do responses to other photographers’ thoughts. Occasionally, I may write something about photographic kit, though only in the context of using it. One thing that I didn’t intend to write about was mundane things such as how to avoid losing captured images, in a technical, backing up the data sense.

That said, a couple of friends asked me to tell them what I do to protect my image files from loss, since they know I have a fairly considered backup strategy. Given the difficulty of remembering all the points to make verbally, I wrote it all down. It may be helpful to anyone who’s never, either metaphorically or literally, sat down and properly worked out where the risks of image loss are in their overall workflow, so I thought I’d post it. It’s not going in as a ‘proper’ blog item though – I don’t want to pollute my overall theme with nasty, technical things! – I’m putting it in as a page linked from the home page of my blog / journal.

This is not a prescriptive ‘how to’ article; it’s more to do with thinking about what you maybe should be doing to mitigate those risks which are important to you, with some comment on, in general terms, the ‘how to’ aspect. The key phrase there is ‘important to you’, to which I would add ‘and which apply to you’; everyone has different requirements and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Anyway, I’m at risk of rewriting the thing again here, so this is a link to the article and there should be a link in the header too. I hope a few people find this useful – at worst, it’s a handy reminder for me!

Why I ‘need’ to return to the Bolivian Altiplano and the Atacama desert

I am so very tempted to simply write “because it contains some of the most fabulously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen”, but that would be, it could be argued with a degree of fairness, a little trite. In this article, I shall add considerably more justification to my assertion that I ‘need’ to travel for a third time to what is, from Europe, a really rather distant location; even when employing those flying-bus things.

As an aside, I would love to travel by container ship …. shame it’s so demanding of that ever-in-short-supply ‘time’ stuff. One day perhaps; just not any time soon. And as another aside, I make no apology for the relatively high density of superlatives in the following. I have genuinely tried to keep adjectival extravagance to a minimum, but this is a geography which justifies their use!

Layered sunrise

I’ve been to various parts of the Altiplano on two occasions now, once approaching from the north, via Peru, across Lake Titicaca into Bolivia, and once via the Atacama Desert into the southern Bolivian region of active volcanoes, multi-coloured lagoons, and the World’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni. It’s to this latter area, and including the Atacama Desert in Chile, that I ‘need’ to return; and I recognised that need mere weeks, perhaps days, after I last left. And for a little more context on that rather emphatic opening statement: I’ve seen a generous number of beautiful landscapes, including ice-clad mountains, from their summits, in several ranges, and plenty of deserts – so I’m not solely comparing the high plain which covers parts of Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Argentina to, for example, the Yorkshire Dales, where I live!

So: why?

I’ll expand that: why is this region home to some of the most fabulously beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen? It certainly is – I’ve spent about an hour, since writing the opening sentence, debating with myself as to whether that’s true, and I definitely can’t fault my conclusion.

Cactus on the salar          Flamingoes

Firstly, I like drama in landscapes: you don’t get much more dramatic than multitudinous, active volcanoes dotted around lagoons on a sparsely-vegetated (very sparsely!) plain. The lack of roads adds to this drama; the only man-made tracks are of 4x4s and they hardly impinge greatly on the landscape, if at all. In fact, from a photographic point of view, these faint lines can sometimes be used as part of compositions.

Secondly, the colours are quite literally fantastic. Not only are the rocks astonishingly varied, with greens, vibrant golds, reds, blacks and bright whites, but the lagoons, rather than being restricted to the conventional blue shades, come in green, turquoise, yellow and red. These surreal colours are the result of various minerals (copper, arsenic, and others), as well as the self-protective responses of algae living at high altitude in salty water. And I’m not talking pastels here in most cases: the Laguna Colorada, for example, is a vivid orange as a result of the microscopic algae.

Thirdly, the wild colours and dramatic topography are accented in many places by the white of the salt which encrusts the edges and shallows of the lagoons, producing stunning swathes of pure texture and adding shape to everything.

Painted desert

Fourthly, this remarkable plateau is high; the altitude of the Altiplano varies from well over 3,000m. to nearly 5,000m., with some of the volcanoes reaching over 6,000m. The Atacama is lower, but still above 2,000m. and home to several major astronomical observatories. The latter is a good indication that the result of the altitude and negligible airborne pollution is crystal clear air and visibility which extends unusually far. Of course, the lack of moisture in the air isn’t necessarily ideal for photography of certain sorts, but I can photograph ‘trees in mist’ in the English Lake District, so I can happily live with that ‘problem’.

Lastly, the Salar de Uyuni needs a specific mention since it’s inarguably the most memorable place I’ve been. That’s not to say that I want to live on, or near, this perfectly flat sea of salt – it’s rather far from ‘hospitable’ – but, at over 10,000 square kilometres, the experience of standing in the centre and walking around on it is both difficult to describe and one I very much wish to repeat. There are, perhaps, relatively few compositional options on the salar, but they’re all spectacular, given the right light, perhaps some clouds, and the right time of day. For example, one image I totally failed to capture on my previous visit, and which I would very much like to, is of the cones of salt scraped from the salar and left to dry on its mirrored surface prior to being collected manually, bagged and sold.

Salar de Uyuni at dawn

How to see the Atacama and the Altiplano

That last point is my fundamental justification for ‘needing’ to return. I took a camera when I was there last time, but I wasn’t specifically on a photographic trip – I was just travelling for its own sake; a great experience, but not one which entirely lent itself to experiencing the best light. The nature of the terrain, and the outlandish colour palette, mean that there are many subjects which work well in bright sunlight, producing pleasingly strong colours and shapes, but I was convinced, when I was there, that they could all be more interesting, more subtle, if I had the chance to watch a scene all day and pick my moment.

Unfortunately, the default means of seeing both the Altiplano and the Atacama is to travel around in a 4×4 with other tourists on pre-planned tours. Naturally, these do tend to start after sunrise and finish before sunset, though those on the salar, at least when approaching from the Chilean border, generally reach the island of giant cacti in its centre before the Sun appears. Consequently, the vast majority of my images from that trip are of the midday-sun variety. I’ve since hunted around on the web, and this is true of most images; the best to be found, however, are clearly taken at carefully selected times of day to make the most of the particular location (not necessarily the ‘golden hour’).

So, quite apart from wanting to go back because it’s utterly stunning, I need to go back to see it in different lighting conditions and, I hope, to make some more considered images, either by going on a dedicated photographic tour or by hiring a vehicle and guides privately (not as expensive as it sounds, though somewhat more difficult to arrange, naturally).

And the best thing about another trip?

The salar is mostly dry, as in the photo here, but in the short ‘wet season’ the surface is covered with a thin layer of water, producing what apparently looks like a 10,000 square kilometre mirror in which the clouds reflect perfectly – that has to be worth seeing, but first I want to see the dry season again and do the ‘thoughtful photo’ thing. The net result of that is that I’ll have to go twice more. Splendid!


More – and better – images

As I said, most of my images were taken at non-optimal times of day. The finest, single place that I’ve found yet to see a huge number of high quality images of this area is in the ‘Bolivia’ and ‘Atacama desert’ galleries of Gerhard Hüdepohl’s web site. Bruce Percy also has a superb collection of Bolivian Altiplano images in his Bolivia portfolio.

If you’ve been to the region and can recommend any specific times and places, I’d be very pleased to receive comments on both that and on any other thoughts that this article has provoked.

Musings on: actively putting ‘meaning’ into photographs

Do we make landscape photographs specifically for others, or for ourselves? Beyond that, and making the assumption that there is at least some element of ‘for others’ involved in the intent, should we deliberately and consciously try to influence how the viewer responds to our images when we compose them?

By ‘influence’, I’m talking about affecting their mood in a particular manner, or of changing their view of the aesthetics – the beauty, if you like – of the landscape. This is a multi-faceted debate, and the following really is ‘musings’, not answers – although I do have a tentative view, which I’ll come to at the end.

This series of thoughts started a few weeks ago as the idea of ‘for whom do we make photographs’ and I’ve returned to it now after reading an article in ‘Great British Landscapes’ issue 14, by Julian Barkway and entitled ‘Beyond beauty’. Julian argues – amongst other things, and in getting on for a couple of thousand words, so this is a very simple summary – that people have views of beauty in a landscape which are influenced by their cultural heritage, their perception of colour and shape, and several other, largely involuntary, associations they may have with the components of an image. He speculates that this facet of how people relate to photographs could possibly be used actively by the photographer in making the image. (For the full text, and to avoid any over-simplification on my part, please see the link at the bottom of this article. This item, however, is not covering the same ground, it’s taking the next step and looking at the consequences. For that purpose, I think the preceding summary will suffice.)

I agree with Julian’s thesis in general. I’m aware of being affected, in terms of my mood, and hence my reaction to a photograph, by a predominant colour; greens and blues are ‘restful’ and ‘calm’, for example – I even named an image of mine ‘Calm’, since it’s largely blue. Similarly, stormy seas can engender various emotions, according to their context, and the oft-used term ‘threatening sky’ is itself an explicit, emotional statement about the impact of the weather on the viewer.


So, I happily buy in to the idea that a photograph can create a mood, perhaps even ‘tell a story’, through the use of colour, shape and composition. The question it raised for me, however, was:

as a photographer, should I try to do this deliberately? Is it a good idea to attempt conscious manipulation of the emotions of the viewer? Is it even possible to be that targeted?

After all, as an English speaker, I am inclined to ‘read’ things, including photographs, from left to right; someone whose written language reads right to left, or upwards, may well naturally ‘read’ the same image differently. Similarly, cultural differences may affect the emotional impact of certain colours, so my [hypothetical] deliberate use of green or blue to induce calm might be entirely inappropriate for some viewers.

As I said above, I don’t have an answer to those questions, but my inclination is to think that endeavouring to construct images which have a particular effect on their audience is at best ambitious, and possibly unnecessarily exclusive, artificially reducing the proportion of the audience who will understand, or relate to, the image. That said, photographs clearly can, and do, have emotional impact on people, so maybe this ambition to control that impact is a worthwhile one, particularly for commercial photographers? Doing it too much, however, would quite possibly lead to a loss of subtlety, even a tendency to becoming formulaic. Of course, if it really is possible to design an image with such delicate nuance that it ‘pulls the right emotional strings’ in an audience, the results could be extraordinary. I’m doubtful that many people can do this, and I’m unconvinced that it’s desirable, as I’ll explain below.

Looking at this from a different perspective, there is another question raised by the general principle:

does a positive attempt to compose with the idea of affecting the viewer alter the creative process for the better, in terms of making ‘art’?

My strong feeling here is that it does not. I know that, when I first started making landscape photographs for their own sake, I was conscious of wanting to capture images which people would respond to in a – very generically – ‘happy’ manner. Bright, dramatic skies; classically beautiful vistas; that sort of thing. I feel now that I make images which I think I’ll enjoy, which have some meaning to me, and that I don’t attempt to second-guess what impact they will have on potential viewers. This is not remotely to say that I’m not pleased if others like my images; obviously, I am! It seems to me, though, that if I create something which has an emotional impact on me, which may even have some meaning, then it’s more likely to produce a reaction in the viewer. Even if that reaction is negative, it’s still stimulating, which is often no bad thing. My primary concern here, though certainly not a conviction at this stage, is that I suspect the attempt to actively use metaphor to guide the viewer may restrict creativity.

'Ancient grass'

That last thought leads on to my final musing here:

surely images tell the viewer more about the photographer who created them than about the story their creator may be trying to tell, particularly when viewed as a body of work, rather than as individual images?

To me, this lends a great deal of weight to the argument that it’s better, at least in general, to follow one’s instinct in what makes a ‘good’ photograph, rather than to try and manipulate the prospective audience, at least when talking about non-commercial landscape photography. That way, the photographs will at least communicate in one direction, telling the viewer a little about the photographer’s vision of the World. Perhaps this is itself overly ambitious, or overly romantic, but I’d like people to see my vision of what constitutes ‘landscape beauty’, rather than potentially distort that vision by seeking to produce an emotional response whose nature I can only guess at, since I can’t possibly predict the full gamut of reactions my use of colour, form and subject will have in a particular viewer.

I’ve included a couple of rather low-key images in this piece. They have various degrees of meaning and emotional resonance for me, but certainly don’t with everyone. That’s fine: it’s part of what continues to produce a wide variety of different types of photograph from different people. If everyone was expert at constructing emotional stories from images, the range of output might reduce considerably to reflect ‘what most people want’. Of course, if just a few people could do this, that might well be very interesting…

I seem to have done very little in the above but ask questions, and I think that’s because there are no absolute answers to any of this. Everything is on a spectrum: I currently favour being towards the ‘just make something which I like’ end of that spectrum. Maybe, as my skill levels increase, I’ll want to start deliberately using metaphor; constructing stories from images using colour, shape and content. If I do, I see this as something which will work best in the form of a project, where multiple images can convey ‘something’.

Julian Barkway’s article is here: Beyond beauty

I’d be interested to hear others’ opinions on any of this in comments; it’s a potentially fascinating area of debate.

'Serious gardening'