Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

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'

4 Responses to “Musings on: actively putting ‘meaning’ into photographs”

  1. Julian Barkway

    Hi Mike,

    I think it’s fair to say that the various associations at work here have a sort of hierarchy from ‘primitive’ associations that could be deemed necessary for survival in a wholly natural environment at the bottom. These would be the oldest and therefore, I would hazard, are cross-cultural. For example, the combination of yellow and black is often a warning sign in nature (think about wasps or certain species of poisonous frog) and red is very often associated with heightened emotional states (probably stemming from increased blood-flow colouring the skin). Then there are associations relating to how our brains process the world we see. These, I would suggest, are pre-programmed and do not need to be learnt.

    Sitting on top of this are the cultural associations – how we view the landscape, for example, has much to do with the environment into which we are born and what we learn throughout our lives. These associations are not fixed and are influenced by any number of exterior factors.

    I agree that, in photography, trying to ‘target’ such things as we make images is a difficult, if not futile, exercise. Rather I think metaphor and association should be used in support of a clear message – much how it has been used in painting through the ages. If we’re conscious of what we are doing, we can build this in as another layer of meaning to be discovered by the viewer. But if the viewer isn’t receptive to it then the image should offer more obvious messages, too.

    In landscape photography, where our subject is essentially the chaos of nature, over which we have very little direct control, all we can do is to use composition, lighting and other photographic techniques to hint at something deeper. And that’s where an understanding of photographic semantics comes in.

  2. Malcolm MacGregor

    Hello Mike,

    I am a landscape photographer and found your website via Julian’s article on beauty on Landscape GB website.

    You asked for some comments on your musings about putting meaning into photographs – so here goes.

    I think it is best to purposefully do photographs for yourself – I think the deeper meaning of the photograph is revealed to a greater extent. I am thinking of John Sarkowzki’s (curator of MOMA) in his book on Ansel Adams at 100. The final sentence being ‘What did Ansel Adams do for us? one useful answer would be: nothing; he did it all for himself’. Actually I think AA did a lot ‘for us’ in various spheres of photography and he was always gracious with visitors etc. But I think the act of making photographs was primarily for himself. I think this comes out in the way in which he writes and describes events leading up to the photograph. Eg half-dome from the diving board in Yosemite and Moonrise over Hernandez.

    I think trying to get into the psyche of what others might like is dangerous territory unless it is for a specific commission and one is following a brief. Dangerous may be a bit strong, but I feel the photographer must follow his/her own instincts and should not second guess themselves. Photography I think is about putting your visual signature to your photographs. Many people are not too sure what they like anyway whether it is landscape, documentary or portraiture. However you can pretty much guarantee that they will like National Geographic photography. That magazine knows what its viewers like and the photographer has to reflect that.

    The second part of your question – should we try to influence how the viewer responds should be avoided in my view. I dont know how it would be possible to achieve this. And again, in the field one might become detracted from the subject matter unfolding if the mind is full of what the potential viewers might be thinking.
    Trying to affect the viewer deliberately I think is a recipe for disaster – in landscape anyway – but perhaps not in documentary. In landscape it is important to be true to oneself and if photographs appeal to others because of what you did – then it is very satisfying. If they dont appeal then you still rest easy secure in the knowledge that you were not trying to be overly clever. The photograph will still appeal to you mainly because of the experience you went through in getting it and will remain with you. With some of my photographs I can remember absolutely everything in the build up to tripping the shutter. This is part of the intensity of landscape photography and photography in general.

    I think that is probably enough rambling from me so I shan’t bang on – your other questions are very interesting, particularly body of work and individual photographs.

    Anyway thanks,


    Malcolm MacGregor

  3. Mike Green ( http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk )

    Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. Thinking about this a bit more, I feel that I’m becoming more inclined to the idea of using deliberate metaphor, etc., in a ‘project’ or sequence, but remaining less comfortable at an individual image level. It definitely requires considerably more thought and experimentation over a period of time.

    And I very much look forward to seeing Julian’s experiments in this direction.



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