Seeing Beneath the Surface

Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/seeing-beneath-the-surface/

It’s all too easy when we walk in the landscape with a camera to notice and photograph things, subjects if you will. What a lovely mountain, lake, stream, tree, rock, sunset, etc. This is somewhat natural and fits nicely with our labelling character, a need for order, rationality, and convention. I’m of the growing opinion, however, that by seeing things, we’re closing down our truer, more innate relationship with the world around us. This creates judgement, comparisons, expectations, and tunnel vision, all of which are perfect barriers to our creativity and self-expression.

I’ve just returned from a week scouting out a new workshop area in Arctic Sweden with my partner Ann Kristin. As usual, I made a point of ignoring all images by other photographers who had been before, instead preferring to explore the place with my own mind. I did know that fall colour could be expected and that the area was home to some fiendishly sexy geology! On those two scores, I was not disappointed, but I didn’t pack any expectations into my camera bag along with my gear. My creative palette was unpolluted.

All the images accompanying this article were made on this scouting trip.

Expectations

I personally believe any level of expectation can be a negative for us; it sets us up for failure and places a level of pressure on the landscape and the weather to deliver our lofty visualisations. I want to be in the landscape because I love the landscape; breathing in the fresh air, clearing my mind of the weight of modern living, stress, and commitment. The landscape can give us so much, if only we would allow it. Why is it we choose to complicate our experiences and block all the goodness from permeating our tired being?

As I write this, I realise that the string of words flowing from my mind is somehow a distillation of who I am right at this moment, sitting in Oslo airport. Should I write this tomorrow, or had I last week, the words would be different, the perspective shifted. Equally, I realise that each day I spend in the field is like that too, a snapshot not only of a place but for me; a facet, a variation, a nuance, an emotion. I find this fascinating, inspiring, and motivating. Regardless of how many times I walk a path, I am seeing it with fresh eyes, a fresh vision, a new perspective, and with something different to articulate.

Taking a few steps back to the summer of 2003 and I am living in Kuala Lumpur, the internet has become a thing, and I am aware of some amazing bird photographs being taken in Malaysia by a digi-scoper, someone taking photographs through a spotting scope with a small digital camera. I had a Leica scope as I have been a fanatical birder since childhood, and for a relatively modest investment, I had the equivalent of a 1500mm lens. Birds fascinate me, their character, attitude, plumage, behaviour, and of course, their ability to fly (mostly!)

This was my baptism back into photography, one small step for this man that has changed my life. As my skill and commitment blossomed, I was keenly aware of the aesthetics within the frame of individual birds, the angles, lines, curves, empty space, and dynamics. But, as the list of species I had photographed grew, I realised that my desire to gather a database of the birds of southeast Asia had overtaken my love for the subject and the special relationship they had always inspired in my life. I stopped photographing birds in 2007 and enjoy just looking at them now.

Why this cul de sac of a story? Well, close scrutiny of the subject changes our relationship with it; we begin to judge, compare, chase, yearn, long for, and strive. One shot of a Bald Eagle gets compared with another, a once coveted and loved aesthetic gets relegated to the second’s pile, to fade and diminish: The emotional connection to the moment has been severed, irreparably. Landscape photography is no different, the icon oneupmanship; better light, better aurora, better clouds, better colour. Better, BEtter, BETTER, BEST… Louder, higher, faster, just MORE.

As the landscape became my office, my relationship with it was a scary dance of fascinating excitement and bitter loss. I resented it, often hating it for forcing me to record it. Yes, at other times, in moments of calm, I would flow through it like sand in the wind, just being in it fills me with life, purpose, and vitality. Yet, as a full-time professional, I was not immune to the poison of competition and judgement. I was sad when I realised contemporary landscape photography had become a competitive sport. Olympics 2024 anyone?

So, is there an alternative? Can we find peace in the landscape, the process, and what it can reveal about us and our relationship with the world around us? I believe there is, and I believe now is the time. As the tsunami of social media threatens to flood out all connectivity with self and internal peace, we have a window through which light still shines, like in the Lorax, when a few of the Truffula Trees still had seeds. We know the time is short, will we choose to save ourselves?

About 3 years ago, I started travelling in the Gobi Desert, and in total, I visited there seven times, camping in the high dunes a long, long way from today. Lying under the stars on a bed of sand, locked between two infinities, you feel small, remote, alone, and stripped of any relationship to the modern world. No internet, no Facebook, Twitter, Insta, or news. As I looked around in the pale dawn, I saw no subjects, just sand; lines, relationships, patterns, textures, volumes, surfaces, contrast, luminosity, and colour. I had found somewhere without compositions, nothing explicit, just alone with my own feelings and innate relationship with the aesthetic. Suddenly the rules or templates of success seemed laughable. Placing then horizon 33.3333% of the way up the frame was as preposterous as it sounds, the idea of acceptability was lost in the arena of free will.

This was an epiphany for me, the desert is good for those I hear. Composition became a feeling, not a technique, and I began to gain an understanding of my own preferences and personal aesthetic. Subdivisions of sand seemed pointless, and my labelling diminished, leaving nothing but relationships and aesthetics in their purest forms.

When it is so easy to let a statement such as “The textures in the foreground rocks lead so harmoniously to the clear flowing water of the canyon, which in turn reflects the golden glow of the fall trees” flows so easily off the tongue, we strive for linguistic elegance, to articulate to another the joy we experience on a level beyond words. Rocks, water, canyon, trees; nothing but words, labels, conventions, and gross understatements of their magnificence. Textures, colours, flow, surfaces, angles, lines, relationships, volumes, visual weight, harmony, resonance, emotion, and expression. A language of creativity, engagement, and life. Passion and enthusiasm for being in that place at that time, in that body; unique and degrees beyond uniqueness, our life, and perspective; the one that only we can see.

When I talk about seeing beneath the surface, I am talking about two things.

Seeing beyond things

What purpose does the word tree serve? Is the word “rock” somehow evocative of what we are experiencing or feeling at that moment of engagement? As I engage with the way light spills over a joyful surface, do the words “Yellow” Smooth” “Rock,” or “Water” have any real impact on the aesthetic? The thing in itself is made no greater by labelling, and in fact, the opposite is more true; as we strip away language, our ability to communicate and resonate with light, contrast and luminosity increases. Close your eyes, and your hearing becomes more acute. Shut your mouth, and you learn to speak with your eyes. As a workshop instructor, I am forced to articulate things verbally that I do without thinking. Things that may defy words, or at least be massively diminished in translation.

We see and experience reflected light, in all its forms, nuances, strengths, and colours. It is a full body and mind experience. We don’t witness a river and a mountain, we feel a resonance with textures, atmosphere, geometry, and contrast.

Seeing beyond ourselves

My mind is subtly different now from when I started writing this article. It’s as if the words that I allowed to flow from mind to keyboard with little control have had an effect on me. I listen to my own advice and nod in agreement; to be a better version of myself, kinder, more gentle, less judgemental, more in the moment.

The resonance of a cello plays in my ear, noise-canceling buds relegating the Gameboy kids to flickering glimpses of my peripheral vision. I can exist in this space, writing this, alone with the music, alone with the words. I’m surrounded by people, I smile as I picture tomorrow, in the wilderness with two clients. I can hear the words spilling with enthusiasm as I suggest to them to ignore the mountains and feel the flow. I’m not a sad old hippy, but the language of being in tune with ourselves and the landscape carries the baggage of connotation.

Until I can come up with new terms for flow, resonance, harmony, innate aesthetics, or the myriad others necessary to articulate this enlightening way of being a landscape photographer, I am stuck. Maybe you just have to trust me. I’m certain we’ve all felt that feeling, the one when we see, notice, engage, resonate and raise our camera to see within the frame an embodiment of aesthetic perfection that transcends any rule, guideline, convention, or label. We’ve all been there – the best compositions aren’t the ones we find, they are the ones we notice in a moment of recognition. We find ourselves in the landscape and smile at that moment. I am here, I am alive – this is living, not just existence.

We need to learn to be gentle with ourselves, forgive our impatience to be the best, fighting in the race of rats for our share of the feast. The world is a big place, and we’re a tiny part of it. By allowing ourselves the freedom to notice our fascinations rather than looking for predefined relationships, our mind too can be infinite.

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Well said, Alister. There are times when I’m out and I just notice or see it and start laughing and smiling to myself. It’s those times that fill me and I understand why I feel the passion and gratitude.

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Thanks for that, much appreciated

Very nice essay and accompanying images! Your piece has echoes for me of portions of Charles Harbutt’s epilog to his photo book Travelog. Here’s a relevant excerpt, though it’s worth reading the whole piece in full if you can get your hands on a copy of the book (there’s a longer excerpt at the NYT article linked below)…
"Photography is at its best when it deals with the very act of seeing in itself and not with recollections in tranquility or dilettantism of design.
The moment of creation in photography is similar to a state of consciousness very much sought after in yoga. Or Gestalt therapy. It is to be at the exact center of one’s being, where an awareness of everything going on inside oneself — in fantasy, memory, emotions and thought — is balanced by sensitivity to what is happening outside the person and what it means and feels and is. If a photographer can become sufficiently aware of this continuum and have the energy to push a shutter when inside and outside click together, that camera might produce some very fine photographs indeed. "

https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/01/charles-harbutt-photography-as-a-reality-high/?_r=0

That looks like an awesome book, I must seek that out.

Many thanks for that and you’re feedback.