Emotions in Landscape Photography
I often get asked what I do to stand out from all the rest of the landscape photographers in the world in order to differentiate myself. Usually the implication behind this is "motivation" and not necessarily "value". The person asking the question is perplexed as to why I don't lose motivation over a long period of time. A simple google search can yield hundreds of thousands of landscape photographs (good or bad) and an equal amount of photographers all competing for fame. I honestly don't even want to know how many photographers exist out there. I estimate in the millions. Photography today is more easily accessible than possibly any other art form in existence, due to social media, marketing, affordability and most importantly, skill-related accessibility (meaning most people can pick up a camera and take a relatively interesting image and call themselves a "photographer" with the least amount of effort involved in relation to other art forms). I guess it's the equivalent of me picking up a paintbrush and spreading some random lines across canvas and calling myself a painter. There really has never been an industry defined standard. And I suppose there never will be. If you take a photograph, you are a photographer. If I spread paint across canvas, I am a painter. I guess that's the beauty of art, or the curse. Do skills or simple actions inherently define the title? I argue that it does not. I argue that emotions do. I argue the "why". Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are you even wasting your time? In this blog we are going to explore some of the reasons why landscape photography lacks such an emotional void (a term you will hear me use many times) and analyze ways we can possibly correct it within the professional community, if you're somebody with a broader viewer base.
Let me be very clear. I did not become a photographer because I wanted to be popular. I frankly don't care if people think my photography is cool looking. Photography was an outlet for me for some very dark times in life. It still is just as important of an outlet today. I'll sometimes hold onto images I took from many months ago simply because I'm not emotionally ready to edit them yet. And on the flip side of that, I will often make mistakes if I'm editing and in the wrong mood (i.e. angry, sad), then will have to stop editing and take a break and come back to work on an image. It's for this very reason that I do not understand why the greater landscape photography community as a whole lacks such a massive void of emotions. I know the emotions are there, because I live them myself as a professional photographer, yet I just don't see them in most landscape images.
It's not until I start delving deeper into the world of social media that I truly begin to understand why a bit better. I follow a couple of professional YouTube photographers who regularly show themselves editing images after a shoot (literally minutes after a shoot) and they finish the entire image within a 20 minute video (sometimes longer) and then post the image online to various social media platforms. I'm continually shocked that they can hold any sense of pride in their work that it took this quick without checking for precision, mistakes or any forethought into the look or style of their image beyond simply taking it in the field. I've sat and stared at one of my images for over an hour because I was torn between two different titles and what I want my viewers to feel. Part of the problem is we don't have time for deep emotions in photography and this is perpetuated through social media. It's all about scrolling through your phone on a 15 minute break on Instagram or Facebook. It's about generating as many images as humanly possible to keep your name at the top of the list so you can consistently farm the "likes", "shares" and "follows". However, as it specifically relates to landscape photography, social media is surprisingly not the root cause of the lack of emotions in our genre. This is a tradition that dates all the way back to the days of origin and we can clearly trace it through the titles of images from various famous photographers who set a long-standing precedence.
The most underrated aspect of landscape photography and the presentation of your art is your title. This is the very first thing people visually see online; this is the very last thing they think about when they leave your gallery (whether physical, or digital). They think about the words associated with your images. Your title is similar to the first impression associated with your photograph. It's your one chance to leave a feeling or mood associated with your viewer before they take a minute or two to stare at your image. Think of your title as the handshake reaching out to greet your viewer. If you don't even have a title, or you have a predictable title (because I've seen your photograph a million times before from other people), you're not going to leave a lasting impression on them at all. I'm not kidding when I say I've seen images from Lower Antelope Canyon and I've thought to myself before "if this image is named 'Sands of Time' I'm not even giving this photographer a second look" and sure enough, he named his image "Sands of Time." You know it's bad when I can actually predict titles to images without even opening them. Believe me when I say that there are literally hundreds of photographers out there with a similar image named "Sands of Time". Why would I or any avid art collector want to invest our money in that image when we can walk down the street to a more unique gallery with a bit more personality and emotional depth? These may be some harsh words to read, but the reality is the general public thinks this way deep down when they leave your gallery (not me), they just won't ever say it.
How do I know this? Well, because I'm consistently told this by many of my followers and readers. My title is perhaps my most important part of the publication of an image. I have some very sad images with very real titles. "Affliction", "Tears in Solace", "Let Darkness Consume", "Sorrow and Solace" to name just a few. If I told you these titles, you probably wouldn't associate any of these with "Great American Landscapes". Why would you? Ansel Adams never did. Galen Rowell never did. And many of the biggest names in landscape photography today continually do not present themselves this way. My biggest passion for photography comes from the fact that I get to emotionally impact my viewers in a meaningful way. I do this by not only creating strong compositions, but by naming them uniquely. That combination has a very deep impact on your viewers and you need to take full advantage of it if you want to have any hope of standing out from the hordes these days and going into the future.
So to answer the inquiry of how I don't lose motivation in this day in age where everybody is a photographer, I tell people that I take photos to establish a deep emotional connection with my viewers through my images. It's the one and only way to ensure that I have a photograph nobody else will ever take. Photography for me is not about simply documenting a landscape scene, it's been done before by hundreds of people before me. I'm nothing new. I'm nothing special. What I have to offer people is the ability to make them stop for a moment and look at a beautiful scene (maybe one they've seen before) and see it from a completely different perspective (literally).
Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about with one of my own images. Some of you may understand what I'm talking about here and others really may not see the value in any of this. But that's alright, we will keep exploring this idea of true emotional depth in photography. Below is an image I took one afternoon where I was very upset. In particular, I had asked a specific girl to be my girlfriend and she said no. It hit me hard because we were progressing fine for many months and I thought everything was ready to move along to the next stage. I grabbed my photo gear this one afternoon and went screeching out to a random spot, no forethought or anything went into the image below. I blasted my ipod, set up a composition and just started taking photos. I wasn't paying attention to the lighting or the exposure settings. The whole time I was standing up yelling at the top of my lungs to the song I was listening to! I was throwing rocks into my composition. Cursing at the sun in my image and at my shoes frozen by the lake under my feet because I had almost no winter clothes on. It's during times like these our best images are created. The ones that really stick with us as photographers and as artists in general.
I named this image "Set Me On Fire". Now, if I didn't tell you that and instead told you that I had named this image "Sundown Over Banks Lake", this would probably sound like an equally believable construct. I mean after all, that's technically exactly what this image is. Where is the emotion in that though? In fact, if I hadn't told you anything about this image, you would have no idea as a viewer/reader what went into the creation of this photograph. And if I left it at "Sundown Over Banks Lake", you as a viewer would simply look at this image and write it off as just another landscape image you've seen somewhere on the cover of a magazine maybe. If you're a fellow photographer, you might envision the work that goes into this image by imagining me freezing my butt off on the lake huddled over my camera intensely focused on the outcome of my image, but quite the contrary! However, by me naming my image "Set Me On Fire", it's going to prompt and beg the question of why? Remember my question of why? People love to know why. People will buy your prints because of the why. I ended up dedicating this image to my wife because she has the ability to draw my raw emotions from me and pour them into a photograph. She still sets my world on fire everyday as much as she did that afternoon. In fact, I still dedicate a lot of my work towards her to this day.
One last example hopefully to drive the point home and this one did not come from me. My wife and I enjoy going into photography galleries just to see who is out there and what kind of high-quality prints they are producing. We recently went into one gallery in San Diego and my wife was utterly stunned with the lack of emotions in his photography. He was a landscape photographer and she said to me after leaving "A) I feel like I've seen all of these locations before and B) all of his images were boring with names like 'Golden Arches' and 'Sunset at <insert geographical location here>'." Trust me, I did not prompt her to say any of these things. It's bad karma for when I open my own gallery in the future. Although I didn't argue. Because, A) these were all images I've also seen before from a million other photographers and B) they were all titles that I've seen before and predicted myself before even looking at his images. And she was absolutely correct. I was staring at a $10,000 print and at no point was I making an emotional connection with this supposed piece of art in front of me. And the worst part about it all was I knew how much work went into the image personally and it all goes to waste with some viewers/audience members because of such a simple, common and even traditional oversight.
Ansel Adams once said "There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." This exact same philosophy needs to be held for emotions in landscape photography. In the vast majority of landscape images, emotions only flow one way. It flows into the viewer. We rarely get to see what the photographer was feeling at the time of the image and that's because of the title. When you have an image named "Sundown Over Banks Lake" for example, it may be a beautiful image and it may stir up some kind of emotions in the viewer, however we have no idea what the photographer was feeling because to the viewer it looks like the photographer was only there to check that location off his "to-do" or "must-document" list. And I can tell you right now that this is the single number one reason why we as landscape photographers are not taken seriously as artists in the art community.
Seriously, Why Aren't We Taken Seriously?
I have spent a lot of time debating this question myself. I can only trace it back to one culprit, lack of true emotional depth. Real emotional depth. Sure, times are changing and we are getting new players on the block. However, it's been more than 100 years of photography and we are just getting to a stage where landscape photography is being contemplated as an actual art form rather than a documentation platform. And I can tell you that the reason for this is not from what I've been discussing in my blog here. It's because of the creative techniques from famous photographers such as Marc Adamus who have revolutionized the industry to create images that don't entirely match the definition of what some people consider a "real photograph". We are in a digital renaissance era of photography, if you will. However, I argue that this will eventually not be enough. As technology gets better and image styles become more realistic looking, the idea of "documentation platform" will slowly creep back into people's minds and there will still be a real emotional void in the landscape photography world, just as there always has been. I hope things like this blog and consistently publishing images with true emotional depth will slowly change the way we think and look at landscape imaging. However, I alone can't change that. Every time I see an image published by somebody without a title it just diminishes the seriousness of our art within the greater art community. It proves to the rest of the world we don't really have any emotional depth within our art and instead it's purely a science. It falls upon us professional photographers to start changing that perception, especially if you consider yourself an artist and don't understand why some people don't consider you one.
Let's briefly touch upon some other possible reasons for why there might be a lack of real emotional depth in landscape photography:
1) Copy-cat syndrome: There are thousands, nay, tens of thousands, of photographers out there who live to go from location to location simply taking photographs that have been taken before just to prove to themselves (I guess) that they can do it. They don't really put much thought into it, they just show up and look for the exact composition that they saw online and try to copy the photograph as best as they can. Then they name the photo something simple based upon what first strikes them about the image (again, no real emotional depth here) and move along to the next image/location. The image may be a great image visually and they may even be a great photographer technically speaking, but are lacking as an artist. This is a very common theme nowadays with the invention of social media. They name the image something different from the original photographer because they believe that's what's important, however miss the point entirely (from my explanation above) because there's a serious emotional void to the photograph in general, so a title is rendered pointless.
2) Let's be real here when I say that landscape photography is a male-dominated "sport". And when I say male-dominated, I mean I can't even begin to name to you any single female world-class famous landscape photographer. Now, there ARE female landscape photographers out there who are up-and-coming, but go visit their galleries and you will see that even they do not have any real emotional depth to their photographs based upon my criteria here. Now it is what it is, it's not a big deal. If anything, it just goes to show you how deeply rooted this tradition is of naming and documenting a location is based upon photographers of old, which needs to change. I can't even blame this on the fact that landscape photography is male-dominated, because ladies, you're disappointing me too. Maybe photography puts us all in a coma and we turn into zombies when we take photographs.
3) Photography can be a bit overwhelming when you're out in the elements and you have a lot to focus on other than your emotions, look I get it. It's unique to other arts in that regard. Especially when it's -25F out and 4AM and all you can think about is how much snow-melt is inside your boots. Frustration is really the only emotion you're feeling at that time. But that's not to say you have an entire editing process at home later to think about a certain look/style of your image. Photography is not just about taking photographs, it's also about editing the image and what you take away from that. Not every session will also be unbearable conditions either, so learn to enjoy it when it's warm and sunny out and stick with it when it sucks. Photography is very rewarding when it's at it's worst and that's usually when your best emotional work comes through, even if your current emotional state isn't at it's best. I'm at a certain point with my photography however where I don't even think about taking my images, I just take them in the field without worrying about my settings. It's a certain freedom that comes with experience and it allows me to focus more on enjoying the moment and my art, rather than my anxiety of losing the photograph. So I understand that this point may be a legitimate concern for photographers with less experience who really focus in the field on their image taking and less on their emotional state.
So What Can We Do About All Of This?
I suppose if there was a TL;DR, this would be it. However, I highly encourage you to actually read the entire blog especially if you're a photographer. The most imperative thing we can do as photographers to help outsiders take our art-form more seriously is by taking our own art-form more seriously and treating our art-form as an actual art-form, not simply a documentation/scientific platform. This starts by shedding the traditional ways of naming our images such as "Sundown at <insert geographical location here>". This doesn't do anything for your viewer other than tell them something technical. It doesn't transmit any emotional necessities to them as an artist. It's about as sterile as that last sentence. At least give your images a title to begin with (you know who you are).
I understand that blogs like this can be difficult to read, especially pertaining to art. We live in a society that doesn't like to openly critique art, because well, it's art. However, if you've ever been denied access to an art show or other various activities because your photography is not considered "art" under their guidelines and you've been left scratching your head, maybe it's time we as a professional photography community need to start having these conversations. And frankly, I have to agree with these standards. Frankly, I'm inclined to understand why the outside art community does not view our art as an "art".
The conveyance of emotions in photography are imperative. It's how we operate as artists, I get that on a personal level. Your viewers want to see the artist behind the lens, they want to see the journey behind every photo. They don't want to just be sold a location they've probably seen a dozen times by other photographers who are equally as skilled as you. It's a hard pill to swallow, but I suppose it's also a liberating pill to swallow at the same time. Because when you realize that your skill isn't what's going to set you apart these days in photography it forces you to focus on other avenues to venture down. I've always said since the beginning of my photography days; "set me up next to any photographer on the same night with the same exact conditions and I can create a very very similar photograph as them, what will be different is how my viewers interpret the image". And let me tell you, that can make the world of a difference to someone who came to view art.
Welcome to my blog. I am a fine art landscape photographer living on the west coast of the United States. Here you can keep track on my upcoming/current events, projects, trips or simply read up on some tutorials!