To be, or to make.

Before starting on the series on composition that I announced in the previous post, let’s take a moment and look at another topic, the photographic process. Before any thoughts regarding composition or design come into play, the landscape photographer has already made a decision; he/she has selected a subject or scene.
How is that selection made? And why? These seem pretty fundamental questions in making a photograph, but often, artists stay very quiet about them. Why is that and what is going on?

One who famously avoided these questions (and the follow-up question on meaning in his work) is Ansel Adams. He was of the opinion that the artists should not impose meaning on the viewer and on the selection process. Still, one can sense in some of his remarks a kind of spiritual awe regarding nature that might have influenced what he photographed.

Michael Kenna, to take another example, speaks sparingly about the photographic process. He has, however, said that his work always is the result of a conversation between him and the landscape or motif, but the process of this conversation remains somewhat in the dark.

Even though these statements seem opaque, we can extract something from them: both awe and having a conversation with the landscape are intense forms of presence, of being-there. And in my experience, it is this intense presence that “makes” the photograph (in the double sense of being decisive in the selection and in the success of a photograph).

To me, in my own work, this presence looks like the result of an immersion, maybe like dipping underwater, where suddenly things look differently. As in a meditation exercise, the focus of the mind gradually shifts towards the landscape. As this process takes time, I often make the photographs I view as successful at the end of a session.

In this immersion process the whole personality of the photographer comes into play. I know, for example, that my love for Chinese and Japanese art and culture colors my view. This coloring of one’s view, however, makes all the difference between “seeing” and “perceiving”. In perceiving, the whole mosaic of our knowledge, experiences, feelings and the unconscious parts of our mind come into play; filtering what we see, responding to it and forming a personal view.

This personal view is then what the artist uses as the basis for the design and composition and what often is called an artist’s “voice”. But Kenna mentioned that a conversation is happening. Does the landscape also have a voice? I think, yes, it has. Think of a portrait of an old person. While many elements in the picture (e.g. lightning, angle) will be introduced by the photographers and reflect the photographers voice, it is also the face, it’s wrinkles, the eyes that speak to us and sometimes tell a story. In the same way the rocks, trees, clouds and other elements of a landscape can speak to us.

So, in the end, we can split the photographic process into two parts:

  1. intensely being-there and listening to the voice of the subject (landscape); and
  2. the making of the photograph “in the voice” of the photographer.

This, however, shifts the question of composition from “what is pleasing” to “what expresses most adequately both the voice of the photographer and the landscape”.

Ok, now we can start thinking about composition.


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