Notes on Composition II

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In the first post in this series on composition I mentioned to use nature’s design as an alternative approach to composition. Such a design would build on the relationships, energy and forces in nature.

Now it’s time to have a closer look.

The picture on the top taken on a foggy day on the coast is full of lines: the shapes of the rocks and the island, but foremost the deep lines in the rock stemming from the moving glacier ice. While raw and devastating forces formed the dominating shapes in the picture, these forces also created opportunity. We see how a pine grows from a crack in the rock. But the pine is small even though, based on the thickness of its stem, it might be quite old. Some twenty meters on I found these pine trees:

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These two have a straight stem and have a more expected shape of a pine. Still the age and genetic material of these three pine trees is quite similar, they even could have been seeded by the same parent tree. Their differences in shape reflect the different places they grow on. Even though they are only a few meters apart these places differ in conditions like light, wind and food access. And this leads me to a point that seems pretty obvious and still, I think, we do rarely contemplate. The point is: no form or shape in nature can be considered without its context. Even if we look at a single tree, a “lonely hero”, what we actually see is the result of an interaction, a relationship between the tree and its surroundings. Also the shape of the rocks isn’t “just so” but reflects the history of the rocks and their interaction with the elements and plants. If you look closely these rocks shaped by the ice-age look very differently from rocks shaped by flowing water.

I think it is an important insight for landscape photographers that we actually take pictures of contexts. And hidden in each context lies a story. These stories might talk about glaciers, food access and predation, wind and light conditions and much more. As eco-system relationships can be very complex it might at times be very difficult to know the whole story. But what we can know and feel are the difficulties and beauty of sheer existence. Still, these kinds of stories don’t come as naturally to us as the ones in the post about storytelling. Even worse, we might have lost touch with these stories.  In his book “Invisible Nature”, Kenneth Worthy describes in depressing detail how Western culture from Plato on has disassociated us from our intuitive understanding of nature’s stories and contexts; nature has become for us partly invisible. He describes comparative studies involving American and Chinese test subjects who perceived natural objects in very different ways. If there was a clear subject in a picture, like a big fish on a reef,  the Americans ignored everything else. The Chinese instead focused not on the individual hero in the picture but on its relationship with the context.

This might also explain why we in Western landscape art always demand a clear subject in a picture, mere scenery or context won’t do (like in Chinese landscape paintings), at least not without textual explanation on the side. But once a picture has to be explained, it easily turns into a mere illustration. That is why we landscape photographers often overlay with, or extract from, a scene geometrical forms that are easy to grasp for the human mind.

An alternative approach, and I realize one that sounds quite fuzzy, is for the photographer himself to see and feel the context and to try conveying that feeling to the viewer. I have earlier called this process, for lack of better description, as a kind of mindful immersion or meditation. The act of composition in this is not a planned and calculating one, but one of situational intuition. Edward Weston once said that “to compose a subject well means no more than to see and present it in the strongest manner possible”. And that means for me that the honesty and depth of my perception of nature’s contexts and my emotions towards them are what in the end makes or breaks a composition.

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