“As for landscape, its material form exists, but its flavour is incorporeal.”
Zong Bing (around 400 C.E.), Preface on Landscape Painting, transl. James Cahill
Earlier I have written about the mood of a landscape much in the way Zong Bing talks about its “flavour”. What both terms mean is an inherent quality of a landscape, something that the artist detects, not something he or she adds to it. What the artist attempts is to become a conduit for the character, mood or “flavour” of a landscape.
During the history of landscape art this has been one of the major approaches to the subject, often called something like the “objective” school of landscape art. Whenever such a school became dominant, however, a counter-movement, a “subjective” school, was sure to follow.
If we see nothing, then this does not mean that nothing is there. John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe
It is not really news that human perception is limited. We hear only within a certain frequency spectrum, we can only see within a certain range of wavelengths and only things of a certain minimum size. Our perception is also optimised for a certain time window.
No wonder then that humans have been wondering forever what it is out there that we don’t perceive. The “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” to quote a former U.S. politician. Photography can stretch into some of these unknowns but that opens questions of its own.
“It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.”
Kamo no Chōmei, An Account of my Hut, 1212
Many aesthetic terms and concepts are elusive. That might be because they often seem to stem from emotion first and only afterwards are translated into concepts. Something, we can’t quite put our finger on and still can’t resist to try. And while the concepts often seem culture-bound the underlying sentiments, I believe, often are universal.
One of the most elusive aesthetic concepts I have encountered is the notion described in the quote above and called in Japanese “yūgen”.
There are a few places and views to which I am drawn over and over again. And as I keep taking photos of the same scenery, it feels like I am trying to do a kind of 36 views of Mt Fuji. Which I am not. At least not consciously. So why am I returning? After having thought about this for a while, I think I might have an answer. And one, that in a way surprised myself.
Here in Finland we know about darkness. After all, in parts of the country the sun doesn’t rise for weeks on end. Even in the south of the country, we have on average only 29 hours of sunshine per month in December. Ok, “south” is relative here. Helsinki lies at about 60° latitude, the same as southern Greenland or Kenai in Alaska. No wonder then that many around here suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) coming from light deficiency or simply loath the onset of the season of constant twilight. But not all darkness is created equal and I do think darkness has its upside. Especially also for photographers.
Every now and then I come over a photograph where I think “this is perfect”. Some photos by Edward Weston, for example. When I then afterwards try to analyze why I reacted this way I realize that this has to do with a certain way to treat the photographic subject. What I also realize is that the approach is just opposite to mine. And that, I think, is worth a thought or two.
Calling photographs “poetic” has its dangers. Some words have been hijacked and are difficult to set free again. “Beauty”, for example, seems to exist mostly in advertisement and or in combination with the female form. As in beauty pageant.
The same has, unfortunately, happened to “poetic” and “lyrical”, too.