The Creative Experience and Photographing Nature

Why are those of us who photograph nature moved to do so? Undoubtedly because we like the images we produce – They are beautiful, dramatic, striking. But I want to suggest there is a broader creative experience involved.

An artist I much admire is Guy Tal. Tal identifies himself as “Artist, Photographer, Writer.” Significantly, he says he is not a photographic artist, but rather an artist who makes photographs. He produces exceptional images of the American west, and he is also a thoughtful and insightful writer. I encourage anyone interested in sharing the penetrating and inspiring excursions into the mind of an artist to read Tal’s essays, available on his blog and by subscription.

In one especially provocative essay, Guy Tal writes about Zen and Art.

The most interesting aspect of these arts of Zen … is that they don’t exist for the sole purpose of creating a work of art, but they are rather a method for opening the creative process. They comprise means of training the mind and of living our lives.

…the goal of art in Zen is not making things, but experiencing things. In other words, the primary reason to engage in art-making is not the end result—be it a photograph or some other artifact—but the inner, meditative, experience of the artist.

I consider this insight so honest and true that I want to cultivate it, incorporate it into every moment of my own work as an artist. And that leads me to this: If the essence of making photographic art is the “inner, meditative, experience,” that experience doesn’t begin when I pick up the camera or end when I put the camera down. I think this is especially true for those of us who work with nature and landscape photography. More precisely, the creative act is not limited to making a photograph. To become an artist photographing the natural world requires a creativity that grows from being aware of and attuned to nature whether it is with a camera or not. Creativity in photographing nature requires an openness and sensitivity to the natural world that comes from critically and reflectively observing it as much as possible.

An exercise I used to do from time to time was to go out and “take pictures” without a camera. That is, experience the natural world by looking at it and thinking, “What is significant to me of this scene?” “How might I take a picture if I did have a camera?” “How am I experiencing this scene and its wider context?” “What image will I take away in my mind’s eye?” All too often, we let seeing the world through that small rectangle in the viewfinder – for the 1/250th of a second or so the shutter is open – limit the depth and extent of our experience. We fail to understand what the scene is saying to us, and so our experience of the act of picture-making becomes limited and restrictive.

The natural world is a wondrous thing, full of both beauty and ugliness, replete with an abundance of color and texture and pattern. Full of life. What does it mean? What does it say to us? Nature can lift our spirits, and that deeply personal – yes, spiritual – insight, if we let it take shape, will inform our picture-taking when we do use the camera.

The 20th Century artist Vasily Kandinsky is another that I admire. Kandinsky suggested that we observe and experience art – his medium was painting, but it’s applicable to photography as well – much as we experience music. Indeed, I like to think of making a photograph like composing music. And the experience of looking at pictures much like listening to music. There is no question that our ability to appreciate, enjoy, respond to any particular work of music is enhanced by the more music we hear and listen to. And it is the same with all art and with photography. Our ability to engage in the creative experience of photographing the natural world is enhanced by the more photography we look at and think about, the more of the natural world we look at and think about.

To quote Guy Tal again (the same essay):

Allowing yourself the privilege of giving visual expression to your intimate and personal inspirations as part of experiencing something unexpected and emotionally moving, may open your eyes to great personal revelations, and to what I believe to be the most elevating rewards that photography has to offer.

On Vision in Photography and Art

What do we see when we look at a photograph or a work of art?

For some time I have been influenced by the Twentieth Century Russian writer, Viktor Schklovsky (1893-1984), a prominent member of the Russian Formalist School of literary criticism. For Schklovsky, a purpose of art is to make the familiar unfamiliar (ostranenie = “defamiliarization”) (Art as Technique, 1917). As a consequence, the viewer is made to look at things differently and in so doing to see deeper layers of reality. My Visions of Nature series is explicitly an effort to suggest new patterns, colors, and textures of nature that we do not see when we look at nature as we usually do.

Schlovsky suggests, for example, that when we look at, say, a mountain, we usually do not actually “see” the mountain; at least at first we are seeing what we generally think a mountain looks like. The same is true of vision in general. Unless we look sufficiently deeply and long we see not the mountain, but our “idea” of a mountain. The artist’s purpose is to help the viewer move past this level of seeing to a more full, richer, and complete vision of the mountain.

Thus, the rather tautological phase I came up with:  To really “see,” we must see that which is “unseen.”

It turns out, today, that this way of thinking actually has a sound basis in science. Biologists studying human vision have begun to develop detailed and increasingly accurate physiological and mathematical models of how human vision actually works. (See Quanta Magazine: Kevin Hartnett, “A Mathematical Model Unlocks the Secrets of Vision.” August 21, 2019.)

The eye … receives light from the outside world and projects a scale replica of our visual field onto the retina, which sits in the back of the eye. The retina is connected to the visual cortex, the part of the brain in the back of the head…. However, there’s very little connectivity between the retina and the visual cortex. … [T]here are only about 10 nerve cells connecting the retina to the visual cortex. These cells make up the LGN, or lateral geniculate nucleus, the only pathway through which visual information travels from the outside world into the brain… Not only are LGN cells scarce — they can’t do much either. LGN cells send a pulse to the visual cortex when they detect a change from dark to light, or vice versa [which identify edges], in their tiny section of the visual field. And that’s all.

From this very limited amount of information the eye sends to the brain (to the visual cortex), an image is constructed by the brain. This is a very compelling idea for photography. Since the brain has to work with what are really suggestions about the detailed content of an image, it seems likely to me that there should be some overlap in with the active imagination, with the brain’s powers of creativity.

Not only does this make it quite literally true that when we present a photograph to the viewer, the viewer and the photographer both participate in an act of co-creation. The photographer and the viewer are having a conversation about the content and meaning of a photograph (as must be true for any work of art). Additionally, this idea reveals how the brain likely makes use of the “idea” of a thing in creating vision, just as suggested by Schklovsky.

What else can we as photographers and artists take from these ideas? I believe our photography-as-art benefits from our thinking with intent about the cues we are feeding to the viewer’s brain. Patterns of light and dark, contrasts and contrast, variations in tone and shade, patterns both small and large provide suggestions to the brain on how to construct an overall image from the limited information it receives. At least in theory, a flat image with little or no variation in tone or lightness/darkness will present difficulties for the brain. Though we should keep in mind that the eye is probably capable of detecting very minute changes of light and dark and sending the corresponding information to the visual cortex. Though, conversely, if we want to elicit a response from the viewer that is ambiguous, uncertain, questioning, then a photograph with little or no tonal variation at all is certainly the way to go.

I am excited by the support this recent science lends to Schklovsky and to my interpretation of his ideas. I am interested and eager to hear other views and responses. Please leave a comment.

The Creative Experience and Photographing Nature

Why are those of us who photograph nature moved to do so? Undoubtedly because we like the images we produce – They are beautiful, dramatic, striking. But I want to suggest there is a broader creative experience involved.

An artist I much admire is Guy Tal. Tal identifies himself as “Artist, Photographer, Writer.” Significantly, he says he is not a photographic artist, but rather an artist who makes photographs. He produces exceptional images of the American west, and he is also a thoughtful and insightful writer. I encourage anyone interested in sharing the penetrating and inspiring excursions into the mind of an artist to read Tal’s essays, available on his blog and by subscription.

In one especially provocative essay, Guy Tal writes about Zen and Art.

The most interesting aspect of these arts of Zen … is that they don’t exist for the sole purpose of creating a work of art, but they are rather a method for opening the creative process. They comprise means of training the mind and of living our lives.

…the goal of art in Zen is not making things, but experiencing things. In other words, the primary reason to engage in art-making is not the end result—be it a photograph or some other artifact—but the inner, meditative, experience of the artist.

I consider this insight so honest and true that I want to cultivate it, incorporate it into every moment of my own work as an artist. And that leads me to this: If the essence of making photographic art is the “inner, meditative, experience,” that experience doesn’t begin when I pick up the camera or end when I put the camera down. I think this is especially true for those of us who work with nature and landscape photography. More precisely, the creative act is not limited to making a photograph. To become an artist photographing the natural world requires a creativity that grows from being aware of and attuned to nature whether it is with a camera or not. Creativity in photographing nature requires an openness and sensitivity to the natural world that comes from critically and reflectively observing it as much as possible.

An exercise I used to do from time to time was to go out and “take pictures” without a camera. That is, experience the natural world by looking at it and thinking, “What is significant to me of this scene?” “How might I take a picture if I did have a camera?” “How am I experiencing this scene and its wider context?” “What image will I take away in my mind’s eye?” All too often, we let seeing the world through that small rectangle in the viewfinder – for the 1/250th of a second or so the shutter is open – limit the depth and extent of our experience. We fail to understand what the scene is saying to us, and so our experience of the act of picture-making becomes limited and restrictive.

The natural world is a wondrous thing, full of both beauty and ugliness, replete with an abundance of color and texture and pattern. Full of life. What does it mean? What does it say to us? Nature can lift our spirits, and that deeply personal – yes, spiritual – insight, if we let it take shape, will inform our picture-taking when we do use the camera.

The 20th Century artist Vasily Kandinsky is another that I admire. Kandinsky suggested that we observe and experience art – his medium was painting, but it’s applicable to photography as well – much as we experience music. Indeed, I like to think of making a photograph like composing music. And the experience of looking at pictures much like listening to music. There is no question that our ability to appreciate, enjoy, respond to any particular work of music is enhanced by the more music we hear and listen to. And it is the same with all art and with photography. Our ability to engage in the creative experience of photographing the natural world is enhanced by the more photography we look at and think about, the more of the natural world we look at and think about.

To quote Guy Tal again (the same essay):

Allowing yourself the privilege of giving visual expression to your intimate and personal inspirations as part of experiencing something unexpected and emotionally moving, may open your eyes to great personal revelations, and to what I believe to be the most elevating rewards that photography has to offer.

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