[Archive] The Creative Experience and Photographing Nature

Originally Posted February 2019

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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