Outside, Looking In

Bristlecone Pine, Mosquito Range Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2014

Bristlecone Pine, Mosquito Range
Windy Ridge, Near Alma, Colorado, 2014

There’s a certain image of a landscape photographer that seems to be held in high regard these days.  This kind of landscape photographer is a person who immerses himself deeply into the wilderness, perhaps spending days or weeks at a time removed at great distances from civilization and insulated from all human contact.  A person who travels at great lengths and through epic hardships in order to reach places ordinary people can’t.  A person who communes so intimately with nature that he or she appreciates it on a level that normal people do not, and for whom a camera almost is secondary to the outdoor experience, such that any images made manage to be somehow both incidental to the outdoor experience and yet still attain virtue in a way that cannot be achieved by those among the crowded field of ordinary photography.

I’m not that person.

Yes, I enjoy being outside, but my backcountry skills are limited and my outdoor experiences mostly are confined to daytime trips.  Yes, I enjoy a good hike to get somewhere interesting, but most of my photography is done fairly close to my car.  Yes, I often get to locations away from crowds of people, but I don’t eschew the popular overlooks or the landmark destinations.

The problem is, landscape images made by the kind of photographers first described above seem to be treated with a kind of almost reverence that images made by other photographers don’t get.  There seems to be a link made between a person who commits a great deal of time and resources to being in the landscape, and the quality of the images that this person makes there.  It’s an extension of the idea that the photographer is more important than the photograph, an idea that usually is treated with disdain by most photographers I’ve met, but somehow seems subtly validated in the field of landscape photography.

I don’t begrudge those who choose to approach landscape photography in the manner first set forth above.  Really, I don’t.  But there seems to be a negative implication among those who do that those who don’t cannot make landscape photographs that are equally worthy, and I do have a problem with that.

Ultimately, landscape photography is more about the photography, and less about the landscape.  It’s more important to see the landscape through the eyes of an artist, not the eyes of a wilderness adventurer.  It’s more important to be knowledgeable about photographic techniques and equipment than about backcountry survival skills.  It’s more important to feel moved by the landscape on an emotional level regardless of the ability to move through it on a physical level.

I suspect my views on this are out of the mainstream.  I’m okay with that, even though sometimes it feels like I’m on the outside, looking in.  But being on the outside and looking in sometimes is not a bad place to be.  It tends to create a perspective that is less common, more unique when compared to that of the “in” perspective – a potentially powerful tool when applied with creativity and restraint.

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  1. Don Donahue February 3, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    In a way are you saying that one tends more toward documentation and the other toward seeing?
    Great pics, Misha, keep it up.

    • admin February 3, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

      I’m thinking more that a lot of outdoor photographers these days seem to trade more on their image as rugged outdoor adventurers or deep environmental spiritualists rather than on the quality of their photography. It seems to me that it’s the quality of the photograph that should be most important, not the image of the photographer behind it. But what really surprises me is just how saleable this image apparently is – photographers whose images may not be particularly above average nevertheless become relatively successful and popular because they sell the image of their outdoor adventures. Thanks for checking in, Don, nice to hear from you!

  2. Rick G February 5, 2015 at 8:20 pm #

    Misha, I have to say you really got me thinking with this post. I certainly see your point and agree that art should be judged on its own merit. In fact, I’m more than a little impressed by artists who can pull into a scenic overlook and manage to make a unique, compelling photograph that doesn’t look like a thousand others.

    Having said that, of the several photographers whose blogs I follow, more often than not I am entertained and inspired more by their adventures and philosophical meanderings than their art. Not to say that they don’t do fantastic work, but let’s be honest- you could put the portfolios of the top fifty landscape photographers side by side and, though they’d be very impressive, I doubt there would be half a dozen whose work was original enough to be attributed specifically to its owner.
    (Geez, it saddens me to say that.)

    This is one area where I have to give you kudos. Your work has a look and an emotional feel that sets it apart. When checking my feeds, I usually read your posts last because after looking at several dynamic, in-your-face, turn-the-saturation-up-to-11 blogs, your images have a calm, timeless quality that speaks more of thoughtfulness than promotion. I believe this comes from the mindset you describe in your last two paragraphs above.
    I agree that being “in” isn’t always a good thing. I can’t help but feel that 20-30 years from now we’re going to look back on these high-contrast, overly saturated images so popular today with the same embarrassment my generation feels over the silk shirts, polyester pants, and platform shoes we wore to disco the night away back in the early eighties. (Ouch!)

    Keep up the good work.

    • admin February 6, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

      Thanks, Rick, really appreciate it!

      I do find it a bit of a conundrum, separating the “who did it” and “what they did” aspects of art. It’s probably human nature to be curious about the personalities behind the work, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong about that. A lot of critics and consumers of art seem to blur that distinction pretty liberally, who am I to question how people like to enjoy their art? For me, I definitely separate the two aspects and put them into different boxes. If I have a gripe, I suppose it’s when the artist deliberately conflates the two, in order to elevate the value of his or her own work (and by implication, devalue that of others) because of how he or she made it, and not value it for what it is standing alone on its own merits.

      As to silk shirts, polyester pants, and platform shoes, fortunately I just missed the tail end of that generation, so I don’t have to take any of the blame for that. 🙂

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