As promised I wanted to come back to the topic of mood and meaning in landscape or nature photography. It is a complex topic, but let’s try.
We usually don’t associate landscapes with meaning, especially meaning for us. If we are asked to look back at our lives and to evaluate them, I think most of us would come up first with social evaluations: friends, relationships, kids that turned out well, career, wealth, achievement, making a difference and so on. Rarely, if at all, people would start with statements like “my life was worth living, because I have seen the Baltic Sea”. We are clearly social animals and our social relationships, the judgement of others and our place in society are how we define us.
No wonder then that we associate meaning largely with human concerns. At least when we use “meaning” denoting purpose and value as in “the meaning of life”. Strangely, though, this has not always been the case. As some indigenous people still do, our ancestors saw landscapes and their features as significant or sacred. These features (like mountains, bogs or trees) were seen as signposts for a higher, harmonious order. By visiting these places and performing rituals, humans in these cultures participated in this order. There seems to be in us humans this ultimate hope that the universe makes sense and that this sense is expressed through order into which our lives fit.
I don’t think this existential hope has completely evaporated from our DNA. In fact, we can still see it in our drive for scientific knowledge. Also there we hope to make sense of the universe. But where our ancestors relied on mystery and ritual, science and technology have enabled us to not only understand nature’s mechanics but to create and control order. Most of us live now in “controlled landscapes”, which we call agriculture, towns or cities.
Still, visitor numbers in national parks in the U.S. go up and are on a high-level (330 Mio in 2016). Also in Finland, national parks and hiking areas see numbers of visitors that equal the country’s population. Clearly, something is still drawing us out to nature and the landscape. But now our engagement with nature is officially called “recreational use”, a term I find deeply revealing and, frankly, also disturbing. It sounds as if the only way to interact with nature is “using it”, like an outdoor gym. On the other hand neither nature, which we have changed everywhere, nor our modern culture are innocent enough that we just could go back to the nature worship of our ancestors.
We can take a hint, though, from these ancestors. For them, meaning was a form of interaction. And indeed: if we look at these life-evaluation-lists I mentioned in the beginning, they also show that meaning is not just something that lies at the end of the rainbow. We interact to create meaning. We create and nurture relationships, we work and we communicate. Meaning is not simply an attribute of something but the result of engagement. Meaningful interaction with nature, I think, has a lot in common with these human relationships. One should not try to dominate the other but to be attentive, to listen and to be responsive.
As a photographer, my interaction with nature is often of the aesthetic kind. As I wrote earlier, each landscape or feature in nature has a mood to it. What we see in nature is never an isolated plant, forest, mountain or the sea. What we see is an event in which these features of nature come together with wind, weather and light. Making a photograph is also more than documenting this event. The photographer responds to the event, emotionally and creatively. Ansel Adams once said, in every picture there is at least one person: the photographer. And I think one can tell from a photograph how intensely the photographer responded and how “present” in the moment he or she was. And now that I think of it, maybe this isn’t so different from the rituals of our ancestors on the sacred mountain or under the sacred oak tree after all.
It has been often said and written, that landscape and nature art nowadays are the least respected forms of art. They are qualified as nostalgic and socially affirmative, not forward-looking and socially dynamical. But underlying this view, I suspect, is an assumption that nature is not a true part of the human condition and our quest for meaning anymore. But that is where this landscape artist begs to differ. There is a deeper connection between modern landscape art and the ecology movement – with all the social-dynamics one could ask for. But, again we can liken it to human relationships: during a divorce it is hard to believe in the meaning-giving potential of a good relationship. And in a way we are in a process of divorce from nature. That doesn’t mean, however, that we couldn’t build a new relationship with nature, one that also provides a meaningful place for human existence. But it needs us engaging; all the mystery, wonder and meaning are still there.