“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.
Instead of searching for the flavour of the landscape, the subjective school imbues the landscape with a “flavour” or a message that is not inherent, but a reflection of the artists mind and mood. I paint this in a rather broad brush and these schools actually were at times difficult to distinguish. As a further disclaimer, generally I am certainly closer to the objective school and don’t want to sound too negative regarding the subjective approach. Everything in art is equally legitimate.
But for myself I admit that I am quite wary of the subjective approach. Broadly speaking am I not so interested in making photographs of myself or my inner life. But this is what often the subjective approach means. The photograph becomes less about the landscape and more about the photographer. Landscape isn’t, in fact, needed in this approach. Any object reflecting or symbolizing the artists intention, mood or feeling will do.
Sometimes, however, the subjective element creates itself all by itself. So was the case with the picture on top, which I later named “Quo Vadis”. When I was out on the ice to make the photograph I remember to be attracted to the fragility and shape of the reed stalks against the background of the snow and the trail of animal prints leading away from it. There were many more reed stalks around and many more animal trails. The resulting picture has little to do with the surrounding scene or landscape. The tight focus on these three elements: reed stalks, whiteness and the disappearing trail, as I later recognised, was more a reflection of my thoughts at the time than an adequate reflection of the scene. As Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently put it, artistic anxiety is not part of the process it is the process. Indeed one probably has to constantly ask oneself: “what am I going to do next?”, “where does all this lead?” And these questions clearly were not only in the back of my mind, but found a way into the picture. Do I like it? No, not really. It kind of infringes on my hope that I control the process… and of course it constitutes a bad slip into a different school of photography.
But then I get reminded of quotes by two artists. One is from Ansel Adams, who said that in every photograph there is at least one person: the photographer. Which is a reminder that there might not be such a thing as a pure objective or subjective approach to a subject. No photograph comes into existence without a point of view. The rest is just a matter of degree.
The second quote coming to my mind is from Degas, who said: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. But how could I ever truly know what others might see in a picture? Again, this seems to me as something that is quite out of my hands.
It seems that maybe less than I hoped for in the process of making an image is (consciously) created by the photographer and rather creates itself. So maybe I just have to shed a couple of tears of fear, uncertainty and doubt into a picture at times and then move on to make the next photograph…