Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Meditative landscape photography: a counterblast.

I'm growing tired and some may say cynical about the growth of comment about finding some form of artistic transcendence through landscape photography. At its best it seems to be a sort of art as therapy (which isn't a bad thing of course, simply partial); at worst it panders to the amateurish idea that landscape photography is intrinsically bound up with an escape from everyday realities. Hucksters selling the ’living the dream’ notion to those poor souls stuck in offices. 

The reality of creativity is somewhat different of course, there's actually a lot of hard physical and mental labour involved; there's research, self examination and self critique. Much of which has little to do with being ’in the moment’ and much of which is as unromantic as any other aspect of daily life that consumes us. 

I also wish to posit the idea that such attitudes tend to result in a self fulfilling artistic prophesy. If we’re looking for transcendence, or a meditative state of mind, where we’re at peace then the results will represent that desire more than any intrinsic truths or clear eyed explorations of the landscape. 

Sure, we need clarity of vision and the ability to focus creatively, but I'll let you into a secret, for me that can be achieved through hard work. Finding those cracks in our vision that takes us somewhere new doesn't have to be about ’being in the moment’ we can achieve it through questioning, concentrating and thinking while; and both before and after we are actually making images. 

The truth is creativity happens as a result of a ’conversation’ between the conscious and subconscious minds (or however we wish to characterise them) it’s a two way process. We need to feed the conscious mind to stimulate the subconscious. 

To be truly creative we must find pleasure in creativity itself, not hoping that external elements will lead us down some hoped for path. The path itself is the subject we should be focussing on. Where it leads us should not be confined by such narrow boundaries, romantic notions and self indulgence. 


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  2. Exactly. Which is why I haven't been in any frame of mind to take photos recently because it seems to be all thinking and questioning with me just now. - and I'm not sure I like what I'm concluding. So, taking images in a landscape can be to express hell, prison, loneliness or even despair, not just pretty pictures to provide escapism for those stuck in cities and offices.

  3. Much of this relates, of course, to the idea of landscape photography as being exclusively rural - the Bechters would probably have a very different idea of landscape!

    I wonder if what you are describing comes about in part from some people confusing the "quiet" of the (rural) landscape with the lack of "quiet" in their quotidian (urban) experience - out on a hill, there are no cars, no trains, no telephones etc. Of course, it's rarely ever REALLY quiet because the natural environment is itself full of sounds (water, animals, wind etc.), but the romanticised idea of "peace in the countryside" is carefully nurtured to the point that it has become a kind of self-sustaining ideological structure of its own that is there to reinforce the status quo, particularly in the supposed urban/rural divide.

    A key factor in this ideological structure in the British context is the obsession with "preservation" - we have to keep everything looking as it did at some supposedly "good" point in time past (hence the preservation of rural castles and stately homes etc. - contrast the amounts spent on such sites with those spent on the preservation, never mind maintenance, of urban tenement housing!). This is not about learning, it's about reinforcing conservative ideologies of oppression, and the mystification of rural transcendence that you describe here plays a key part in that.

    Insofar as the "peace and quiet" in landscapes actually exists and is not just a reification of a sensory experience that the ideology of the urban/rural divide creates, it should actually enable our brains to think and reflect more critically and clearly. That is what the de-mystification of landscapes should be about, as you say. We do not "escape" into the land - it is simply a space that can, if we approach it aware of the ideological baggage it has so often been imbued with, bring our lives closer to us, allow us to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and encourage creative reflection upon what is important to us as human beings.

  4. Ooh. Rob writes about two ideas - landscape photography and creativity. Then Michael throws another ingredient into the pot! I think that 'what the landscape is' is an interesting topic and probably worth a blog posting all of its own!

    Intention/motivatation should maybe be mentioned here. Some folk may WANT their landscape photography to be a kind of therapy, an escape or, even, a transcendence and they may not WANT to take it any further. They may not be interested in making art - seeking truths, asking questions, self-examination etc. We're all in it for different reasons. But I know you know that...

    Having said all that, for me the kind of landscape photography which results from this is often samey, fairly dull, non-engaging and uninteresting. Pretty pictures.

    The interesting stuff happens when photography becomes emotional, visceral, conceptual and metaphorical. When it has hooks upon which we can hang things.

  5. Perhaps the idea of meditative landscape photography isn't to do with escaping your everyday life but of escaping a thinking process that is primarily works with labels. If we want to let our subconscious (the subconscious that may have been guided through research of subject matter, considering emotions, etc) guide our photography instead of a conscious "put foreground here" etc then stepping outside the mundane working modes of our brain and into a form of "flow state" that lets us react to the landscape and our emotions isn't such a bad thing.

    1. Tim,

      Thanks for the comment, but I wonder if you are missing the point somewhere? Meditative thought in landscape photography is indeed “not a bad thing” as you say, but it is partial. It both misses out whole chunks of the creative process, and it also becomes both an end in itself and a cause of (and a justification for) a predominant aesthetic. Proper creativity happens as a result of the interplay between our conscious (what you call mundane) minds and subconscious/unconscious minds. If we ignore the former then can we honestly claim creative thought?

      There's no ’right’ or ’wrong’ way of thinking about landscape photography. There is however, group think (which isn't really thinking at all) and there is honest personal reflection. Group think includes Michael’s Marxist analysis (above) as much as it does the pseudo intellectualisation and cod psychology of meditative landscape photography and “flow states”. If we are to break from the simple binary of “unity” or “alienation” in landscape photography then we must think more honestly and personally. And that means asking questions and not accepting easy answers that don't sit comfortably with ourselves.

      What we are photographing is our relationship with the landscape, whether we care to admit it or not. Can it really be as simplistic, binary and unimaginative as the great majority of landscape photography would have us believe? Or is it the thinking which is at fault? When we do achieve meditative states, the output is still only as good as the input. It's the input which requires vastly more effort, time, thinking and reflection. Predominantly it requires honesty and individuality.


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