Why do some images of natural landscapes captivate us, while most pass us by? What is it that we photographers try so hard, usually without success, to communicate? The answers are deeply buried within us, not our camera's instruction manuals. Einstein could have been talking about photography when he said, "Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem to characterize our age."
Perfecting the means–auto-focus, multi-segment TTL metering, evermore color saturation–has not brought most photographers closer to the goal of composing a photograph that represents what they see and feel. This representation, this sense of aboutness, goes beyond a photograph's grains of silver emulsion, or the pattern of that animal or tree we consciously see in it, to hold a sense of intentionality that wasn't there in the natural scene.
Photography is a visual language. When someone writes or speaks the word "life," it's about more than the letters l, i, f, and e. Completing the word is only the first initial step toward expressing a concept, as are the technical considerations of completing an image. It helps to know from a technical side that landscapes always appear differently on film than to the eye. Foregrounds always become radically emphasized against backgrounds that tend to all but disappear in size or soft focus. Highlights burn out, shadows drop to black, and colors go weird in light that isn't white. But beyond these discrepancies that can be minimized by intelligent use of filters, films, and lighting is an unseen realm in which we perceive the arrangement of a landscape's features as created by human intention. Photographs that we call powerful or dramatic communicate the photographer's passion as surely as they represent natural features. A photographer who is able to communicate intention consistently is said to have a creative style.
As intention becomes ever more artful, subjects lose their relative importance. Irving Penn's intriguing landscapes created out of close-ups of cigarette butts were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. Even where intention may appear to be direct representation of a landscape, as in a picture of a lake in a travel brochure, the intentional communication of the photographer's passion is what makes the photograph get chosen and tourists want to go there. A casual snapshot wouldn't do the job.
Had photography begun as a recognized form of art, our culture would be more keenly aware of the role of intentionality. The famous art psychologist, Rudolph Arnheim, has denied it by expressing the common, wrongheaded view that photographs only capture what was already there in nature: "passive recordings" that "register all detail with equal faithfulness." To the contrary, neither photographs nor direct observations fully represent reality.
Successful landscape photographers are members of the small fraternity of artists, scientists, and philosophers who have lost the certitude of every other creature on the planet that what they sense in the shapes their eyes behold are actually there in that way. When I was old enough to ask my father why he became a professor of philosophy, he told me that nothing in life can be held separate from a philosophy about it. Every science begins as philosophy and becomes art. Knowledge starts out as mental contemplation, moves through modern scientific experimentation, then escapes into celebrations of form and beauty. The exceptions are reverse cases where the art precedes the science.
Photography as we know it began as a science, even though some artists had used a camera obscura without a photosensitive emulsion to trace an image in perspective as the basis for their paintings. Photography's inventor, Nicephore Niepce, devised producing direct images by photochemistry to make up for his utter lack of artistic skill before teaming up with Daguerre. Their process was marketed as scientific visual truth apart from artistic fancy. When ensuing landscape photographs failed to resemble the real world closely enough, the technical solution was to make them much bigger and sharper. In the 1870s, William Henry Jackson photographed the West with a 20 x 24 view camera (as some of today's photographers, disappointed by the power of their efforts in 35mm, switch to 4 x 5 in hope of better communicating their intentions).
Landscape photography as art only arrived after photographers understood that the inherent failures of photographs to correspond with the world could be previsualized and composed as artistic intention. Alfred Stiegletz founded the legendary Photo-Secession movement at the turn of the century to liberate American pictorial photography from the stranglehold of academics and critics. Few of the great landscape photographers who followed had formal training in photography. Ansel Adams was a musician; Eliot Porter a physician.
Since the Sixties, successful scenic photographers have been less likely to emerge from such singular urban professions and more likely to surface from unstructured, spontaneous involvement with the arts, the sciences, and the natural world to compose images that communicate how they feel about a scene. As audiences for all the arts now respond to ever less-formal compositions, successful painters, sculptors, musicians, and photographers have become true sensory sages who evoke, without words, emotional responses in vast numbers of people.
In the classic sense, art has been regarded in opposition to nature. Art is the modification of things by human skill and intention, and thus an artifact is no longer considered natural. A landscape photograph, however, asks to be accepted as both artifact and natural. This helps explain why we do not look at a photograph the same way as a natural scene. When we walk through nature, we are rarely aware of the aesthetic relationships between objects in our visual field. We may comment on those pretty flowers here and that neat cloud up there, but unless we are actively searching out an image to render as secondary visual input with our camera, we are most unlikely to move our head down and right to a point 14 inches off the ground so that a pattern in the flowers leads our eye toward a matching one in the cloud. Successful compositions clearly guide our visual attention with a sense of flow, or perhaps the random appearance of an unexpected object within otherwise familiar subject matter.
Our best pictures show a less "busy" world than we experienced, a world that bears an uncanny resemblance to the sentimental one held in the mind's eye of a memory that simplifies visual information down to essentials and records it by association through the golden sieve of memory. Minute by minute, year by year, details fall away and our mental imagery becomes more iconographic and personal. As Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, "We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world."
Our visual system is primed to receive photographic images that resemble those in our mind's eye. A great landscape photograph of a national park may radically simplify that park in the same way that Pirsig's handful of sand looks like the world. The image doesn't attempt to replicate as much information as possible about the park in the single frame of an oblique aerial, a panorama from a central vantage point, or a 20 x 24 plate in which pine needles can be counted at a mile. Instead, that more powerful composition evokes the essence of parkness out of purposeful design combined with intentional limitation of what is before the lens.