Of Art and Millennia
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, March 2000

My father, who would have been 114 at the turn of the millennium, had no use for mysticism about numbers. A practical farm boy with a Ph.D. in philosophy, he told me in no uncertain terms that there was nothing lucky about a 7, devilish about 666, or significant about the random appearance of large, even numbers.

My mother, a performing musician and natural artist, once drove me far out of the way to school so that we could watch in wonder as the analog cogs of her 1940 Chevrolet odometer turned to 100,000 from 99,999. She was ecstatic; I was underwhelmed.

As I write this just before the turn of the millennium, I'm convinced my father was right about the phenomenology of numbers having no greater meaning, but just as convinced that my mother was right, too, for reasons that may cause the majority of millennial chaos. For her, those odometer numbers did become significant because she acted upon them just as they were about to turn. If six billion people like her all watched their odometers turn over at the same time, there would have been traffic jams, gas shortages, accidents, deaths, and a whole lot of kids late for school on a date I can't remember in the late 1940s.

What does this have to do with photography? Plenty. Of course more weird events happen around the full moon. People notice something up there and make something of it. That's what happens in great photographs of the natural world. The art of photography steps beyond my father's phenomenologically accurate representation of the real world into my mother's more personal one to visually communicate passion that veritably leaps off the page from a full moon setting over mountains that look like frozen music, a single flower on the prairie, or a stream unfrozen by time to flow as never seen before our eyes.

Each of us is wired differently, some more like my father; others more like my mother. To be a good photographer is to sense that every question has more than one right answer and every scene more than one interpretation. Strong personal styles come about from passionate selectivity about viable alternatives, not always with conscious awareness of artistic intention (which often creates visual "writer's block" at critical moments when light and form must come together in the mind's eye as well as in front of the lens). Though it's undeniably easier to take a photograph than to make a painting, fine-art nature photography's real-time requirement to perform technical camera functions as well as esthetic artistic judgments in advance of a specific moment is quite different than the luxury of leisure-time contemplation involved in most other art forms.

Nature photography has no Mozarts. To the best of my knowledge, no child under ten has produced a genius body of work appreciated at the highest level by adults unaware of the age of the artist. In other art forms, this has not been the case. One notorious example had critics unknowingly choosing abstract paintings done by a chimpanzee over ones created at the same time by working artists.

To create a photograph that communicates artistic intention defies simple intuitive access because what you see is not what you get. Everything we take for granted about how the world looks to our eye and mind comes out somewhat differently in a photograph, from the relative sizes and distances of objects to the colors of light and the enhanced significance of shadows. A shadow that would go virtually unnoticed in the real world may translate to an image of power on film when blended compositionally with imagery of real objects. Such a work of art is not intuitive, though it may happen accidentally now and then. A long saturation of awareness and practice is required to achieve the consistent vision required to succeed as a professional nature photographer.

While other art forms may appear to require equally long technical and esthetic apprenticeship, signicant exceptions have occurred. After apparently sophisticated cave paintings 30,000 years old were recently discovered at the Chauvet cave, art historians and anthropologists waxed poetic about the sophistication required to create such art. These "ice-age artists had acquired a complete mastery of their technical means, presumably based upon a tradition extending much further into the past," wrote the eminent art psychologist, E. H. Gombrich, in the New York Review of Books. In an article titled "Stone Age Picassos," the New Scientist called the art "testimony that modern humans . . . were capable of the type of symbolic thought and sophisticated representation that was beyond Neanderthals."

Though the discovery was generally heralded as evidence of a rich cultural heritage of images and stories passed from generation to generation, a very different opinion was expressed by experimental psychologist Nicholas Humphrey in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. His name may be familiar to readers from a previous column, "The Photographer as a Blind Monkey," in which I described Humphrey's work on blindsight, where certain cortically blind humans and monkeys are able to reach for unseen objects without conscious sight.

Equally improbable sounding is Humphrey's present assertion that the artistic cave paintings could have been have been made by a severely retarded, socially unresponsive child with no spoken language. He presents a comparison of cave art from Chauvet and Lascaux with hauntingly similar sketches drawn decades ago by precisely such a child, an autistic girl of 3 years and 5 months named Nadia.

Humphrey's point is not to suggest that cave art was drawn by such a mind, but that the comparison to Nadia's work "tells us something important about what we should not assume about the mental capacities of cave artists." Nadia's psychologists discovered that she had a strong lack of conceptualization of the world around her. She couldnÍt characterize common objects in similar categories, but she sure could draw a running horse as she saw it in her mind's eye. She did this only for herself, not to share with others, but after intensive speech coaching, she stopped drawing spontaneously and lost much of her artistic style.

My personal realization about the parallels between primitive art and photography came in 1984 when I, too, unknowingly made an image hauntingly similar to ancient rock art I hadnÍt seen. After failing to get close enough for a portrait of elusive Siberian ibex in the Karakoram Himalaya, even with my 600mm lens and 2X teleconverter, I decided to work toward creating my best impression of the whole herd. Aware that a 1200mm image would lose almost all perspective and three-dimensionality, I waited with lens and camera braced solidly on rocks until the ibex were standing still and graphically profiled against a steep slope. Of a roll of one-second exposures, only a single frame had all the animals unblurred.

Days later, I came across a rock carving of ibex profiles that took my breath away. At least a millennium earlier and in a more archival medium than my yet-to-be-processed Kodachrome, there before me was the scene I had just conceived and photographed. I photographed the work of the unknown, primitive artist to remind both myself and future workshop students how similar the results of heartfelt pursuit of essential, enduring features of the wild Earth can be, regardless of the medium.

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