“Discard This Print” and further struggles with landscape photography.

This is my final for Surface studio. It is a piece called “Discard This Print”

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“Self Referential meta-narrative”
That was essentially the final assignment we were given for surface class. We had to make a piece which was self-aware, more or less. A piece which explored the idea of representation, a piece which challenged the viewer to consider the value of image, the process by which the image was created and the reasons for creation of the image. It can most easily be described as creating a “scene within a scene”, that is, a narrative deeper than the narrative of the scene itself which is created by the scene.

This was a difficult assignment.

In preparing for the assignment, I repeatedly asked myself the question, “why does one take a picture, and what does taking a picture mean?” I felt like if I could adequately unpack these questions and evoke the same questions in the mind of the viewer, I would have made a successful piece.

After mucking through a variety of boring and superficial ideas, I was getting frustrated. My boring idea couldn’t be shot until I was back home for Thanksgiving break and I took my frustration to studio to talk to my professor. She gave me some sound advice: “just show up and start working, ideas are revealed and clarified through work”. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but with a free Friday afternoon I decided to go shoot some landscapes.

The idea I had for the assignment was to write “I must make beautiful images” repeatedly onto a scrap of paper I had with me and stab it onto what I thought was a beautiful image. Literally, pierce the landscape with my frustrations in photography.

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The execution wasn’t perfect, and I had a nice long conversation with my prof about it. However the idea was good, I had the sort of mental flutter I’ve become slightly accustomed to when I hit “the idea”, which in the past has compelled me to a 14 foot print or to walk 30 miles. This “the idea” pertained to the thoughts I was having on landscape photography. Specifically, I got the idea of taking a print back into the environment in which it was shot and kind of trashing it.

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The final image is one of frustration over photography’s incapability of capturing experience. The use of a black and white image in the midst of a color landscape is an allusion to traditional grand landscape photography, ala Ansel Adams. It’s a discarding of the sublimity which those images sought to create in the images themselves in favor of the sublimity of the landscape and experience. It’s actually almost a dismissal of photography in general in favor of experience, which is perhaps a bit strong and not entirely what I want to say. Which, leads to the ramblings I have on landscape photography.

Ansel at 111
I suppose the strongest testament to Adams’ work, at least personally, is that his images are still awe inspiring to me. I was looking through Yosemite and the Range of Light yesterday, which is an oversize book of reproductions of some of Adams’ best work done in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. I’ve seen Clearing Winter Storm scores, if not hundreds of times, yet seeing that large reproduction of it, laid out on the page in all its detail and precision, never fails to give me pause just to simply enjoy the immense craft of the image.

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Very little landscape photography has this effect on me any more, and I cannot for the life of me figure out if it’s because no one’s doing it as well as Ansel did it or because it’s just a dead horse so thoroughly beaten that the satisfaction I’m deriving from Adams’ work is some deeply instilled sentiment and respect for him being the first to do formal landscapes so well, but that his work has been matched or exceeded in quality repeatedly.

Regardless, I feel that in the current state of the artistic and the photographic world, simply striving to create beautiful images for the sake of themselves is an artistically boring exercise. I think I once thought that it was simply a matter of creating images so beautiful that their beauty was the meaning, that the images simply became a testament to the intense beauty that is found in nature. I think that if this was ever possible, the awareness of the image and its imperfection along with awareness of artistic context which comes as a result of the postmodern era has made this impossible.

“Enjoy the land, but own it not”
This is a quote from Thoreau’s Walden. I suppose it was inevitable in trying to get as wrapped up as I want to be in landscape and the Earth that I would stumble into transcendentalism. This quote in particular stuck out to me because it helped frame landscape photography as this act of trying to tame the landscape, to condense the landscape, and in a strange way, to own the landscape.

I think that trying to create an image so beautiful that it is an undeniable testament to the glory of nature is foolish for two reasons. First, beauty in art is incredibly subjective, and even beauty in nature is somewhat subjective. Secondly and perhaps most significantly is that photography does not serve as even a remote proxy for nature. It’s a subtle but important distinction; when attempting to make a beautiful image of nature, you are trying to create beauty where there is not in the form of a photo from the material of light and subsequent manipulation. Therefore, it is impossible to create a photograph which is as beautiful as the experience of nature, or at least beautiful in the same way.

Ultimately, I’m not interested in creating beautiful images as much as I am experiencing and communicating the sublimity I’ve found in nature.

It may seem like a simple thing, but for me this discovery is the sort of culmination and breaking of the mindset that an artistically sound approach to landscape photography is to refine my craft to the point of, or at least nearer than anyone else has been to being able to capture the Platonic beauty of any given scene. I dreamed of being able to capture the fundamental beautiful essence of a landscape, but that now seems impossible by definition.

Discard This Print
This photograph is a representation of this revelation. It’s not so much letting go of my enjoyment of others who subscribe to the approach of trying to create sublime in photographs, it’s more about letting go of my personal goal of creating significant artwork in this vein of thought contrary to modern trends.

Where I want my landscape photography practice to dwell now is in some territory which examines the modern and historical conventions of landscape photography. Perhaps it will be an examination of our current relationship with the landscape via the image of the landscape, perhaps it will be a criticism of our alienation from the landscape and the attempt to use an image as the substitute.

I’m not sure exactly what kind of work I want to make from this point forward. I know only two things. One is that I want my work to revolve around captivating imagery. Whatever my work ends up being, I want it to be something that is visually engaging to the layman, and I hope to still communicate my ideas without necessitating some lengthy artist statement or explanation. Secondly I know that I’ve got that feeling in my brain, that “mental flutter” that I’m onto something here worth exploring.

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