In his Truth And Landscape essay, Robert Adams suggested that images of the landscape are either geography, autobiography or metaphor. Geographical images, he argued can be boring, autobiographical images are often trivial, and metaphorical images can be dubious. I was somewhat reminded of this during a recent trip to Utah.
After dragging myself out of bed at some ungodly hour I drove for an hour to Canyonlands National Park in Utah to join the throng of other folks who had the same ridiculous idea I had to line up at Mesa Arch to capture the moment when the sun crests the horizon drawing back the curtains to reveal a new day. Although the idea sounds poetic and an ideal opportunity to combine geography with metaphor and add a splash of autobiography, it dawned on me that whatever story I crafted would be indistinguishable from any penned by my comrades as we stood patiently, waiting for the conductor to make his appearance.
As it happens, it never happened. I never got to hear the synchronized click of shutter releases, indicating the moment had arrived. Instead I heard sighs of “maybe tomorrow”. The sun hid behind a bank of clouds and the day simply woke up, slowly. Within thirty minutes of sunrise, as if an urgent message had been sent out that breakfast was being served somewhere the entire line up of about 50 people packed up and left. I didn’t get that message and watched as a single line was formed and everyone marched out, like a pack of ants. I now had the whole place to myself. I could no longer hear the sounds of foreign voices chattering – they were replaced with the sound of the wind, gently rusting the leaves on the juniper trees and I also began to smell the sweet scent of the desert from the rainstorm the night before. As my senses awakened and connected to my surroundings I began to look at what was in front of me in a different way.
In another of his essay’s (Making Art New) Robert Adams argued that the old job of art is the discovery and revealing of meaning from within the confusing detail of life. Surrounded by a mass of people it was impossible to form any connection with the landscape. My senses were simply not in tune with the raw beauty that I was amongst. It was only once I was alone that I was able to explore and discover. And there was an amazing amount of beauty waiting patiently to be revealed. And no, it wasn’t the cliche “I am over here” scenes that scream in your face at this amazing location, but rather the details that sit quietly, awaiting discovery. I sat for a while just looking and allowed my mind to fill itself with my surroundings and when I felt sufficiently grateful for the moment I asked if I could start taking my photographs. I allowed myself a moment to imagine my comrades from that morning kicking back after filling themselves with pancakes, planning their next cliche shot. I said my thanks and quietly walked back to the car.
I was grateful for this opportunity as it made me realize how easy it is to focus on the sum of the performance rather than its individual parts. The landscape is like a master conductor, orchestrating a performance that combines the nuances of individual instruments to create the whole. But it is only when we are sensitized to the performance that we can explore the subtleties of that which contributes. If we focus only on the whole we also allow the landscape to orchestrate our actions, meaning we point our lenses in a particular direction at a given time of day and under specific lighting conditions. Capitulation often results in a simple statement about geography that says little about our connection to the scene and, as Adams suggests, often results in images that are boring. The artist fancies himself / herself as the conductor, teasing out the subtleties of the parts that make up the collective whole, revealing form and meaning through our connection with the subject.