Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps, is the most prolific of Western philosophers on the topic of art. In his mind, art is a means of coping with the chaos, tragedy and imperfection that are the true nature of reality and, as such, makes life itself not only tolerable, but also meaningful and noble. Beyond random observations on art and its role, Nietzsche also sought to understand the minds of artists. Among his many profound and pithy observations, he offered that “the essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
Gratitude is what allows us to venture beyond the mechanical act of creating images, making the very experience of engaging in the creative process rewarding in its own right, and independent of any outcome. It is a distinction often lost on those yet to have their first taste of it.
When we are thankful for simply being, experiencing, appreciating and enjoying what we do, something magical happens. Not only do we value the experience ourselves, but our images also carry some of it in them. If all photographs have the power to capture the appearance of a moment in time, photographs created from gratitude can venture beyond mere appearances and encapsulate in them the essence of the photographer’s thoughts and feelings.
It takes little more than time and money to produce images of spectacular beauty and technical perfection; yet, after decades of creating and viewing landscape photography on a daily basis, I find that I am no longer impressed or moved by yet more takes on the same subjects, not even ones adorned in perfect golden light or sprinkled with rainbows, star trails or the Milky Way, yet lacking in any personal narrative. All too often such images strike me as showcasing skill, technique and tools, rather than relating to the honest experience of a fellow human with an expressive mind and a sensitive heart. These days, I seek the quiet, soulful, intimate imagery that speaks to the mindset and sensibilities of artists in love and in harmony with their subjects, as well as their tools.
It starts in the simple admission that, on the whole, none of us matters to any great degree; that our work merely serves to elevate our own life, and the lives of those we are able to touch, and some day will be forgotten. Rather than the preoccupation with the greatness of our skills, our technology, and our ability to control our environment, it is worth sometimes to remember that we are but tiny blips in the astoundingly complex and beautiful tapestry of nature, and that the greatest goal we can set for ourselves is the knowledge that we have used our painfully short lives in the best possible way. In our desire to comply, to fit in, to follow fashions, and to keep up with our peers, it is important not to lose the most important things of all: to live meaningfully, to find joy and contentment not just in what we have, but in who we are; to create not for our own glory but so we can grow and learn, and help others do the same.
Humility is the fertile soil for a grateful mind; and a grateful mind, beyond any tool or technique you may own or master, is the engine of creativity and emotion that manifest in meaningful art.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 22 of Landscape Photography Magazine.