In art, we share something of ourselves with the world. The creation of art, perhaps, is the most personal and subjective means we have of communicating a part of ourselves through creative use of our chosen media. Ultimately, though, in order for such communication to be effective, it must transcend the literal subject matter and the tools and processes of a given medium in order to convey something of our own making. One of the greatest challenges to an artist working in the medium of landscape photography is that our work often is judged on its aesthetic merits alone. In other words, viewers of landscape photographs often seek a mere documentary portrayal of beautiful feats of nature, without a personal narrative attached.
Regrettably, the fault is not with viewers alone. Many photographers, in fact, stop short of expressing their own narrative in their work, thereby setting the expectation that it does not exist. Rather than taking the time to explore and interpret the landscapes that are meaningful to us in a personal way, often we go to great efforts and expense to pursue ones that objectively are beautiful, but about which we know little and have little to say. This is the primary reason I am not a travel photographer; I do not want to photograph from the point of view of an outsider. I like working in places that are familiar to me intimately and about which I have personal stories to tell.
One example for such lack of narrative is the perplexing question often posed by photographers to their audience and peers: do you prefer this image in colour or black and white? The very nature of the question indicates that the photographer simply is seeking an aesthetic judgment rather than deliberately choosing a narrative most befitting what they wish to express, which no-one other than they can decide.
Similarly silly, are the ongoing arguments about which medium, colour or black and white, is “better” or “more artistic”. Art is not a by-product of chromaticity; art is the expression of the mind of the artist. Different artists express themselves in different media, and sometimes in more than one. Someone trained as a painter rarely will choose to express their view of the world in a marble statue in addition to paint on canvas. Then again, someone like Michelangelo may do both because they are fluent equally in the language of both disciplines. A writer fluent in one language may not render their next novel in another, but a multi-lingual one may. The choice has no bearing on the importance or quality of the work.
I have been bi-lingual for most of my life. For me, being able to work in both color and black and white media is not dissimilar to the way I communicate verbally. The choice of language, for me, is a by-product of the stories I wish to tell and the audience I wish to reach. In all cases, it is my own deliberate choice. If a story better lends itself to black and white, I use black and white. If an experience is conveyed best in color, I use color. And, if a narrative is more compelling in written words, I may not photograph it at all, but write it down.
Fluency in one or more media is no guarantee of producing meaningful work. The meaning comes from the mind, not from the tools. Do not leave it to others to decide an important part of your story.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 24 of Landscape Photography Magazine.