Jan Zwilling • Capturing Landscape Essence Part II

Techniques of abstraction and ‘essence’ may seem like difficult concepts to apply to photography, but Jan Zwilling explains how these topics are fundamental

I have been using spatial terms such as ‘place’, ‘region’ or ‘environment’ throughout this article without explicitly pointing the way in which the aspect of scale is greatly significant for the topic. Let me explain why I believe it is vital to think about scale: firstly, one must realise the proportion of the spatial unit that one wants to capture the essence of and, secondly, the choice is whether to capture it in a wide-angle view or by selecting smaller parts – fragments, ingredients – to actively direct the viewer’s attention to what one believes is most characteristic about the place.

The first question is actually very difficult because there are so many possible answers. The larger the spatial unit becomes, the more challenging it becomes to distil the defining features out of it because a broad contemplation about the essence has to materialise on smaller scale within the reach of something you can actually photograph. So, finding the most common or typical features of a region, a country, a group of countries or even a continent is a daunting task that will result in emphasising some features and leaving out others. Sandra Bartocha and Werner Bollmann did choose one of these daunting tasks and started the search for the essence of Scandinavia (which included four countries in their reading). The inevitable answer to this challenge was a series of photographs, or even more precisely a collection of six series of photographs. Each series concentrates on an ecosystem (tundra, forests and so on) that they consider essential to the sub-continent. This is the only serious way to achieve it with a place this large, but if one seeks to capture the essence of Svalbard, the essence of Milford Sound, or even the essence of the small patch of virgin beech forest at your backdoor, one might be able to do it with a small series of photos or even with a single photograph. No matter how small the place becomes, composing all the essential features into one frame and shooting it at a single moment in time remains the ...

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