Pictures like this one from Iceland trigger a feeling of reverence at the sheer scale of natural beauty, the absence or relative insignificance of human impact, and the presence of silence or peace that exists independent of human concerns. But what is it about the sense of wide space and vast scale that induces feelings of numinous presence in that moment? Places that attract landscape photographers seem to be in the far reaches of Wales, highland Scotland, Iceland and northern extremes of other parts of Scandinavia; or on the opposite hemisphere in Patagonia, southern Chile and Argentina, New Zealand. Unlike places between 45 degrees north and 45 degrees south of the equator, these more extreme angles on the Earth’s surface give great shadow definition to show depth and distances. And very often there is a relative absence of human intervention (at first glance, at least; global warming affects on flora and fauna aside).
The appeal of a shot sometimes lies in spotlighting a subject, either by depth of field (boke), color, lighting, composition (foregrounding, silhouette, cropping, contrasting subject or design feature). But other times such a singular representation misses the important connect of subject to its context – either the visible one present contemporaneous to the shutter release, or the unseen one that an experienced eye will know to be implied in the short, medium, or long time horizon; for example, the bud implied the flower and perhaps fruit to follow. Or the old fashioned oil painting still life compositions showing wilted flowers, bitten fruit, perhaps a beetle or skull which symbolized or themselves were consequences of unstated, unseen forces and facts of life. This screenshot from the 6 may 2015 edition of https://www.flickr.com/explore shows both kinds of image – splendid isolation and whole scenes that may tell a story or at least episode unfolding, but here frozen in time.
Daily browsing the http://flickr.com/explore selection of featured photos, my eye is drawn to certain images more than others. Thinking more about this it seems like there are several layers of meaning that separate the viewer from the moment and location of capturing the subject.
Wanton alteration of the subject by use of filters, distortion or exaggeration by choice of lens focal length (or possibly the exaggerating of bokeh when selecting especially wide-open aperture) special effects, time-lapse or blurring by means of slow shutter speed distract me from the subject itself and detract from the communication process of identifying, understanding, and possibly empathizing with the subject. Post-processing or in-camera adjustment to clarify, focus or convey the context for the subject, however, achieve the opposite effect; not interfering, obscuring or separating me from the subject, but instead making it easier to grasp or grapple with.
So the question remains: what is it about an image that draws your attention (by itself or together with multiple elements). Is it an interest in the place, person, thing, or event? Or is the appeal more about the quality of light-as-subject: the ‘blue hour’ (before sunrise/sunset; crepuscular times) or about the ‘golden light’ (an hour or two after the sun’s appearance when shadows are long, and again 1-2 hours prior to sun setting). Or is it a trick of technique in-camera or post-processing? It can be hard enough to gain a clear understanding of a subject by itself, without drawing attention to the quality of light or the clever techniques that cause some fascination outside of normal waking vision. So while creative juices may continue to test the many added features and tools provided by software and hardware, my own purpose will be to convey a subject something similar to the experience of the human eye: I favor stitched panoramas using a ‘normal’ lens (angle of view found in 35mm equivalent to 35-65mm lens).
Browsing the daily batch of editor picks at http://flickr.com/explore it is easy to scroll through in search of images that strike an emotional chord, resonant with something unarticulated, or feeling the spark of recognition that something important is conveyed.
So why does it matter that we make and seek images? There are many motivations, but they seem to share a desire to uncover something new: either a scene from a place never visited or subject unfamiliar, or more abstractly, to learn something true that was hidden or unreachable until the light and composition framed the matter just so. Perhaps a simple pleasure in delighting in texture, pattern, color and other elements of composition is reason enough to matter; to satisfy a certain hunger for things tangible in the present or historically, thanks to old photos. In sum, the search for beautiful places, things, people, events and so on matters because it moves us. Like the word roots of e+motion, emotion, an expressive moment has the power to show us something we did not know or see until then; or to remind of something we already knew but had forgotten.