Updated: Jun 21, 2018
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I love about the style of photography that I do, and naturally, that’s led to thinking about what I don’t love about certain elements of it.
Sadly, a lot of that thinking has been precipitated by social media - particularly Instagram, but also some Facebook photography groups I’m part of. Generally this line of thinking has followed on from seeing yet another shot of the undeniably beautiful Skógafoss in Iceland, or Hallstatt in Austria, or Trolltunga in Norway.
Here's a sample of Instagram's #trolltunga offerings.
I’m not saying this to begrudge those who photograph these locations. They are eminently photographable, and incredible places to have been to and experienced first hand. Photographs of these beautiful landscapes are what inspires me to get outdoors, explore our awesome world, and it’s what I love the most about landscape photography.
In fact, I took a trip to Hallstatt earlier this year in baltic conditions to photograph that famous viewpoint, and I can honestly say it really is the epitome of postcard-perfect. It was a small detour on a wider Alps trip I was on, and when you’re in the neighbourhood of a renowned beautiful mountain village, it’s just rude not to pay it a visit!
I had reservations about going to Hallstatt, mostly because of the gargantuan cliche that view has become. I told myself I wasn't even going to share the photograph I planned to take - it would be one for me to enjoy, maybe print for my own home. Or at least, that's what I told myself.
The time I spent in Hallstatt was an eye-opener. During my daytime recce (I needed to check out parking, which is notoriously difficult in Hallstatt), the tiny village was overrun with literal bus-loads of tourists. The locals were notably irritable (compared to the incredibly kind and generous Austrians I had met up until that point), and people jostled for position to snap their selfies in front of the view. At that moment, Hallstatt felt stressful, loud, and almost hostile.
During the day it was so bad that I didn’t even stop and take my camera out. The midday light was not what I was planning on anyway, so I decided to return in the evening after the sun had started to dip below the mountains.
The contrast between midday and 5pm was incredible. Most of the day-trippers had gone home, and it was only me and one other photographer waiting for the blue hour to work its magic.
With the mania of the daytime over, Hallstatt became magical. I could feel and appreciate the serenity and beauty of this remote location, I could hear the deafening silence in the valley, only broken by the train skirting the lake shore opposite. I was able to actually connect with that landscape, to communicate with the scene in front of me. I stood still, soaking that feeling up, for a long time.
I can look at the photograph I made that day and I feel the emotion that goes with having had a real experience in a place. I look at that image and I feel the cold, the scale of those mountains and how tiny I felt. I feel at once how exposed humans are in the unforgiving Alps, and how humans try to tame them by building shelters in these beautiful but unlikely habitats.
It’s up to me to communicate that with whoever looks at my photographs, but using no words, only the photographs I have chosen to take. How does the colour make you feel? What about those mountains? What does the landscape say? Where is it… why is it? That is the work of a photographer, and we don’t always hit the mark, but we should always be striving for that end. A photograph is a jumping off point for a conversation or a feeling.
If I had taken that photo at midday, surrounded by selfie sticks, the warmth of the midday sun overpowering the cold blueness of the air, then my take on that famous view wouldn’t have served the story I was hoping to tell, or reflected on what that place had made me feel. It would have been a beautiful shot, for sure, but it wouldn't have been saying what I wanted it to say.
In this new age of photography and social media, we are saturated with imagery of beautiful places. The question is, is it enough to simply document the beauty in front of you, or do you want to employ colour, framing, composition and mise en scène to help tell the story of this photograph?
I absolutely hope to visit Iceland, Norway, Banff and the Dolomites and all the other places that have become part of that Instagram catalogue of destinations, but I will be looking for places within those landscapes that I connect with, places that tell a story of how that scene made me feel. I'll try to find places that I haven't seen photographed a million times before. Most importantly, I’ll look for the corners of the world that allow me to reflect on humanity’s relationship with the landscape, because in all the years I’ve been exploring the world with my camera, those are the photographs that speak the most to me.
Landscape, nature and travel photography could be a simple case of moving through the world, capturing postcard-perfect shots, but when you find something that helps you tell your own story, now that’s when photography becomes art.
Go make art.