Creativity vs. Excellence in Fine Art Landscape Photography
Good advice often given to aspiring photographers is to “find your style,” i.e., to create a distinct “look” to your work that sets you apart from other photographers and that is recognizable to viewers before they see your signature. In this piece, I want to discuss what I see as potential good advice as well as potential pitfalls for the unwary that may be lurking in the shadows around this conventional wisdom and how I deal with this issue in my own creative work.
Years ago, my first reaction to hearing this advice was to ask, “How the hell do I do that?” The advice was so vague as to amount to “be different.” How? “You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.” Gee, thanks!
When I got seriously into photography, I made an in-depth study of photographers whose work I admired such as Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham. Imogen was very clearly more experimental, including lengthy explorations of double exposures and combination photographs (prints incorporating parts of multiple negatives). Ansel was the consummate landscapist and environmentalist, channeling John Muir through his photographs of Yosemite and the High Sierra. Brett was the consummate modernist and abstractionist. Edward is best known for his still lifes and macro photos of shells, vegetables, and nature close-ups, especially from Point Lobos on the California coast near Carmel-by-the-Sea. Edward and Brett had extensive portfolios of nude figure studies, including Brett’s semi-abstract underwater nudes. Ansel never photographed a nude in his life as far as I can determine. Edward created a tremendous body of work in portraiture, though never receiving the acclaim he deserved. All four worked exclusively (or mostly) in black and white printing, and all four were members of the famed Group f.64, whose manifesto on realism vs. pictorialism was drafted by Ansel.
Thus, the most immediate differences I noticed among these four noted artists involved choices of subject matter, not technique. In terms of technique, they all subscribed to the f.64 mantra of great depth of field and sharp realism in their images.
Though I admire the work of these great photographers, my work is inspired by the earlier paintings of the Hudson River School (HRS) and Rocky Mountain School (RMS) artists such as Albert Bierstadt. As a result, the subject matter I am most drawn to is the grand scenic landscape of the American West and Southwest, and devotion to this subject matter and the HRS/RMS aesthetic is represented by a relatively large volume and by what I personally regard as the most important pieces of in my body of work. To be sure, my work includes other subjects, most notably what Ansel called “intimate landscapes” as well as abstract images from colorful slot canyons and dunescapes, just as Edward and Brett also photographed landscapes even though landscapes were not there central concern.
Here is the rub: I do a lot of my work in National Parks. National Parks are where we as a nation have preserved the best of the best of Western and Southwestern scenery—the most beautiful, awe-inspiring vistas—canyons, mountains, lakes, and waterfalls—think Grand Canyon, Lower Yellowstone Falls, Jackson Lake, the Grand Tetons, Yosemite Valley. Even the names of popular scenic viewpoints in the parks reveal their scenic and historical importance: Inspiration Point in Yosemite and Bryce Canyon, Artist Point in Yellowstone, and Mather Point (after Stephen Mather, Father of the National Park System) and Powell Point (after Col. John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Colorado River) at the Grand Canyon. These are popular places for Americans and foreign visitors to visit and the scenic views are iconic images of the American West and Southwest. They were also vitally important scenic locations for Rocky Mountain School artists Bierstadt, Moran, Hill, and Keith to visit and to immortalize in their grand landscape paintings in the 1850s to 1900. Their artistry was instrumental in the education of the American public at the time and the establishment of our National Park system, as well as establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Smithsonian art galleries in Washington, D.C., and their works are still displayed in these museums as well as in the United States Capitol Building.
So, as a fine art landscape photographer, how can one do justice to these great, iconic scenic views? How can one be original or creative with a photograph of the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley?
Many landscape photographers take the advice at the beginning of this article as an admonish not to even try. Indeed, one of the early portfolio critiques I received from a gallery owner was to make more photographs of nature scenes that would be unfamiliar to viewers, i.e., to stay away from the familiar, iconic scenes. I regard that advice as the conventional wisdom, a corollary to the advice at the beginning of this piece. Personally, I have never been a big fan of conventional wisdom—conventional anything, to be honest. Thoreau’s words ring closer to true for me, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Now, the irony of claiming this statement in support of photographing familiar, iconic scenery is not lost on me. But, yes, for my own case at least, I have chosen to go against conventional wisdom by consciously, purposefully directing a great deal of my time, effort, and financial resources toward photographing scenic views that are icons of the American West and Southwest. And I make no apology for doing so. These very locations are the most awe-inspiring, majestic, grand scenic locations in all of America. That’s exactly why they have been preserved and protected!
My second reason for photographing iconic locations, paradoxically, is that they are never the same two visits in a row. Not even the same at different times of the same day! Weather changes continually. The earth spins and the sun moves across the sky, continually changing the angle of light and shadow. No two photographs—even of the Grand Canyon or Mesa Arch—will be exactly the same due to changes in weather, light, and shadow. And seemingly small differences can produce dramatically different photographs. So I photograph the icons. Again and again.
So, where does this leave us with regards to Creativity and Excellence, the key words in the title of this thought piece? Doremus Scudder, another large format photographer whose black and white work I greatly respect, is also a professional opera singer. Doremus splits each year between Europe during opera season and photographing in his native U.S. Although I do not have a music background, I guess there are limits to creativity in singing two hundred year old operas, and the emphasis is on technical mastery and interpretation within directorial boundaries and tradition, and this influences Doremus’s approach to photography as well, because he said this about the subject at hand, and his comments resonate with me:
Originality is highly overrated.
Strive for excellence. Let yourself be inspired by and learn from work from the past that speaks to you and moves you. Do work that is important and meaningful for you and, if you are exceptional and in the right place at the right time, you'll be famous.
Trying to be different for its own sake is a dead end.
Let me try to illustrate this with some examples. Sometimes I come across what I perceive to be examples of photographers trying to be different for its own sake. For example, Mesa Arch and the view of the canyons and La Sal Mountains east of the arch is a classic scene for landscape photographers interested in Western Art.
Here is one classic view. The underside of the arch glows red with the reflected light of sunrise on the red sandstone below the arch and the glowing arch is used to frame the view through the arch—Washer Woman Monument and Monster Rock are silhouetted by the wintery fog, and the La Sal Mountains and eroded canyons in the basin below the arch are visible through the backlit haze of the early January morning:
And here is another photographer's composition of Mesa Arch.
This photo is obviously distorted by the extreme wide angle fisheye lens. And, while it is nice to see the whole arch and sky in context, the distortion is far too great for my taste.
In my opinion, the latter photo is an example of trying to be different for its own sake rather than taking the classic approach and striving for Excellence.
On the other hand, Scott Reither’s work, below, provides an example of a photographer who has developed a style—long exposures of oceans and lakes with a minimalist style—that is distinct and successful at creating photographs with calm moods. Here is his Gateway to the Sacred.
In my own work, I employ both the Creativity and the Excellence approaches, but with different subject matters. In my Hudson River School/Rocky Mountain School grand landscapes, I strive for Excellence over Creativity. Excellence in this series includes composition, choices in depth of field (full near-far sharpness vs. selective focus, including slightly shifting the focus forward to emphasize distance and romanticism in a background of clouds and/or mountains), time of day and both the quality of lighting and light and shadow angles and prominence, and cloud coverage and types of clouds. In contrast, when photographing intimate landscapes and abstracts, I can be more Creative because there are an infinite number of possibilities in terms of composition and choices for creative use of light and shadows, foreground, midground, and background elements, view camera movements, etc., and I am photographing subjects that are not already iconic views familiar to viewers.
Here are a few examples of each approach:
Classical Group f.64 extreme depth of field and sharpness, an example of Excellence over Creativity.
Here is another classic photograph emphasizing Excellence over Creativity. I used a slight amount of selective focus on the foreground to create a slightly ethereal, Romantic mood for Mt. Moran and clouds in the background.
Again, an emphasis on Excellence over Creativity, with a slight use of selective focus consistent with the dreamy quality of light and to support the distant views.
To sum up, Creativity and Excellence both have their places in fine are landscape photography, but like many of the tools of the trade, the best craftsmen know which tool to use as well as how and when.