Emotion in landscape photography

Above the Cascade du Verneau

Above the Cascade du Verneau

Visit a random landscape photographer’s website and the chances are that somewhere the photographer will make the claim that he or she is trying to evoke the emotions in the viewer that were felt at the time of taking the picture. Whilst you can’t really argue with what a person might feel, it does strike me that the emotions expressed by the associated images are generally of a very similar nature – usually in the direction of awe, wonderment, elation. Now we are all different and, presumably, feel different things when confronted by a landscape so how come so many photographers seek to express the same limited range of emotions? Where’s rage, disappointment, humour, sadness, fear, etc., etc.? Aren’t these also valid emotions?

I do wonder if perhaps people are expressing what they think they are ‘supposed’ to feel rather than their actual emotions. I get angry if I see litter in a natural environment, for example. Sometimes I feel frustration if the weather conditions are uncooperative or maybe my mood might be affected by other things occurring in my life or by certain unexpressed needs or even, subconsciously, by childhood memories.

Take the above image. On one level it’s about abstract geometry (this was uppermost in my mind as I was composing it – I was struck by how the tree-trunk seemed to mirror and connect with the lines of the rock strata from certain angles) but dig a little deeper and the tranquil greens and reflected blues of the sky convey the overwhelming sense of peace and security that I find comes from being in a forest – especially on a hot summer’s day! And the little indentation in the rock, lower right, even puts me in mind of how I liked to explore such natural cavities as a child so there’s a sense of nostalgia, too.

Of course, none of this was consciously occupying my thoughts as I concentrated on technicalities but I certainly feel it informed my choice of subject and how I approached it. This is why I never make the claim that I seek to reproduce my emotions in an image because I actually don’t. It just sort of happens when I let the environment I find myself in and the whims of my subconscious dictate my subject-matter.

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5 Responses to Emotion in landscape photography

  1. Mike Green says:

    Interesting thoughts, Jools. Do you not think that there are actually a fair few photographers who at least attempt to generate more varied emotions, sometimes including sadness, rage, etc.? I certainly concur that the /typical/ image on sharing sites probably goes for elation, wonderment, etc., but that’s surely not the only intended (or unintended), generated emotion? Still, I take your general point that many people creating images will tend to compose in such a way as to create the ‘normal’, positive emotions.

    On this particular image, whether you intended it or not, you certainly produced several of the same feelings in me as you say you felt when capturing it, with the exception of the indentation, which I only thought of in that way after you mentioned it here; at least, only consciously – who knows whether there was something sub-conscious going on there!

    Perhaps your objection is specifically that some people (most!) /claim/ that they are ‘…trying to evoke the emotions…’, etc.? I’m sure I’ve been ‘guilty’ of that at some point 😉 If so, I certainly agree. Like you, I think the images I make *reflect* how I felt when capturing them and then working on them, but that’s a result of the process, rather than a conscious effort. So, yes, in that context I think the idea of ‘trying to evoke’ is somewhat fanciful.


    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your reasoned (as ever) response.

      Of course there are a fair few photographers who seek to evoke emotions beyond the usual – even in the landscape genre – and their work is much more interesting (to me, anyway) as a result.

      What I was getting at is more a sceptical view that photographers claiming to imbue their images with the emotions they were feeling at the time are maybe being a wee bit disingenuous when often what is happening is that they are rolling up to a location chosen in advance, at a time when they know the light will be ideal for a certain sort of landscape image and then setting up while their thoughts are occupied with decisions regarding gear, exposure, composition, etc. And I’m not sure it’s an amateur/pro thing either – the names Peter Lik and Michael Fatali come instantly to mind.

  2. In my world-weary cynical opinion, there’s a huge after the event (to be polite) element in all this “evoking emotions” and “seeking to inspire” stuff that pops up in 99% of landscape photography writing & interviews. Collectively, we tend to be a pretty pompous bunch compared to other photographic categories. The one and only photographer I know of who convincingly writes about landscape photography on a philosophical, analytical level is David Ward.

    I fully agree with your reply to Mike, but I’d spell “disingenuous” starting with “bu..” and ending with “..it” 🙂

    The main emotions that I would generally be projecting at the time of the average landscape photo session would include wondering when it’s time for breakfast, swearing at myself for not bringing THAT filter, blind panic at nearly falling in the river, etc. After the event I might sometimes have a mild feeling of satisfaction, bit more frequently I would be wondering just what I need to go to get enough depth of field. Or how many comments I’m going to get on Flickr.

    Really, I think people have visual, visceral, non-verbal reactions to visual inputs, and that’s fine. And everybody reacts in different ways. This is also why, going back to the On Landscape debate of a few months back, I personally avoid meaningful titles on my photos, generally, to avoid steering people towards any given interpretation. In fact, the best compliment I can receive on a photo goes along the lines of “I like it, but I don’t know WHY I like it”. Then I know it worked.

    • Yes, Mr. Ward does seem to have cornered the market in inspirational photographic writing. 😉 That said, Guy Tal is also pretty good.

      To be honest, this post was really kicked off by re-reading that thread on OnLandscape you refer to. It struck a few chords! I agree there is a lot of nonsense talked about landscape work. On the other hand, I genuinely feel that if you approach a location with an open mind and let subjects find you, rather than going there with a fixed idea of what you want to come away with, then there is more chance that your subconscious will reveal itself in the final images.


  3. Werner Meier says:

    Some people try to get hold of the momentaneous emotions by means of a picture and then are be disappointed, when these thoughts fade away or are not recognised by other viewers of that same picture. I agree with the author: The picture should stand for itself – if it does evoke something, the better. A good picture is able to develop in the eye of the viewer.

    Why is it so hard to express emotions other than elation, peace, grandeur and the like in landscape photography? Because nature does rarely cheat, seldom is jealous, humourous or sad etc. – these are rather human attributions. To catch such expressions, photographers would probably look in other genres.

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