Viewpoints

Patterns in the Landscape

'River Rock Pools'
'River Rock Pools'
Photographing patterns and details in the landscape has been considered by many photographers to be second fiddle to the main event – the ‘vista’. Whilst some photographers ignore making such images, perhaps because of their lack of commercial appeal, others exhibit ‘details’ (as they are called) as adjuncts to the traditional vista – useful ways of showing the richness and depth of a place, but merely as additional records of a location, not images that stand alone in their own right. This is encouraged by the tendency of publishers to commission books based on places.

Of course, looking back more deeply at the work of past masters, there is a strong tradition of making images that reveal the beauty of patterns in the landscape. For example, Ansel Adams’s images ‘Boards and Thistles’ or ‘Frozen Lake and Cliffs’ are magnificent examples.

'Where River Meets Sea'
'Where River Meets Sea'
In recent years there has been quite a significant movement, at least in British landscape photography, to seek to elevate the simple ‘detail’ into a work of art in its own right and place it on an equal footing with the vista. (For examples see the work of photographers like David Ward, Anna Booth, Melanie Foster and Nigel Halliwell). I have known these photographers, like me, to eschew the option of a vista in magnificent light for the delight and satisfaction of a carefully constructed ‘inner landscape’ image.

The challenge posed to the photographer by this form of image making is how to create an image that elevates itself above being a mere record of a place or object into the realm of art; something that ‘connotes more than it denotes’ as David Ward would say; something that creates a whole world within the space of a few feet or inches that has the ability to suck the viewer in and hold their attention.

Like so many other forms of photography, the crux of successful image making is the genuine passion and delight of the photographer for his subject – in this case the myriad patterns, shapes and colours that exist in the landscape.

'Layers of Time'
'Layers of Time'
When you take the time to look, remarkable patterns abound: some are ancient and seemingly timeless, the product of millions of years of geological processes; others are shaped through weathering or organic growth; yet more are transient and recent, like ice or mud patterns. Still more are created by the hand of man or the endeavour of animals and insects. Some only appear at certain times of the day or year. Most need certain lighting conditions to make them reveal their best. Colour, texture, lines and form - in short magnificent, beautiful patterns - can be found even in the most mundane of places where the photographer might otherwise never be inspired to make an image.

'The Claw'
'The Claw'
I have found beautiful and remarkable patterns in the landscape on beaches, in cliff faces, in streams and rivers, on open moorland, half way up mountains and in woods. I’m sure I’m not alone in getting that buzz of excitement when I first recognise the potential of such a subject and I start the process or ‘journey’ of carefully constructing the image and realising my vision on film.

Composition is ascendant in the process for making images of patterns in the landscape. ‘Portrait pictures’ of patterns rarely have lasting interest. The best have a superficial ‘wow’ factor, but there is usually very little in the image to sustain the viewer’s attention. For example, repeating patterns may be eye catching at first sight, but very quickly they become tiresome, ‘wallpaper’ like. In addition, it is very easy for images to suffer from too much detail, be too cluttered.

Photography differs from painting in one important respect; it is a process of elimination not addition. The photographer works as hard to eliminate objects from the viewfinder as he does to include them. He has, quite literally, to decide where to draw the line. What to include or exclude from the frame? Should that leaf or seaweed be in the frame? Can it be exluded by moving the camera or should it be subject to a spot of ‘gardening’? The hardest challenge to overcome is how to make order and structure out of what can be chaotic and cluttered. The painter can chose to not paint something to help make sense of the landscape. Or indeed choose to paint something that was not there. The photographer has to work hard to create a composition that works.

Patterns in the landscape can be either simple or complex, but nevertheless when they are composed into a strong image the result is ordered and balanced. The photographer has tamed the chaotic characteristics of nature to his own ends.

'Red Rock and Water'
'Red Rock and Water'
The best of these images have what I call an ‘inner dynamic’. The elements of the image are arranged in such a way that the eye is drawn around the picture – directed even. The eye feasts on the magnificent, interesting shapes, forms and colours; quite often connected by lines of the greatest quality. The viewer’s eye is never allowed to leave the picture, and quite often it doesn’t want to. Joe Cornish describes this feature in images as the 'eye going on a dance around the image' and that is an excellent description. The effect is almost hypnotic.

I remember the first time I achieved this inner dynamic in an image; as I studied the result it was a complete revelation. It does not happen by accident very often. Achieving it in a composition has now become a major criteria in the process of deciding whether or not to press the shutter, or indeed in the case of large format photography, whether or not to setup. I let my eye be pulled around by the potential picture. Does the composition achieve the 'inner dynamic' I am looking for?

'Birds Eye View'
'Birds Eye View'
It has often been remarked that there seems to be a similarity or parallel between the twin art forms of photography and music, and nowhere is this more apparent then in inner landscape images. In the best images, the elements of the picture have an internal harmony that seems to work on the brain like music. Adams remarked on this similarity when writing about some of his images, especially the inner landscapes, though he stopped short of arguing for a parallel between the art forms.

'Sand and Rock'
'Sand and Rock'
Virtually all effective composition in photography (and music) is about creating and repeating patterns that make the brain sing. Any successful image can be reduced to the underlying structure of the relationship between its main elements – its inherent pattern. Once a pattern is understood or learnt, the human brain is remarkably adapt at spotting the same pattern in what otherwise might be a chaotic scene. Whether or not this is an evolutionary result of our days dodging lions, tigers and bears, it is nevertheless very powerful and well developed. For example, chess masters are particularly adept at recognising patterns on the chess board which enable them to compete against computers capable of billions of calculations a second.

In music, the ‘dominant fifth’ relationship or interval between two chords has been shown time and time again to be a successful pattern. For example, the chord sequence or ‘pattern’ running D7, G7 and C appears over and over again in music, as do other strong patterns. Musicians (‘composers’) take chord sequences from one piece of music and transpose them to another with a different accompanying melody. Thus they compose a ‘new’ or at least a ‘different’ piece of music.

'Glen Etive Waterfall'
'Glen Etive Waterfall'
As it is in music, so it is in photography. It is possible to transpose a pattern that works from one image to another scene or location and arrange the main elements into a similar pattern. With practice, organising or constructing the scene becomes instinctive – the pattern seems to be wired into your subconscious. Sometimes, it is an entirely new pattern. More often than not, it is a pattern that has worked before. It is instructive to look at a wider portfolio of one particular photographer and see how often quite similar patterns emerge in quite different images. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I share a similar passion for music as I do for photography, as I know a number of other landscape photographers do.

To illustrate this most vividly, the images 'Sand and Rock' and 'Glen Etive Waterfall' are very similar compositions - the pattern is almost identical. Transpose the rock for the waterfall and you will see what I mean.

When you understand the importance of patterns to effective composition, it becomes clear that the so called ‘rules of composition’ are ever so laughable and restrictive. In composition, there are no rules; but there are endless patterns which have the ability to work their magic on the brain. Part of the whole fun and indeed skill of photography is developing the vision to see these patterns in the landscape.

'Curls of Grass'
'Curls of Grass'
Inner landscape images are great places to develop the photographer's repertoire of patterns for the simple expedient that it is hard work to keep changing the relationship between four elements in a scene when they are two mountains, a lake and a cumulus cloud. It is much easier to experiment when you need only move a matter of inches to significantly change any element of the composition. A major bi-product of working on ‘inner landscape’ images, assuming that you critically review your failures as well as your successes, is the exponential development of compositional skills compared to working purely on vistas.

Another advantage to selecting ‘patterns in the landscape’ as a subject is that more often than not the diffuse light found on cloudy days works best. This lighting helps to enhance strong colours and avoids unnecessary shadows that might over complicate the image. However there are circumstances when the low raking warm light of dawn or dusk works well. It is even possible to construct images that can work in direct sunlight.

'Scale Slot'
'Scale Slot'
Many of the most successful inner landscape images seem to construct a coherent world within the confines of the frame. The location does not really matter; the image’s success is less about the place that the photographer has worked in and more about the world that has been constructed or even invented inside the frame.

This is perhaps one of the reasons that many viewers initially don’t ‘get’ such images. They have become so used to photographs documenting places, events or people that when they can’t immediately see these things they switch off. Does this mean that there is no hope for such images? I think not. It may take education or explanation to open the mind initially, but once the door is open just a crack, understanding and appreciation becomes easier. And who knows, nature's patterns may eventually become as addictive to them as they are to me.

(c) Jon Brock 2009