Interpreting The Landscape

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Arrow Dynamic. The relationship that sand verbena have with dunes is truly remarkable. Somehow this hostile, wind-blasted environment is exactly where the delicate pink blossoms thrive. As someone who spends most of her time in wilderness environments, I felt a strong affinity for the small, vulnerable plant toughing it out in an inhospitable area.

Not every photographer can pinpoint specific moments in life that helped to steer their creative sensibilities. The development of a personal approach typically looks fairly messy in hindsight, and usually photographers experience a random progression more than anything especially deliberate. When it comes to tracing a creative trajectory, a photographer’s body of work often has to speak for itself. So, I may be something of an oddball in that I can credit my background as an art historian with some very specific experiences that directed my interests and methods as a photographer.

One of those experiences remains especially vivid in my memory as a formative moment. It occurred while I was still in graduate school studying the history of ancient Mediterranean art, a time when I frequently moonlighted as an assignment photographer to fund the camera gear that I needed for my academic work. Initially, I had the singular goal of producing a substantial archive of photos for my own teaching and research, but enough people in the academic world wanted bespoke photographs for their publications to keep me quite busy in a photography side business that became a slippery slope.

A Challenge Of Interpretation

Landscape photos in my portfolio started out primarily as views of ruins at archaeological sites, but frustration with access issues and tripod bans increasingly caused me to gravitate toward wilderness environments for my personal endeavors. For a long while, however, I continued to take every assignment that I could get. I enjoyed the free travel, and those new lenses that I wanted would have to pay for themselves somehow, I figured.

One of those assignments brought me to a reception room of a stately government building in Athens, Greece, where the director of one of the country’s most prestigious museums gave me five minutes of his time for an “interview.” The instructions that I had for the meeting were simple: get the necessary clearance to carry out my client’s wishes. He had arranged the meeting through his personal connections, and his high profile had gained me easy access to numerous museums and sites in the past. The director had recently instituted a strict policy against photography of any sort, and I was requesting permission to photograph a long list of antiquities using a professional camera and lighting gear.

To my great surprise, the director started out by saying that he did not see any good reason for me to be granted access for photography. All of the antiquities on my list had been documented thoroughly by some of the most famous German archaeological photographers of the 20th century, he noted. Technically superb photographs existed of each item, with all sides of each object rendered with the most descriptive lighting and the most objective focal lengths possible. With these excellent photographs readily available for licensing, why should there be any need for me to create new ones?

Image "Gold Rush" by Erin Babnik

Gold Rush. I’m probably not alone in seeing the form of a castle at the end of a road here. My imagination also cast the central, backlit tree in the role of a guard on lookout duty.

My reply to his very reasonable question came forth without any preparation because I had assumed that the meeting was merely a formality. Being caught utterly off guard, I was forced to think on my feet. After a moment of reflection, I remembered what my client had said about why he was sending me to Greece for this assignment. My photographs, he explained, helped to tell the stories of the objects. Thanks to my academic specialization, I understood what scholars of the day wanted to emphasize—what was historically and culturally relevant about the antiquities that I photographed. With all of the confidence that I could muster, I offered the director an example in response to his challenge. I replied, “Your bust of Alexander the Great is presented in those photographs at eye-level, but the original statue on its high base would never have been viewed from that angle. Photographed straight on, the forms of the face make Alexander look like a shy boy. Seen from below, however, your great king resembles a lion.” (Alexander’s “leonine” countenance was legendary in ancient literature, and, of course, the director knew this.)

Over the years, that urge toward interpretation has done a lot more for me than simply securing the occasional photography pass, as it did on that day in Athens. Learning to analyze images for art historical purposes has forever changed the way that I see the world. For better or worse, it has baked into me a habit of comparison and contextualizing that guides my interests and creative decisions. I cannot see a mountain, a tree or a grouping of flowers without thinking of them as abstract sculptures of a sort, characters in a setting that are waiting for me to tell their stories. The (happy) challenge for me is always to find photographic solutions for expressing whatever ideas nature’s elements might suggest. What was most significant about that meeting in Athens was the realization that it forced. Having articulated a photographic approach to the museum director, I suddenly had a key that seemed to unlock potential everywhere that I went with my camera.

Not long after that experience, I began making regular trips to the Dolomites of northern Italy as an antidote to the frustrations of photographing in highly controlled museums and archaeological parks. Out in the mountains, nobody would tell me that I was forbidden to use a tripod or that I had to limit my photography to the midday hours. In those days, the Dolomites were still relatively off the radar for most landscape photographers outside the region, so I rarely saw another photographer and had the same sense of peace that I enjoyed on those rare occasions when I was allowed special access to photograph ruins outside of visiting hours. Equally enjoyable was having a sense of direction that had been missing previously. There always had been a gravitational pull of sorts, a feeling that “there is something here” that transcended my aesthetic impulses when composing a photograph. Once I better understood the workings behind those instincts, making decisions in the field became much more fruitful.

Image "Afternoon Delight" by Erin Babnik

Afternoon Delight. For me, this scene was all about the corridor in the rocky landscape leading to the majestic peaks beyond. Flooded with light and populated with small flowers, the corridor seemed symbolic of a journey that was about to reach a glorious conclusion. I was especially charmed by the shape that the central peak takes from this angle, lending it a noble quality that seems to reinforce the idea of accomplishment.

The Pursuit Of Meaning

The rewards of pursuing meaning in nature quickly became addictive. Working mainly in the Alps, I took every opportunity to explore further, to hike higher and to spend longer periods of time in search of expressive subjects. As these were the days before the era of social media, few photographs were available to offer me any inspiration, but I became very adept at consulting topographical maps to target areas of potential interest.

Learning which types of features tended to occur in which environments and at what elevation was extremely helpful. Once I knew what to expect in a particular combination of circumstances, I could extrapolate from that knowledge to find similar areas at a different massif or in a different mountain range. My favorite zones were those right on the edge of the tree line of an area, and preferably with some water elements mixed in. In those types of settings, there were an abundance of potential “characters” that seemed ripe for photographic storytelling.

Image "The Lost Ark" by Erin Babnik

The Lost Ark. After years of photographing ruins in the Mediterranean and Middle East, I could not help but see an archaeological theme in this scene. I was lying on my stomach in order to get a very low angle that would make the sand tufas look like grand, exotic monuments, when, in fact, they are only a couple of feet high.

Although my experience in Athens provided some much-needed clarity, it was years before I could articulate what I was doing beyond recognizing this notion that every interesting feature in the wilderness was a potential protagonist. The next big “a-ha moment” in honing my approach came shortly after I made the transition to a full-time career in landscape photography. Perhaps “transition” is too generous of a term for what was essentially a precarious leap of faith, following some agonizing soul-searching that caused me to step away from a plum situation in academe. With no financial safety net, no guaranteed income and a great sense of indebtedness to my former advisors and colleagues, I departed from the academic world feeling massively conflicted. Such was my mindset during a particularly auspicious trip to a remote area of Death Valley National Park, where I photographed my first rainbow images.

The rainbow day came about a month after I had last photographed in this part of the park, an area far from any services or campgrounds and reachable only through hours of trundling along rough dirt roads. Because the journey was not exactly trivial, I always allotted numerous days for each visit and had logged about two weeks there across several trips.

During the last of those prior visits, I had found a composition in a playa of cracked earth that captured my imagination. A rounded form with a diagonal line jutting out of it looked to me like a giant dial, and it pointed right to the full moon that was setting when I first knelt down to assess the foreground. Alas, I failed to catch exactly the right balance of light that morning because I discovered the composition too late. Unable to let go of the idea, I returned to it repeatedly over the next couple of days, but, of course, the moon was no longer in position during the morning twilight and was absent at sunset. In the end, I came away from the “moondial” idea empty-handed. Determined to try again, I returned a month later, when the moon alignment would be optimal again.

Image "Moondial" by Erin Babnik

Moondial. To my mind, the giant “needle” pointing to the moon in this scene strongly suggested a device designed for the reckoning of time. A couple of years later, I produced a companion piece featuring the sun in a similar setting titled “Sundial.”

After mooching a ride from a friend with a 4×4 vehicle, I made it back out to that white whale of a composition. To my absolute delight, everything went perfectly on the morning of the moon alignment, which was the first morning of what would become a very productive adventure. On the second morning, I found a composition with a lone tree that charmed me immensely, situated about a mile away from the moondial, and that’s when my good fortune really started kicking into high gear.

Traversing that mile between the moondial and the tree allowed me to spot numerous possible “characters” in the desert that I hoped to photograph. Consequently, when a rainbow appeared on the second morning, it set in motion a whole chain of photographic opportunities. While I was set up to photograph the tree composition, the rainbow dropped right down into my frame as if on cue, positioned exactly where I would have put it if I were painting the scene from scratch.

Before that moment, my experience of trying to photograph rainbows had been a comedy of errors, always involving a mad dash and framing up the shot just as the rainbow decided to vanish. This time, however, the rainbow came to me. Even more incredible, it stuck around. Certain that it would disappear as soon as I moved, I made my way anxiously through the points of interest that I had noted in that magic mile between my primary compositions. Through some freakish generosity of nature, the rainbow held out the entire time.

It was one of those intermediate compositions that provided the most profound experience of the trip. The scene consisted of a pair of opposing cracks in a smaller playa of dried mud that combined to form an arc, and, directly above them, the rainbow echoed that shape. This beautiful, fortuitous alignment of sky and land seemed to cry out for interpretation, for a meaningful synthesis of the parallel elements. To my mind, this composition was positively burgeoning with possible stories that derived power from the similarities in form.

Image "Twinsies" by Erin Babnik

Twinsies. When two different features in a photo have similar forms, I call it an “echo composition.” Such similarities invite a synthesis of ideas about them, often with a wide range of possible interpretations. In this case, a viewer might see a message as allusive as “old versus new” or “revival following destruction,” or someone simply might enjoy the nature story of rain and sun combining to form arcing shapes both in the sky and on the ground.

The most obvious story was the one about how the mud playa was formed—the natural story. Through the interaction of rain and sun, both the rainbow and the cracked mud came into being. On a more emotional level, I saw a summary of where I was in my life at the time—the personal story. All of those mud tiles in the playa were like the pieces of a puzzle representing my life, now finally forming into something quite wonderful and resonant after changing careers to follow my dreams.

Beyond both of those narratives, I saw one that was more universal—the metaphorical story. We all seem to have a fractured past in some way, partially broken and worn, like the cracked mud, but the colorful moments of life are like a rainbow bringing renewed joy after a storm. The scene was definitely “speaking” to me.

That rainbow lasted most of the day, periodically dimming, only to gain vibrancy again as it slowly revolved around the valley, propelled by the movement of the sun. With ample time to photograph this spectacle in a variety of settings, I continued to reflect on the great potential for meaning in landscape photographs. I realized that the three types of stories that had occurred to me—natural, personal and metaphorical—could apply to any nature image. Although I had spent years thinking in terms of characters in their settings, landscapes could communicate through a variety of paradigms. Moreover, all nature images had a wonderful open-endedness in how they might suggest different stories to different people.

Image "Octopus's Garden" by Erin Babnik

Octopus’s Garden. I named this photo after the Beatles song because of my whimsical imagination seeing what looked like a cultivated garden exposed by the low tide. I reckon that if an octopus could have a garden, it would look something like this!

Expression Beyond Words

Dwelling on this idea further, I remembered the book Art and Its Objects by the philosopher Richard Wollheim, a standard text for any advanced student of art history. Wollheim explains (over the course of many pages) that artists will always intend more than viewers will see, and viewers will always see more than artists intend. That reality is what makes art so potent, and it underscores why landscape photographers do not need to communicate with any amount of specificity to have a voice. If viewers find a photograph compelling enough to ponder it, stories will emerge for them. That whole train of thought made me feel as though I had found the missing link between my motivations to study art history and everything that had lured me into landscape photography. Art, I realized, is a special brand of expression that no amount of language can replace.

Once again, I returned from a photography trip with greater clarity of purpose and even greater enthusiasm for landscape photography. My love affair with the desert had deepened, and it ushered in a period of sustained activity in Death Valley that has produced about half of the portfolio images that I count among my favorites. Along the way, the habit of interpretation has kept on giving, sometimes in the field and sometimes down the line while curating or post-processing images.

Image "Smooth Move" by Erin Babnik

Smooth Move. A high percentage of my images that include a sky also feature some kind of interaction or “dialogue” between sky and land. At this moment, the connection between the illuminated line in the clouds and the serpentine line of the dune provided me with exactly the finishing touch that makes a scene come alive for me. In this case, there seems to be a wonderful symbiosis going on, as if the dune and the sky are drawing energy from each other.

Oftentimes stories present themselves quite spontaneously, so it’s usually not a process of invoking the imagination through conscious effort. I have learned to lean into the idea of storytelling consciously only when it won’t interrupt other creative impulses. If some muse or other is singing loudly, I don’t change the channel, so to speak. The initial spark might come from some compositional impulse that is more aesthetic in nature (and my sensibilities on that front likewise evolved out of studying art history), or from weather conditions or even technique. Any number of interests might induce that special state of creative flow that all landscape photographers crave and would not want to spoil with too much conscious analysis.

The time always comes, though: With every image, there is some point in the process when making creative decisions becomes a conscious effort. It is in those moments of uncertainty when I always turn to interpretation as a compass. I find it to be an invaluable and teachable approach that I have been sharing in articles, talks and workshops for years now. Like anything else, practice leads to fluency. When the imagination is allowed out to play on a regular basis, stories will emerge with greater power to illuminate the way forward. 


See more of Erin Babnik’s work at erinbabnik.com.

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