First Light on Cadillac Mountain - This is the spot (give or take) that experiences sunrise first on the East Coast of the continental USA. People camp up there - often in the dead cold - to see this. What are they thinking?
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
-Star Trek, the ORIGINAL series
I suppose that the Star Trek quote kind of says it all. I am a bit sad to say that I recently learned that almost everything I enjoy today is redundant. There is little to no glory in repeating what has been done before. Even if you are photographing the Lost City of Atlantis, it can only be a creative process the first time, and someone else probably got to it first. If you want to make a piece of photographic art, it is time to get off of Terra Firma. Maybe you can hitch a ride with Elon. Our COVID year(s) have taught us a lot - one of those things is just how little creative free space we actually have. Our National Parks have been completely overwhelmed by visitors and everything that was worth seeing is now not. Too bad for you.
If you can not tell already, I am in the mood for a bit of a rant. I recently read an obnoxious - but admittedly thought provoking - article on one of the gear head sites called, "Originality in Landscape Photography."
The scene opens with a decent (but I suppose intentionally not striking) image of a mountain scene in Norway with the following description. "The famous viewpoint in Reine, the Lofoten Islands, Arctic Norway. Light: awesome. Originality: 0/10. Art? Not by a longshot." Fortunately, it was the author's own work - so I am not going to argue with him about his feelings on his own piece. However, he makes a couple of bold comments about photography as art that I initially dismissed - only to later think that they were worth examining. Plus, I will admit that I checked out his work, and at least based on the website, he seems competent. The premise of his article is that if it is not original, it is not creative - and therefore not really art. Given my love of the National Parks, and the amount of time I spend photographing in them, it certainly made me beg the question - is what I do art? The Mesquite Sand Dunes - Death Valley National Park - To think that people hike out their, potentially having to deal with rattle snakes, scorpions and other such critters - and for what? For this? I mean, come on. What's more derivative than sand??
Many of the places that inspire us to go photograph are iconic locations - places that most everyone knows. I am going to suggest that everyone knows them for a reason. These are truly special places that inspire the mind and body. Heck, our US Government thought they were so special that they earmarked them. In a world where "if it pays, it stays," that's petty impressive. They are a reprieve from an increasingly technological and sterile world. Given the length of the pandemic, I understand the great desire that so many had to escape from their bunkers to the fresh air that embodies our national parks. Having shown my sister the Tetons for the first time in 2021, I can tell you that no photo I have ever shared has really captured the experience of being there. That's sad for me as an artist - but not surprising. That hasn't stopped me - and countless others - of trying. Scenes from Oxbow Bend or Schwabacher's Landing are in many spaces. We all know the spots - they have been shown to us before. Some of them even have places that say "Scenic Vista, Place Tripod Here." There is a real case to be had that it is hard to photograph these beautiful mountains differently than what has been done before. Of course, I will argue that it is also hard to paint them differently too. They are instantly identifiable to anyone in this particular community - but does that mean that the process of photographing them is not art? Can an artistic experience be something that is communal or shared? Does it have to be unique? And, if it is not really unique, can it still be interesting? Is walking up the New York City Skyline at Sunrise or the 7 Mile Stretch of Yosemite ever something that should not be shared (lol, at least if it is done well?)? Have we such a need for different that we have just given up on things that are inherently beautiful and have been set aside for a reason - because they were set aside? Is it really true that in order to make a landscape art image that you need to travel somewhere no one else has been to in order for it to be art? Does that really make sense to you? Or perhaps it is more likely that someone is trying to sell a workshop? Schwabacher's Landing - Grand Teton National Park. This was taken at the first pool? Ew. Talk about trite. Love the light though.Schwabacher's Landing, Grand Teton National Park (The Other pool). Didn't I just post one of these earlier?
But is it art?
I guess the answer is, "I don't know." While the author claimed to not want to try to define what art was, he actually wrote an equation. I was fortunate to see this rather brilliant gem turned into a math equation, "Art equals creativity equals originality." I had not realized that there was a simple equation - but now that I have it, I am going to get to work on my proofs. Maybe that is what I need to finally get a Masters in Fine Art. To be fair, I may not be a great artist but I never really pretended to be. Everything I know, I have learned in the field or by reading books on my own. I have never been to an art class. Until recently, I never thought that what I making was actually art. Some people seem to like it. This website gets a bunch of traffic - which is particularly wild given that I don't publish anywhere near what I should in order to keep it popular. I guess when I look back at it, I had always thought that the exercise seemed creative. There is certainly a process that I use to take an image - and it takes time and thought. Would they be better if I lit some sternos like that other famous landscape photographer and defaced Arches National Park? Maybe. I guess that would be original. The first time. Oh - someone really famous did it. And all he got was a slap on the wrist! I guess I will need a cluster bomb to take a nice image in Arches. I will admit that a photo title like "Two Suns in the Sunset at Delicate Arch" has a particular ring to it.
What makes art art?
Is it the medium? Is that what breeds exclusivity and originality and creativity? Do I need to get good with paints? Is photography even an artistic medium? It is so accessible to so many people - and a lot of untrained people can take really decent compositions with their iPhones. Is that art? I think so. Does that take away from my art?? I don't think so. I guess for some familiarity does breed contempt.
I remember a time when I thought that Mapplethorpe was an artist. After reading the article on originality, I realized that all Mapplethorpe was doing was photographing some human beings - being human. The fact that it annoyed some people didn't actually make it art. What about Georgia O Keeffe? All she really shared were some vaginas. At least half the world has one - what's so unique or original about it? I guess that we all need to become the Jackson Pollock of photography...though I am not sure what that would look like. It might be easier if I still worked in a darkroom. Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park - Caption: Olympic??? No Training was Necessary For This...
When looking up "What makes art art," I got this nice definition from Smashing Magazine. Never heard of them before, but it reads really nice. Art is...the "deliberately arranging of elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions." By that definition, any attempt to put together elements in a way that is pleasing is art. It doesn't matter that there are 253 of your best friends waiting with you at Oxbow Bend in the morning. Each person is there to try to do something special - for them. It certainly seems a bit different from the brilliant declaration, "Art equals creativity equals originality." It kind of gives me some hope that there is some room here for me.The East Quoddy Lighthouse, taken at Sunset and Low Tide. Caption, "Enough with the Fcking Lighthouses, James."
So why are any of us actually out there making photographs? I can't speak for you, but I take photographs for me. When I am out photographing, I get a feeling - a sense - of calmness and order that I don't get when I am doing any other activity. As someone who is considered by many a rather cold minded person who quantifies everything, it is one of the rare instances where I exist by 'feel' FIRST. For those of you who don't know me in person, I am kinetic in nature - always on the move. I am well into my middle years, but I typically bike to work every day and hike at least 5 miles with the dog. In the last several years, I have hiked the Yosemite Loop, part of the Appalachian Trail and attempted to get permits to cross the Grand Canyon. Life is too short to sit in the apartment watching TV. I am not sure I would have taken the time to go to these far away places and observe them the way I do if I did not bring a camera with me.
I guess that photography acts as an anchor when I am out doing these other things. It grounds me. It allows me the moment in time to stop and watch and process. For me, the process of making landscape photography is more or less the rare experience of mindfulness, of being part of a larger order that I frequently feel very incongruent with. If it were not for photography, I might seriously never take a step into the woods, or onto a mountain. It is the medium by which I experience the larger world around me.
I took that image of the lighthouse over a decade ago. I have taken countless stabs at post processing the image in order to make it come out the way I remembered it. Thanks to my friend, Richard, I think I finally did it. It's not just some technical experience - but a creative process where I try to make my composition the way I remember experiencing it. No heavy duty color saturation or terrible graying HDR effect. Just what was. I guess I wish the guys at that gear head website thought it was art. You'd figure they would at least try to pander, they sell enough stuff.Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park. Caption, "Two Medicine? It should have been called Too Often."
Anyone who has gone shooting with me knows that I am pretty deliberate when I take out my camera - my camera is always set to manual so that I can control my sense of motion and depth of field. I almost always drop a tripod and I frequently use filters to help control my light. One can argue that these 'technical' components are separate from the artistic process. I disagree. But that's MY process - and not everyone has to do things the same way. Not everyone bakes a cake exactly the same. Even when the recipe is great, we all know that if my sister and my mother bake a cake, one will be delicious and the other will be dry and tasteless. I have never heard someone compliment a chef by saying, "This pie is wonderful, you must have a wonderful stove." Baking, like photography, can be considered an art. Did you change your exposure in order to draw out a particular element? Did you use filters? How did you process the RAW image? Did you use Adobe or sRGB for your color space? Did you use layers while processing different pieces of the image? All of these elements are YOURS when you take a photograph - no one elses. I guess none of that matters.
Honestly, the whole article, "Originality in Landscape Photography" just feels sideways to me. If it resonates for you, that's great. I just really resent when people start telling the rest of us what art actually is and how we are doing it wrong. Inspiration does not have a set of rules that you need to follow. People like this, in my mind, do an awful amount of harm to others - possibly without having the common sense to realize it. It takes a lot for the average person to put themselves out there - and not one of us is as good as any of us would like to be. Maybe I will be tomorrow? I don't know - but I definitely keep trying - and so should you.
So, now that I have beat this dead horse to death - let me just say how much I love what I do. I guess I don't really care that some people say that it is not art - but I hope that the images are enjoyable to you and that somehow they call to you. With that in mind, I have a bit of advice. Ignore the gear heads. Go ahead and enjoy yourself. Experience the world around you in a way that you can. Take a moment and look at what YOU see and make a composition that calls to you - and please share some of it with the people you love. At the end of the day, it is the connection that it is all about. As I am being magnanimous today, you can even use your camera set to "P." Wait. Is that art?
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Just a friendly reminder - all of these images in this article (and original images on this website) are copyright James Morrissey. Not that it matters. How can you copyright something that isn't really original anyway?