This is a response and extension of thoughts to a blogpost written by Ron Coscorrosa titled, More Than Pretty Pictures, posted July 5, 2017.

Original blog post:  http://www.naturephotoguides.com/blog/more-than-pretty-pictures

Photographer Ron Coscorrosa details in his recent blog post the difference between what he labels “intentional photography” and the “passive recording of sublime conditions at popular locations”—a gentle way of describing the practice of trophy hunting. Coscorrosa shows how being more intentional with his own photography (through time of day, focal length, lighting etc.) has resulted in a stronger and more expanded sense of personal vision and creativity.  On this, I agree completely.

I agree with Coscorrosa that intimate and macro scenes are important and more intentional forms of photography. However, if one wishes to convey an authentic representation of place, having only one type of photography without the other fails just as surely.  For example, without the lead photo of Ron’s blog (the wide shot with the rainbow and mountains and valley), I’m left with only a series of intimate scenes that while beautiful and artistic and original and creative, say absolutely nothing as to the place where they were created.  There are no anchors.  The photos do, however, make me think about Ron as an artist—and in that purpose they succeed.  Thus, I agree completely with the thesis of Ron’s post as well:  moving away from trophy hunting popular scenes creates a stronger individual voice for your photography.  Before folks make a quick exodus towards intimate photography–and certainly before folks hop on the recent wagon of wide-angle photography as pure gimmick–it’s important to point out that a portfolio of only intimate scenes, no matter the beauty, creativity and originality of each frame, and/or how well it may represent the artist’s innate ability to see, will not represent the totality of a place in any meaningful way.  As a means of representing the artist, intimate photography succeeds wildly.  To represent something beyond the artist and the artist’s own ideals, there must be more of a collaborative between subject and artist in determining which tools to employ–and a wide-angle might just be the best choice.

The epidemic of “sameness” that is often lamented in landscape photography is likely the result, in my opinion, of photographers not knowing why they pick up the camera and aim it at natural landscapes in the first place (or why they use and/or make certain post-processing choices). Sameness is not the direct result of any specific focal length or time of day or even general location.  Creativity is no less present by nature at iconic locations or in wide-angle frames than within intimate photographs.  True, intimate frames are arguably more difficult to compose because they require a degree of reduction not necessary in grand landscapes.  However, they are also arguably easier to execute, as well as independent of the same degree of critical interpretation (points that Ron outlines well in his own remarks).  In other words, the subject matter for a single frame has no correlation to the degree of creativity of an artist.  However, only visiting iconic locations, or only using one focal length, or only going out during the golden light of sunrise or sunset does throw into question the ability of a photographer to communicate effectively if the meaning or purpose of their photography could be enhanced by expanding their vision.

I agree completely with the thesis of Ron’s post:  moving away from trophy hunting popular scenes creates a stronger individual voice for your photography.

The key to being intentional, a concept Ron mentioned in his blogpost, is to always keep your purpose behind the lens foremost. Why are you photographing the landscape? This is not an easy question to answer but it’s absolutely essential to understand and digest before you can make meaningful decisions behind the lens.  Perhaps you use the natural landscape to glorify yourself as a visual artist; or perhaps you use a camera to faithfully represent the beauty of place as you found it; or maybe you photograph to show a connection between your belief in the connectivity between this world and a higher power; or maybe you use the physical world as the starting blocks to create dreamscapes that remove viewers from their reality entirely; or perhaps your draw to the camera and the natural landscape is as simple as encouraging and inspiring others to get outside and explore.  No matter what your reason(s), understanding your why will impact how you go about your camera work.  Communicating this unique message to others through the visual language of photography will require a variety of focal lengths, perspectives, lighting conditions, etc.  Some frames will need to be wide and others tight.  Some frames will demand bright daylight; others will better convey with strong atmospherics like fog; others yet still will best convey with the sweet colors found only at the edge of day.  The key, again, as Ron mentioned in his blog post, is being intentional about your purpose and using a full complement of available gear to best communicate that meaning through your photographs.

If photography is the art of visual communication, Ron’s post, in my opinion, is an argument towards expanding the photographer’s vocabulary to more effectively impart meaning. That doesn’t mean getting rid of commonalities altogether, but varying their use.  When speaking or writing, we all use similar words over and over again; however, how someone varies the use of common words and adds or subtracts other surrounding words can effectively change the meaning and degree of impact.  If a photographer has a portfolio of only grand landscapes where there is big sky and colorful foreground over and over and over again, their artistry will be open to critique for its formulaic appearance.  The same is true, I believe, for a photographer with a portfolio of only intimate scenes.  The key, in my personal opinion, is to find a nice cadence between the grand and the intimate, between the colorful and the soft, between the sharp and the obscured.  Moving effortlessly between these dualities is the sign of a photographer who is comfortable with a wide range of gear and who can set aside his/her own “style” to more authentically and respectfully represent place in whatever mood it presents.

I believe that Ron is advocating that one way of moving beyond simply capturing pretty pictures is by making the frames you capture more meaningful to who you are as an artist.  He suggests that one road towards achieving this type of artistic meaning is finding intimate landscapes within larger landscapes.  The reductive process of identifying intimate scenes will require you as an artist to make more active decisions within the frame and to work within different tolerances for lighting, compositional guideline, and such.  The result will feel more personal–and it likely will be more personal.

Being more than just pretty–finding meaning–requires intention:  It requires a purpose.  It’s inherently personal.  For me, landscape photography is about active learning and exploration.  I don’t like to use digital applications to track sun angles and calculate this that or the other; I don’t care much for gear and endless gear discussion; I prefer a degree of walking or working to reach my destinations; I like to photograph away from crowds; and I like the process of getting to know a place physically over time and conditions.  Each frame I manage brings me closer to an understanding of how the natural world functions and what my place is within it.  I would argue that you must work to personally understand why you’re photographing the landscape and you must let others share in on your why as you share your work.  From written descriptions to the locations you choose to photograph, you can move towards your meaning intentionally.  Perhaps your personal meaning will not require wide-angles or sunsets or fill in the blank.  Perhaps it will.  Only you can answer those questions and only you can make those choices and only you can communicate them to me as a viewer.  And they can only be intentional if you have some idea of a purpose.

If the idea of more intentional photography is embraced, the only outcome that truly matters is the purpose of the photograph.  If our choices behind the lens and in the darkroom work towards enhancing that purpose then we are succeeding in communicating our vision.  The photographic process and effort will feel both meaningful and fulfilling no matter what we point our lens at (or what lens we choose to use for that matter).  If any of our choices in the photographic process distract, dull or do not fully sync or embrace our desired purpose than we’re missing an opportunity and that friction will grind until we reveal and address it.

I was rather interested in this particular post because of the title:  More Than Pretty Pictures.  I’ve been struggling with the articulation of some similar thoughts.  First off, pretty and meaning both have nothing to do with a photograph being a grand vista or an intimate abstract.  Pretty is something that is intrinsically chosen and what others think about that choice matters not.  Shooting a wide, grand vista is every bit as intentional as shooting an intimate abstract–each involves making a myriad of choices behind the lens and the subjective success of each frame depends upon something other than whether each is “pretty.”  Being intentional means having intention, or purpose.  Figuring out your purpose is really the hard work of a young artist.  Only then can you begin to evaluate your own work as to whether or not you’ve moved past simply chasing pretty photographs or whether or not you’re chasing something deeper and more meaningful–to you.  Sure, we all hope that our photos are considered “pretty.”  But, we’re pursuing photography–the art of using the visual language to communicate–for some reason beyond simply aesthetic gratification, and I think whatever that reason may be, that’s precisely what all viewers of our work want to discover and connect with.

I appreciate the blog post, Ron.  Lots of good food for thought within.  Hopefully you don’t mind the share and the additional thoughts.

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