On why I take pictures

A few time ago I ran into a blog post by Ugo Cei, via Bob Atkins, with some interesting musings about landscape photography:

I was in Munich yesterday, [...] in a place where they had a huge TV monitor on the wall that was playing a slideshow of landscape photos. I couldn’t keep my eyes away from it, as the photos were really beautiful. You know that type of photo: amazing locations, wonderful light, colorful sunsets, starry skies, waterfalls, ocean waves, tropical beaches, brilliant colors. Most of them revealed a mastery of technique, accurate choice of location, delightful composition, masterful post-processing. Each one of those photos could have won a contest, get printed on a calendar or poster, graced the pages of a magazine or got a million likes on social networks. [...] And yet, after having seen the slideshow roll around three or four times, I was disgusted and wanted to throw my jug of beer to the screen. I even contemplated giving up landscape photography and picking up some other genre. That much beauty had left me numb and a feeling not unlike how you feel after a binge of eating chocolate or sweets.

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 12-24mm ƒ/4G DX AF-S @ 12 mm, 1/200 sec @ ƒ/11, -1.00 EV, ISO 140

Champ de lavande près de Mévouillon.

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 18-70mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED DX AF-S @ 70 mm, 1/160 sec @ ƒ/13, -0.67 EV, ISO 160

Champ de coquelicots près de Chichilianne (Papaver rhoeas).

Some underlying problems and consequences have been correctly described by Ugo just a few lines below:

Part of the problem, I think, was that at a time and age when everyone can have a decent camera for not much money, when photographic education is cheap or free, when it is much easier to travel to awesome locations than it used to be, almost everything has already been photographed in the best light. [...] Another problem is that I am seeing a growing trend of conformism in landscape photography. I could not recognize any one of those photos and tell who was their author, but at the same time they could have been attributed to any one of the many photographers who are very popular on social media. There is this prevalent style in landscape photography that aims to capture the viewer with dramatic light, strong composition and bright, saturated colors. I can definitely see why people like it, but I don’t like it anymore.

Apparently, it makes a lot of sense.

Nikon D5000 + Nikkor 35mm ƒ/1.8G AF-S @ 35 mm, 1/125 sec @ ƒ/8, ISO 400

Reflets d'or sur la Gordolasque.

That post by Ugo triggered me a number of thoughts and at a certain point I realised I had to write things down. Which is my relationship with photography? What are my expectations? Why am I shooting photos? So I thought it was appropriate to have a Weltanschauung moment: stopping and thinking over what I'm doing, going deeper into my awareness. Sometimes you start doing this, or thinking that, because of a very contingent reason (in my case, I started photography as a healthy excuse to stay in the open) and then, after some time, things have changed and completely turned upside down your initial rationale (sure, I've been enjoying photography for many years now, up to the point that my health suffered because of neck and back pain). “I shoot because I enjoy it” is a good answer, but a very partial one.

After some days, looking back at Ugo's post, I was still convinced he had raised a reasonable issue from his premises, but ... I didn't agree anymore on the premises. Is mannerism really a problem? Why?

Ugo — whom by the way I've met, years ago, when I was doing an IT consultancy for his company — is one of the many talented engineers / computer scientists with a passion for photography who, at a certain point in their life, steered the route of professional photography. The idea of making money out of photos is not bad, especially when I consider the amount of money I've spent in my gear. Having a return, even partial, would be good. But the problem is that when one starts thinking in terms of market, he's unavoidably engaged in a competition. Unfortunately competition means being subjected to rules, which in turn mean conformism (if you want to sell) — or being enslaved to a strategy for being not conformist (if you want to be original). In both cases a limitation of freedom. So, while I'm happy that even in the Flickr age there are professional photographers, I'm also happy to say that I'm not a pro and I can enjoy a full freedom in my photographer activity.

This is my short reaction to Ugo's stimulus. But probably it's not enough, as I'm not taking photos here and there at random, without a rationale or a process reference. So, I spent some further time thinking over my relationship with photography and elaborated a longer, deeper answer.

Sony NEX-6 + Sony Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS @ 16 mm, 1/250 sec @ ƒ/8, ISO 200

Le prime luci in Val d'Orcia.

First, seeing the world in the Catholic perspective, for me everything is naturally being understood by means of a transcendental approach. St. Paul wrote “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” [1 Co 10, 31] and this holds true for photography too. Thus landscape and architecture photography, which are my main interests, are a way to contemplate Beauty in nature- and man-made things of diverse kinds, a direct and indirect product of the Grace of the Holy Ghost. Capturing them into a good quality still image is important — I feel it as a supplementary way of praying and thanking the Lord for the gifts He gave us.

Sony NEX-6 + Sony E 10-18mm F4 OSS @ 10 mm, 1/200 sec @ ƒ/8, ISO 100

Se dovessi camminare in una valle oscura...

But I also give a lot of importance to the process, which implies training and the capability of see things that a distracted observer would miss. By internalising the process I can naturally enjoy sparkles of beauty even when I don't have a camera at hand, or when it's impossible to take a photo. Sometimes I'm driving through a highway, or sitting in a running train, and I find myself looking out of the window “mentally framing” things, perhaps waiting that a few objects in different plans align into the optimal composition, or appreciating the quality of the light which is illuminating them. Those “missed photos” were, at the beginning, a sort of frustration, I mean I was sorely upset that I didn't have the trigger just under my finger; but as time passed by, I somehow turned it into a pleasing experience. Even if I'm not actually taking a photo, some photographic concepts I've learned, such as the focal length, teach me how to see things in different perspectives and scale — from the breadth of the wide-angle landscape up to the small details of a flower caught with a long tele.

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D ED-IF AF-S @ 300 mm, 1/160 sec @ ƒ/11, -0.67 EV, ISO 360

Papavero e spighe (Papaver rhoeas).

Nikon D200 + Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.8D AF @ 85 mm, 1/2000 sec @ ƒ/2.8, -1.33 EV, ISO 100

Paesaggio nei pressi del Piccolo San Bernardo.

All of this is very subjective and personal, so I don't want to be constrained by any kind of fashion or external opinion. While it's true that, as my technique and aesthetic sense improves with time I constantly re-evaluate photos that I took in the past, on the other hand I will always like a photo just because it triggered something inside me, even though it might be completely off the current canons, or — at the other extreme — a so-called conformist shot. That's why I'm not obsessed by access statistics, nor I am interested in getting “likes” or stars; or getting more links to my website to increase the traffic (recently I've even removed all the Google Analytics stuff from this site). These things are the death of beauty, the starters of a wicked competitive attitude. Thus I'm no more interested in contests and competitions — and I only publish my photos here, with just a few notable exceptions. I don't want to be constrained to try fashionable techniques, such as “compulsory” blurs or long exposures; I'd try them only if I wish.

After all, in no way I consider myself an artist, but just a practitioner of the art. I even take pictures in days with an empty sky, or with harsh light, if it happens that I am in some place with that conditions and I felt as I liked to freeze that moment. After all, landscape photography is depicting the reality out there (even though by means of one's own interpretation) and reality is not only made of perfect scenarios with that golden light of the sunset. Otherwise, we'd be talking about the Hyperuranion.

Sony NEX-6 + Sony Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS @ 16 mm, 1/160 sec @ ƒ/8, ISO 200

Ulivo in controluce.

Still, since this post is about art and conformism, I have to start a not-so-short digression. Photography is a very recent form of art, and all of its history lies in the modernity age. I think this fact introduces quite a strong bias in evaluating things — I think I have some points to argue about a strongly distorted perception of things in this age. Since photography is part of the family of Visual Arts, and here we have a millennial history, there's something more interesting to see in this broader perspective. To simplify things I'm going to focus on the history of Visual Arts in my home country (the richest on the earth in this field). There has always been a strong relationship between arts and power; and in the past power was a matter of restricted groups. For about a millennium and one half, one of the strongest centres of power was the Catholic Church. Still, we had a very long sequence of Masters, including many from the Middle Age, constantly evolving in a variety of styles. For centuries, religious themes had been the only subjects in Visual Arts — so one might call this a limited set — and still we enjoy a huge amount of different ways in which artists were able to represent the same things over time. An explosion of creativity and innovation, always bringing masterworks, century after century. Even after the Council of Trent, which had a special political agenda about visual arts, we had Caravaggio and Bernini: both artists brought revolutionary ways of conceiving painting and sculpture, at the point of raising wild discussions; but, at the end of the day, they were always free to innovate. There have been a few cases in which the subject was subjected to a form of control — after all, arts were perceived as a mean to deliver a specific message — but there have never been constraints on style. The proof is in the huge amount of masterworks still hanging in churches, palaces and museums. In the meantime, during Renaissance a new class of secular patrons emerged (think of Lorenzo de' Medici) and they brought profane subjects, which broadened the spectrum of subjects. Then, in the latest centuries, power centres apparently started to dilute — we had, progressively, the rise of Bourgeoisie up to the spread of democracy. In theory, modernity should see such a high degree of freedom, creativity and beauty in Visual Arts — including photography.

Nikon D5000 + Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.8D AF @ 85 mm, 1/200 sec @ ƒ/5.6, ISO 400

Le bourg médiéval de Gruyères.

Nikon D70 + Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D ED-IF AF-S @ 420 mm, 1/800 sec @ ƒ/9, -0.67 EV, ISO 200

Rosa e azzurro.

But I don't see it happening. A few years ago, when I first questioned myself with the problem of mannerism in photography, I decided to learn something more and attend some exhibits to learn about the current trends. For instance I attended the famous Rencontres d'Arles photo festival. I could see the most fashionable solutions to the mannerism problem: do strange, bad, poor, wretched, wicked photos. I still remember an exhibit by a “genius” that placed a pizza pie right in the middle of her landscape photos; sure, with tons of sophisms to pretend there was a rationale for that nonsense. My first and last time at Rencontres d'Arles. “Creativity” today just sounds as a hypocrisy for “strangeness”, and by strangeness I mean that people just trying to occupy yet another absurd corner. Part of this is due to the fact that freedom in this field is just a fictitious thing: the self-referential castes of art critics and, for what concerns photography, publishers grabbed the power to decide what's fashionable or not. They are no more the equerries that assisted their masters, acting as disseminators helping the spread of culture into the segment of observers, that was quickly growing as our societies were becoming wealthier. They didn't stick with the original, sane role of driving the original relationship between an artist and his patron to the relationship between an artist and his wider public; today they create and destroy artists at their will. And while the Church is no more the most prominent mind maker, there are other subtler kinds of power that pursue their own agendas.

Were I an artist, why should I enslave my creativity to the wills of those castes? Neither art critics nor publishers are the possible appropriate source of inspiration to fight conformism. And given that I'm not an artist, but a mere practitioner of the photographic art (which brings the advantage of not having the problem of making a living out of my skills), I see even less reasons for that. While I welcome sane creativity, mannerism is not a problem for me. I will never feel numb about the beauty of the real world out there that is reproduced in a photo.

That's my well though rationale argument for which I disagree with Ugo's “I don’t like it anymore”.

Nikon D200 + Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D ED-IF AF-S @ 300 mm, 1/400 sec @ ƒ/9, ISO 280

Grues, près du lac du Der-Chantecoq.

Nikon D200 + Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.8D AF @ 85 mm, 1/100 sec @ ƒ/5, -0.33 EV, ISO 560

Der Hinterrhein bei Sufnersee.

Given these premises, I think it's clear that my primary attitude about my keeper photos is: I like them and if others like them, the better; otherwise I don't care much.

But the very fact that I'm publishing them to the web does mean something: actually, I like to share up to a certain degree. Now, the problem arises about the capability of my photos to convey to readers the same feelings I experienced. This is an objective issue and thus I need to take advantage of the state of the art, because it's true that the proper technique can improve the communication skills. That's why I constantly read a few blogs of masters of the art whom I like and sometimes I participate in a critic forum (but carefully picked: one which is attended by a limited number of persons, that you can trust, and where the competitive attitude is barely perceived). Sure I can be convinced that something I did can be improved. Other times, I would keep things as they are, but at least I'd be aware that I see things in a very different way than other people. Awareness is always a key thing.

Nikon D7000 + Samyang 8mm ƒ/3.5 fish-eye @ 8 mm, 1/160 sec @ ƒ/11, -1.00 EV, ISO 140

Vallée de la Gordolasque.

And then there are places themselves. Shooting landscapes, to me, is also a way to become intimate with a place: a marsh in Maremma, a village perché in Provence, a valley in the Alps or a small church in Val d'Orcia. It implies knowing its history, the relationship with the people who live and lived there, possibly forging it (which is always a fundamental thing in Europe, even for wilderness). It means returning to it multiple times, in different seasons and light conditions. It means flying there with my mind, when I'm constrained to stay elsewhere, trying to imagine whether it's snowing or not, or there's the sun and a rainbow, or whether that mimosa tree in front of the chapel has already blossomed; or whether the greylag geese are already preparing for their spring migration. A way, sometimes, to escape from some boring circumstances, but always flying to a real thing or place.

And — no, I never have enough of this.

Nikon D7000 + Nikkor 300mm ƒ/4D ED-IF AF-S @ 420 mm, 1/640 sec @ ƒ/8, -1.67 EV, ISO 100

Noi voliamo sulle nuvole (Anser anser).

Sony NEX-6 + Sony Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS @ 70 mm, 1/125 sec @ ƒ/8, ISO 100

Les mimosas du Tanneron (Acacia dealbata).

Sony NEX-6 + Sony Zeiss Vario-Tessar T* E 16-70mm F4 ZA OSS @ 70 mm, 1/50 sec @ ƒ/8, ISO 100, polariser

Arcobaleno in Val d'Orcia.