Cooking Up Some Landscape
Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Once you understand that photo-shooting a landscape is similar to how chefs work in a kitchen, it gets easier to understand. Everybody eats and perceives what's good to eat, whether they know anything about cooking or not. Many people likewise cook, and may even know something about the culinary arts. It's only after they've been cooking for a time, that they realize just how challenging it can be (if they want to be good), and exactly how much time, experience, and work actually goes into possible creations, only to find the dish is quaffed with only modest appreciation mere minutes after arriving at the table. When it comes to food, everyone has an opinion, but when it comes to cooking, you soon learn that it's not about the eating, and that you either love the process first or get out of the kitchen.
Landscape photography, perhaps more than any other photographic style, feels exactly the same. Everyone has a camera today, and everyone comes across a striking silhouette sunset during one nice evening at the beach, takes a snapshot, and suddenly think they're a photographer -- please. I came across this analogy with cooking while watching Chef's Table one night believing it was the beautiful cinematography that was allowing me to relate to the chefs who have raised their expectations to an art form. After a couple more episodes I saw the correlation of cooking to photography as exactly the same. It's like a quest for the perfect scenic reflection of a geography represented -- the shot that epitomizes the moment, the place, the mood, the people. Just as good cooks search for and work with the freshest ingredients culled from the surrounding environment that represent "this" place, its heritage and traditions, photographers attempt to do the same with vistas or macros of nature, distilling the beauty, the flora and fauna around them, creating something that may be both familiar, though unique, working towards something wholly original in the hopes the image will transcend, be consumed by many, with opinions numerous and varied.
The "culinary" aspect of landscape is about rising above the mundane, or even the technically brilliant "status quo". Just as the amateur will marvel at that generic sunrise they caught on their iPhone while jogging this morning, the professional is often found huddled around 50 other photographers, vying for perspective shooting the classic vistas of Maroon Bells, the Lone Cypress, Grand Canyon's Horseshoe Bend, or Iceland's Kurkjufell. No matter how well you shoot it, it's been done before and done better so many years ago by someone with a large format camera at a time when the scene was fresher than it is now. Though it's satisfying to reproduce the classic dish of the "great chef", (and good practice to do so), it's still someone else's recipe. Being original with food or landscape takes time, energy, creative vision, and an understanding of place that generally requires being more a part of the place yourself. Anyone who's seen Sally Mann's landscapes from her native Georgia/Virginia understands this, and her style of "cooking" has been her trademark for decades -- she has a flavor all her own.
We get around to understanding the physical/technical commitment in pursuing the landscape. We understand that capturing truly great and unique vistas is a rarity. A vista encompasses an expanse that even prior to editing must already provide unfathomable beauty, possess a capacity to translate well into a two-dimensional flat photo, radiate effective and provocative light, offer a unique scenic composition, or at least a perspective unique from the common vantage point, etc. Add some weather, context, color, texture, pattern and line that compels the viewer to stop and ponder all of the isolated details contained within, and you might have something -- and rarely are the details perfect -- something's almost always missing. It's a process that is as close as the photographer can approach perfection, attempting to place the viewer into the mood inspired by the photo, being there for that exact moment in all its natural wonder. It's not unlike the effect the Hudson School painters inspired through their fictional exaggerations of western landscape in the late 1800s drawing pioneers west while its vastness was largely new and pristine.
As photographers, we try to instill that same feeling through a medium that is often harshly realistic in the outset, and it is only through our developed eye and technique that we can take that realism and embody something artistic. It's an emotional representation that has us speak uniquely as a photographer, weaving our own brand of storytelling to those who stop and ponder our work. Though much can be done to accentuate this feeling through post-production, if the photographer doesn't start with that spectacular image in the camera first, no amount of self-respecting post edits will facilitate the sublime. Therefore, it is the search for that elusive moment in the field that inspires the "chefs" of photography to prepare the perfect dish. We hike to and camp in far-away places, often in darkness to get on site for the early or late soft light of the day when shadows are their most dramatic. Frequently the weather is foul, by choice, as the dramatic impact of storms coming and going lend mood, energy and originality to the composition. We lug 20 pounds (or more) of equipment into the field understanding that various instruments may rarely even get used unless an unlikely situation calls for it. We also pack our food, tent, and clothes for overnight, often necessary for remote early or late shooting schedules. The cameras may be standard digital SLRs, or if you're really into it, a large format set-up with 4x4 negative plates of a limited number that allow more clarity to accentuate the smallest details without pixelation when blown up in size. That's why John Fielder, renown Colorado landscaper, often packed his gear into the mountains upon the backs of llamas.
The search for the unique is similar to the quest for Eldorado, and when we find these locations, we often hold them as a private sanctuary of our own while we revisit the site during different seasons, varied weather conditions, and through alternating perspectives, until that moment we get the quintessential shot, painstakingly assembled and edited, ready for public scrutiny. it's in those moments, we find our joy, our reason for being, in trying to recreate this feeling for you, the viewer. We simply ask that you appreciate this place and this moment before it is quaffed and gone forever.