Association versus the anonymous

I often feel there's too much emphasis made of association.

Landscape photography requires us to be able to abstract: to reduce meaningful objects down to their graphical forms. Rather than thinking about trees, rivers and mountains, we should be able to see them for how beautiful their forms are. Rather than seeing 'mountain', we may see  'pleasing conical shape', rather than seeing 'tree', we may see 'pleasing wavy flow through the image', and rather than seeing 'river', we may see 'beautiful s-curve through the frame'.

 Scarista, Isle of Harris, Scotland November 2014, © Bruce Percy. But you didn't really need to know where it was did you? ;-)

Scarista, Isle of Harris, Scotland November 2014, © Bruce Percy. But you didn't really need to know where it was did you? ;-)

But I think this only happens for some of us, and for the majority of us, we photograph things because we know them. If I show you a chair, you associate with it, because you know what a chair is. If I show you a tree, then most people see a tree, because it's what they already know.

To find a beautiful composition, we need to be able to see the relationships between objects, not in terms of what they are (association) but how they graphically fit together. Perhaps the tree and the mountain have similar shapes and there is empathy? Perhaps the tones in the river compliment the tones in the tree? If we do this, we make our imagery stronger, because it has more foundation in the arts than it does in real life.

But there is more to this problem than simply being able to abstract objects down to their basic elements of form and tone. Our problem goes much deeper than this. I'm guilty of finding myself on many occasions making pictures of a place, not because the light is beautiful, but because the place itself is iconic. In fact, sometimes the light at the iconic place is not so special and there is better light elsewhere, yet I still choose to photograph the iconic place.

I've had to ask myself why is it that I do this? Well, I think the reason is simple: we are attracted to what we know and the power of association is a very strong force to deal with. We seek what we know, because we find safety and comfort in it.

So my question to you is: what would you rather do? Would you prefer to photograph an iconic place in boring light, or photograph an anonymous place where the light is beautiful? I think you may say the later, but the truth is, I think many of us often do the former. I'm certainly guilty of it.

When it comes down to it, a photograph of an anonymous place in beautiful light is more powerful than a photograph of an iconic place shot in boring light. But despite believing this, I seem to always gravitate to what I know over what is photographically better.

Being a landscape photographer is sometimes about overcoming our human instincts to go with the familiar and this is certainly one example where our being human gets in the way of better photography.