Philosophical / Metaphysical Question - What Attracts Us To Beauty In The Landscape?

Discussion in 'Large Format' started by emrys, Sep 8, 2003.

  1. I am about to begin writing a series of articles for a local club
    concentrating on the aesthetics of landscape photography. The
    introductory article will look at the fundumental nature of beauty in
    the landscape and why it touches something deep inside us.

    I am interested to hear your opinions on this. I have some theories
    myself, primarily to do with the common gene pool we share and the
    way in which all life is connected through this. Also, I subscribe to
    Gaia Theory (not the Gaia Movement) and I believe that what appears
    as beauty to us is simply (though not merely) the 'movements of the
    engine' so to speak.

    If you have any interesting links that you think may be of interest
    please post them. I apologise if this is going over material that's
    already been covered on here, but I did do a search prior to opening
    this and couldn't find a thread that matched what I was looking for.

    Thanks in advance,


    PS I'm not asking anyone to do my work for me. This isn't a
    commercial venture, however if anyone still wants me to credit them
    for ideas or the like I'm more than happy to do so.
  2. "I believe that what appears as beauty to us is simply (though not merely) the 'movements of the engine' so to speak."
    Could you please elaborate ? It's not as clear to me as I would like.
    Which of these questions are you asking:
    (1) Why do we prefer experiences that are enjoyable ?
    (2) Why is beauty enjoyable ?
    (3) What makes a beautiful landscape ?
  3. Fair point Ken. The dictionary definition I'm using is...


    The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

    I guess what I'm really asking is: what is beauty (in Nature); what is it about it (or us) that makes us identify it as such and respond to it in the manner we do?

    I hope this is clear. My head was a little fuzzy this morning (I was experiencing the beauty of Malt Scotch last night).

  4. The beauty we see is not in the world... it is in us... beauty is an interpretation of a moment in the grand natural flow, imbued with connotations that arise from our particular place within this flow.
  5. Mike,

    You are right when you say that landscape can touch something deep within us. I think it is deeper than aesthetics though and often to do with how we see ourselves relating to nature. Two thought worlds spring to mind - the first being the ideas of the Romantic movement of the 18th - 19th centuries where Rousseau etc put forward the idea of 'the sublime'. Here humankind is dwarfed by the natural world and made to feel insignificant within it. However humans are themselves part of nature and so we are part of something unimaginably larger than ourselves. Another thought world is that of Judaeo-Christian teachng. Here humankind is in a relationship with the rest of nature which has changed from being completely part of it at the creation to being conscious of it and being able to control it for good or bad. The story in the Bible which illustrates this is Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden as a result of the fall. Milton wrote about paradise lost (and regained). There other ways of relating to nature for example that of science.

    Don't know if that helps!

  6. Mike,
    You might want to read: Beauty and Photography and Why People Photograph by photographer Robert Adams. Freeman Patterson is also very good on this subject.
  7. You might also want to read Perception and Imaging by Richard Zakia.
  8. Another, more specific, question that's popped into my head as I've been reading these replies is: are we invested with a collective consciousness through our shared genetic heritage that produces, within us all, similar feelings in response to certain natural phenomena: sunrises and sunsets, the sound of the waves on the shore, misty autumn mornings and so on.

    I am cognisant of the fact that this thread could become purely philosophic and, in the interests of maintaining a balance, I'd love to hear about your experiences while photographing subjects of great natural beauty.

  9. Since you are taking a science-oriented approach, you might find it interesting to explore some theories about underlying mathematics of beauty, such as the Golden Section. This is nothing new, but over time, people continue to discover new ocurrences of the same basic arithmetic at work.
  10. are we invested with a collective consciousness through our shared genetic heritage that produces, within us all, similar feelings in response to certain natural phenomena: sunrises and sunsets, the sound of the waves on the shore, misty autumn mornings and so on.
    I think it is a cultural matter not a genetic matter. Western European culture, which dominates the way we think, began looking at Nature in a benign or positive way wit hthe Ruskin and the Romantics, approximately 200 years ago. Romantic thought in literature springs out of the Enlightenment, which springs out of the Renaissance, etc. Culture & thought evolves along self-regulating lines the same way that other living organisms do. Gaia theory at least as far as my limited understanding extends, is an attempt to reconcile Romantic philosophy and Scientific methodology.
  11. Gaia Theory is a scientific argument which postulates that the Earth (the biota, biosphere and other components) is a self-regulating living organism. Since we are a part of this, our genetic heritage stretches back as far as life itself (estimated to be around 3.8 aeons old). From this perspective, our connection to Nature (as experienced through our emotions and senses) is both very deep and very old.

  12. Mike,

    I think that your preparation should include a careful study of aesthetics. I am not sure what books to recommend.

    I am in the middle of an enormous book by Mikel Dufrenne, entitled The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. On page lix of the introduction Dufrenne notes: "The beautiful as a symbol of perfection has been confused with the beautiful as a special characteristic. Because of this confusion, a particular aesthetic theory and practice has been absolutized." The statements in your inquiry seem involved in the problem that Defrenne mentions. I know you are thinking of proportion, harmony, gracefulness, etc. These are qualities of a particular body of European art. Your "common gene pool" idea needs to be reconsidered.

    There is also the confusion between looking for beauty in nature and looking for beauty in art. The two are not the same.

    I hope these ideas help.
  13. Fascinating stuff Michael, thanks for posting. The points you make are quite insightful. The reaction I am speaking of is the instinctive, base reaction one has to a magnificent vista - it takes our breath away, and causes us to gasp in awe.

  14. We are part of nature and the landscape. When we look at beauty in nature it touches us deeply because the Earth is ancient and so is our existence. The Earth is our home, we live here. We are connected to nature. We are made of the same things that we see in the landscape. As Carl Sagan said "We are the stuff of stars."

    BTW. Not all of us hold landscapes in reverance. Many people skim through life merely bouncing along the surface like a well skipped stone. There are people that feel deeply and there are those that don't.
  15. Gene (and Ann M), your statements are poignant and fill me with hope and realisation. I hope that this thread strikes a similar chord with others reading it.

  16. Seems like you have touched a nerve for many of us Todd. Years ago a friend shared an observation from her 10 year old daughter, "Mom, I used to think that we were all the same person but that we just had different bodies." This is the end of innocence. I believe that our conscious efforts are directed at recapturing that awareness of union we had in the beginning. For me, Beauty is the, usually temporary, experience of that reunion.

    In the presence of beauty - an internal experience - I am sad and want to cry because it reminds me of my separation, and simultaneously want to celebrate because I have come home. Those photos that evoke beauty in me help me in my journey.
  17. Don, that's a cracking observation. Your post also made me smile for the fact that I'm aware that Todd can be a first name in America, but rarely so here (in Scotland). For future reference, please call me Mike :)))
  18. Hi Mike. I hope you'll tolerate a wee theology lesson that will expand on what Collin mentions very briefly. A very valid point of view whether anyone wants to hear it or not. Get your Bible out. In Genesis 1:31 we see God on the end of the 6th day of creation enjoying all that He did because it was "very good." Paradise in the real sense. But something happened (sin, rebellion) and that perfect creation that God had goven to man to own and subdue was turned over to Satan. In Luke 4:6 during the temptation of Jesus, Satan states he would give all of the Kingdoms to Jesus and they were his to give because they had been "handed over" to him. St. John affirms this in 1John 5:19. He says "the whole world lies in the power of the evil one" and the apostle Paul also agrees in Romans 8:19-23 he sees the creation as "anxious" "longing" "groaning" to be done with the corruption that has overcome it as a result of mans rebellion. And that day will come. The remainder though is this, we have in us that same longing for the perfection that God marveled at on that 6th day. And when we find a little corner of the world that is relatively uncorrupted our spirits that God created in us soar![​IMG]
  19. Mike,

    What you are describing in your response is the Sublime. It is not the same as Beauty. Kant and other German philosophers wrote about this quality, which became the basis for much nineteenth-century landscape painting. Today many people think of the Sublime as a fiction whose time has come and gone. Ansel Adams was interested in the Sublime in a way that opened his work up to much criticism. Edward Weston's work was more involved in formal beauty--harmony of composition, etc.-- without the intensity of the feeling of awe that characterizes the Sublime. In any case, you are describing a felt quality (a kind of emotion in the viewer), not a quality that is primarily in the work, if you see what I mean.
  20. Jim and Michael, thanks both very much. You've given me a lot to think about (I fear my head will pop soon though).
  21. Transendence. The sense of wonder. Fulfilled dreams are not fulfilled hopes. Attainments that are the envy of our world, possessions, careers, postions, etc. has deluded many into thinking these are the answers to fulfillment. Deep down there is a stronger longing..not mitigated by ones worldly success. GK Chesterton said that weariness does not come from being weary of pain, but from being weary of pleasure. We are eternal beings, travelers passing through. We are made for something else beyond the here and now. Landscape gives us a glimpse of that sense of wonder (who can look into the grand canyon and not be awestruck?), the realization that we were indeed made for something else. It's also very interesting that photographing a landscape is not just held in the beauty of the landscape itself, but also in our need to create, because we were formed in the image of the Creator. We fill two basic needs while photographing the landscape, the need to create while recapturing wonder.
  22. a few people have answered with deeply felt conviction, and are to be applauded for
    it. whether you are in agreement with them is another matter entirely.

    some find answers in their chosen religion, some don't....

    but it's good to see people discussing things other than characteristic curves and the

    no answer, just the lyrics of a particular song that keeps me going out for more. i
    think the opening line to the second block of text may provide a starting point for


    Black then white are all I see in my infancy.
    red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me.
    lets me see.
    As below, so above and beyond, I imagine
    drawn beyond the lines of reason.
    Push the envelope. Watch it bend.

    Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
    Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must
    Feed my will to feel my moment drawing way outside the lines.

    Black then white are all I see in my infancy.
    red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me.
    lets me see there is so much more
    and beckons me to look through to these infinite possibilities.
    As below, so above and beyond, I imagine
    drawn outside the lines of reason.
    Push the envelope. Watch it bend.

    Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
    Withering my intuition leaving all these opportunities behind.

    Feed my will to feel this moment urging me to cross the line.
    Reaching out to embrace the random.
    Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.

    I embrace my desire to
    feel the rhythm, to feel connected
    enough to step aside and weep like a widow
    to feel inspired, to fathom the power,
    to witness the beauty, to bathe in the fountain,
    to swing on the spiral
    of our divinity and still be a human.

    With my feet upon the ground I lose myself
    between the sounds and open wide to suck it in,
    I feel it move across my skin.
    I'm reaching up and reaching out,
    I'm reaching for the random or what ever will bewilder me.
    And following our will and wind we may just go where no one's been.
    We'll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one's been.

    Spiral out. Keep going, going...
  23. I'm not bashing your beliefs, but you need a very narrow, highly
    ahistorical focus to sustain the idea that gasps of awe are part of
    every human's genetic inheritance. Children don't do it- they're
    much more likely to be fascinated by what's at their feet. I don't
    do it- I love grand landscapes, but I like to think my reaction is
    more nuanced than simply clutching my brow and swooning in
    my petticoats.

    It is a commonplace amongst those that do love wilderness that
    their emotional commitment to its hard reality is not widely
    shared. Most people are perfectly happy with the
    super-saturated cliche on the cover of their Christmas soft centre

    The Tate in London had what by all accounts was an excellent
    exhibition of American Landscape painting last year called "The
    American Sublime". The catalogue of the exhiibition is still
    available at Amazon and other booksellers, but if you just want a
    peek without paying, there is a useful teacher's pack you can
    download at the bottom of this page:

    There are also some interesting (and some kooky) online
    reviews if you do a google search.

    If you want some excellent general background, "The Invention
    of Tradition" (ISBN 0521437733) is a classic.
  24. After reading through this thread I now feel like a simple man. Most of the theories and such probably have merit but for me the answer is much simpler and quite obvious.

    I spent my youth growing up in the outdoors and rambling around in the hills. There is not any magical or deep inspirational reason about why I enjoy so much being there and away from day to day life with all the people around. I enjoy the fresh cool air, the lack of industrial noise, and the serenity of the open mountains. As for why do I enjoy photographing the outdoors is simply because I enjoy photography? I take pleasure in learning and practicing my camera /darkroom skills nearly as much as I enjoy being outdoors so it is a good marriage shooting outdoor photography.

    I have just changed from hunting and 4x4 cruising in my earlier years to shooting photographs in my later years. Once again a simple answer to what I consider a simple question. I enjoy being outdoors. Taking photographs and trying to make the best fine prints that I can just provides me with an activity that permits me to interact with my surroundings. Otherwise I might get bored and do something stupid like take up local politics to fill in the vacant moments.

    As you can see, I am a simple man hopefully making the correct choices.

    Kind Regards,
  25. "...but it's good to see people discussing things other than characteristic curves and the like."

  26. Sal,

    because even though i'm a beer drinker and love a cold schooie at the pub with mates watching a rugby match, every so often its good to sit down over a meal and converse while enjoying a bottle of Mudgee wine.

    from this day forth let this wonderful concept be called 'variety'.

    then again, you could always just live on beer.... seemed to work for at least one of our prime ministers (australia).

    this forum is fantastic for getting quick techie stuff when something needs checking, and certainly is not the best place to have any real conversations or experiences with what we are involved in, but every so often it's good just to break from the mould and become involved in a brief chat where people are going to go off in all sorts of directions....
  27. But does the "fundamental nature of beauty in the landscape" nessecerily touch something deep inside us all?
    I admit I strive to capture "conventional beauty" in the landscape, but frankly when I succeed the only part of me it fundamentally touches is my pocket. Succeed and I have a potentially commercial shot but an image that more often than not leaves me cold. Like art porn, perfect young bodies, perfectly shot, but ultimately bland and sexless.
    When viewing landscape images I long for truth, the imperfect, the experience of being in a real landscape.
  28. So far OT it's almost OT: you might enjoy Evan Eisenberg's (? I think that's right) Ecology of Eden. Sometimes he goes a bit around the bend but it's a good read that's relevant here. BTW, Gaia is a hypothesis, not a theory. That is, it isn't testable, so it cannot be refuted. Which, of course, doesn't mean it isn't right. Not necessarily, anyway. In one of the (many) Chinese creation myths, the Earth came from the death of a protohuman/demigod, whose breath became the wind, one eye the sun, the other the moon, whose hair became plants, etc. The parasites on his body became people. Is that why the other great subject is the body? ;)
  29. Why? Because beautiful landscapes are nicer to look at than butt-ugly landscapes!;-)
  30. My first post - bear with me!


    I think that beauty in landscape as also a time, in the sense of
    "moment in time" affected thing. You are sensitive to the same
    landscape giving different emotional response at diferent times.
    I don't think that there is necessarily one response to a particular
    scape, it\s a matter of how we are feeling at the time (as well as
    lots of other variables....

    my 2p. Tthanks for the fascinating thread.

  31. Mike: I think that human beings crave organization and delight in the surprise of finding it. We respond with pleasure when the landscape unexpectedly presents us with harmony, in either color, form and texture and particularly when it does so unexpectedly and in rich variety. Human beings are blessed with faculties that enable us to see and appreciate the harmony and infinite variety of the universe in as far as we can reach it or it can reach us. A bit of mystery adds to the attraction and when it comes to the landscape, mystery is never far away. I believe too that human beings are ephemeral as their pleasures are concerned and that what they perceive as beauty fades with overexposure. I have my doubts that the mule skinner that has gone 1000 times down the grand canyon will remain as impressed with its grandeur as much as the first time he laid eyes on it. The usually somber, bored and inanimate expresion of the museum watchman may be more indicative of the fact that the treasures with which he cohabitates day after day exhausted their last surprise long ago, than of the lack of any sensitivity on his part. Is beauty then a joy forever? I do not know, but for the artist its search can only end with death.
  32. Mike,

    My lame attempt at humor aside, I think Jim Galli is right on. I might add a Thomist view that the Soul loves It's Creator, and is drawn to It. The attraction to a beautiful landscape would, St. Thomas Aquinas might postulate, be the Soul being attracted by an element of the grand creation of God. The most beautiful landscapes I think, like people's lives, are uncluttered by what is meaningless or distracting. Perhaps this is why the concious is repelled by the very thought of mortality and death(What? No stuff?), while the Soul longs to return to it's Creator. The Soul "overrides" the concious when we look at a beautiful landscape. Ansel's cliffs will kill you. Weston's surf will tear a ship apart. Clyde Butcher's swamp is full of critters only too happy to inject deadly venom or brunch on the unwary. Sella's peaks are among the most inhospitable places on earth and the desert isn't filled with places with names like Death Valley for nothing. Yet these are the images that speak to the Soul that is not afraid of mortality. The same could be said for ruins, be they anasazi or european monasteries. Our world would tell us something very bad happened here---people died, civilizations died. The Soul looks beyond that and sees something of great beauty because it(the ruins) have endured, spared for whatever reason, for awhile anyway, by the Creator, and remain a monument to other Souls(who the Soul loves because they too, were created by God) that have gone "home." Thanks for a very intrigueing thread!
  33. ...oh, and beautiful landscapes are nicer to look at than butt ugly ones!(did I say that already?);-)
  34. "beauty in the landscape and why it touches something deep inside us"

    Why? Because we (photographers) see things differently. We see the beauty that is there. If we wern't able to see it then we wouldn't be photographers. Which brings up the question, Do we see things differently because we are photographers or are we photographers because we see things differently?
  35. Wow, what can I say? I just got up (it's just after 7 here) and I honestly didn't expect to see so many great replies. What's so wonderful also is that there are no right or wrong answers to this, simply different views, all of which (so far) have been thoughtfully put.

    I must rush off to work now, but I'll spend more time once I get there looking through these posts. Thanks again, for all your input.

  36. Mike, you might try reading Gadamer 'The relevence of the beautiful' or Adorno 'aesthetic theory' (you'll need a couple of years for the latter)
    As to landscape - at one time nature wasn't beautiful, it was dangerous, untamed, beauty was progress. One thing I guess you'll have to address is the difference between 'pretty' and 'beauty'. A book that may help here is Witkin's 'art and social structure' Many landscape postcards are 'pretty' 'kitsch' - what has to happen for them to become beautiful? Also whereas most folk would agree that there is a universal concept called 'beauty' why do we all see it differently? I was reminded of that yesterday reading to reveiws of Friedlanders 'desert seen' - a book I love. One reviewer rated highly whilst another just couldn't see the point.
    Best of luck

    Julian - writing at speed
  37. I've had a chance to collect my thoughts (and some breakfast from the canteen) so I'd like to reply to some of those who've been kind enough to post here.

    Struan, I think perhaps my words were slightly misleading. I wasn't saying that everyone responds to the landscape in the same outward manner. I do believe, that for many (if not most) of us, it touches us in a way that few other things do. I'm not one to 'gasp in awe' but I did (at least on the inside) when I stood on top of Ben Lomond on New Year's Day and looked around me for a hundred miles.

    Keith, the beauty (or the Sublime) that I'm speaking of is about as far removed from "conventional beauty" as it's possible to be. Give me the raw, untamed, wild and dangerous any day. As to whether that constitutes perfection or imperfection - who are we to say?

    Dave T, I'm quoting from page 11 of "Ages of Gaia" here, by Jim Lovelock. "...The first Gaia book was hypothetical, and lightly written - a rough pencil sketch... this second book is a statement of Gaia theory, the basis of a new and unified view of the Earth and life sciences... I have called the science of Gaia geophysiology". While I agree that a theory must be testable, I'd say that Gaia theory is no more untestable than quantum mechanics.

    This has been a most thought-provoking thread. Please keep the comments rolling in.

  38. One of your articles could focus on the geometry of landscapes. I took an art class from a friend, and it was excellent. He emphasized the importance of seeing and sketching the fundamental forms of a scene before even thinking about the detail. I could have said "shapes", but that would be too detailed. This was a powerful insight for me in sketching and photography. I inherently look for the "geometry" of a scene before photographing.

    For example, I have a photograph I took in the John Day Fossil area in Oregon. It's a cliff with a rock in the foreground. The cliff stands out as three tall rectangles looming in the background, with an oval in the foreground. After adding all the color, the ground cover, the tumble weeds, it's not clear whether the geometry of this photograph will be obvious, or even be seen, by the casual viewer. But it's there, and it adds to the drama of the image.
  39. I may have indulged my rhetorical bent a little :)

    The only time I've been on a Ben on New Year's Day it was
    impossile to stand up, and it had nothing to do with the previous
    night's imbibing. If you've done that sort of thing you know that
    the attraction of landscapes is much more varied and subtle
    than the conventional line. You will also know that most people
    cannot see the attraction of the reality, and will fight hard to toe
    the party line from the comfort of their sofas.

    There is something deeply insincere about the conventional
    sense of the sublime. When first formulated, its proponents
    were careful to explicitly state that it was the result of gazing on
    terrible danger while perfectly aware that there was no actual
    personal risk. The latter part has been quietly forgotten, and for
    many people landscapes in the grand style are simply
    consumed at face value, like filmstars in gunfights, 9 ct gold on
    the Shopping Channel ("So light on the wrist!"), and I Can't
    Believe It's Not Butter.

    This matters, because it is the conventional market that pays for
    so much landscape photography in the first place. It both
    reinforces the perception that landscape photography is a
    worthwhile, desirable activity, and sets the rules for what is
    regarded as 'normal' and 'right'. Also, it matters because there
    are surprisingly many people who genuinely believe that once
    we have a good photo on file, there is no need to preserve the
    original. Traprain Law is a case in point.

    I wasn't getting at you. I just think an introduction could use a
    broader brush. If you spend a lot of time in the Highlands or on
    the West Coast, you'll know how hard it is to keep small bits of
    baling twine or orange fishing net out of the picture. Were I
    giving a course in landscape photography I would start by asking
    the students why they felt the need to exclude them. Other arts
    don't (for example, Kathleen Jamie wrote a great piece in the
    LRB recently on the delights of Hebridean flotsam), so why does
  40. My personal feeling is that a landscape photo is not quite complete without at least
    one white styrofoam coffee cup that has been discarded somewhere within the frame
    of the photograph. This allows the bored viewer to play a sort of post-industrial
    "Where's Waldo?" when contemplating the image.
  41. A lot of words written here and the answer is that due to the very subjective nature of beauty there will be a different answer for everyone who contemplates the question.

    Moreover, isnt the very reason we photograph (whether it be nature of whatever) is to communicate WITHOUT WORDS. As Ansel used to say, (not exactly in these words) "I show you a representation of something I have seen and felt. I have done my part. Now it is up to you to add your own understanding based on who you are. If you don't agree with me, that's fine."


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