Mountain meditations on nature and photography
On being ordinary
Blaven appears from the clouds. Isle of Skye.

A cold west wind scratches cats’ claws across the dark grey of Loch Slapin as I walk away from the car and onto the wet, soggy, eroded hillside. Black peat runnels tell a tale of torrential rain over the winter while across the loch Blaven sleeps under a grey blanket of cloud. Ragged tendrils run along the jagged crest of the Clach Glas ridge and the light is meditative, calming, muse-light.

I’m wandering up Beinn na Cro thinking about creativity, nature and how landscape photography is changing. Changing to meet the needs of social media approval harvesting. More and more, I see the word mindfulness used for the process of photographing the landscape and time and again the word is used in its business oriented sense as a precursor to productivity. The performative peer approval process of competitions. The managing of landscape and nature into digestible formats conducive to swiping, liking, sharing and forgetting. Creativity now is more commonly known through its access mechanism, the creative process. As though it was a mechanical or computer controlled set of actions performed in order to produce something that is labelled “creative”. But if creativity is accessible via a process, then everyone can follow it and if everyone follows it does it lead to creativity for everyone? Is it creative the first time? Should you do it once and move on? Before that particular creative process becomes the norm and is no longer termed creative due to the sheer volume of output from the process? At some point the creative process must be become rote, accepted and normal, due to the numbers of people doing it and this thought sticks. Numbers, scales, impacts.

I stop to take off a layer. The clouds have lifted a little and the sun has broken through in places, sending searchlights across the loch, looking for spring. There’s real warmth in the sun now even while the wind is still cold. The close cropped heather, grass and old juniper look cold. They have that look of long days and nights in the cold. Days of scouring snow storms, nights of blinking stars watching the hare crunch across the snow fields. Rucsack on, brow wiped, I continue up the hillside.

There appears to be a clash of cultures on the horizon between photography competitions that seek to honestly depict the landscape and the rise of the machine and its own interpretation of the subject. If honesty needs to be defined, one possible yardstick for the unaware is to consider whether their honest depiction of the landscape would be published by National Geographic. This requirement and validation are both from a current competition. Image manipulation should be kept to a minimum.

And yet, on one hand photographers are told to not manipulate images ‘too much’ while on the other, they are encouraged to go with the new flow of artificial intelligence (AI) where they can replace skies, make their images look like every other image using algorithims that mimic ‘professional’ photographers who have found fame and money in their practice. The two approaches are irreconcilable. Even though they work on the same source material, the end result of treatment of the subject is in a different world because the subject of each is different. The final image in each case serves a different purpose.

It begs the question ‘what is an image’? When does the collection of photons entering the lens become an ‘image’? The cross-over with ancient philosophy concerning Absence, Presence, the Ten Thousand Things and what happens when something is named is intriguing. Photons come from the sun, bounce off the landscape and enter the lens where they are gathered. Those of an unwanted wavelength are removed and the rest fed to analogue to digital conversion circuitry to turn their expressive spectrum of endless values of interaction to simple ones and zeros. You can imagine the in-camera conversation at the gateway to the digital world,

“Next!”

“I’m a photon. I was born in the centre of the sun thousands of years ago. I bounced off that mountain top cairn and I encode information about your world you do not notice.”

“OK, you’re RED 235. Move over there please.”

At this point we have a digitally catalogued list of photons who have arrived and been transformed. RED 235 gave birth to an electron deep in the circuitry and is no longer around to tell us what she saw. Her continuous spectrum, all that range of frequencies modulated by landscape interactions is now a discrete one or zero. This stream of electrons is transported to the central processing engine where the internal darkroom of the camera applies dodging, burning, contrast changes, exposure manipulation, sharpening, to produce a JPEG ‘image’. The ‘image’ is what the camera has done to photons. Humans think this is ‘cheating’ and tell the camera to release the raw output of those electrons and they make those same changes themselves but in a much bigger, more powerful computer darkroom. But we’re no nearer answering the question ‘what is an image?’.

An image appears to be a digital artefact created during the process of engagement with landscape. That process is also influenced by the photographer’s mood, emotions, feelings, how they feel about the world, how they feel about themselves. The camera gives them a head start on communicating that state of being to an audience by presenting them with a digital canvas on which to ‘draw’ their emotions. Draw down a neutral density filter to darken the sky, create moody forbidding clouds. Reduce clarity here, enhance it there. Bring out the presence of that boulder in the foreground. The end result is a statement of how the photographer felt, both at the moment of photon to electron transition and during the time they worked on the result, bringing back their engagement with emotions felt at the location. How those emotions brewed and stewed on the way home. How they made the photographer think about who they are and how they see the world around them. That surely must be the ‘real’ creative process. The shift to AI techniques just seems to be a way to remove large parts of that process to make it more convenient to reach an end result. The danger is losing the ability to reflect on why you are making those changes. AI trivialises the process into one of simply choosing an image you like. In the words of Adobe, Photoshop now contains,

Neural Filters … to help you explore creative ideas in seconds … includes one-click actions to speed you to results

ref

Creativity cannot be rushed.

Personally, I think the new AI techniques can be fun. Replacing a cityscape sky with an alien cloudscape is fun. However, replacing skies in natural environment images seems just too far over the line for me. It’s not that it’s not a ‘dishonest depiction’ of the landscape. It’s that nature is ignored. Fake natures are conjured from the sea of electrons that make up the image. Worlds that don’t exist. Adventure, imagination, creative, yes. Photography? I don’t really think so. I think photographers go down that path believing the end result is photography but for me, it’s an entirely different realm of creativity. It takes you away from the story you want to tell about the environment you are in, in this moment. And the state in which you find it.

There is very little consideration of the state of nature. Unless the interaction comes with cinematic footage and soundtrack. But once the telly show is over it’s time to move on and ‘save the planet’ by going electric or engaging with the latest trend. Electric cars cause landscape destruction where lithium is mined, water sources polluted, lives wrecked. The fact a car is no longer belching fumes is meaningless as the pollution has just been shifted elsewhere, affecting other lives, other environments, other habitats. It’s analogous to replacing a sky you don’t like. Just take it out and slot in one from somewhere else. That mentality allows the same thinking to prevail in the physical world. Not the ephemeral world of photons, electrons, computers, filters, approvals, likes, shares and subscribes but the world of real lives with real consequences to actions. Don’t like the fact your car belches fumes outside your house? Replace the engine with an electric one but with one important consequence. You shift the pollution to be outside someone else’s house. Something else’s habitat. Net Zero Carbon is pollution donated to someone else.

A shaft of sunlight breaks through the clouds as I crest the summit ridge. A long narrow grassy walkway in the sky leading to a small cairn. Too small for shelter in this wind. I crouch but the gusts encircle the stones and I move down the ridge until I’m out of the wind and the sun comes out. A drink of water, a bite to eat, jacket on, coory doon and return to thoughts on the natural world. A ring ouzel peeps its wild land call from the ochre moor.

Creativity requires solitude. There is no process to follow to enter solitude. You just walk into somewhere that lacks humans. The retiring from society and its endless exhortations to buy, connect, reach out is refreshing and life affirming. Solitude can have a foundation in silence whilst having a known end where the product of one’s solitary experience is shown to the world. That invisible audience is what keeps lots of solitaries from becoming reclusives, the idea that solitude is a means to an end. Leaving society to pursue one’s creative impulses is wrapped in the knowledge that those impulses will eventually fade, days, perhaps weeks later as the solitary rejoins society with the fruits of their labour. Photographs, essays, new ways of seeing the world. An audience awaits, consumes, approves, disregards, forgets, moves on until the next urge to disappear takes the solitary into the wild places again. Over time, the solitary refines their understanding of existence and how the world is moving in human centred directions to the detriment of all life forms on this wonderful planet. Photographs are one of the gems of solitary engagement with nature but beyond solitude, what seems to be lacking in photography is integrity, dignity and wonder. Nature, wherever she clings on in the world, is in a parlous state. Appalling destruction is wrought in the name of ‘medicine’, the mania for exotic pets causes intolerable and industrial levels of human directed cruelty. The disgusting trophy hunting of the rich and stupid. The removal of large parts of the planet’s surface and habitats in the name of ‘renewable’ energy needs. All these are destroying this world. Report after report after report throws humanity’s lack of humanity in its face and is ignored. A population of almost eight billion is turning this world into a one species planet. Desperate measures such as banning vehicles, using land to grow crops to be burned as fuel. Humanity is so bound to the idea of universal travel it has to burn food to do so. Covering landscapes in solar farms, wind farms, seas full of turbines. They are merely sticking plasters on a throat gash. The simple truth is, humans do not scale. Eight billion need the entire planet to ‘fix’ the consequences of there being eight billion. There is no room left for anything else and hence we see the rise of viruses that escape from ecosystems that have been deliberately destroyed by humans. But what has this to do with photography? Spending the day outside, engrossed in the ‘creative process’, returning to the computer and deciding the climactically changed flat grey sky is boring and swapping it out for something fake is just a kick in the teeth to nature. Nature is suffering the world over and landscape photographers’ response is to replace the sky. Replace the car. Replace everything for something else that’s effect on the planet is as yet unknown. The only thing you can’t repalce is the planet. Photographers should document this wonderful planet as it is. You either tell a story with your photographs or you can turn them into social media honey, lather yourself with it and wait for the digital bees to find, lick and forget you.

I lie behind a line of boulders, sheltered and I stop thinking. I watch the clouds drop and rise on the ridge across the glen. I hear the water in the burns. I let my mind go quiet, experience the edge of existence where thoughts bubble up from absence, into presence and return to absence, just as do the clouds on the ridge. Scraps of mountain skyline come and go. Absence to Presence to Absence. Without naming, the essence of something is available to you, its natural state of being. Naming it confers status, expectations of how it behaves, acts, lives, dies. Simply watching shows the world as unartificial intelligence. A few minutes of no-thought, no-name, gentle breathing feels like a lifetime. And it is. It’s a short lifetime free of the world of human imposed constructs. In this manic world of constant engagement with its needy data machines feeding on us, to sit alone, on a hill, on a bus, on a train, anywhere, is to be ordinary and in the words of Chuang Tzu,

to be ordinary is to be self-reliant
to be self-reliant is to move freely
and to move freely is to arrive
to arrive is to be complete
but to be complete without understanding how - that is called Way.

Chuang Tzu, The Inner Chapters, translated by David Hinton

Landscape photography for me is about being ordinary. I’m nothing special. I do what I can but it’s a losing game. But I have a unique way of seeing the world, as does everyone. Don’t let that uniqueness disappear into the machine. Keep that ‘you-ness’ near you and refer to it every time you go out with your camera, or sit on the bus and watch a grimy cityscape blur past. What you feel when you look at something is conditioned by you. How you feel about what you see is down to who you are. Not what you think you should be.

Be you.

Be ordinary.

China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen

When I Find You Again, It Will Be in Mountains: Selected Poems of Chia Tao

Chuang Tzu, The Inner Chapters, translated by David Hinton