THE MEANINGFULNESS OF BEAUTY

Reynisfjara, Iceland

NARROW MINDED PEOPLE WATCH OUT FOR THE MEANINGFULNESS OF BEAUTY!

When it comes to simple beauty, and to the less simple meaningfulness of beauty, photographers are a strange breed. Professionals and amateurs alike. An external observer wishing to follow online discussions about photography would be surprised to see how many weirdly sectarian and close-minded photographers there are. Most interestingly, this is true even when leaving all the usual brand-related wars aside, to actually just look at photography itself.

Following these online exchanges, one can’t help noticing that too many photographers consider just one kind of photography to be really worthy of pursuing: the one they do, of course. In particular, among those narrow-minded photographers, one of the things I most frequently see is their claim that “real” photography is documentary, and documentary only. Be it reportage, documentary landscape photography, street photography or any other genre, according to them to be meaningful photography must be documentary. Any other kind of photography doesn’t carry any message, is not meaningful, and therefore is not worth doing.

The Dolomites Photography Workshop

Personally, I love documentary photography and reportage in particular. I started being serious with photography doing it, and my reportage work has been exhibited internationally. I have nothing against reportage, of course, nor do I have anything against documentary photography. What I take issue with, however, is narrow-minded people and their attitude.

To them, reportage is pure, serious, committed, meaningful; all the rest is either commercial, and thus tainted by aiming at profit (of course, they’ll say that with a tone of horror in their voice!), or hedonistic, and therefore just about useless. Landscape photography, in particular, is at most considered an exercise in technique, an easy pleasantry, a photographic pastime with little more than some aesthetic value. It’s beautiful, sure. Hedonistic, yes, but meaningful, no. That is reserved to “serious” photography.

Well, you’d think that this attitude would at least inspire some sort of solidarity among landscape photographers, right? Something like “hey, let’s stick together to promote a common cause”? Wrong. What is even stranger, to me, is the sectarianism existing between landscape photographers themselves.

For instance, the other day I bumped with dismay into a small group of ignorant people on Facebook. They created their own little group, a group formally dedicated to landscape photography in general, but a group where in reality they praised only landscapes featuring human elements, while disparaging all landscapes that missed such artefacts. Of course, they did that so that they could pat each other on the shoulders, calling each other genius landscape-ist, which is fine. What is less pleasant, though, is how they ganged up personally attacking anyone who dared not share that same philosophy and aesthetics understanding, so to speak.

To me, a great landscape photograph is great regardless of the presence of human signs or human artefacts. To quote Ansel Adams, someone that our zealots would very likely not even consider a photographer: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs”. If the human element adds something to an image, great; if not, for me it’s just as well.

Cinque Terre & Tuscany Photography Workshop

Back to our example group, on the other hand, in their extremely narrow view of the world they went so far as saying that images without human artefacts in them were not even worth to be called “landscapes”, because “they didn’t tell anything about the place” and “they could have been taken just about everywhere”. So what, if you ask me.

Not to mention that, in doing so, with just a few keyboard strokes they managed to neglect and delete hundreds of great landscape photographers and their work, as well as nearly a century of landscape photography. Gone is Ansel Adams, whose quote I shared above, of course; gone is most minimalist landscape photography; and so on. Oh well, whatever makes them happy.

Generally speaking, I noticed that in every given group, no matter how small such as the community of landscape photographers, you inevitably could find a sub-group looking for a way to differentiate itself from another sub-group, marginalising it in turn. It always makes me sad to see how humans in general tend to split in smaller and smaller groups, rather than joining forces for the common good.

In particular, it’s even sadder to see such narrow mindedness and ignorance here, considering that we are talking about a form of expression as beautiful and varied as photography in general, and landscape photography in particular. I am not saying that the good never prevails among photographers (and in the world at large), but it certainly happens much less often than the other way around.

More, coming from a long professional musician’s career, this whole thing feels like a huge deja-vu for me: sadly, there’s nothing new or original here.

General considerations aside, this article is about the meaningfulness of beauty in landscape photography. Let’s concentrate on that now, starting by giving a look at a definition of meaningfulness to see what we are actually talking about here.

Definition: meaningfulness is the quality of having great value or significance.

To score an easy point, I could say that any photo that has great value or significance at least for its creator is then meaningful at least to him, thus fitting the definition. However, let’s assume that we are talking about something a little more universal than that.

Let’s take reportage photography as an example. People asserting the higher intrinsic value of reportage, usually do so on the basis that it carries a higher meaning for mankind. For instance, showing the result of chemical warfare on civilians would outrage and unite the rest of the world against the perpetrators, thus pushing them to stop using such weapons and making the world a better place. Very true, when it happens, and I absolutely agree. Reportage photography can be very meaningful for mankind and can serve a high purpose.

What about landscape photography instead? Is it really “just” beautiful work, a hedonistic pursuit only?

Not to me. True enough, the purpose of my work is to show the beauty of our planet, the amazingness of the world we live in and the power of nature. However, I believe that by showing the beauty of our planet to the higher number of people possible, I can help inspire people to preserve both that beauty and our planet. I believe that by showing the beauty of remote locations to people who cannot travel there, I give them a chance to see the world and enjoy its beauty through my eyes.

Last, but certainly not least, I believe that in times such as the ones we live in, with people struggling with the economy, fearing for their future and worried about their safety, showing them our planet’s beauty might improve their day and the quality of their life. And why not, I believe that seeing the beauty of the world might inspire everyone to be a better person.

Al Of course, I am not trying to infer that my point of view carries any universal value. Let’s have a quick look at the history of mankind, then. Since the beginning of times, one of the ways mankind differentiated itself from other species, and the one so very peculiarly human, has been pursuing artistic expression. Beauty for its own sake. 

l life forms pursue activities that would ensure the survival and perpetuating of the species. The only one that pursue beauty for its own sake, without any utilitarian purpose, is mankind. From rhythmically beating a tree trunk to Mozart, from cave paintings to the Mona Lisa, and – why not – to landscape photography, pursuing the creation and sharing of beauty has accompanied us throughout recorded history. Without going into writing a philosophical treatise about aesthetics, let me say that if that is not meaningful, then I don’t know what is.

Normandy & Brittany Photography Workshop

This is the meaningfulness of beauty, applied to landscape photography. So yes, I believe the search for beauty in landscape photography IS meaningful, both to me and for the world at large. Personally, I’d go one step further: believe in the meaningfulness of beauty, and it can help you change the world. Idealist? Perhaps. Better to be idealist than cynical, though: as they say, a cynical is nothing more than a disappointed idealist, and I am not ready to be disappointed yet.

Death Valley Photography Workshop

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