Home (explained)

In a recent blog post about photographic art I read the claim that more and more of it requires explanations and blurbs of text that give meaning to otherwise more or less incomprehensible and/or bad and/or mundane photos. Photos that are produced by art students who, with a fresh degree, want to make a name for themselves by creating avant-garde work that can only be identified as such with the proper explanation. Quite naturally, this got me thinking about my own photos.

To begin with though, I don’t have a formal education in photographic arts. I always liked making photos for the sake of preserving and sharing what I saw, mostly in nature – and when I got my hands on a digital SLR camera for the first time about 10 years ago… well, the rest is history, as the saying goes.

Also, looking at contemporary photographic art, I do have to wonder whether my photography actually qualifies as such. I don’t think it does. I just make more or less pretty pictures from places that I like. I guess if my photos have a purpose, besides fulfilling my own need to make them with as much passion (or lack thereof;-) as I do, then it’s probably sharing the beauty of our natural world and hoping to transport that feeling over to others, spreading the understanding that this is our true home that we should cherish, and must protect.

Which leads me to chaparral – California’s largest ecosystem, composed of hardy, often stubby shrubs that are adapted to the mediterranean climate. I satisfied my curiosity and the desire to know more about it in the naturalist class with the California Chaparral Institute – and that has most certainly changed my photographic view on it. Now that I know many of them, hiking through these plants is a bit like meeting and recognizing “old” friends.

Which makes me wonder… do my photos of chaparral work without explanation? Has my fascination with chaparral changed my photos in a way, so that now only others who understand this particular biome to a certain degree can actually appreciate them? And aren’t explanations along with these photos a good thing then, to at least try and serve the purpose of raising awareness for the content I’m depicting?

In mid June I was out on the Miner’s Loop Trail at Black Mountain Open Space Park to photograph the Mountain Mahogany’s “fruit plume” for my gallery of that particular plant, and there’s one particular stretch of the trail where the bushes aren’t too tall and one gets a view of the other side of a ravine with a patch of Southern Mountain Misery. I photographed from that spot before, with fog and without. This time I made a photo in direct sunlight, and right now, it’s pretty much my favorite:

Lush green chaparral at Black Mountain Open Space Park, San Diego, California. June 2016.
Lush green chaparral at Black Mountain Open Space Park, San Diego, California. June 2016.

Which, at last, leads me to the explanation. I can see a hint of radial lines moving through the frame (four of them), from the lower right corner to the upper left corner, which is the reason why I chose the square crop. It’s rather subtle, so it is quite likely that to you, this is only a wild mess of shrubs.

However… if I tell you that in this photo, there’s an ancient Toyon, flowering; Mission Manzanita; flowering Chamise; Southern Mountain Misery; Laurel Sumac; a bit of a Lemonadeberry; some dried wild cucumber… and that’s only what can be seen from the photo made from a distance with the telephoto lens. Is it more than just a wild mess of shrubs now? I hope so.

Photos with explanations are just as good as ones without, I’d say. The difficulty for the artist of course lies in realizing when an explanation is helpful and/or necessary, and when it isn’t… and for consumers of photographic art, also to restore a bit of reason and sanity, and ask questions about the artwork they’re looking at, and see if the answers satisfy them. If they do, they may elevate the work to a new level, and if they do not, they’ll at least help in forming one’s taste (and perhaps the ability to identify artsy-fartsy nonsense;-).

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2 Responses

  1. As you hinted at here the purpose of the image will determine if it requires explanation. This one, for instance, could use it if it’s for a botany book where documenting the area is the focus, or not use it if you’re creating a chaparral portfolio where the beauty of the landscape is the focus.

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