When a photograph depicts a person, it is likely to suggest storylines in a fairly straightforward manner. A single or predominant person appearing within a scene will read easily as the story’s protagonist, and details in the image will help to establish strands of the narrative. Even photographs that contain only hints of human activity may express stories with relative clarity; the inclusion of a vehicle, a tent, or a personal belonging of any sort can provide a host of clues for surmising the circumstances of a scene, the events that may have preceded them, and the events that are likely to follow. But what about photographs that present no indications of human presence or even any animals in relatable scenarios? How do they tell stories?
Whereas images with figures in them have the potential to narrate quite literally, those that display natural features exclusively tend to require more interpretation, a difference not unlike that between prose and poetry. Landscape photographs generally tell their stories with relative subtlety, ambiguity, open-endedness, and mystery, but they are nonetheless capable of narration. If we find nothing meaningful in a compelling landscape photograph, it is only because we haven’t considered the implications of what makes it hold our attention. As I hope to demonstrate with a single photograph, landscape images can communicate stories on at least three different levels: the natural, the personal, and the metaphorical.
The photograph that I have chosen to use as an example shows a scene from the Mojave Desert, just after a rainstorm. The view presents a playa etched with wide mud cracks, lying beneath a dark, cloud-filled sky. Arcing across the darkness, a full rainbow springs from a mountain ridge at the left to open desert at the right. In the foreground, two especially wide cracks in the playa dominate the rain-splattered earth, each curving inward from either side of the frame and echoing the form of the rainbow above them. This simple description identifies the essential features of the photograph, but it omits any attempt at explanation or interpretation. Reducing a photo to its descriptive attributes misses out those qualities that make landscape photographs special as representatives of an art form that combines ‘found’ views with personal experiences and expression. Even though it may happen subconsciously, ideas about a landscape photograph will eventually come forward for the interested viewer, affecting the connection that the viewer will have with it. The following three categories explore some of the ways in which a photograph may convey those ideas and thereby suggest stories.
THE NATURAL LEVEL
Any nature photograph tells a story of creation, one about the natural processes that were at work in the formation of the geological features depicted. In the case of the desert playa, the bowl-shaped depression with its pattern of cracks sprawling across the surface evince the evaporation of a shallow lake that once existed in this location. What was originally muddy sediment of the lake’s bed has since contracted and cracked through the process of desiccation after the last of the water evaporated. The rainbow, as an indicator of both the sun and the rain, demonstrates the role that weather plays in affecting the topography of the area: rain created the lake, and then the sun caused it to vanish. These events are distinct chapters in a story that is perpetually in progress.
THE PERSONAL LEVEL
While a photograph may omit people within its frame, one person is always implied by its existence: the photographer. Behind every landscape image is a story of its making, even if that story never accompanies the image in any written form. Looking at the photograph of the desert scene, a viewer could guess much about the experience of the photographer at that moment: this person traveled to a remote area, hiked to a dried lakebed, probably got a bit wet from the rain, and then was treated to the spectacle of a full rainbow. Anyone who has visited a similar area or has witnessed similar conditions will be able to project additional details into the story based on personal experience, while others may embellish the narrative with details derived purely from a vivid imagination. The story could be envisioned as one of great adventure, of personal struggle, or of simple pleasures, but regardless of how well any of these ideas may match with the actual circumstances of the photograph’s creation, they still form part of its story for the viewer who imagines them. In this regard, the viewer mentally occupies the space of the photographer, and the two become elided as that implied individual who appears nowhere in the picture and yet serves as its protagonist.
THE METAPHORICAL LEVEL
The symbolic power of natural features allows them to suggest stories of a more timeless and universal quality. While symbolism can be very culturally relevant, the realities of nature provide experiences that people across the globe tend to share and to understand similarly. For example, a rainbow may have different spiritual or political connotations in different cultures, but most people will understand it as a phenomenon that occurs when a storm breaks and the sun begins to shine, so it is likely to register as something that marks the end of a difficult experience and as a herald of positive change. At the very least, a rainbow represents something highly ephemeral, a marvel that lasts a short while and is always fresh and new. In the photograph from the Mojave Desert, the rainbow appears in alignment with much older features, the cracks in the playa surface that resemble the rainbow’s form. For the viewer willing to ponder it, this coincidence may suggest a story of rebirth or renewal: the fractured past versus a bright future. Alternatively, it could suggest a happy symbiosis between old and young, an encapsulation of the cycle of life, or an epiphany revealing a connection between disparate ideas. Many more possibilities for interpretation exist, and any one of them may resonate without the need to go through any amount of deliberate analysis—sometimes we simply know that a photo is ‘speaking’ to us, without being fully conscious of what it’s saying.
Thinking about photographs as bearers of meaning may not be necessary for the creation or the enjoyment of them, but it can be very worthwhile in either case. For the photographer, giving some thought to the stories that a location may suggest can help with the creative process, both in the field and during image development. Interpretation can also help with the process of self-curation, since those images that seem to narrate most clearly are often the ones that hold the greatest visual interest. For the viewer, taking a moment to consider a photograph’s possible narratives will slow down the viewing process, allowing greater appreciation of what an image has to offer, which is infinitely more rewarding than having knee-jerk reactions while consuming images in rapid succession.
If you enjoyed reading about the possible implications of my desert photograph, you may be interested to hear the actual story of its making. I will share my experience of that morning in a post to my Facebook page on August 3, so I encourage you to follow me there and to look out for that post. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.
Erin Babnik is a full-time landscape photographer, photography educator, writer, and speaker. Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in Erin’s life, including an extensive background in various studio arts and a doctoral education in the history of art. Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Europe, teaching workshops and giving talks on both continents. You can learn more about Erin and her ideas about photography through a variety of interviews with her. | Erin’s Website: www.erinbabnik.com