The Enigma of Beauty: On the Uses of Photography in Art

Devil’s Kitchen
Twilight time, to dream awhile unveils a deepening blue As fantasy strides, over colourfull skies The form disappearing from view…”

As with all acts of creation, the conception comes before the production. But an aesthetic creation doesn’t begin with a concept but with an experience, or what I like to call an art adventure. To produce a beautiful landscape painting, it makes sense that one must first have experience of a beautiful landscape.

This experience of Nature is a kind of run in with the effects of God. “Wait, what?” you ask. Yea, to experience Nature, to begin to understand her nuances and ever-changing being, is to become familiar with God’s works, or His effects as I call them.

“…He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change…”

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Obviously, then, the gravity of this undertaking is not to be taken lightly. To enter into Nature for the purpose of catching a glimpse of God, we, like Moses, must adopt a deep sense of humility and awe. Otherwise, the passage is closed to us, and Nature is somewhere beyond our perception–like Eden.

Now there are those who plein air paint, and there are those who sketch, and there are those who do a little of both, and from these outdoor painting and sketching studies, they make their studio paintings. But I don’t. I use a camera.

Crab Orchard Lake

That is not to say that sketching and plein air painting do not have their place. I believe they do. But the nuances of light, form, and atmospheric mood is what I as an artist am after, neither graphite nor an extended period of observation and painting can quite manage the task. Sketching captures form and value, not color. And, though mood may be communicated by value alone–darks against lights, heavy shadows, light, delicate mid-tones, etc., the color of the landscape is most impacting, most moving, but also the most elusive.

Nature changes from one moment to the next, in chroma intensity, which colors (literally!) every aspect of the landscape. One moment, the scene above at Crab Orchard Lake was vibrating in a soft hue of a yellow-golden wash; the next second, a dying sun bathed all in blood-red. Now, tell me how the plein air painter can capture such a thing within that brief period of transition from the last minute of the golden-glory hour to a violent crimson dusk–which itself only lasts for about five minutes?

When photography first came onto the scene, painters where put off. Many saw it as an infringement of their art-craft. A photographer could capture a scene faster and more faithfully than his artist counterpart, and eventually could do it in color as well. Today, artists presumably should have even more to fret about, what with High-Dynamic-Range photography and Photoshop-like programs that enhance levels, exposure, clarity, saturation, and other factors that make for a scientifically accurate record of a scene.

But such a defensive attitude is unwarranted, for the simple reason that the artist is not trying to capture nature like a photographer, but is trying to communicate nature like a poet. Hence, though an austere faithfulness to what merely the human eye sees a camera may capture quite accurately, what the human soul sees a mere contraption of plastic and glass and metal can never capture. The landscape has a mood, an attitude and a personality even, or, in other words, the landscape has a soul–an immaterial substance not inhering in matter, but animating it to be a particular form, a this, or that. But such qualities in the landscape only the human heart can perceive, the human soul, which alone can have communion with nature on this spiritual level. The camera, as useful as it is in representing the scene to the eye afterward, can only be but a lifeless record of an event and experience already gone.

But what are our options as artists? Sketching, plein air painting, and photography. What is common to all three is the act of observation. True, to sketch and paint outside is to observe more closely the landscape than the typical photographer is used to doing. What often happens is he (the beginner photographer) will compose a scene rather quickly, expose for the correct light, then snap away, fine-tuning his images as he goes, all the while not really taking in the scene as it presents itself. But the more experienced photographer will take in the scene first, commune with the soul of the landscape, one might dare say, court Nature herself for a time, then, attempt to capture what it was he experienced.

It is this form that I as an artist-poet-philosopher am after. My technique with oil and brush are merely the tools and materials I use to communicate that, just as the poet uses the conventions of language and a pen (or keyboard) to do so. May my merely human efforts be up to the monumental task before me.

Published by Robert Robbins

I am a Catholic, husband and father, and subcreator for a variety of media.

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