Three perspectives on seeing what is familiar—versus seeing what is new—in landscape photography
You are standing atop a ridge looking down as the world spreads out below you. Late afternoon sunlight dapples a forest of pine trees that stretches for miles along either side of a winding river. In the distance, rugged mountains rise from the earth, their jagged peaks scraping the clouds above. Where do you point your camera?
Approaching a landscape can be among the most daunting parts of landscape photography. It is also the most important. Everything begins with seeing. But how we see is situational and is influenced by our experiences and familiarity with a location and subject. Photographers Marc Muench, Sivani Babu and Andy Williams discuss previsualization, discovery and how they each approach the landscape.
For the first half of my life, almost every landscape was new. The West was filled with unexplored regions—lakes, rivers, canyons, forests and glacially capped mountains that I wanted to climb. I was exposed to many of these places at an early age while traveling with my parents on landscape photography excursions. Each visit to a new and wild place opened the door to more intrigue. But we visited many locations more than once and, over the years, they became familiar.
When I began my professional career as a photographer, some of the first places I resourced for commercial and editorial assignments were those I had been to before—some locations I visited more than a dozen times in just a few years. Familiarity meant efficiency, and many of the photographs I made in those places were previsualized.
As my career grew, the destinations diversified. The world was shrinking, and I found myself flying to the corners of the United States and then to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way I saw and created imagery was evolving.
I was regularly visiting locations that were totally unfamiliar to me. With no internet at that time, there was little documentation of existing work, and I was forced to innovate on the fly, to create images using compositional skills that were not influenced by other photographers or artists. This was a period of what I call “discovery” landscape photography.
Both landscape photography approaches offer advantages and disadvantages. Both are important. And both have provided me with rewarding experiences and memorable images.
The Previsualized Approach
The white granite is young by geological standards. In fact, so is the entire Sierra Nevada mountain range, which is still growing. Small glaciers cling to some of the high summits—on the northern slopes, where there is less direct sun, and above 12,000 feet, where it is cooler. Waterfalls plummet down the canyons through a maze of steep cliffs and deep alpine lakes, and only take a respite while meandering through the occasional meadow. The scent of the granite mixes with foxtail pine sap, ozone and wild onion. The Sierra Nevada mountains are familiar to me. I’ve been sleeping under the stars, high up in their steeps, for more than 40 years.
My first memory of the Sierras was a rather long backpacking trip with my parents when I was only 8 years old. At 9,000 feet elevation, at the entrance to the Golden Trout Wilderness, we began the hike on our way to climb Langley Peak, the southern-most mountain in the Sierra that is taller than 14,000 feet. I had no camera. The only images I made were memories: I remember my father composing with his large format camera and carrying it over his shoulder in a leather case the entire way. I remember the trail being hot and dusty, and the nights being cold and dark. I remember the thunderstorms racing across the sky while we summited and the stinging pellets of hail that forced us to seek shelter beneath overhanging slabs of granite. For an 8-year-old, it was all very exciting.
Forty years later, my most recent hike into the Sierras was with a group of friends, all fathers with children from my hometown of Santa Barbara, California. We have been making these six-day trips for about 10 years. Each time, we visit a new location in the Sierras, places like Graveyard Lakes, The Tablelands and others. We spend the days hiking unnamed peaks and high alpine cirques with no trails and the nights telling tales around the campfire. The only schedules we keep are determined by the sun and our stomachs.
Unusually for me, on these trips, I am under no pressure to photograph. Instead, I become more of a sponge, absorbing locations, scenes and good times with good friends. I never intended these trips to become a great creative outlet, but they have. They allow me the opportunity to practice landscape photography as I believe it should be, with the right mix of familiarity, uncertainty and atmospherics that bring out the best in me. My understanding and familiarity with the sights, sounds and smells of the Sierras are born of great nostalgia and give me a lot to work with. Even new locations feel familiar, and returning there feels like hanging out with an old friend.
Another location that became familiar to me was the Channel Islands. Each year for 15 years, I sailed to Santa Barbara Island to catch lobsters. I learned to lobster dive from a good friend, a retired underwater diver named Jack Baldelli, or “Captain Jack,” as I like to call him. One windless midnight some 20 years ago, Jack showed me how to catch lobsters in the dark while free diving. Donning thick, 5-millimeter wetsuits, flippers, gloves and masks, we slid into the water from the back of Jack’s sailboat and began snorkeling to the shallower areas where the lobsters feed on barnacles. The bioluminescence caught me by surprise. Every time I pushed my arms through the still water, the world around me lit up. The ocean came alive.
I only caught three lobsters that night, but I was inspired to capture the experience in pictures. For the next 15 years, I saved time to sail with Jack to the tiny island off the Santa Barbara coast at the beginning of lobster season not just to catch the incredibly tasty lobsters but also to create underwater images that reminded me of that first night. I tried many times to find and photograph the bioluminescence, but it never occurred again while I was there, and I had to settle for daylight images. I still carry that first impression with me, though, and to this day, I hope to capture something I experienced 20 years ago. As elusive as the scene might be, it was real, and it inspired me to create more images in a place that became familiar.
The Discovery Approach
I’d been to Iceland many times, but until last summer, I had not been to the interior. The rugged coastlines of Iceland had kept me busy for years with their waterfalls, glaciated volcanoes and aurorae. But getting to know the coastline made me curious about what was just over the horizon, inland.
During the summer of 2016, I finally got the chance to explore the highlands of Iceland with a good friend, climbing partner and photographer, Dan Evans. Dan and I wasted no time after meeting in Reykjavik, driving straight out to a remote inland area. We camped for the next eight days, with only the occasional dip in one of the Icelandic hot springs to clean up and soak. We had no single destination, but rather a list of many places friends had recommended. We were guided by our intuition, our curiosity and, of course, the weather.
Once we veered off of Highway 1, the main road, everything was new. There are few roads in the Icelandic highlands, but driving off-road threatens the amazing little mosses, plants and animals that live there, so we hiked. When we noticed an intriguing-looking canyon or waterfall, we stopped, packed our camera bags with water and snacks, and set out on foot. Even in today’s social media frenzy, there is little literature about the highlands. This made each hike more intriguing and more challenging. We were responsible for choosing where to go, how far to go, and when to go. We made all the decisions about managing our time, our resources and, most importantly, our creativity.
The first region we explored was a remote section of Vatnajökull National Park around the notorious volcano Laki. It was vast, rugged and full of surprises that we could have spent a month exploring.
I studied the horizon with binoculars and noticed what appeared to be spray from a large waterfall several miles away, but because of a hill between us, I could not see the actual fall. It was an intriguing mystery, so we decided to spend the night nearby and hike out to the location early the next morning.
When the sun rose at 3 a.m., we bounced out of the tent and began the hike. There were fissures formed by a volcanic eruption in the 1700s that created the small, moss-covered craters that became interesting foregrounds for images of the vast volcanic landscape at dawn. The pink clouds cinched the deal, and we suddenly became immersed in photographing something completely unplanned.
Although our hike was slightly delayed, we eventually made it to the waterfall — one that neither of us had ever seen in images. Without great light, we simply recorded possible compositions that we could use when we return in the future.
Later in the trip, we set our sights on climbing Hekla, an active volcano. Hekla is not a technical climb but rather a hike up through snow, ice and very rugged volcanic fields of sharp lava. On the drive up to the trailhead, a sign instructed us to download an application that would send us text messages of an imminent eruption.
A 2 a.m. departure got us up through the lava fields and over the snow-capped summit ridge just in time to photograph the sunrise as climbing tendrils of low cumulus clouds danced around the lower ridges of the surrounding mountains and volcanoes. Views of the highlands stretched for miles and wrapped around to the ocean to the south. My eyes feasted on new sights and images I could never have conceived of—images I had never seen in any publication. This was why I had come to the highlands: to experience something new and unusual and to welcome the challenge, as a landscape photographer, that came with that. I was reminded that finding new images in new places is a thrilling part of my art that I love to practice.