Creating the Landscape Art Photography Theme
By Bob Killen, ACE, ACI
Creating a powerful, meaningful, and innovative landscape photography composition is a visual challenge for all of us. However, for the Landscape Photographer who strives to create a body of work with images that are a vision beyond documentation, no subject is more difficult to understand and execute than creating a Landscape Art Photography Theme. Art in general, and art photography in particular, captures the status of the human condition. The timeless human qualities of life, death, love, hate, peace, war and judgment are the wellspring of all the arts. Interpretations, impressions, and abstract reasoning all resonate from our forward and back-rolling perspective. For the landscape photographer, it is these humankind conditions that drives how we see and fit into a shared landscape.
So, just what is a theme?
If you are a working artist, you may be familiar with art thematics and understand the development and construction of an art theme. However, most landscape photographers are unfamiliar with themes and tend to shoot/create images that are a succession of shots without a visual narrative or point of view. As an art teacher and instructor for the National Park Photography Expeditions Master Class Workshops, I know that developing a theme for any genre is a challenge and perhaps more so for the landscape genre, but then, so is writing a novel or finding enough connected songs to create a music album. When speaking or lecturing for the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation and other National Park Service speaking engagements, I am often asked, “What is a theme, how do I create a one?”
Here is the answer.
In the arts, a theme is a broad idea or a message conveyed by artwork, such as a painting, photograph, or sculpture. Themes in the visual arts are often messages about life, society, human nature, the environment and are usually implied rather than explicitly stated. For the landscape photographer, a theme is a coherent body of work that supports the idea through a visual narrative developed primarily for aesthetics or intellectual purposes distinguishing it from documentary images. Post card pictures can be aesthetically pleasing but rarely deliver aesthetically challenging themes. They are one offs, and this is what many landscape photographers capture.
Themes and Subject are not the same.
A theme is not the same as the subject of a work. For example, the subject of the movie Star Wars is a battle between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance, whereas the themes focus on moral ambiguity and the conflict between technology and nature. Another example is my Friction Smooth theme from a Mojave National Preserve Artists-in-Residence exhibit, which presents as a subject Mojave Desert features of extinct volcanoes and dry lake-beds (Soda Lake). However, the theme is about the comparative view of volcanoes’ friction driven textures versus the dry lake bed’s smooth features with navigation techniques that present a Vision beyond Documentation.
Themes are not Motifs
While similar, themes differ from motifs in that themes are ideas conveyed by the visual-written experience while motifs are repeated symbols found inside an overarching theme. The motif in the above example stresses the repeating patterns of the desert surfaces.
Themes versus Genres
Genres are broad based categories of art based on some set of stylistic criteria formed by conventions that change over time as new genres replace the use of old ones. Artwork from any given period is often defined and categorized by similar themes found during that period. Some examples of genres are architectural photography, portraits, landscape, fashion, etc.
Landscape Photography Composition— Less is More
The first act of artists is to isolate the subject, clarify the emotions and apply a limited focus. In other words, less, is more, but you need to have the right less. Here are six steps to help create a successful theme.
- Research is the first thing you need to do and here is why. I recently completed a Master Class workshop in Olympic National Park and on that first day in the field, all of the learning photographers suffered from sensory overload. You cannot arrive at a theme on your first day or even your first visit. You need to explore a given landscape location often under various light and atmospheric conditions to develop a personal connection. In our workshops, we can work a particular area for several hours under preferential conditions, but successful landscape artists that develop and complete a personal project may spend up to a year exploring a given landscape site(s). As part of the thematic process, I recommend that you read literature about a given location, interview local people who live in the area, and review images from other artists who have worked in this area and similar areas.
- Decompress and feel the Landscape location first and intellectualize your workflow second. Until you can feel your visual narrative, it is impossible to develop a creative project that has a coherent thought; this takes some time.
- Reduce your thematic ideas to a similar subject matter: trees, rivers, atmospherics, etc. Having said that, let me also add that you can use a wide variety of subjects, particularly if your theme is going to drive a book, but these approaches are usually for a documentary. Nonetheless, I would encourage you to employ creative similarities to achieve visual coherence.
- Explore the subject in emotional or metaphoric terms: isolation, texture, fear, anger, hope, loneliness, etc.
- Select similar technical compositions: all black and white photographs, all negative space photographs, toned images, impressions, abstractions, etc.
- Extend your emotional range with challenging compositions, unique subject view, and apply narration and navigation as opposed to documentation with moods developed through light, color, monochrome and other art tools.
Themes are useful for defining your visual message and critical to creating a narrative. However, your theme can be defined by several criteria such as an implied metaphor, visual compatibility or incompatible image material, cultural implications, common atmospherics, style and other forces or concepts. For the main elements of defining a theme, no awkward gaps in your image relationships and seeing your landscape theme clearly, we need to see where you as the photographer ends, the landscape begins and a gradual discerning of what is self and what is not.