Polarity and Interconnectedness in Photography
March 4, 2023
What makes for a compelling photograph? Using this question as a starting point, I want to try to put into words what I’ve intuitively felt for a long time about shooting and editing photos. In many cases, I think a compelling photograph boils down to polarity in one form or another. I’m mainly interested in how this pertains to landscape photography, though I think these same principles apply to many other types of photography and art in general.
By “polarity” I essentially just mean a contrast between opposing things. One type of polarity that often shows up in photographs is between big and small. A mountain scene with flowers in the foreground is a perfect example of this, where the big and small showing up together creates interest in the scene. Other examples include light and dark, warm and cool (or any colors on opposite sides of the color wheel), textured and smooth, curves and straight lines with jagged angles, vibrant and desaturated, seasonal transitions (e.g. fall and winter), and geological transitions (e.g. desert and mountains).
These contrasts are often directly observable in landscapes and can be further brought out when editing. They can also serve as tools to approximate other polarities that are present in landscapes but that are a little harder to pin down in purely visual terms. More esoteric, perhaps. Examples include the contrast between the powerful and gentle, strong and delicate, stoic and sensitive, yielding and assertive, subtle and brash, rigid and sensual, calming and abrasive, idyllic and ominous, chaotic and orderly, complex and austere—to name a few.
While these are important building blocks for a compelling image, these poles also need to interact in a cohesive, harmonious way— as though they are playfully talking to each other. Where they recognize their interconnectedness and dependence on each other. Where each substantiates, even contains, the other. Where they push and pull on the viewer to convey the intended story or feeling. This harmony tends to align in landscapes in fleeting instants, often in the liminal space between the end of one thing and the start of another. David Muench calls this the timeless moment and Henri Cartier-Bresson calls it the decisive moment. I understand them to be talking about something quite similar as what I’m trying to articulate here.
To approximate this with a photo, get there well before the interesting stuff starts happening, forget any bullshit compositional rules and other formulaic approaches, and simply become attuned with the landscape. Listen carefully to whatever language the landscape happens to be speaking and let that permeate inward and offer guidance. If there’s a foreground that enhances the harmony of the composition, consider including it. If there are no such foregrounds, try to find a way to remove the foreground from the composition entirely. And be decisive when hitting the shutter button. There’s no need to be “polite” or “shy” when deciding how to convey a scene. Be bold enough to attempt to drill down right to the essence of the scene in a single frame. A lot can be done to enhance this later when editing, but the magic has to be there in the initial raw file. You can’t polish a turd.
Personally, I’m usually drawn to monumental landscapes where the more “powerful” poles take the lead. While I enjoy shooting small scenes too, many of my favorite photos are where big features of a landscape line up in a unified way that accentuates or compliments a striking subject— where there is a centerpiece and message of the photo that is immediately apparent on first glance, along with other side-quests for the eyes to explore. I find that this is most readily available in the mountains. An imposing mountain face substantiates everything else around it, and makes the gentler details all the more worth celebrating (similarly, the gentle details within and nearby the mountain face add interest and character to what might otherwise be formless and lifeless). Something as simple as soft sunlight on a mountain face seems to exemplify several polarities at once. Additionally, I love that the mountains make no attempt to hide their sheer power. It froths and seethes everywhere you look. The mountains are merciless yet righteous. To convey this authentically through photography demands a lot of me, and I really enjoy this process. First of all, just getting to and from some of these backcountry spots safely requires a great deal of sustained alertness and physical exertion. And when shooting, if I hope to really transmit the energy of the mountains, I need to be able to act as a vessel of sorts; I need to bring along enough of my own vitality to be able to hold it, understand it, and feel its powerful charge in my own body. On the flip side, sensitivity and gentleness are also required to attune with and take in the landscape and intuitively identify the best compositions. This is true everywhere, but places that are especially foreboding will break me if I try to be too headstrong and don’t learn to sway with them. My photography tends to turn out better the more I’m able to take on a simultaneous expression of both sides of this powerful-gentle polarity. Ideally this occurs both emotionally and in my physical posture and movements. Only when the external environment and my internal environment mirror each other like this do I really know how to shoot and edit in a way that does justice to the place and the relationships between its polarities. I experience an amazing sense of vitality and aliveness in these moments. Communing with these dynamics in monumental landscapes helps me cultivate—or maybe simply recognize and uncover—power and gentleness in myself in a lasting way too. And through this process I’ve come to see that they aren’t in opposition at all. They support each other tremendously.