Landscape and I

Landscape and I

a tree, slightly out of focus as if in wind, on a grassy slope, against a gray sky; mountains and lake in the background
Photograph by Daniels Mekšs (2018)

“The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.”—Paul Cézanne

Everything that happens in the world goes through a subject. In writing about Arthur Schopenhauer, Robert Wicks reflects: “For as one is a part of the universe as is everything else, the basic energies of the universe flow through oneself, as they flow through everything else.”1 If this is true, there cannot be a clear division, a borderline, between landscape and me. Rather, we flow through each other. Maybe we are fundamentally made from the same material.

Can something exist without there being someone who observes it? An acorn just fell from an oak tree somewhere in Seattle; nobody saw it. Did it happen? Every day, every moment, there are billions of views, billions of landscapes nobody sees, but does that mean they don’t exist? If nobody looked at the sunset one evening, would that mean it didn’t happen? I don’t think so. But the question is valid: Do landscapes need somebody to experience them, to attest to their existence, or can they experience themselves by themselves, without an external observer? Can nature exist without us?

It is not clear whether Cézanne thinks the landscape always “thinks itself in me”; what if there is no me around? In whom does the landscape of wilderness think itself?

But regardless of whether landscapes need us, they do affect us. The landscape in which we live, in which we spend a lot time, affects and shapes us—psychologically as well as physically. There usually is a difference between a lifelong New Yorker who works an office job and somebody from a rural area who has to physically exert themselves every day. Or, for example, when we look at the mountains, there often arises something lofty in us too. The landscapes that surround us affect our consciousness; they enter our consciousness.

I’m not sure however what Cézanne means by “thinking.” What is there for a landscape to think? A landscape simply is, isn’t it? Of course, it changes, transforms, but does it need to think to do that? I would say that the landscape experiences itself through us.

A question is: Does landscape experience itself differently through each of us? It would seem that for people living in the same area, their landscape should pretty much be the same. They walk the same streets, see the same buildings. Everyone who lives in or visits that area can potentially see the same views. If it’s countryside, it’s the same: mountains and lakes stand as they stood. If they are accessible, anyone can go and see them.

And yet, when we look at what is seemingly the same landscape, do we see the same thing(s)? In the same way? Cézanne’s statement implies that a landscape reveals itself slightly differently for each of us—that it registers slightly differently in each consciousness. Because, I assume, we each have a slightly different consciousness, don’t we? Our consciousness is never empty, there is always content in it, and it’s different content for each person. And the landscape, when we look at it, meets that content rather than an empty screen. Or maybe it’s not so much about the content, but about the structure—everyone’s consciousness has a slightly different structure, each a distinct way of perceiving the world. Therefore, when we each turn our eyes in the same direction, the landscape isn’t the same for us. Even if we match the looking angle, the experience of the landscape is different for each viewer, because each viewer has a different consciousness.

The alternative is that our consciousness is just an empty vessel. Maybe it doesn’t feel that way in our everyday experience, permeated with thoughts and emotions, but maybe in the last analysis every human being’s consciousness is an emptiness. So, when we look at a landscape, it reveals itself to us as it is; there is nothing that we add or alter. There is nothing subjective happening in the information transmission from the world to the individual consciousness.

Maybe landscapes don’t need us, but there is a potential for something to happen when we do look. “The landscape enfolds us until we begin to see it,” writes Michael Heyward in his accompanying text for Bill Henson’s photographs.2 What happens when we begin to see it? Do we become aware of the inevitable split—I vis-à-vis the external world—or do we realize, if we really look and feel, that the landscape is a part of us and we—a part of it? I don’t think there are answers here, but the questions are worth exploring—trying out in practice (maybe it is possible to attain an experience where you start to feel “looser” than normally, your usual sense of self dissolving—you even feel kind of empty—and the landscape begins to flow through you. Or, not necessarily that your boundaries start to dissolve, but there is something in the landscape—in its visuality, the mood—that connects to something in your psyche, and you feel a kind of kinship with the landscape. This is surely a matter of practice, maybe the theoretical questions above prompt you to it.)

Bill Henson has photographed the kind of landscapes I hadn’t seen before (or maybe had in a movie, but not in life). Two examples will suffice for this essay. In the first photograph, we see a silhouette of an island (we see its ridge) in the middle, it’s hard to tell how far the island is from where the photographer was standing—it’s neither too far nor too close, somewhere in the middle. At the bottom of the photograph is a dark blue sea or ocean, the water rippling; above and around the island is a magnificent evening sky, with some expressive clouds basking in golden sunlight.

The other photograph is a centered shot of a volcanic-looking island surrounded by calm water and fog; the island looks mysterious, maybe a little scary.

Both photographs have a dramatic, sublime look and feel to them. But is it the landscape that is—was—dramatic, sublime, or is it rather the photograph of it that possesses those qualities? It can be both. We just have to be careful not to always seamlessly attribute the qualities of the photograph—the object—to the object (in this case, a landscape) photographed. Because the photograph of the landscape shows that landscape in one particular moment in time, from one particular angle—it shows us how the landscape looked—but it doesn’t look quite like that anymore. If you went to those islands now, they would probably have changed a bit, the light and weather conditions would be different, and you probably wouldn’t find exactly the same angle Henson took these photographs from. In other words, if you went there now, you wouldn’t see quite the same landscape that Henson did. A photograph shows us the truth—of how something once looked—but it cannot show the whole truth—because that something is always changing (its full truth cannot be apprehended until it has reached what it has to reach).

In photographing a landscape—in photographing anything—the object photographed is not just copied, seamlessly transferred from the world to the film or the sensor. A three- or multi-dimensional world cannot be enclosed in a two-dimensional rectangle. And yet, the photograph collaborates, so to speak, with the world in that it also creates what it may only seem to document. By taking a photograph, what gets photographed, what already exists, is also created or re-created—by framing it in a particular way, by choosing the time (and as a corollary, the light conditions) in which to photograph it—the subject is re-materialized. What is photographed is given a visual testimony and made stable. It can be looked at again, whereas the real thing changes, transforms. On the one hand, the photograph is less than the real thing; on the other, it is more stable, sometimes more revealing of the character of the thing than the real thing itself (which can hide, mask its essence).

Henson could have taken very different photographs of the same islands. A photograph creates a landscape by giving the larger landscape, the landscape in the world, contours. (Without framing, there is no landscape, is there? The human vision is also a framing.) But unlike a painting of a landscape, which—because it is essentially a product of the painter’s mind—creates the landscape anew, the photograph doesn’t. A painting is created through mind and hand-skill; even if the painting is meant to show the real world, it can never do that accurately, it remains subjective. The photograph, because it is a mechanical process, can show the real world—it shows a piece of it, and always—because the time keeps flowing on—a unique one.

The landscapes were there before Henson arrived. And yet, before the taking of these photographs, nobody had probably seen these islands from exactly these angles, in exactly these light conditions. Maybe a landscape is not so much a view that exists out there—there exists one, or rather several—but it’s more about what the viewer chooses or is able to see; what out of the totality of visual information and experience available he chooses or is able to select becomes his landscape, his vision and experience of a landscape. It is fragmentary, yes, but it is concrete and real. On the other hand, of course there exists a landscape out there; looking long enough, new details emerge, the landscape changes a little. It is up to the viewer how long and thoroughly he wants to look at it, how deeply he wants to get to know it.

We often project our previous experiences onto what we are looking at. Maybe, because of that subjective layer, we fail to fully take in what we are looking at. But maybe that’s not bad; that’s not necessarily an “impure” way of looking. When you really look at something, you’re probably not just neutrally looking at it; you are connecting yourself to it. And the best, deepest connections don’t happen through just the transmission of light waves; they happen through exchange—of energy, experience, memories, pain. When you give something to what you are looking at, and it or they give something to you.

Maybe you can synchronize yourself or even merge with what you are looking at. “Could we, standing before the stone, become still?” writes Michael Heyward.3 That sounds like a Buddhist exercise. Timothy Levitch, the protagonist of Bennett Miller’s 1998 documentary The Cruise, doesn’t want that—he doesn’t want to become a flower. “I want to look at the flower and appreciate the beauty of a flower. Somebody else might say, ‘You can look at the flower and become the flower. Isn’t that even better?’ But then I further would love it on the cruise if I can look at the flower, appreciate the beauty of the flower, and then have the flower appreciate the beauty of me.”4 To look at a landscape and have the landscape look back and appreciate you.

I think people should look at landscapes—more than many of us do. When, for example, we are walking between our tasks, I think it’s worth spending a few moments appreciating the landscapes along our way. I think landscapes, and nature in general, want to be seen. Maybe it can easily do without us; but maybe looking does something—it acknowledges and appreciates. The moment will be gone forever, but you saw it. Maybe it’s for nothing, but maybe for something. And you can take a photograph. Preserve a view. Let others see it. I think nature isn’t always so cold and harsh. Sometimes it wants to be photographed.

  1. Robert Wicks, “Arthur Schopenhauer,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition)
  2. Michael Heyward, “Twenty-One Metamorphoses for Bill Henson,” accompanying text for Bill Henson’s photography book Bill Henson (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2017), page 2.
  3. “Twenty-One Metamorphoses for Bill Henson,” 2.
  4. The Cruise, directed by Bennett Miller, (Santa Monica, CA: Lionsgate, 1998.)
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