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How To Depict The Sublime With Your Photography

Michael Freeman asks the question: How can we use photography to make the sublime appear so?

|  Landscape and Travel
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The Photographer’s MindThis excerpt is from Chapter 1: Intent of The Photographer’s Mind by Michael Freeman. Visit Ilex Photo for more information.

Dead Monsters

The flip side of beauty is the sublime, a special case in which we experience a sort of fascinated delight at scenes and situations that are overwhelming, vast, or even terrifying. These are not hard to find, as anyone would agree who has stood on the edge of a volcano’s crater as the Earth starts to shake, or been caught out in the open with lightning strikes getting closer. In fact, it was these kinds of natural forces that inspired many Romantic artists and poets of the late 18th century to create an art of the sublime—and it was explained and analyzed by philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. More up to date, when the American military used the term “Shock and Awe” during the bombardment of Baghdad, they unintentionally pointed out the essence of the sublime: shock for those on the receiving end, and awe for those watching comfortably from a distance on television. At its very simplest in photography, it involves the kind of scene, sky, or lighting typically referred to as “dramatic,” but it is far more interesting than that.

Photography is well equipped to depict the sublime because many of the occasions that are sublime, such as storms, change rapidly and need some speed to be captured. At the same time, photography is poorly equipped because of its tendency to reduce all things and experiences to a similar format and presentation with which we are all too familiar. There is a danger of trivialization. In addition, the sublime as we experience it often involves senses other than just the visual (noise and wind, for example), so photography has to face this extra challenge also.

Overall it has been in writing, particularly poetry, that the sublime has received most attention—perhaps not surprisingly given that it was writers and philosophers who defined it. Dante’s Inferno (“And now there came, upon the turbid waves, a crash of fearful sound at which the shores both trembled...”) is one renowned example. But poetry, with its ability to create word-pictures, is not completely alien to photography. Wordsworth’s The Prelude, perhaps the most famous sublime poem, is about a traverse of the Alps (in 1805 seen more as we would think of a remote region of the Himalayas), and contains some highly visual passages that you could easily imagine translating into a photograph: “Black drizzling crags... the sick sight and giddy prospect of the raving stream, the unfettered clouds and regions of the heavens, tumult and peace, the darkness and the light...”

An opencast mining pit, treated in an ominous way. The timing, near sunset and framing, with the top edge of the widescreen frame just below the horizon, has sufficient flare with a reddish glow that suffuses the already dust-filled atmosphere. The effect, given the scale evident from the machinery, hints at the Inferno.

In this photograph of a crater lake on the Indonesian island of Flores, the basic traditional elements of the sublime are already there— stormy sky, swirling clouds, dark foreground and pool of light, as in the schematic opposite. Processing, however, can enhance the sublimity by working on the sky, darkening, adding contrast, and particularly important, reducing saturation to make it more threatening.
 Crater lake
Crater lake

Dozmary Pool, Cornwall, which featured in the legend of King Arthur. A brief break in a storm at sunrise provides the elements, but care was taken in the processing to increase color saturation in the highlights and decrease it in the shadows, to further heighten the contrast between storm and light.
Dozmary pool

Also check out Ilex Photo’s iPhone App which not only includes a depth of field calculator and a reciprocity simulator, but also top quality content in the form of an illustrated glossary and a shooting guide to help you get the best shot in any situation.

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