Photography Has Always Been About Questions, and Walking Makes that Possible

 

Photography owes its existence as much to the recurrent act of placing one foot in the front of the other as it does to the camera that breathes life into the sights we encounter. So much of what we do, or the things that we have collectively accomplished as a race has stemmed from this simple act of walking. Yet, we seldom bestow upon it the credit that it deserves. With camera in hand, walking largely becomes a solitary journey. As we walk, absorbing the sights unfolding around us, we are offered the chance to be alone with our thoughts. Ideas germinate from this solitary ambling and offer a chance for ordinary or commonplace sights to reverberate with new meaning.

One of the earliest subjects of the camera has been nature. At this point, the camera was still not a portable device. Even so, photographers like Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, Peter Henry Emerson, and later, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston trekked through treacherous terrain to record the grandeur before their eyes. Countless other photographers have followed in their footsteps, making landscape photography one of the most sought-after and practiced genres in the medium. Even to this day, novices in the medium, seem to always take a shot first at landscape photography before deciding whether it’s a path they would want to continue in. Because of its proliferation, especially today with the technology and accessibility that photographers have at their disposal, I wonder if we are as enamoured by nature as the people who were a hundred years ago? It is not the absence of an acknowledgment of its beauty but a kind of indifference that has seeped in. I hope to change this by introducing you, if you haven’t heard of him already, to Richard Long’s contemplative landscapes.

Long doesn’t go by the photographer moniker. He is a sculptor who uses the camera to record landscapes in nature that are interspersed with installations that include materials found in that particular environment. Walking and observation are integral to Long’s art. He often treks for miles to find the landscape that suits his sensibilities. And then, as a marker of his presence, he either places objects found the vicinity, like rocks or snow or sometimes he tramples the ground repeatedly in either a straight line or a circle. There’s no definitive meaning behind his sculptures or why he chooses to arrange them in a specific pattern. It is perhaps his endeavour to memorialise his walks, to show his presence without physically being in the picture.

Some of his walks take weeks, and even then there have been instances where the landscape did not yield to the creation of any sculptures. Even so, Long’s pursuit is unwavering. “Wild, empty landscape— that’s my love. Every sculpture I make is an emotional response to being there at that moment. It doesn’t make me unique, but maybe I was one of the first artists to somehow use the world as one place. I was just trying to seize the potential of the grandeur of the world by going to these big empty landscapes because that’s what the world looks like if you seek it out.” He also says, “Every work in the landscape is absolutely a meeting place of who I am and the topography, characteristics, and beauty of the place. Every place in the world is different, so even though I might be repeating circles (or lines), every circle is different. The archetype of the circle emphasises the cosmic variety of everything, and this gives it its power, beauty, understandability, and resonance.” In Long’s case, the photograph is merely a record of his work, a record which can then be shown in a public space like a gallery. Ruminative as they are, I am not as concerned by his photographs as I am about how he arrives at the often picturesque locations.

Anton Pavlovich Chekov had said, “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” And I believe that walking helps us achieve that. Photography has never been about arriving at answers. If that were the case, bodies of work wouldn’t yield or inspire future photographs. Photographs exist for introspection, and it is for the viewer to gauge their meaning and or find answers in them. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes, “Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Better Photography.

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