On Thursday morning, the remnants of Tuesday night’s ice storm still gave things a bit of sparkle, here and there. Even so, it hardly resembled a typical January landscape. And with any landscape, picturesque typicality is what we look for, isn’t it? Recall that the word for landscape in Mandarin Chinese is composed of the characters for mountain and water: apropos if you happen to live in the mountains; not so apropos if you live in the plains. But in a traditional Chinese landscape painting, the mountains in the far distance curve upward toward the horizon to dwarf the human figures in the middle distance, suggesting the kind of vastness that one almost never experiences here in the East.
Landscrape, I thought as I stalked along the ridgetop with camera and tripod, peering through the naked trees at the farm fields and rounded hills like a lab technician peering into a petri dish. Make a scraping, add it to some sort of fertile fundament, and grow a culture: isn’t that how it works? Landless peasants arrive with their axes, their seeds and their visions, and within a few decades, the pastoral landscape of Western Europe has taken over. The landscape-specific treaty formula, “as long as the grass grows and the waters run,” somehow gets lost in the transition. This is dairy country now.
I’m still learning how to use the camera. Pictures taken with my old camera had no depth of field; background and foreground were always equally focused. With this one, I have yet to fully absorb the lesson that zooming in is not a substitute for cropping. If you want the landscape to be legible, you have to pull back – or as they say in football, go deep. Way deep. Let the foreground take care of itself.
Later, as I review the photos in my desktop monitor, I think of David Byrne in the musical mockumentary True Stories, sitting in an obviously stationary convertible and pretending to drive while the landscape scrolls past behind him. Well, that’s the reality, isn’t it? Even a landscape composed in the best Chinese style should probably have little automobiles in it to attract the eye. Nobody goes out walking anymore, except for dog owners and the odd photographer.