The Problem with Archetypes
A specter is haunting landscape photography - the specter of Ansel Adams.
- Karl Marx
Bad variations on The Communist Manifesto aside I want to take some time in this piece to deal with an approach to image making that I find to be alarmingly prevalent as well as what I take to be the problematic aspects of it (or at least it should feel problematic if you care about anything but copy and paste photography).
The approach that I’m talking about is the kind of formulaic approach that seems to be especially prevalent among landscape photographers. You know what I mean, or if you don’t then start paying attention for the following and you’ll start to see it: So much of the landscape photography milieu seems to approach the process of image making the way one might go about building a house. One begins with a blueprint, and then sets about constructing a house on the basis of the framework outlined by the blueprint. A good photograph just becomes that photograph which most closely approximates the “blueprint.”
The blueprint here is what I will call the archetype. More concretely there is an archetype containing the ideal set of properties which comprise the “good landscape image.” This archetype covers everything from subject matter, to lighting, to compositional elements and beyond. All the would-be landscape photographer has to do is assemble their image following the steps delineated by the archetype, and just like that one has themselves a “nice photograph.” These archetypes are largely the collective aesthetic(s) established by the “past masters” of landscape photography. This is also what I mean to imply by the specter of Ansel Adams (to be fair one could substitute Michael Kenna, David Muench, et al to make the same point).
The problematic part of this approach, at least for me personally (a lot of people seem totally happy with this copy and paste approach as far as I can tell), is that these images are more often than not entirely empty as anything other than a recapitulation of the same basic archetype. Have you ever wondered why so much landscape work looks like it could have all been made by some small handful of people? This formulaic approach/the archetype is what leads to the monstrous cliche that is most landscape work. Everyone ends up making the same image because they are all working off the same basic archetype that informs their decisions about what makes a “good image.”
Even more troublesome than this is the fact that this recreation of the archetypal landscape image too often becomes the end in itself. The point of making photographs becomes, well, to make “good photographs,” as defined by the archetypes! Photographs as the end in itself. Rather than any compelling engagement with the subject matter (which many of the greats actually did) and the subsequent creation of genuinely meaningful work that comes from that meaningful engagement with one’s subject matter, we enter a realm in which the sole aim of photography becomes the empty repetition of these archetypes. We are inundated with images which, while certainly technically proficient, say nothing. And this is the deeper problem with the tyranny of the “nice photograph.” It empties photography of its meaningful potential, obliterates the capacity to do meaningful work.
Archetypes: A Personal Story
In the interest of not coming off as completely arrogant and condescending I do want to make it clear that this issue is something that I myself have struggled with off and on over the years, even as recently as, well, currently.
The earliest instances of my own personal struggles with this issue date back to my very first forays into photography. I, like most people that are just picking up a camera and thinking about taking photography seriously, often felt overwhelmed by all the creative decisions surrounding the kind of images I was going to make. I knew that photographing nature was important to me. So I naturally began digesting all of the landscape work that I could find on sites like Flickr, 500px, Instagram, even YouTube, looking for work that I found appealing, inspiring, etc..
And indeed perusing all of this work certainly gave me a kind of aesthetic foothold and helped me have a better idea of the kind of images that I would work on making. And so I did just that. And this “aesthetic foothold” gave me a target to work toward in order to hone my skills and grow as a photographer. But as I kept working it wasn’t too terribly long before I began to feel that something was amiss. To me it began to feel that there wasn’t really anything deeper to the images that I was making outside the project of making images that fit this arbitrary archetype of what I had taken to be a “good landscape image.” They may have been nice photographs but they were essentially meaningless copies of an abstract ideal, devoid of any deeper meaning.
Upon this realization there were two options. I could stay the course or radically rethink my approach to making photographs. Staying the course felt entirely too inauthentic to me, and I chose to really step back and think about my work in a deeper way. To think about what it really was that I wanted to say and do with my images and work on saying and doing those very things in my photographs rather than just repeating the same empty archetypes. To forge and express my own personal vision rather than the visions set for me by received aesthetics. This realization and the following changes that came about because of it have been some of the biggest breakthroughs that I have had in my time making photos.
So, What of Archetypes, then?
In conclusion I do think there is a place for this archetype approach. It’s just that I personally think the reliance on archetypes should serve a pedagogical function for new photographers as they learn to perfect their technical skills and get a feel for their own personal aesthetic. The archetype gives the new photographer a target to aim at before they have begun to tackle these larger issues for themselves. But they should ultimately be left behind in time as one grows as an artist, the way one eventually stops having to consult recipes when making their favorite meal. To cling to them rather than letting them go as you explore your own personal approach is only to place a limit on your own potential growth. The point from this essay to integrate into your practice is this: Do not repeat archetypes, create your own.