“Learning from the Masters” is a regular series where I share useful lessons and wisdom…
I’m back home again after another great workshop in Utah, and was once again privileged to have a wonderful group of students to share both photography and the amazing landscape of the region. I’m working on a workshop report post together with images, but until then wanted to share another creative inspiration.
It’s no secret I think the study of painting is one of the best ways to become a better landscape photographer, and German painter Caspar David Friedrich continues to influence me greatly as I seek to create and help others make meaningful images. He painted during the 19th century and was most known for his musical, allegorical landscapes that often included human figures in a diminished scale. And most importantly, his ability to portray the landscape in a subjective and evocative fashion was new and unprecedented at the time. Another defining aspect of Friedrich was that most of his work drew from a very narrow geographic location, Dresden Germany, where he lived most of his life. While many of us seek new locations for inspiration, he showed us that interpretation and re-interpretation of familiar landscapes can lead to greater depth, originality, and meaning.
“The most important contribution Friedrich made was to make visible for the first time was what you might call the ‘inner eye.’ In other words that he made us aware that what we see has as much to do with what is inside us as what is outside us. And it’s interesting that he should do this with landscape painting. We think of landscape as being something that is definitely outside us—it is the world, it is nature beyond us. And yet, of course the way we respond to landscape is absolutely connected with our own feelings and thoughts—things that are inside us.” – William Vaughan
When I look at Friedrich’s paintings, I see someone deeply connected by what he saw and felt, physically and emotionally, to degree that made him finely attuned to how his chosen medium could be used effectively. This implies both a mastery of his subject and his medium, a rare but powerful combination that we see in great artists across many disciplines. Two hundred years later, the importance of this combination has only grown. Our modern medium of digital photography seems easier to master, but as anyone who has tried to convey deep emotion in a photograph knows, technology still falls far short of actually capturing what we feel.
During our workshop in Utah, a student asked how it was possible to actually capture what he saw and felt, and ultimately we can only approximate that via expressive art. But Friedrich came as close as anyone has, in any medium, to convey those subconscious emotions we all feel when we know we’re witnessing something that transcends language, and can only be felt and understood with the heart.
“The artist should paint not only what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting that which he sees before him.
Close your bodily eye so that you may see your picture first with the spiritual eye. Then bring to the light of day that which you have seen in the darkness so that it may react upon others from the outside inwards.” – Caspar David Friedrich
There is lots to take away from Caspar David Friedrich and his sublime paintings. Mastery of light, effective composition, and his utter commitment to expressing something heartfelt and personal about his view of the natural world. These are all important ideas we can learn and use in our paths as creative photographers.