Landscape photography and Chinese philosophy—scito te ipsum

There are many types of photography and some of them vary as immensely as, say, ballet and hip-hop. Classification of photographic styles, however, seldom goes deeper than the very general genres of photography, e.g., portrait photography, street photography, nature photography, etc. Although there still might be a few sub–classes within each general genre of photography, you reach the final, indivisible cluster fairly soon. This, of course, does not mean that all photography is homogenous within that last cluster of classification, and looking further into what appears a solid block of categorization while adding a bit of a cultural and philosophical perspective sometimes might unveil a few interesting things—and offer a further understanding of the self.

Traditionally, the two main elements of the classic Chinese landscape are water and mountains, and a typically beautiful scene would include both of them. This is perfectly reflected in a Chinese idiom for striking scenery, 有山有水, which literally means "presence of both mountains and water".

Water and mountains represent the two major constituents of our natural surroundings, and their characters are opposite yet supplementary enough to constitute bipolarity. Water is soft and flexible yet steadfast and unforgiving; mountains, on the other hand, are grand and immovable yet merciful and tolerant. The relationship between water and mountains is that of mutual constraint and compliance: water goes around mountains, mountains are shaped by water. Extending these attributes onto the paradigm of human universe would suggest that, allegorically, water is representative of sense while mountains stand for sensibility.

Confucius believed that man is an indivisible part of his natural surroundings and, due to this, water and mountains inevitably influence or represent (pinning down the cause–and–effect relationship would be rather difficult) certain aspects of the human character; in other words, the fundamental essence of water and mountains is imprinted upon our souls (or represents our nature if you prefer to be on the other side of the cause–and–effect argument). Apparently with this in mind, Confucius has said:


"Wise man favours water, benevolent man favours mountains"

From the standpoint of a landscape photographer I believe that the types of scenery we choose to photograph are not picked randomly, nor are they selected equally; I in fact think that there is an easily traceable trend in what kinds of landscapes each of us favours. If you reflect upon your usual photographic destinations I am sure you will be able to easily identify your preferences and, furthermore, establish what speaks to you in them in particular.

If there is a certain correlation between the essence of the key elements of one's preferred landscapes and his character, then looking closely at what kinds of scenery you tend to like—not only photographing but also looking at in other photographers' work—and then examining quintessence and traits of its major elements might help you to have a deeper understanding of your personality. Do you often find yourself in the mountains or near water? Do you make decisions spontaneously or is logic your forte? As suggested by Confucius, there is a certain correlation between the two and knowledge of the former is a basis for a better understanding of the latter.

This also gives a whole new meaning to landscape photography. Chasing light to create aesthetically beautiful photographs is only what it is on the surface; on a deeper level, we seek consistency between what appears before our eyes and our inner selves. Put differently, we intuitively search for reflection and affirmation of our basic tendencies on the outside and a much grander scale, and then try our best to capture that connection using the means of photography. The images we produce are important to us not only due to their aesthetic value, but also as an abstract representation of our utmost essence.


Which one is you? And if you think you belong in between the two camps,
which one are you leaning towards at the minute?


Related links: this article in Italian