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Connecting Humans and the Natural World Through a Lens

December 2, 2015

I recently returned from teaching “Figure in the Landscape,” a photography workshop on a dammed-up section of the Colorado River in Utah called Lake Powell.

On calm mornings and evenings, the sandstone cliffs, rising hundreds of feet from the lake, are perfectly reflected below. While working with art models, the images, for me, always start with the landscape and my feelings about the land. I strive to utilize the figure as a way to connect the viewer in a deeper way to the sense of place. What does it feel like to be immersed by this environment? I want you to vicariously feel the texture of the sandstone, the smoothness to the water, the warmth of morning sun. I invite the viewer to step into the composition, which is fundamentally a different experience than viewing it simply as an object on the wall. 

For many of the workshop participants, this was a unique approach. Most photographers who photograph people start with the person, not the background. Images shown at critique sessions early in the week were often focused tightly on the model, and missed the grand landscape. While beautiful images, they could just as well have been created in a studio. I quickly realized that my biggest challenge as an instructor was to teach these students to first see, then find a connection to, the landscape.

I grew up in the wilds, and for more than 50 years have been making images of the natural landscape as a way to share my experiences. As I move through a landscape, I’m continually watching different elements and how they shift as I move and form artistic compositions. But for my workshop participants who grew up in places void of nature, places like Lake Powell can seem overwhelming. Even some of the photographers who had done extensive landscape photography found it difficult at first to find a meaningful link between the figure and the landscape. Fortunately, the photographers progressed fairly quickly as the week went on. The images started to include the iconic elements of the landscape, and the models began to fuse with the landscape, both compositionally and metaphorically.

This workshop was a compressed version of my larger career, in which I’ve tried to educate people about the natural world. I seek to introduce them to places and ideas that may seem foreign to them and demonstrate how connected we all are to the natural world. And that we need nature as a part of our lives. My work with the Center for Spirituality & Healing in developing the Wellscapes videos has been a particularly rewarding realization of that concept. In Wellscapes, guided imagery and music fill the same role as the figure in some of my still images, expanding upon the image’s literal meaning, drawing metaphors and connections between the viewer and the natural world. Recognizing these connections helps us understand that we don’t stand separate from nature, but are a part of it.

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The Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing blog covers a range of integrative health and wellbeing topics. For more information about our blog, contact us at csh@umn.edu