Exploring the Essence of Place

Last weekend we went hiking in a nearby provincial park, a place I’d never been before (except briefly in the winter).  The trail meanders for a while along the lakeshore, where the underbrush is shrubbier and denser and thick moss carpets the ground, then weaves upward to the top of the cliffs, where the trees open up and bunchgrasses and sagebrush cluster among the rocks.  It was a beautiful day for a hike; the sky was cloudless and the water below seemed even bluer than the sky, but at the top of the cliffs, the wind was strong enough to make me feel a bit nervous about getting too close to the edge.

Ponderosa pine growing at cliff's edge

As I took photos, I found myself thinking again about Bo Mackison’s work on exploring the essence of place through photography (which I linked to a while back).  As I’ve written before, photography for me is about seeing, which I think is why I usually take close-up photos of flowers and insects.  Small, individual objects are relatively easy to observe and to photograph.  Landscape photography, however, has often challenged me.  A landscape is not an individual object, but a network of relationships among plants, animals, fungi, microscopic organisms, rocks, soils, and waters.  To see a landscape you cannot just sit and look at it, you must walk through it and around it, preferably in different times of the day and in different seasons.  I think that – for me, at least – expressing the essence of place is a way of somehow suggesting that network of relationships, and the way in which that network creates a harmonious whole.

Capturing the essence of place involves not just traditional landscape photos, but also what Bo calls “intimate landscape photography”, photos that take a closer look at a specific aspect rather than the entire landscape as a whole.  Looking at my own photos after the hike, I realized that most of my photos fit into this category.  The above photo of a ponderosa pine tree clinging to the top of a cliff is a good example.  As I stood squinting into the brilliant sunlight and with the wind blowing around me, I marveled at how the tree could grow in what seemed to be such a precarious perch, and admired the graceful curve of its trunk as it grew upwards and outwards from the rock.


In this second photo, I was fascinated by the unexpectedly dark rock along the shoreline and the way the colour of the water shades from light aqua to deep blue.  Above the shoreline, bluebunch wheatgrass, prairie sage, and a newly-leafed out shrub sway in the wind.  You can’t see any in this photo, but this hillside was also covered with sagebrush buttercups.  Buttercups were growing everywhere on our hike – probably more of them than I’ve ever seen before.

Bo also includes macro-photos in the essence of place, which makes me happy, because these are the photos that I feel most comfortable with.  Some people love to see and photograph different species of birds, but for me, it’s wildflowers (and also butterflies, though they’re more challenging).  Not much thrills me more than discovering a wildflower or other plant that I’ve never seen before – and it’s even better if I can take a successful photo of the plant as well.  I was delighted to discover both yellow bells (Fritillaria pudica) (left) and shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) (right) growing in the park.  Both are tiny, easily-overlooked wildflowers that grow in open, dry areas.

Spring wildflowers

I believe that if you truly want to see and appreciate a landscape, you must return to it at different times of the day and in different seasons.  I do not know if I have succeeded in capturing the essence of this place yet.  I think I will need to return.  The park contains many threatened bird and reptile species, so I know there is much more to discover.  And the area has long been used by local native peoples, so I know as well that I am far from the first to explore the essence of place here.

What do you think of the “essence of place” and this approach to photography?  Is it something that you would like to try in your own practice?


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One Response to Exploring the Essence of Place

  1. I absolutely agree about walking in a place, and spending time there at different times, and different seasons. I hadn’t made the connection to connections, networks and relationships, but that resonates – and I think explains the pull of intimate landscape photography, it can reveal some of that connectivity. I am also with you on finding wildflowers!

    Thanks so much for linking to my post as part of your own sharing – I feel in most excellent company!

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