March 20, 2020

To Be, or Not To Be, a Landscape Photographer

Ross Frylinck

“So a while ago, I asked my friend to teach me how to take photographs of forests.”

He has impeccable credentials. If you happened to loose your way wandering about the forested Parco degli Acquedotti (that’s in Rome), you may eventually stumble upon a small, upmarket gallery exhibiting his work. This has actually happened to me, and it felt amazing. Similar thing happened in Paris.

I also have to admire his remarkable absence of discrimination. When he was young he rode (by ride I mean on a horse, not a Land Cruiser) with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and got strafed by a MIG (Soviet aircraft) on day three. I’ve seen the photo and it’s true. He’s in a ditch, looking up at the blazing anti-aircraft gun, shooting away on his 35mm camera: frozen flames billow about the barrel. A roguishly handsome, impressively bearded militia with clenched jaw manically returns fire, eyes mirroring the gun light. In the background the horse rears, nostrils flaring, sharp hooves flailing in the thin mountain air, eyes rolled back in terror. It’s very impressive, especially because it’s black and white, and a bit out of focus, which is so nice because it looks grainy and authentic.

He also sailed across the pacific, without any real experience, and spent a few years taking landscape photographs of the islands and surfing and diving with those giant sea lizards and reef sharks off the Galapagos. I joined him in French Polynesia, and helped him a bit with my thoughts. He’s an artist, which must be really great. I do love my friend.

Bless him, but he’s not exactly the mentoring kind, so I decided I needed a flowery speech to motivate him properly. So I said, “Please my friend, we surfed Teahupoo together and played guitar on the high-seas under a waning gibbous moon, we love The Jumblies, and we’ve drunk lime and rum together on your yacht in that gorgeous lagoon off Morea. Won’t you kindly toss me a pearl? But please,” I implored, “don’t confuse me with technical gibberish about F-stops, or give me lectures on composition. I just want to get my hands on that elusive diamond that cuts through all the puffery and pretence, preferably in a memorable sentence.”

He gave me that trademark, steely look that would make an angry Clint Eastwood flinch, but his eyes softened and went a bit melty when he said that “consciousness is a mirrored opening, and at its best the camera is just a window.” He said it in a gravelly whisper though, so I had to ask him to repeat it, which was awkward, but he did, although somewhat reluctantly:

“Consciousness is a mirrored opening, and at it's best the camera is just a window.”

There was an uncomfortable pause when he realised I was waiting for more, and so he said, “just don’t stand in front of the window”, but he looked faintly disgusted that he had to explain himself. I nodded slowly like I understood. Then, visibly exasperated, he explained that if I wanted to be an artist, and have an exhibition or even publish a book for God’s sake, I should go on a real journey, and see if I could find a moment “free of my own smell”. (He was clearly trying another tack here, but artists can use these kinds of metaphors whenever it pleases them it seems.) He said I should only take a 40mm pancake lens, because that’s more or less the format the eye sees in (I found this puzzling), and then he left the room to smoke a cigarette by the cream bougainvillea.

Overall, it was hard to deny that this all sounded exactly like the kind of thing a photographer should do, and so I went to Japan, with my 40mm pancake lens, to a faraway island of forgotten cedar forests and gin-clear snowmelt rivers. My plan was to walk through those gorgeous mountain forests, from temple to temple, taking photographs of the magnificent Shinto shrines and the sphinx-like monks in their pretty orange robes sitting under the dark green cloud-pines. It seemed like a clever and artistic plan, and I enjoyed telling people about it. I even bought a traditional silver Japanese pipe and a little box of tobacco, which was weird because I don’t smoke. I also borrowed a thin book of ancient Oriental poetry.

I liked this poem by Wang Wei the best, especially the 8th and last lines:


An old man,

I want only peace.

The things of this world

mean nothing.

I know no good way

to live and I can’t

stop getting lost in my

thoughts, my ancient forests.

The wind that waves the pines

loosens my belt.

The mountain moon lights me

as I play my lute.

You ask: how does a man rise or fall in this life?

The fisherman’s song flows deep under the river.


The temples were impressive, and hand-on-heart, I did my best. However, when I showed him my photographs, my friend, looking somewhat downcast, said that sadly my smell could kill a brave pig. I did bump into Keanu Reeves though, and it was satisfying to give him some advice on where to swim – he was a bit anxious about the jellyfish in the Seto Inland Sea, but I honestly didn’t see any worth worrying about. 

Here is a picture from Japan that I like, and I even printed it out, on a very large piece of art paper, and then framed it. It’s china bowls made out of china bowls – very clever little repetition – and I’m almost certain it’s profound, but I couldn’t find the artist’s statement or name anywhere in the forest.

“Now, having abandoned the land, which I'm feeling is a bit crowded with artists, I'm trying to take underwater "landscape" photographs of the kelp forests around Cape Town.”

I got myself a big, fancy underwater housing, with a special vacuum pump and lights and lots of buttons. I’ve been at it for a few months, mostly getting nowhere, because I’ve been busy with Yo Yo Ma’s visit. Still, I remain undeterred, going out into the freezing water every morning, bravely trying to work out what a “mirrored opening” even means. Is the mirror in the opening? Or is the opening made of a mirror-like substance? Or am I the mirror in the opening, or is it the other way around, or possibly both? My camera has an opening with a mirror at the back, and photos do mirror reality, but so what. Does the eye have a mirror at the back? I don’t know. We can see through our eyes, so probably not. Come to think of it, do we see “through” them, like binoculars? And when Hamlet in his famous Schrödinger’s To Be / Not To Be soliloquy said (to himself its worth repeating) that the “native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”, was he moaning along with Wang about those ancient, pathless forests of the mind?

Why is this all so confusing? Maybe I should pack-in landscape photography, and learn to be a fisherman instead; find myself a deep river, or take up moonlight lute-playing in the forest. I like these thoughts. Anyway, this is the only picture my friend could tolerate looking at. He said it smells “just a bit piggy” – not too bad. But to be on the safe side, maybe it’s better to block your nose if you think of yourself as the sensitive kind.

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