The Power of Photographing Icons

Rafael Rojas

I have always thought that a landscape photograph can only be classified as fine art when it essentially communicates information about the photographer and the way he or she relates to a certain place. A fine art photograph cannot be just a mere representation of a place or the record of a moment in the photographer's life; it needs to be a clear and personal statement of how the photographer understands, feels and imagines a certain place and a certain moment. Basically, a landscape photograph becomes a fine art photograph when its storytelling goes beyond the subject matter represented in the photograph and transcends a mere list of nouns which identify the different elements depicted in the image.

This might imply that we are likely to struggle if we want to create artistic and personal work out of an iconic landscape. How to enable our inner voice to be heard by the viewers when the subject itself is astounding? How to create a personal photograph from an iconic vista or subject which stands alone as original, different and genuine?

As I have grown and matured as a photographer and as an artist, my expectations from photography have equally evolved. In the beginning, I used photography to record places and as a way to illustrate my travel adventures. As years passed and I photographed more of the world, I realized how photography could be used as an artistic outlet to express not just what I saw, but what I felt. To communicate not what was around me, but inside me. That was a revelation which changed the way I would perceive photography for the rest of my life. I was not a photographer anymore, but an artist with simply another tool in his hands. A tool with which I could show others the wonders of the apparently banal, the mystery of the unclear, questions instead of answers and thus become a medium for a world many others could not see.

One would think that this different approach would steer me away from iconic places for the rest of my life. And indeed it did, at least partially. Having the opportunity of exploring the "unknown of the well-known" and discover myself through photography in the solitude that "banal" places offer was something I started to appreciate immensely. I was free from the tyranny of external factors like subject, light or technique, and the strength of my photography became increasingly due to internal factors like vision, feelings, memories—I could photograph my local forest for the rest of my life and be content.

However, I did not stop photographing icons, not completely. Doing so would have made me a victim of the same human preconceptions which made them iconic. Indeed, iconic places were banal at the beginning and became iconic due to their extraordinary appeal once we tagged them with such a label. I realized I could still photograph icons in a highly personal way if I approached them with a clear mind, free of expectations, free of preconceptions and free of existing visual templates seen from other photographers. Most of all, I realized I could make a personal statement if I focused not on the subject matter, but on its essence, the way an iconic place represented something bigger than itself.

Living in Switzerland, I have visited the Matterhorn on countless occasions. This could have created such a familiarity that it became banal to me. However, over time, I have stopped seeing the "Matterhorn" and I have started to see in it a symbolic "mountain" value. The evening I took this photograph, banner clouds had started to form. The sun was setting behind the mountains and the last rays of light diffracted along the Matterhorn ridge. I saw the symbolic value of the scene; the mountain as if it was a volcano, creating its own weather where light seemed to emanate from the mountain itself. I framed tightly, set up a neutral density filter and took a long exposure photograph, allowing the clouds to soften and to increase; by contrast, the jagged nature of the mountain. I could barely take two photographs before the sun sank completely and the light was gone.

"Burning Peak", Matterhorn, Switzerland

Nikon D3x, Nikon 70-200 2.8 VR II, 30 sec. @ f/8, ISO 200 + neutral density filter

Rafael Rojas (Master Hasselblad 2014) is a fine art photographer who strives to encapsulate concept, emotion, and spirituality in his work. His work frequently focuses on concepts like time, decay and renewal, the interaction between humans and nature and its consequence in the natural balance, the raw latent energy found in the landscape, and the ephemeral qualities of existence. See more of Rafael’s work on his website

 

 

 

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