Thursday, December 31, 2009


Too Savage to be Photographed?

Norman Douglas, Old Calabria, chapter XIX ("Uplands of Pollino," ellipses in original):
During this afternoon ramble I often wondered what the burghers of Taranto would think of these sylvan solitudes. Doubtless they would share the opinion of a genteel photographer of Morano who showed me some coloured pictures of local brides in their appropriate costumes, such as are sent to relatives in America after weddings. He possessed a good camera, and I asked whether he had never made any pictures of this fine forest scenery. No, he said; he had only once been to the festival of the Madonna di Pollino, but he went alone—his companion, an avvocato, got frightened and failed to appear at the last moment.

'So I went alone,' he said, 'and those forests, it must be confessed, are too savage to be photographed. Now, if my friend had come, he might have posed for me, sitting comically at the foot of a tree, with crossed legs, and smoking a cigar, like this....Or he might have pretended to be a wood-cutter, bending forwards and felling a tree...tac, tac, tac...without his jacket, of course. That would have made a picture. But those woods and mountains, all by themselves—no! The camera revolts. In photography, as in all good art, the human element must predominate.'
The English word savage comes from Latin silvaticus (wild), itself from silva (wood, forest). Unlike the genteel photographer of Morano, I prefer, in painting and photography and life, the opposite—a landscape in which the human element is completely absent. In Eliot Porter's photograph Spruce Trees and Hawkweed, for example, even the bit of railing, made by human hands, is somehow intrusive:

Better, to my mind, is Porter's Rock Spires and Spruce Trees, in which there is no trace at all of the human:

Related post: Wilderness.

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