September 17, 2022

What makes a photo art? How I decide what to photograph

By Lars Gesing
A photograph showing Lars Gesing of Lars Gesing Fine Art Nature Images, a fine art photography gallery owner in Seattle, work in the field in the Badlands in Utah.
The Homeward Journal, Vol. IV


One of the most common questions I get asked in my Seattle art gallery and at art shows is this: How do you decide what to photograph?

In this blog post, I want to take a little bit of time to take you inside my brain, to explain to you how I see the world around me and why I decide to sometimes press the shutter button on my camera — and other times I don’t.

In an age when you and I are inundated with photos on our phones, social media feeds, TVs and just about everywhere else we look, to me the decision what to photograph to be shown and offered as a unique artwork for sale in my gallery is actually a somewhat philosophical one: What makes one photograph a piece of art, but not another? 

I feel that giving you my personal answer to that question is crucially important as you decide on a piece of art for your home or office space. After all, that artwork becomes a part of your daily life. That’s a responsibility I do not take lightly. So while art may be in the eye of the beholder, there’s got to be more to photographic art than capturing pretty pictures.

Well… there is. A lot more. Let me explain how I do it. 

A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of the Rockwood Farms driveway, a popular fall getaway near Seattle, in Snoqualmie, Washington.

MEMORY LANE — "GEMS OF THE NORTHWEST" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 99.
CLICK TO LEARN MORE.

Is photography art?

The question: Is photography art? is an oftentimes heated debate in contemporary art circles. What’s undoubtedly true is that photography is a rising star in the art market, opening up the traditional art world to new perspectives and new voices. Compared to traditional art forms like paintings or sculpture, photographic art is also relatively affordable — opening the door to many new and aspiring collectors. 

“A photograph is usually looked at, seldom looked into.” — Ansel Adams


But because of the abundance of photography in our lives and its many different uses, figuring out what makes one photograph a piece of art but not another is not always an easy task. Or, to use the often brutally honest words of one of my mentors: “Just because you photograph it doesn’t make it art.”

So what DOES make a photograph art?

When does a photograph become art? Tell me how you feel, and you’ll know.

When I am out in nature looking to create a photograph, I often find myself in environments where it’s actually hard to take a bad photo. It’s just so beautiful, everywhere you look. But not all photographs are created equal, and just because it’s not a bad photograph doesn’t make it a timeless piece of art. So as we dive deeper into this, here is maybe the most important distinction…

I am not using my camera to simply document a place.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but my primary goal is not necessarily to show you what a place or something looks like (which is the intent of probably 99 percent of the photos we see on a daily basis). I am not a photojournalist, not a documentarian or an advertiser (though all these disciplines undoubtedly influence what I do). 

Rather, when I feel inspired by a beautiful place to create a photograph to show to the world, my first thought is to stop myself and ask, Why? What is it about this place that speaks to me? How does it make me feel? If I can’t answer these questions for myself, how am I ever going to create a photograph that captures your imagination and emotions, someone who wasn’t even standing there with me?! So instead of simply documenting a place, I dig deeper… 

I am using my camera to capture a feeling that connects us to the place.

A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of the famous Japanese Maple tree at the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon. The best time to visit the Portland Japanese Garden to see the fall colors is usually in mid-October.

GUARDIAN ANGEL — "GEMS OF THE NORTHWEST" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 99
CLICK TO LEARN MORE.

The meaning of transcendentalism

Only if an image evokes a feeling did I manage to capture the perfect marriage between an emotion and a place — one doesn’t work without the other in photographic art. 

This becomes the crux: I am not searching for a beautiful sight, per se. I am searching for a beautiful feeling, evoked by the beauty of the land, a feeling that you and I share — the feeling of having the world at your feet when standing on a mountaintop, the feeling of our own insignificance when gazing at a sea of stars, the feeling of losing all sense of time when staring into a canyon. These are just some of the common themes of our innate connection to nature that you’ll often find reflected in my imagery.

The moment I understood this nuance, my whole approach to photography changed, and so did the images that I produced. It’s like Agnes Martin said: “Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.” 

As is the case in all areas of our lives, being mindful of our feelings is the fast lane to experiencing true beauty. It just so happens that nature is an arena that makes us intrinsically more mindful, which is why I choose it as my office and my muse. My camera then becomes a mirror, it captures both what’s in front of it and what’s behind.
 

“This is my third artwork from Lars Gesing — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”. Lars captures more than just an image with his work. When I look into “Won't You Be My Neighbor”, it’s not a tree on a fence peeking over to the neighbor — it’s memories that come to life. The evoking of feeling and memories is why I chose Lars Gesing art work over others. Each work calls a memory or dream to come.” — Bobby B., collector

 
This sort of approach to processing our own feelings for nature based on what we see is not a novel idea at all, by the way. It is, rather, very much in line with the transcendentalist movement of my literary heroes, such as Thoreau, Snyder, and Emerson. The latter wrote, “Nature is a metaphor of the human mind.” 

In this view of the world, rather than matter-of-factly describing or recording what we see, we ascribe a human emotion to what we see, humanizing a static scene, forging a deeper connection to the place we find ourselves in. It’s a search for meaning beyond the visible. It’s no longer just a pile of rocks, or a bunch of trees. We see something of ourselves in these scenes. 

A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of rocks in a stream in the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado near Telluride during peak fall color season.

FLOW — "COLORADO'S FINEST" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 99.
CLICK TO LEARN MORE.

This way of looking at the world is a manifest of finding the essence of life by living rather than looking to explanations from social institutions. It’s where my creativity stems from: What we see starts within us — which gives all of us room to connect our own thoughts and emotions to a scene, to connect to a place on an emotional level even if you yourself haven’t been there. It opens up the whole world to our imagination.

All of a sudden, the place you see in a carefully created piece of photographic art may remind you of a family vacation in your childhood, or it may be that you connect deeply with a certain color, like the golden yellow of fall leaves and all the feelings of comfort it evokes. Whatever it is, it just so happens that many of our most cherished memories are created in nature — which makes it such an intriguing subject for me as a photographic artist.
 

“Photography is putting ones eye and ones heart on the same axis.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

The art of photography: How I go about photographing a feeling

All of this, of course, doesn’t happen accidentally. I often spend hours and days wandering around a place until I find a scene that makes my heart beat faster and carries forth my mind. Curiosity is paramount for this type of work, always wondering what’s around the bend, where that dirt road may lead. Curiosity sparks imagination, and imagination is the prerequisite of inspiration. 

When I am out in the field creating new work, I force myself to the very best of my ability to let trained grown up behaviors go and reconnect with my inner child — that innate sense of awe when everything is interesting and potentially the coolest thing I’ve ever seen (which sometimes drives my wife nuts when we are out hiking and constantly I’m slowing us down). It forces me to look beyond the grand vista, to process what my eyes see more intently.

Getting into that kind of headspace is actually a whole lot harder than it may seem, as it requires slowing down both the body and the mind — which, in my adult days, I have found to be one of the hardest and at the same time most important acts of self-care in today’s fast-paced world. As I force myself to ignore other to do’s and take the time to really experience a place, to see details and notice how they make me feel, I oftentimes wander deep into my own memories and thoughts. I always make note of where my mind takes me in the process of creating a photograph, which usually becomes crucial context to its story. If you’ve been following my work for a while, you know how much emphasis I place on these stories that accompany each of my finished artworks.
 

“Not only is Lars’ photography incredible. But the writing that he does, which allows you to see into his mind and experience what he was thinking and feeling when he captured that image, is nothing short of awe-inspiring and inspirational. I've been lucky enough to acquire two of his pieces, "Family Bonds" and  "Bonds".  They are some of my prized pieces.” — Michelle D., collector

A black and white Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of Mount Wilson near Telluride, Colorado, during peak fall colors in Southwest Colorado. The best time to see the fall colors in Colorado is usually in late September and early October.

VICTORIOUS — "ICONS OF THE WEST" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 99. 
CLICK TO LEARN MORE.

Photography as an element of interior design 

So yes, I believe that art is all about the emotional connection to a piece. But there are a few other considerations that differentiate timeless photographic art from just another landscape photo you see on social media. 

I understand that you are looking to complete your space and how it feels, that you are looking for a piece of art that provides balance both to your room and your life, a piece that injects both luxury and personality into your space — and, last but not least, offers an escape from daily life. Photographic art is perfectly equipped to help you achieve all those goals — if I have done my job of establishing an emotional connection first. 

For a cohesive room, you want a piece of art to add another dimension to a space but make sure it still fits with its flow and general aesthetic, something that doesn’t look out of place. It’s why black and white images are extremely popular artworks, for example.
 

"Black and white photography erases time from the equation” — Jason Peterson

 
The more you look at it, the more you will notice that photographic art is actually much more in line with classic painter techniques and principles of interior design. Here are a few examples of these principles, which I am constantly on the lookout for as I search for the perfect image within a landscape.

The Principles of Art

Color Compliments

Especially abstract art is often a study in shape, complementary color, and color contrast. The same goes for images like this that play on how color has the ability to influence your mood. 

An abstract Lars Gesing fine art photograph of the fall colors on Last Dollar Road near Telluride, Colorado.

CLARITY — "COLORADO'S FINEST" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 50.
CLICK TO LEARN MORE.

Variety

Anywhere you look in nature, you will find variety!

The shape of light

Without light, there is no photography. Traditional painters have always been masters at leading the viewer’s eye through an image through the use of light and tonal difference. Sometimes, the subject of an image can even be light itself.

Rhythm

These bisons moving in together closely to shield each other from a storm makes for a moment of romantic harmony. But it also creates an image of great rhythm — how their shapes align perfectly align, as if drawn up and placed there. It’s an image that’s highly stylized and yet completely natural — a perfect moment.

An award-winning Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of bison in the snow near Denver, Colorado at the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Arsenal.

FAMILY BONDS — "THE WARMTH OF WINTER" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 50.
CLICK TO LEARN MORE.

Harmony

Fine art nature photography, just like life itself, is a dance with chaos. It’s the often tedious task of cutting through clutter, of finding pockets of order and solitude and comfort in an acceleratingly crazy world — which makes those moments of absolute harmony all the more worth celebrating.


Proportion

Can you spot the campers on the river’s edge in this image? Doesn’t this chasm look even more impressive to you now?

A Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona, a great stop and to-do on any roadtrip through the American West.

OH, TO GET LOST — "ICONS OF THE WEST" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 99. 
CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE.

Pattern

Nature is full of recurring patterns and lines, but they are often overlooked as they hide in plain sight of the grand vistas. Patterns and lines give us a sense of security and comfort. They also add an additional element of style particularly to spaces that put an emphasis on clean lines.


Simplicity

I seek out simplicity in my artworks, to add a space of rest for you rather than add to the already-existing clutter in your life. (Link to slowing down article) Just consider what Leonardo DaVinci once said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

An abstract Lars Gesing fine art nature photograph of a sunset near Davenport, California.

    SYMPHONY OF THE SEA — "CAREFREE" COLLECTION. LIMITED EDITION OF 50.
    CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE.

    Investing in photographic art: Quality matters. 

    Aside from the content of the actual photograph, there are a few other things to keep an eye on that will make you feel comfortable that you are in fact investing in a lasting piece of photographic art rather than just buying a print of a photo someone snapped.

    First and foremost, I believe that a timeless piece of art deserves to be produced using only the finest materials anywhere in the world. It’s why I have made the decision long ago to use only the clearest, museum-quality acrylic mounts I can find anywhere on the planet and only handmade Italian wood frames. You can watch the video below to learn more about the level of craftsmanship and sophistication that goes into producing a piece of photographic fine art once I captured the image in the field.
     

      
    Lastly, you also want to make sure that the photographic artwork has…

    • …edition numbers! The fewer editions are available of a photograph, the rarer it is. I usually release my signature series pieces in editions of only 99 — unlike other photographers, who will do runs of hundreds or even thousands of pieces from one image, diluting the single piece’s value.
    • …a signature. That signature is proof you have an original in your hands. All my artworks carry my signature.
    • …a certificate of authenticity. All of my artworks are accompanied by a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity so you can rest assured that you are holding a rare, original piece of photographic art.

    As you can hopefully see by now, the process of creating a timeless piece of photographic art in nature and producing it to be hung on your wall is the product of a lot of careful consideration and thought, unwavering commitment, open-mindedness, trial and error, and a healthy dose of luck of being in the right place at the right time. What you see on these pages and in my Seattle gallery are the moments when all of the above came together for a moment of pure magic. Those are the moments I chase. Those are the moments that bring joy to peoples’ homes around the globe, that invite your mind to wander to the places you dream of. I stand ready to help bring that joy into your home and take your mind on a journey, as well. 

    >> Shop Fine Art <<

     
    P.S.: Want to learn more about The Buying Experience for a piece of Lars Gesing Fine Art? Click here.

    __________________

    About The Homeward Journal

    I believe that the timeless beauty of nature is the antidote to a life of haste and worry. That’s how The Homeward Journal came to be. It is a collection of writings that are part romantic naturalist essays in the tradition of Muir, Abbey and Oliver, and part expert advice on how to create awe-inspiring nature-based interior design that celebrates what you love most. At its heart, every piece in The Homeward Journal explores the one feeling we all share: How connecting with the beauty of nature elevates both our spirits and the spaces we call home. Start exploring my artwork here.

    Connecting With Nature