Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that there are a few subjects that tend to be universally attractive to a wide audience – and I’m not referring to cats, bikinis or brick walls (or strange combinations of all three). They tend to be of the type clouds, water, trees, fireworks etc. I’d like to explore that a bit more in today’s article.
I’ve got a few theories as to why this might be the case:
One of the things the human visual system excels at is the ability to pick out subtle differences in patterns by recognizing changes in spatial frequency, color, luminance etc. I suspect this is a survival instinct: you want to be able to recognize a bear that’s about to eat you from the surrounding forest. Conversely, we’re also very good at identifying objects of a similar nature or type: you know something is a car even if it’s a design you’ve never seen before. (On an unrelated note, the latter has proven to be something very difficult to program simply because it requires quantifying an idea or concept into a series of logical steps; except you cannot describe something that you have not seen. Yet in real life, we are very good at joining the dots and figuring out a cat is a cat, and not, say a lioness or a dog or a novelty table.)
The opposite of boredom
Visually uniformity is uninteresting. Perfect visual uniformity is interesting, as is irregularity – both disturb our sense of pattern recognition sufficiently that images of both hold our attention for longer. Subjects that appear to repeat but are actually unique therefore hold our attention for longer because they fall into both categories of pattern recognition, but at the same time, neither: on one hand, you know a photo of a forest is made up of trees, and can identify them as such, but they’re all different. At a subconscious level, we’re probably still looking for the bear – but at the same time marvelling in the diversity of execution in what is fundamentally the same object. The more time we spend looking, the greater the micro-level unpredictability holds our attention.
A connection to nature
Interestingly, most of the subjects that fall into this category are largely natural: that is, either they are completely non-manmade, or the results are not able to be determined precisely. At a fundamental level, nature – and the nature of the our environment, especially that which we cannot fully understand – still interests us as a species. That investigative and unending experimental curiosity is what largely separates us from animals; whether it’s through active/ quantitative scientific experiments or simply something observational and visual. For the most part, these subjects are beyond our control.
Here, we connect again to unpredictability: if we know what the exact outcome is going to be, it is no longer interesting to us: there is no need to do the experiment (in this case, looking). We only know that the subject is going to take a certain range of forms. But within that range, there’s a huge amount of potential variance: therefore, we spend time looking for compositions and subjects that break that range of variance either through uniformity or being completely outside the range of expectation. Even when we find those breaks in pattern which hold our attention, there’s no end to the level of detail to which we can explore and photograph them: there is no abrupt scale boundary after which the subjects cease to become interesting, unlike manmade objects. A mountain range can be just as interesting as a tiny dirt ridge, if properly lit; however, a building may hold interesting form in completeness, but most people are probably going to lose interest in a single brick in fairly short order. Nature does not suffer from these limitations.
This of course leads us to the obvious conclusion that the main reason this class of fractal subjects holds endless photographic potential lies not just in the way they hold and attract the attention of the observer – which must necessarily be both photographer and audience – but also in the fact that effectively infinite variations are possible. You will never photograph the same configuration of cloud twice, as the conditions that define the cloud change from moment to moment, thus resulting in a different outcome each time. I personally find I have trouble knowing when to stop shooting with a cloudscape, because there’s often so many different configurations that work aesthetically and compositionally – photographically, you are only really limited at the point when the light becomes unfavorable.
So, what kinds of subjects fall into these categories? Note that I’m looking at very specific things (in itself a form of pattern recognition, I suppose) that fulfill the criteria of being uniform, repetitive, but infinitely variable and not homogenous at a macro level, but more importantly, also differing heavily with changes in time (either due to changing light and a fixed subject, a moving subject, or both) and spatial position of the observer:
- Fluids: water, clouds, fireworks, fire, auroras, ice/ snow
- Repeating natural configurations: forests, trees, plants, grass, leaves, mountain ranges, sunsets/ sunrises
- Swarms of entities: flocks of birds, herds of wildebeest, fungal colonies (though not on your lenses) etc. Some manmade things may also fall into this category, though we generally don’t make things in sufficient quantity to qualify, or we don’t see them all in the same place at the same time in a disordered manner. Think of this and the previous category as ‘life outside our control’.
- I’m open to suggestions.
Our interest in people is more fundamental, I think: it’s down to the fact that we are social beings and like to interact with and observe each other; a photograph of a person – especially a strong portrait where the sitter is looking into the camera and through the resulting image into the eyes of the viewer – is definitely a communication. Though people fit the bill of infinite variation and being outside control, you’re probably not going to get swarms of them or close enough to discover the fractal repetition. People are an introspectively separate category of subject unto themselves.
Beyond that, what does it all mean for your photography? Firstly, if you’re stuck for inspiration or subjects, try one of the ones we discussed here. Even if you live in a concrete jungle, you’re probably going to have access to clouds, or sky, or sunsets. And almost certainly water, even if it’s only in your kitchen sink. Light can always be made. Secondly, it’s possible to photograph these things repeatedly and not get bored: there’s a lot of potential here. Infinite potential, in fact; one could make a portfolio – possibly a career of some sort – out of just photographing auroras or trees. Finally, think of it is inspiration to keep shooting: there’s always something left to be captured. MT
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