Art’s nature versus “real” nature

Do you like nature photography? So do I, but today I want to look at how photography can give us a false (or at least incomplete) impression of nature.

I found this picture on Pinterest under “Nature.”

I like it (I want to go there), but in real life you probably won’t see anything so perfect. The flawless shapes and textures, the richness of the light — it’s all been carefully selected and composed, and maybe amped up in Photoshop as well.

I’m not knocking it. If I had taken anything this good, I’d post it here and brag about it. And all photographers distort their subjects — if in no other way, simply by selecting the scene and composing it. It’s already curated reality before the picture is even taken.

Master photographers are masters of tweaking. The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams did most of his work not in the field but in the darkroom. Comparing his work to that of a musician, he considered the negative the score and the development the performance. Today Photoshop and other digital tools give photographers even greater powers of interpretation (and even outright invention).

If we view the above photos as works of art — and they are that — we can see them as idealized distillations of certain aspects of nature: symmetries, shapes, colors, and patterns of light.

But although this art is inspired by nature, and incorporates parts of nature… it isn’t nature. Go out into any natural area and look around, and really pay attention, and you’ll experience what I’m talking about.

Nature is scarred, battered, messy, and deeply imperfect. It is full of blight, disease, predation, and parasitism. Nature is constantly in the process of killing or being killed by other parts of nature, and wherever you look you’ll see things that are either dead or in the process of dying. This requires a good deal of rot and decay just to keep the system going by recycling the raw materials.

This destructive aspect of nature rarely makes it into popular art. It’s not hard to understand why.

fish bones on creek bed

I shot this in a dry Nebraska creek bed during last summer’s drought. I suppose it has a certain bleak charm, but there are very good reasons why our brains are conditioned to interpret scenes of drought and death as something less than the ideal of natural beauty. (That there’s anything green in it all gives a small hint of the persistence and adaptability of nature… even if it looks like nothing more than crabgrass.)

To really understand nature you have to go out in it, and see it all working together through the various seasons, preferably with some knowledge of what’s going on under the surface, and even more preferably, over a long period of time. Only then do you start to see the beauty not only of the pieces of nature, but of the system itself. And what that reveals is much richer and deeper than the postcard or Pinterest world. It is both more dangerous and more interesting, and ultimately more awe-inspiring.

6 thoughts on “Art’s nature versus “real” nature

  1. mark1408

    I agree with you but confess I like both ends of the spectrum. I’ll admit that the Pinterest picture looks very artificial – maybe deliberately but, like you say, nearly all photos do that to an extent. If you like “amped-up” stuff my fellow blogger Jamie is great at it – although he builds his works of art mostly around people rather than nature.

    You also made me wonder about my attitude. I’m more inclined to sit on the couch watching “Countryfile” (a UK TV programme) than I am to go out into the countryside myself 🙂

    (Jamie is at, if you’ll excuse the plug.)

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      I like the creative possibilities of Photoshop (and it looks like Jamie is doing some pretty amazing stuff). I guess the point is to be aware of the difference. Art (including photography) is where the artist is highlighting some aspect of the world, or maybe playing with it and turning it into something else, but there’s also this larger context that you can only experience through, well, experience. I’ll say this about nature programs – if they’re done right, they people making them have spent countless hours in the field waiting to get the perfect shots in the right season at the best locations. There’s something to be said for watching the results of someone else’s dedication to a topic.

  2. Pingback: Art’s nature versus “real” nature | Teacher as Transformer

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