Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a common phrase, meaning that we all have our own thoughts, feelings and perspective on what is beautiful. Knowing how we view the beauty of the natural world is important intelligence for our vision quest. When it comes to landscapes though, it seems that we have a deeper connection than merely the individual.
Wherever there is a scenic vista, people stop, whether there’s a roadside pull-out or not. In fact, lots of people stop at view points. For an example, drive along the Icefield Parkway in the summer time. The viewpoints are crowded, packed with people stopping to see the sights. There are traffic jams as people from all over the world jockey their cars, trucks and motor homes into and out of crowded viewpoints. This would seem to suggest that there is something more than individual preference at play when it comes to the appreciation of scenic vistas. Perhaps beauty is not just, in the eye of the beholder.
Academic studies bear out this observation. Research by Jay Appleton in 1975, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan in 1982, Orians and Heerwagen in 1992 and Denis Dutton in 2009 reveal that globally, when contemplating landscapes, people have a cross cultural preference for a view of rolling hills with vegetation, climbable trees and a view of water or pathway. It’s thought that this preference is forged in the origins of our species in Africa.
While we all, apparently, enjoy the view of a savannah or prairie landscape, the research also makes the point that we have learned to do so from a place of safety or refuge. I’m old enough to remember the Disney movie Bambi. In a scene that illustrates this concept, Bambi’s mother explains to him that open spaces can be dangerous. It’s best to watch from the edge of the forest before running out into a meadow. It certainly makes sense and applies in art and photography in terms of framing, where we, the viewers, peer at a landscape scene from behind the protective barrier of branches or trees.
A second instinctive place of safety is the view point or prospect, as it is called by the researchers. Going back to the earliest of times, people have climbed up to view points to survey the landscape. Danger can be anticipated and food can be identified. As a result a view point can be a stimulating and exciting place for the senses.
Delving into the hitherto unknown world of landscape appreciation theory, we've learned that we all enjoy landscapes and that we have innate, subconscious responses to viewing those landscapes. Let’s now look at the elements of design and composition that also provide us with important subliminal messaging as we learn how to see deeply.