By John Warden
This article was first published in the Fall 2014 Edition of Nature Alberta Magazine, Volume 44, Number 3.
In 1907 after climbing Mount Sir Donald in British Columbia, Frank W. Freeborn, a mountain climber and charter member of the Alpine Club of Canada, articulated a problem that many nature photographers face:
I tried to catch the scene with my camera, but the result is only a faint suggestion of the majesty and beauty of the original.
Freeborn was right. Majesty is not a simple aesthetic quality. It’s one of those emotional responses that come to us intuitively. We know it when we see it, but to artistically capture and convey majesty is a much more difficult undertaking.
My response to Freeborn’s lament was to take on majesty as a project and, like the jigsaw puzzles of mountain scenery that my Mother so enjoyed, examine each of the pieces to see where they fit and how they contribute to the finished picture. For help, I turned to another mountain climber, Arthur P. Coleman.
Coleman was also a founding member of the Alpine Club of Canada and in 1910 became the club’s second president. A professor of geology at the University of Toronto, he was a climber who made the first ascent of Castle Mountain near Banff in 1884. Coleman was also a writer, a photographer and an artist. As noted by author David P. Silcox:
Painting was, for [Coleman], both a poetic and a descriptive pursuit, a way of wrapping an artistic expression around a phenomenon he was interested in or moved by.
Majesty, for sure, is an artistic expression and Coleman, who made eight expeditions into the Rockies, was definitely moved by mountains. On the 31st of July 1908, having left from Edmonton for his second attempt at summiting Mount Robson, he and his expedition approached the mountains. From Coleman’s book, The Canadian Rockies: New and Old Trails, we get our first clue:
Then came the imposing portal of limestone cliffs and once more the majesty of the mountains engulfed us, the huge block of Roche Miette overshadowing us for half a day.
Here, close to home, on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, we can begin putting our picture together. To go beyond a snap shot or selfie and dip our toes into the artistic realm of the majestic, we start with a sense of being engulfed by the mountains. Mountains tower and loom over us. They have a high view and Coleman’s descriptions from his climbing expeditions give us that sense:
Lifting their heads serenely among drifting clouds, [the mountains] give one a poignant feeling of the difference between man's world and God's. Here was purity and measureless peace. Here one might think high thoughts.
The highest point of the mountain rose in sheer cliffs above a very wild valley. [...] From our perch on the rocks there was a magnificent view of the central Rockies, including the Columbia Icefields.
Mountains in the distance are nice. Certainly, they can be scenic. When we’re IN the mountains though, surrounded and engulfed by them, then we begin to experience majesty. But how can we artistically convey this towering, high view aspect of majesty? Let the mountains be as tall as possible. Compose the photograph so that the top of the mountain or highest point of interest is at the very top of the image frame or, by showing only part of the mountain, imply that it towers even beyond the top of the frame.
A high view, though, is not the only piece of the puzzle that is majesty. Coleman’s description of Roche Miette as “a huge block that overshadows them for half the day”, offers another clue. Size, bulk and massiveness are also contributing factors. Mount Robson is a particularly good example. Seen from the west on the Yellowhead Highway, Robson is a huge and massive mountain that is awesome in its majesty.
Capturing that size, though, can become an obstacle to appreciating and artistically expressing the quality of majesty. One of the compositional techniques that can help with that problem is scale i.e. portraying comparatively, the size of a mountain. Coleman, like many photographers and painters effected scale by positioning a tree in the foreground of his canvas or print, thereby allowing us to judge from the relative size of the tree the mass of the mountain looming over and around it.
My own experience using scale might help to illustrate this concept. I remember seeing a big bull bison in winter at Elk Island National Park. He was huge, with a massive head, made even larger by his heavy coat of winter hair. Frost and snow covered his face and I could see his warm breath in the frosty air. Wow! This guy is majestic I thought to myself. And indeed, he is as you can see from the photograph. His size in the image though, is amplified by the contrasting scale of the plants in front of his face. And such is the case with mountains. Add a tree, a person, or wildlife to our mountain images, anything from which size can be inferred and instantly, we create scale. In doing so, we also begin to interact with the image.
Bison have provided me with another critical characteristic of majesty, that of power. Bison in general are big and powerful and the bull I saw that winter was a juggernaut. I could see the light in his eyes and his frosty breath as he ploughed through the deep snow. From these cues, the bison’s power was visceral. That same feeling of bone-deep power is found in Arthur Coleman’s evocative mountain descriptions of tumbling glaciers, precipitous slopes, and sheer walls of ice. And when Coleman fell through the snow into a deep crevasse and was saved only by his ice axe, he experienced firsthand the dangers posed by the powerful forces at work in the mountains.
How then can we, without falling into a crevasse ourselves, artistically express the power of mountains? We go back to the basics of composition and an understanding of the psychological significance of shape and form. Shapes are a basic element of design and are used to convey meaning. In any photograph or artwork, shapes and forms speak to us in the language of power. Triangles, like the triangular shape of my bison’s head or the triangular shape of mountains, add a dynamic tension and energy to an image. Squares and rectangles, on the other hand, communicate solid stability. Even implied shapes bring energy and life to a photograph and the result is a more powerful image.
Lines are another effective compositional tool that can convey power. The severe, angled, and jagged lines seen in towering cliffs and precipitous slopes can be isolated, emphasized and exaggerated in a composition by the choice of point of view. The greater the angle of point of view, the more powerful the feeling we derive from lines.
Symbols are also a useful technique in photography for conveying power. If we go back to my bison image as an example, his weary winter face, covered in frost, ice and snow speaks to us of the power of survival. He represents an enduring capacity to overcome the cold, the winter and the seasons. Snow and ice can also represent the slow and powerful grinding force of glaciers.
To see all of these power related compositional features though, we need illumination, the interplay of light and shadow, colour and cloud. Coleman wrote of how “blue and purple shadows began to creep from point to point, till all was soft and ethereal” and it is in this kind of interplay that the mountains begin to come to life. Soft light, diffused by cloud and mist, give us a sense of the breath of the mountains and when something as massive as mountains or bison are breathing, they exude power. Dark colors add a taste of foreboding danger and hard light like that of mountain alpenglow adds fire and vitality to our subjects.
Hard light also reveals textures which compositionally convey age, the last of the four characteristics of majesty. A young bison is not likely to be considered majestic, whereas an old, wise and powerful bull, may well be. Texture is a major component in my photograph of the bison and that texture greatly adds to the feeling of age and therefore majesty.
Another example of age can be found by the east park gates in Jasper. There is a mountain there whose veins and striations have etched its rock face, exposing an aged and ancient countenance. A similar sense of age can be felt in the furrowed lines and heavily textured bark of old trees. Age, like the symbolic power of snow and ice, talks to us of an enduring capacity to withstand the ravages of time.
Frank Freeborn set out the problem and Arthur Coleman helped us to discover the four corner pieces of our jigsaw puzzle, a high view, size, power and age. Using the tools of visual design and composition we can now, with a new heightened awareness, pull the pieces of our puzzle together, building, layer on layer, an image of our feelings for majesty. Will the result be more than a shallow suggestion of the original? That’s why we’re on a vision quest. Go! Majesty, solitude and wonder are there for those who search.
Coleman, A. P. (1911). The Canadian Rockies: New and Old Trails. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
Freeborn, F. W. (1908). A Day at Sir Donald. Canadian Alpine Journal, 1 , 214.
Gillis, A. (2011). Aesthetics, Art, Liberty, and the Ultimate. Retrieved from Journal Of Macrodynamic Analysis, 6.: http://journals.library.mun.ca/ojs/index.php/jmda/article/view/258/150
Girling, A. C. (2009). A.P. Coleman: Geologist, Explorer (1852 – 1939) – Science, Art & Discovery. Retrieved from Victoria University Library, Toronto: http://library.vicu.utoronto.ca/apcoleman/index.htm
Silcox, D. P. (2009). On the Art of A. P. Coleman. Retrieved from A.P. Coleman: Geologist, Explorer (1852 – 1939) – Science, Art & Discovery. : http://library.vicu.utoronto.ca/apcoleman/artist/amateur_page_1.htm
The Alpine Club of Canada. (Published annually since 1907). The Canadian Alpine Journal. Canmore Alberta: Alpine Club of Canada.
As part of my analysis of this project, I created a crosstab checklist, which I’m happy to share with you below. If you think I’ve missed something though, let me know at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can see the original images used in this article by opening the gallery below.