The Story Behind a Landscape Photograph

The Story Behind a Landscape Photograph

What is it about landscape photography that draws us back into nature? Is it waiting for the perfect light to hit the mountains overlooking a vast, green valley? Is it sitting on a rocky shore, listening to and witnessing the sheer power of Mother Nature's waves crash against the rocky shore? Is it the calmness of a misty pine forest at dawn, waiting for the sunrise and hearing the gentle crack of the trees, as a gentle breeze sweeps through the branches? Or is it the thrill of chasing a storm, down a highway in the countryside, while being pelted with hail the size of golf balls?

When I was still studying photography nearly a decade ago, I met up with a well-known local fine art landscape photographer at his home to talk about his process behind landscape photography. He still shot on film at that stage in 2009 and insisted digital was nowhere near the quality of film photography. And how the process of developing film was his addiction.

His travels would start by packing his old Toyota Land Cruiser with the necessities to survive out in the wild for at least a month. A small fridge in the back would store all the medium-format film his Fuji GFX6-17 would require during that period. After he was done packing his truck, he would embark on his journey to the next destination, whether it be Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, or Namibia. He insisted on traveling alone to the deepest, darkest corners of Africa with no satellite phone and no backup crew to help him if he ran into trouble.

Once he reached his destination off the beaten track, hundreds of miles from any form of civilization, he would set up camp, make a fire, and cook himself a meal for the night before turning in. A few hours later, while the stars are still out, he'd wake up, gather his camera gear, and walk in a direction for a few miles using only a compass for navigation. He would walk for hours until he found a spot suitable to photograph. Perhaps a dried up river bed flowing down into a valley, or a lonesome Baobab tree situated in a barren landscape. Once he was satisfied with what he saw in front of him, he would set up his tripod and camera, find a suitable composition, and wait for the right light. This waiting period would last over a few days. During this time he would walk back to his camp every night, leaving his camera behind, and study the weather patterns, stars, and sunrise and sunsets. He would venture back and forth between his camp and camera during the early hours of the morning, arriving just in time for sunrise. If he were happy with the quality of the clouds and dawn, he would take snap a frame, otherwise, if he weren't sure about the quality of light, he would leave it and head back to camp for the day. So this process would continue for a few weeks until he got the shot he was looking for.

Alone in the desert, surviving on canned meat, veggies, and bottled water while battling the elements is a challenging aspect no matter how you look at it. Out there the smallest issues we deal with daily could mean life or death in the desert. Especially in Africa. One particular day, after he managed to capture the shot he wanted, our landscape photographer ventured back to his camp. After he packed up camp and was ready to head home, he entered his truck and turned the key to start the engine. Silence. His Land Cruiser refused to start. Hundreds of miles away from any form of civilization. No one around to help, he was faced with a significant challenge: stay with the vehicle, eventually run out of food, and end up dying a slow and painful death, or devise a plan to jump-start the car even though there's no form of downhill located anywhere close on this flat plain.

Instinct kicked in and he devised a plan to gather large rocks to create a makeshift ramp for his car, not knowing how he's going to get it up there for a rolling start. But he knew he had to do something. After walking for miles to gather rocks big enough not to crumble under the weight of the truck, he eventually constructed his ramp. As he was about to be faced with his next challenge of single-handedly pushing the truck up the ramp, some locals came walking past on their journey back from gathering water for their village.

After being isolated from any interaction for such an extended period, he thought he was hallucinating. Was this all a bad nightmare? Shaking off the thought, he realized he needed help. While the locals couldn't speak or understand a word of English, he eventually got the message across he needed help to push the truck up the ramp. The first attempt failed, with the rocks crumbling under the pressure of the wheels. After gathering more rocks, they tried again. This time it rolled down the rocks but didn't start. They pushed it back up and tried again. Suddenly a roar sounded from within the vehicle as the engine came alive. The locals were joyous and, even though he didn't tell me, I'm sure there were tears of joy running down his cheeks. He was on his way home.

I sat there on his couch, so drawn into his tale that I completely forgot about my coffee. It made me realize what made landscape photography so unique to some. It wasn't all about capturing the perfect sunrise or that ideal wave crashing against the shoreline. It was the journey you took to get there and take that one photo that tells the whole story. The picture you look back at 10 years from now and still remember what it took to get there.

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Thanks for starting my day off with such and inspiring story.

My pleasure! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

Amazing story and thanks for sharing!
I really enjoy the no-BS stories behind the shot as opposed to the fluffy narratives that often accompany fine-art photographs. When I look back on some of my favorite images, im usually reminded of how tired, wet, sore, etc... I was trying to get the shot as opposed to the "polished" final result.

Thanks for reading and supporting! Really appreciate it!

Explaining the reason why we do some of the things we do is difficult. Words are limited. Fred van Leeuwen manages to turn the meaning behind the adventure into a amazing story. It is the eager anticipation, the journey, the experience, we call it life.
Thanks for a really inspiring and poetic short story.

Thank you so much!

When in Africa ensure that you can always have a plan "B" get to the next beer.

Very true haha!