Excerpt from
Light on the Landscape
Photographs and Lessons from a Life in Photography 


Mudcracks, Zion National Park, Utah  1983
Camera: Wista 45,  Lens: Rodenstock Sironar-N 210mm f/5.6

The Magic Element: Emotion

Let You Heart Show the Way

An important aspect of being an artist is the ability and willingness to express and share emotions in your work. Of course, the viewer can only imagine the state of the artist’s mind, but if the work is successful, one can often gain an insight into the artist’s experience or mood. A strong work of art can elicit emotions in the viewer both obvious and unexpected, whether they are the same emotions the artist felt or not.

Whether apparent or not, the artist’s emotions will, and should, affect the work. Most of my best images are a result of a passionate response to the subject. Many years ago, I was exploring in Zion National Park. One day when returning from a solo hike up a narrow canyon, I slipped on some steep sandstone and slid (in shorts, of course) down about thirty feet into a pothole full of water. All my gear was in a pack on my back and the water was five feet deep. It took me several minutes to get my pack off, throw it out of the pothole, and climb out. Meanwhile, my gear, which included my 4×5 and 35mm cameras and lenses, got soaked.

I was scraped up pretty good, and so I cleaned up the “rug burns” on my arms and legs, and then spent hours trying to dry out my equipment. I remember using the hand dryer in a local campground restroom and leaving lenses in the sun on my car’s dashboard. At the end of the day, I called home only to hear some more bad news.

Needless to say, I was seriously bummed out; half my camera gear wasn’t working, plus some personal issues were not helping my mood. Fortunately, my 4×5 dried out nicely, since no electronics were involved, and the lenses and film were okay, so the next day I went exploring again. As I wandered through a streambed, I found these cool mud cracks. They had formed in a depression so that somehow the cracks were small at the top of the slope and progressively got bigger lower down, where the moisture had stayed longer. The composition was made to show this transition.

I liked the image when I exposed it, obviously, and I liked it even more when I saw the processed film. But I didn’t really stop to think about how my emotional state of mind might have affected the making of it. Only months later, when printing the image, did it strike me that the image reflected my mood that day. My emotions had surfaced through the making of this photograph. Looking back, I am happy to have made something good of a bad situation!

Thinking about my own work over the years, the role of specific emotions in image making varies from image to image. Most often, it is the excitement of discovery, of finding a captivating subject in extraordinary light, that demands I make the photograph. On occasion, I have found that some images are also influenced by my frame of mind, like my Mud Cracks image shown here. If one can accept that there is an artistic advantage to creating emotional work, perhaps those feelings will come through more often. The only trick I can think of for doing this is to give yourself permission to allow it. I don’t think there is an easy formula for doing this, nor do I believe it can be done every time.


Waterfall and Sunbeam, Sierra Nevada Foothills, California 2011
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III__EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM__1.5 sec at f / 27__ISO 200


Fortunately, most of us don’t have bad days too often. I am glad I went out for another hike that day in spite of my mood. I am sure that experiencing the beauty of nature was therapeutic. So often nature’s beauty has restored my spirits, and sometimes even resulted in a good photograph. It is beneficial for our photographs to convey emotion—those of joy, curiosity, quiet meditation, or even those bummer days. Rather than make an ordinary photograph, I hope that you will let your emotions make their way into your images. How else will we see your special way of seeing?

Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you. – Freeman Patterson