Does the outer space into which we dissolve taste of us at all?
There are shadows because there are hills
― E.M. Forster
I’ve been reading the Chinese Book of Changes and it refers to aesthetics, which is a good subject for photographers. The I Ching was the basis for a question which occurred to me: what is the context for mountain photography, is it art or the outdoors?
I’ll mention one consideration for the ancient book and how it is perceived. People use it for divination for which there are two principle methods. You throw yarrow stalks according to a number making formula, or three coins which is simpler. This is not the place to explain the theory, except by referring to Carl Jung’s notion of synchronicity which he called an “acausal connecting principle.”
Of more interest to me recently is reading the I Ching as a book of wisdom. Throw the coins and the result can be startlingly useful, but the power is found with the entirety of the system not snapshots. The text becomes secondary to living philosophy: “the Tao which can be told is not the real Tao” advises the Tao te Ching. There is no definitive account of I Ching origins and it’s possible stalks or coins were used when people didn’t comprehend the greater book. Perhaps didn’t have the time, or inclination, to learn it.
Jung dismissed divination, but found the book full of insight. There are philosophical methods which structure this approach, so you don’t read it arbitrarily, but they’re complicated and I won’t describe them here. The basic premise however applies to all books. We read them for enjoyment, solace, and learning. The shaping of life achieves an aesthetic as a problem might start, continue, then resolve, read for imaginative experience. E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View is a good example. Lucy and George meet in Italy, in constrained circumstances, trapped in convention, theoretically free from mannered England but in reality not so. The room symbolises freedom we want which society denies. For Virginia Woolf it was a room of her own, with no mention of a window, as a private space for words and thought.
The best advice is read the I Ching however you like, learning the style, symbolism, and meanings. That needs considerable work, although the starting point is easily understood as literary. Society limits people says Forster (for example) and the I Ching advises the same. That’s particularly clear in a version by Thomas Cleary translating Liu I-ming called The Taoist I Ching.
It’s not easy to abbreviate this topic but it needs some explanation. A preface to the I Ching, and why I thought about art, the outdoors, and photography. Very simply, I read hexagram 23 which is called Grace:
A fire that breaks out of the secret depths of the earth and, blazing up, illuminates and beautifies the mountain…beauty of form is necessary in any union if it is to be well ordered and pleasing rather than disordered and chaotic…In nature we see in the sky the strong light of the sun; the life of the world depends on it…aesthetic form comes into being when traditions exist that, strong and abiding like mountains, are made pleasing by a lucid beauty…beautiful form suffices to brighten and to throw light upon matters of lesser moment (Wilhelm)
I Ching meaning is usually subtle and hidden, the words poetic more than literal. The book dates from over three thousand years ago, with a substantial contribution from Confucius. Although the tradition – since the I Ching refers to the idea – is secondary to meaning you discover for yourself. It’s the same principle with art and photography. Be aware of proportional thirds for example, the Fibonacci ideas of da Vinci, but as advice not a constraint.
Hexagram 23 describes art. It means a cultural practice of “union” which heals people individually and as a social function. The depiction of chaos can be paradoxically interesting, as a subject to resolve. Picasso’s Guernica for example parallels T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Wasteland. Both are concerned with the devastation of war and what it does to civilisation. Eliot uses mythology and other sources showing how the idea locates across culture and time. He concludes with the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: “Shantih, shantih, shantih” which means peace. This can be read as invocation, social cry, or epistemic statement.
Photography critic Susan Sontag is mostly known for her seminal On Photography but Regarding the Pain of Others is an important secondary read, pertinent for war photography in particular. There are art-like photographs which arguably shouldn’t have been taken. Other photographs exposing a horror we don’t like but should know about. Everyone knows the child running from napalm. “Too hot, too hot” Phan Thi Kim Phuc cried and the words cut because children have few. In 2022 she wrote “it is easier to hide from the realities of war if we don’t see the consequences.”
For “union” and other reasons, beauty is a source of nourishment. Tracey Emin’s unmade bed or a painting of canned soup by Andy Warhol don’t inspire but a photograph of Torridon might. These are different cultural spaces. One suggests commerce and vacuity, while the other refers to the natural world we forget. Someone said, about my photograph above, “it’s like the beginning of the world.” She’d bought my Peak District book and was looking at other photographs. The Scottish highlands give you expansive views, whereas soup is not rewarding as an image. Art is cultural and these are complex ideas. A mountain photograph transcends culture with the outdoors as a category, proposition, and aesthetic: “beauty of form is necessary.”
There are moments when you see an interfering gate, road, or footprints, and exclude them from a photographic frame. There are viewpoints which are not wild but photographed as if they are. Buachaille Etive Mòr for example, ten minutes from the A82 at the end of Rannoch Moor before you reach Glencoe. Great Gable from Wasdale, where a camper van might be five minutes away in a parking area. The achievement is art, the outdoors as symbol more than reality but important. The wildness is imaginative, like a painting or view through glass, which John Muir called “the geography of hope.” Climb Torridon, Beinn Eighe, or Liathach – my photograph above – and there is no room. You have walked through the window. Like it’s the beginning of the world.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.