What is 'Nature' in Nature Photography?

Aug 2016

Copyright © 1993-2016 Ganesh H. Shankar
I have been pondering over this question for some time now, after doing two decades of photography, mostly what is called 'Nature Photography'.

What is 'Nature' in Nature Photography?

Now, I think the meaning of the word 'Nature' has been extremely restricted in 'Nature Photography'. It often means photographing subjects which are not made by humans. It often means photographying our natural world - landscapes, seascapes, night sky and life in them in different forms. The meaning of the word 'Nature' however is not just restricted to the meaning that we are used to as nature photographers. More about it in a while.

I made thousands of such images during past couple of decades which portrayed life in our natural world. In all these the primary interest to us as nature photographers or as viewers is mainly beauty - colors, patterns, design, behaviour portrayed, actions - hunting, flying, mood/emotions they invoke etc. The word 'nature' however means much more than this.

Probably we never think about other meanings of 'nature' as nature photographers. Quoting a few lines from the free dictionary

- the natural world as it exists without human beings or civilisation.
- the elements of the natural world, as mountains, trees, animals, or rivers.
- natural scenery.
- the universe, with all its phenomena.
- the laws and principles that guide the universe or an individual.
- The totality of all existing things
- the natural forces that control what happens in the world (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nature)
- a creative and controlling force in the universe

I am referring to last 5 lines above. As a nature photographer I never thought about those meanings of the word 'nature'.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better - Albert Einstein

I don't think Einstein was using the word 'nature' to refer to mountains, rivers, elephants and tigers here. Probably he was referring to the controlling force that seem to govern everything and the mysterious order in the universe (nature).

Now, it is interesting to look at "Nature Timeline" (credit : Wiki)

So the universe we live in is 13.8 billion years old! Our sun/solar system came into being about 4.6 billion years ago and then came our planet earth. In this grand scale look at where we see "Earliest humans" (in the first two scales above). If our average life span is hundred years (if we are lucky enough to live that long) in the grand scale of "Nature timeline" hundred year passes in approximately 1/4th of a second! And in that 1/4th of a second, we are born, brought up, love each other, fight with each other, get into war, peace accords, think about conservation of the 'nature', write novels, poems, philosophy, wonder about this universe and disappear silently some day. On a lighter note, incidentally, I also have been commuting to office in Bangalore traffic jams everyday! :)

A minor event that happened (in this grand scale) that is worth noting is Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, an astroid collision on earth with an impact equivalent to a million nuclear weapons, wiping out 3/4th of all plant and animal species on earth, including dinosaurs. It probably is lame to think there are not any astroid left (not in my hundred years!).

"But I need to worry only 100 years I live, rest I don't care" - Yes, I hear that. However, I don't want to miss an opportunity to wonder about the grand design and remind myself that our own existence is part of this grand design (probably as a stray detail). I also don't want to miss an opportunity to wonder about the very little (probably non-existent) control we humans have in this large scheme of things (yes, there are nuclear bombs and peace accords). This is not philosophy, this probably is science(is it?), not understood well, but this is definitely nature!!

So, the 'Nature', as we know as 'Nature Photographers' means much beyond in macro level. So does it in micro level!!

The current knowledge is that the tiniest particle that make everything up in this universe are quarks and leptons. Quarks combine to become protons and neutrons. Protons, neutrons and electrons come together in various ratios result in different elements like hydrogen, oxygen, carbon etc...

While these fundamental elements are part of everything in the universe like air, water, stone, the real beauty however is some of the fundamental elements come together to become complex compounds which gets mysteriously stitched to become DNA, chromosomes and a cell!

And finally "The Life"!!!

Those carbon-hydrogen-oxygen-.. atoms which mysteriously come together to form 'life' knows how to survive, how to reproduce, feels happy, feels sad, writes and reads this!! While some combinations result in stone, liquid, air but some other result in "life". We still don't understand this well (more comments below). And two such group of basic elements predate, make love, gift, care?

What an astounding design! How can we take this for granted?

Look at this life form of the earth, named Homo sapiens which are far more complex than other life forms. Apart from basic survival instincts it has other complex characteristics. Attempts at understanding this species have led to different branches like humanities and art.

Quoting Erwin Schrodinger from his book What is Life? -

"My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature. (ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them. The only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I -I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt 'I' -am the person, if any, who controls the 'motion of the atoms' according to the Laws of Nature"
"What is this 'I'?"

That I think brings us to an interesting point beyond which the discussion starts to lack rigor and objectivity. Some signature of fundamental elements of which we are made up of creates this "I"? ego? character? beliefs? faiths? devotion? Only 'Nature'/'God' knows!

What a magnificient and greatest art by 'Nature'! Or should we say by 'God'?! May be Einstein's "Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists"?

At this time I don't want to drift towards religious beliefs like Brahman and Aathman and the teachings related to Aathman is same as the Brahman. I would love to live in the border of science which still can't explain this and probably THE art, the art of nature. Some day all these may merge. It may just be a function of age.

God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things
- Pablo Picasso

What an illiterate and lame statement by Picasso!!

In all humbleness, i think, those cubes craft (read cubism) can't anyway be compared to this art of God!(Nature). This is not an art for art sake. Nothing that we humans have created so far is as mysterious, as magical, as mind blowing as 'life' is, be it in science or art that we have indulged in all these years. Next time when you see a seed sprouting take a moment to think about the emerging new life! It will get bigger, new seeds will come out, so will new sprouts during next monsoon. It needs to be felt not just seen. This will never happen with the so called seven wonders of the world!

It may be a tautology, but the one which has been taken for granted! Yes, I am aware of works like Craig Venter's on creation of life. However, my reading is we are probably far far away. Decoding the genome is only small part of the whole equation. The outside simplicity of the nature and amazing inside details and complexity is probably incomprehensible.

By the way, how all these going to impact my photography?

Everything now appears very magical, be it a leaf of a branch or a mosquito biting my leg. "I" became even smaller. Suddenly, it appears that there is only one kind of photography, that is "Nature" photography.

How will I express these in my images so that the viewers share the same enthusiasm?

Should that be an objective? Even if it is, can I?