In-Depth: The Meaning of Mountains


The world probably has enough pictures of mountains. Just searching the word in Lomography’s archive of community uploads brings over 127,000 results. But the thing is, we never seem to get bored of photographs of mountains, or for that matter paintings, or poems, or songs about mountains either.

Credits: ekeupratama

Clearly there is something about mountains that has always inspired artists. They are ancient and immovable, with peaks at once both frightening and enticing. It’s this dichotomy that was described by the British philosopher, Joseph Addison, who crossed the Alps in 1699 and later wrote, "The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror." While John Dennis also described the same journey as pleasurable, but "mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair"

Both writers are describing “the sublime”, an idea that frequently makes reference to mountains as the perfect example of “a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation.”

The same feeling is captured in many of the best photographs of mountains from our community. There is something even more special about photos of mountains on film.
Perhaps this is because film’s imperfections (the grain, light leaks or inexact exposure) help to remind us the image was captured from a real place, and that these imperfections often come from the challenges of shooting in an extreme environment. They tend to give us more of a visceral feeling than a perfect digital landscape.

Credits: foken_money, euripidesaltintzoglou, damianciu, s-ji, stacy_mcpommes & vicuna

The English romantic poets were obsessed with the sublime, so it’s no surprise that their poems, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni are also full of mountains.

Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog - Caspar David Friedrich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then there’s this 1818 painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by ‎Caspar David Friedrich. This is one of the most famous mountain paintings in European art and fits perfectly alongside those poems of the time. All the same themes are present here - awe, the power of nature, human insignificance.

Over 200 years later, and the algorithm also brings us many similar wanderers. It would be easy to make an album of images that take this same view of figures on mountaintops, their backs turned and facing sublime views.

Credits: shoao, anpank, urbantristesse, jennson & sabrinacaramanico

Mountains are also sacred places. Throughout human history they are the places people have gone to communicate with gods. We seem to agree as a species that if gods are to be found anywhere, they are not down here at our normal altitude, but closer to the heavens.

From Mount Fuji in Japan, to Mount Sinai in Egypt, and hundreds more, since photography’s earliest days the world’s sacred mountains have been captured on silver halide crystals. Lomographers are still doing so now, whether on old bulky cameras or more lightweight companions like the Diana F+ used to take the photo below.

Credits: fruchtzwerg_hh

Even for non-religious people mountains are often objects of spirituality, and perhaps this is another reason we want to photograph them. Mountains fill us with wonderment that is not unlike a religious experience. In short, they give us a religious feeling without giving us religious imagery, which in our modern age is increasingly what we seem to want. In these photos of mountains there may be an unconscious desire to replace traditional religious symbols in art with symbols drawn from nature.

Credits: damianciu, tmartino, vicuna, zphil, evilpete, crazy_little_red_riding_hood & urbantristesse

And of course mountains also make good metaphors. To climb a mountain is to struggle uphill against something difficult. The way is long and arduous but there is promise of a reward at the pinnacle. The act of making art is especially suited to this metaphor. Much like mountain climbers, artists may feel that what they’re doing is in equal parts vital and meaningless. Why, for example, do we spend so much time and effort learning the craft of film photography? Perhaps for the sense of achievement of reaching some imagined peak of skill and knowledge. But that peak is never really reached, it’s mostly just about the joy and challenge of the journey.

Credits: zoloto, georgelunn1, vicuna, zphil, evilpete & fruchtzwerg_hh

In his book Mountains of the Mind, the nature writer Robert Macfarlane writes the following: “Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction - so easy to lapse into - that the world has been made for humans by humans. [. . .] Mountains correct this amnesia.”

Mountains remind us of the power of natural forces, and our own frailty compared to them. It’s often this sense of danger that we seek when spending time in mountains. Macfarlane goes on to write, “risk-taking brings with it its own reward: it keeps a "continual agitation alive" in the heart. Hope, fear. Hope, fear - this is the fundamental rhythm of mountaineering.”

Credits: pandoraprie, connorjfilm, vicuna, stratski & systemdevice

To begin with it may be our egos and our need to conquer that compels us to summit mountains, but in the end we are often humbled by the experience when reminded of our own mortality - this rhythm of hope and fear that could also be applied to many of the things that make us feel most alive.

In one of our favourite interviews for the magazine, the photographer Nicola Odemann echoes this idea of spending time in mountains somehow connecting us more closely with the living world. Perhaps the whole subject of mountain photography can be best described by her words.

“I’m just so in awe of the beauty of this planet and all the beautiful mountains and oceans and lakes it consists of. What a crazy thing to live in such a diverse world while we are surrounded by the enormity of the universe. I feel like there is so much to see and so much to explore and I want to see it all and feel it all and capturing all of my encounters of film prolongs the endurance of the memories and makes them available to others as well. And being able to share the beauty of such places or, in return, sharing in on the adventures of others brings you closer to the world and, in the best case, instills some kind of a gratitude, love, and tolerance towards this earth and its people.”

Thank you to all the Lomographers who uploaded these beautiful mountain photos to their LomoHomes. Share with us your favorite photography subjects and tell us what it means to you in the comments!

written by alexgray on 2022-12-18 #culture #in-depth #art #mountains #poetry #community #in-depth

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Lomography Diana F+

Lomography Diana F+

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One Comment

  1. rz01
    rz01 ·

    Yay, those mountains that C. D. Friedrich painted are near Dresden in Germany (Saxon Switzerland). They also feature in the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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