A sense of scale

In a recent post, I discussed how adding a human element to an urban scene makes us connect with an image in ways that an empty building can’t.  That human element simply takes the image to another level.

While I have resisted doing the same for natural landscapes for the longest time, I have to admit, that I am always struck by the impact a human figure, as small as it may be, has on a landscape image. Not only does it build a stronger connection between the viewer and the image, but it also  adds a sense of scale that is seldom achievable in de-humanized landscape. There was a very good discussion recently that stemmed from the Boston Globe’s Mark Freeney’s critique of photographer QT Luong’s Treasured Lands exhibit (you can see it here). Freeney’s argument was essentially that an “empty” (de-humanized) landscape was sterile, and that it could only come to life if it portrayed the human condition in it. I have to admit that I wasn’t taken with the argument as most landscape photographers go to great lengths to avoid showing the impact of humans on the landscape. And while I still see great value in a pristine natural landscape, I can’t deny that adding a human element can certainly transcend said landscape in ways that I couldn’t foresee initially.

The dunes of Erg Chebbi, that we will be visiting during our upcoming photo tour in Morocco, are one such landscape where nothing can prepare you to the immensity of the place. Plainly put, it’s HUGE! No picture can ever make you feel that sense of utter desolation and loss when completely surrounded by these 400-500′ monsters. Do you think that the man’s silhouette at the top of this dune gives you that sense of scale?

The man and the dune (it's worth checking it larger by clicking on it)

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8 Responses to A sense of scale

  1. Younes, this is absolutely stunning, and I too am one for usually trying to exclude most of the human element from landscape scenes. However, in my humble opinion, this really adds to the image and shows off what a majestic spot this is – really well done.

    • Younes says:

      Thanks Brian.
      I must say that my inclination to avoid the human element in my images is fading real fast. While I love a pristine landscape (and enjoy visiting them and fully embracing them), I am finding it less appealing from a creative point of view. You photograph a landscape, you get, well, a landscape. You add the human element and the possibilities are endless…this is in fact spurring a whole new current of ideas for me that I’ve been scheming to put to test for sometime. So, stay tuned :) .

  2. gara says:

    This is such an incredibly beautiful photograph. I love the abstract qualities and the high contrast. In this case, the human element is definitely called for, otherwise a viewer (me included) would have no idea of the subject’s magnitude.
    Beautifully done!
    And yes, generally I go for landscapes with no people…however, at time, I like the quality of the “signs” of humans having been there but aren’t there now. This can include a lone empty city building and with my focus on clouds (favored subject) the added human chaotic crisscross of power lines.

    • Younes says:

      Thank you very much for your kind words. My first instinct was to create an abstract image of these dunes. An image that highlights their beauty and diversity, regardless of scale and colour. However, as I saw the man in my viewfinder (he wasn’t visible to the naked eye!!), the image became really clear in my mind. What I wanted was an image that gave a first impression of simplicity and abstraction, but that gave you a little more upon closer inspection. A quick glance at the image merely shows alternating black and white layers; closer inspection and the sight of the human element is meant to make you stand back and realise the full scale of the place. I hope I managed to achieve that.

  3. Amanda says:

    I am soooo excited to visit the Erg Chebbi dunes in November!
    I’m not sure there is any disputing that the man gives a sense of scale to the image (that’s a fact, not an opinion – in my mind, at least) but a question of whether the image is richer and more compelling because of the sense of scale. and in this case I would say yes.

    The QT Luong post is very interesting. You might be surprised to hear that I disagree with most of what Feeney says :)

    • Younes says:

      I didn’t say I agreed with Feeney’s critique (in fact I think he completely missed the point in QT’s work), but his point just made me think of the issue differently :) .

      Your point though raises another interesting element of discussion, which whether photographic work gains value simply *because* of the human element, and conversely, whether it looses any and all value in the absence of such element.

  4. Erin Wilson says:

    Yes, stunning describes this very well. Gorgeous image, and a wonderful example of scale.