The Power of Mystery in Images

Let’s talk about the power of mystery in images and why mystery affects our responses to images.

If you are a serious student of art, you’ve undoubtedly read many tutorials about how to use the principles of composition, lighting, and timing to create more interesting images. We all want our images to be interesting, but what does that mean? How do we make our images more interesting; what is it about an image that makes it interesting?

I’ve often watched visitors to art galleries as they browse around the floors. It’s very common to see them roaming around, steadily moving from artwork to artwork, until they stop on a particular piece. Why did they stop on that one? And what is it about that piece that keeps them planted in that same spot well past closing time, I wonder?

I want to deep dive into this topic. It’s intrigued me throughout my study of why some images seem to grab our attention while others do not. It turns out that images that create a sense of mystery can be most engaging, but only up to a point. Ok, let’s prepare to dive.

Our lizard brains love mystery

The science of psychology has lots to say about the role of mystery in the development of modern animal behaviors. I’m going to try to explain, to myself at least, how these theories also help explain one specific behavior in modern humans: why some images trigger a closer look– a worthwhile engagement.

Psychology’s view on mystery is that throughout the evolution of the animal kingdom, a species’ ability to rapidly discern ‘the unknown’ within its environment was critically important to survival of that species. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? Prehistoric rodents wouldn’t have lasted long if they ran wildly into unknown caves, and neither would early man have survived. So the basic skill of heightened awareness to strange encounters in our environment is now something encoded in our DNA, deep in our lizard brains, so to speak.

I guess I already knew that and you probably did too. But something else Psychology tells us is that (and I paraphrase) “Animals are drawn to mystery; they seek mystery. Resolving mysteries is profoundly important to understanding our perceptions (encounters) of what we see (or smell, feel, hear, etc). But before we can resolve mysteries, we must first FIND them. Animal evolution has finely tuned the instinct to constantly seek mysteries in the environment.”

This compulsion to seek out mystery isn’t something we can ignore. Searching for and clarifying strange (mysterious) perceptions is as elementary to our human instinct as socializing and caring for our young. Humans are inherently curious, and we can’t help it.

The obligatory search for mystery isn’t strictly a survival instinct at this point in our evolution. That’s probably not true for every human on the planet, but in general, seeking mysteries has assumed a much less ominous purpose, yet it’s something we still do all the time. “What time is it?” “Is that pot roast seasoned?” “What’s around that corner?” etc, etc. Like I said, seeking mysteries–being curious– is a basic purpose of our lizard brains.

Mystery and human interest are interdependent

Let me share a psychology study I read some years ago and have since lost the reference for, but it’s no less important to the topic. Researchers studied a number of cultures and populations to determine if there is an inherent relationship between a range of novel perceptions (i.e., mysteries) and the interest generated in response to those perceptions.

It happens that humans don’t always find perceptions they encounter to be mysterious. Most encounters are this way; so common and mundane that our lizard brains simply ignore them. Total disinterest.

It’s also true that some perceptions are too mysterious to be believed. Extremely novel encounters can be perceived as ‘unreal’ and therefore unimportant. Again, total disinterest. Consider an image of a square moon, for instance.

The important lesson here is: The level of interest we take in any particular encounter is strongly related to how novel or mysterious we perceive that encounter to be.  Too little novelty and our brains recognize the mundane or cliche, and responds with disregard. Too much novelty and our brains respond with a sense of the bizarre, unbelievability, and then immediate disregard.

Between the extremes in novelty is a range of mysteries that generates intrigue and a desire for discovery. Remember, we’re searching for mysteries all the time.

The graph below says the same thing in a different format. Again, I’m recalling the psychology study mentioned above. Clearly, there is a big difference in the interest humans take in a mystery depending on the degree of novelty in that mystery.

graph of the interest novelty profile

This graph is purely notional and not strictly related to time or space. Not all images or visual art styles begin or end as cliche or begin or end as bizarre (although many do, right?). Cliche and bizarre are perceptions, and perceptions change and are very personal.

We can think of the left side of the graph as encounters having no mystery to most people, quickly dismissed by their lizard brains as undeserving of any further interest. The right side of the graph is just the opposite. Encounters over there are so mysterious (to most people) that our brains can’t comprehend the mystery or otherwise judge the encounter to be unreal, and therefore lose interest in trying to resolve the mystery. I used the term “distraction” in the graph, meaning something trivial and undeserving of further attention.

The relationship between novelty and interest shown in the graph is universal to all human populations, but you can’t use it to explain a specific population’s reaction to a specific mystery; it doesn’t work that way.  A drawing made by a native in New Guinea may be exceedingly mundane to others in his tribe, but people in my tribe could find that same drawing to be exceedingly mysterious and beautiful. Our interest in things we encounter in our environment (like images) is entirely related to our past encounters, our stored experiences. Well known encounters are perceived by our lizard brains as common and uninteresting. New encounters are perceived as novel / mysterious and our brains treat them differently, until they don’t.

Mystery activates our imaginations

Somewhere between the perceptions of cliche and bizarre sits the realm of mystery that generates (compels) high interest.  A little bit of mystery triggers a compulsion to understand the mystery, and in the process of discovery, we call on our imaginations to make sense of the mystery. It is the human imagination that gives mystery its power.

Psychology explains the power of mystery in general to work like this: Perceiving a mystery is a left-brain function. The left brain is where we conduct all our analytical functions, the most rudimentary of which occurs in our so called lizard brain (“What’s that????”). The left brain merely raises the question based on immediate perceptions of what it sees, feels, smells, hears, etc). It communicates the question to the right brain (the creative center) to evaluate the perception and come up with the answer to the mystery (“Don’t worry….it’s only a fly”).

This whole process of immediate perception followed by creative and imaginative resolution is strictly related to the mystery embedded in the perception. If there is no mystery (the left side of the above graph), there is little reason to imagine; the answer is clear already.  Done…move on to the next mystery. The whole sequence of such events may take no longer than a few milliseconds.

Well, what happens when the right brain is clueless about what the left brain sent it? Enter the creative process of imagination. First, the right brain compares the perception received from the left brain to its comprehensive database of all known encounters. “It’s a fly.” But, if there’s no explicit match to past encounters (i.e., the experience is novel), the right brain begins to fill in the gaps using imagination. “OK, it’s not a fly”–>”I’ve seen pictures of dragons, and this kinda looks like a dragon.”–> “Yea, it might be a tiny dragon, maybe a (fill in the blank)–>”etc.”

So, a little mystery engages the imagination; more mystery engages more imagination. As long as our brain perceives the mystery as something worth resolving, it will continue trying to resolve it using imagination. This creative process can take hours, days, or even years.  And that is a powerful mystery, one that sits somewhere in the upper part of the above graph.

 And active imagination is what makes an image engaging

Let’s return to our basic question “why do some images engage us (or compel us) and others do not?”

photo of mt moran and jackson lake at sunset
The sun does magical things in the mountains.

Certainly, anything that holds our attention can be said to be engaging. The longer it holds our attention, the more engaging it is. Images can do this of course, and in a very powerful way.

I’ll refer to my image “Purple Mountains Majesty” for a minute.  If you’ve never seen mountains or have never seen a picture of the Grand Teton Mountain Range, you may perceive what you see in the image as novel and mysterious. You’re left only with your imagination to resolve the mystery underlying the true majesty of the mountains themselves, or the elegant quality of light falling on the scene, or the purity of the refections in the water, or a multitude of other imagined or real elements in the image, and sometimes even beyond the image. To you, the image is an abstraction and perceived as novel and mysterious. Your left brain then engages the imagination center in the right brain to help understand the mysteries you encounter as you explore the image.

“Abstract art” is a common answer to “..what type of art causes your imagination to sore?” And that’s a valid answer; abstract art is consistently among the most popular genre of visual art. Lovers of abstract art explain their love precisely because it engages their imaginations to make sense of the shapes, colors, patterns, or forms present on the canvas. All of that imagining takes time and attention, meaning high interest, engagement, and enjoyment.

Abstract autumn tree along Blue Ridge Parkway
Bright Autumn Day by J Riley Stewart-Abstract autumn tree along Blue Ridge Parkway

But ask someone who dislikes abstract art about it and they’ll give an answer that might sound like abstraction borders on the bizarre, having no interest to them. Unlike the abstract lover, her right brain had no interest in using her imagination to discern what all those shapes, patterns, or colors mean. Mysterious, perhaps, but interesting, no.

The big difference between the abstract lover and her counter is that in the lover, abstraction engages the imagination while in the latter it certainly does not. The whole of the above Interest Profile of Novelty can be explained by the seemingly desperate need for imagination to make an image interesting.

My personal approach for creating mystery in images

I love mystery in my own (and others’) images. In fact, creating mystery is my constant intent, without being cliche and without being anything close to bizarre. My reason for this is not because the graph says to do that, but because those are the types of images I love and love to make.

I’ll cover a few big ways to create mystery. You may have dozens of other ideas. What do you look for in images that create a sense of mystery?

Prominent Shadows, and other forms of obfuscation

I love shadows and find them mysterious. Perhaps you do too. I have a saying that shows up from time to time on my website or in my blog. It goes like this:

We need light. It provides clarity. But we also need a bit of mystery, and in the shadows we find it.

Featuring dark elegant shadows in images is but one way to convey a sense of obfuscation and mystery. Obfuscation, or hiding things from clear view, confuses our lizard brains and causes our creative brains to solve the mystery. Obfuscation in all its forms can be very engaging. Other ways to create obfuscation include throwing important elements out of focus, hiding elements behind a veil of weather, smoke, or digital textures or even hiding parts of elements behind other elements. These artistic techniques force our imaginations to try to clarify the obscured elements, and in the process, keep our imaginations churning.

American photographer Keith Carter is a master at creating obfuscation in his images. Take a look at his work. 

My first awareness of how beautiful and intriguing art can be was when I was in middle school and stumbled upon the romantic works of the Hudson River School masters. They started the American Luminism movement that we recognize today as bright, reflective scenes of sublime nature, often having almost secret, hidden elements of humanity engaged in activities of the day. I loved the sense of light in those scenes, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that it was the subjects hidden in the shadows that really intrigued me and kept me engaged in the images.

Those early images inspire me to use shadow and light in much the same way in my images. While there are many ways to create obfuscation and mystery in images, the use of elegant shadows is very effective.  When I say “elegant shadows”, I mean deep tones having details, not solid black areas that have no meaning or intrigue. There is nothing mysterious about pure black.

Here’s a few examples of how I use dominant, elegant shadows in my work, from my Romantic Landscapes collection.

Intriguing Subjects

Certain subjects are inherently mysterious to most Americans. Old castle ruins are wholly unknown through first hand experience, but we recognize them as ancient, rare, and sublime.  They can possess immense mystery and trigger our imaginations to conjure up visions of life in the middle ages.

I lived in Germany for almost 3 years back in the 1980s. I was lucky to get to spend many hours crawling around old castle ruins while there. I found myself alone on many of these visits, which gave me lots of time to consider the hidden, mysterious stories that only the stones could tell.

There are many, many other subjects that are commonly perceived to be mysterious, like towering mountains, crashing ocean waves, and perhaps even spiders and snakes to some. Here’s a few of my mysterious castle images that come from my Timeless Walls collection.

Novel situations or moments

We all love images of stranger things. They can be highly mysterious and interesting. Examples include strange relationships among natural (or unnatural) objects or rare environmental conditions: Night. Fog. Severe weather. Scary?  Mysterious?  Yea.

Uncommon moments aren’t as uncommon as much as they are uncommonly photographed. Consider underwater images, or images of the deep galaxies. Or perhaps the capture of a gazelle by a jaguar. These situations happen all the time, but rarely photographed. But that still makes them uncommon and therefore mysterious.

As a landscape photographer, I’m always searching for weather, lighting, or seasonal situations that depart from my everyday experiences, precisely because I enjoy the mystery in them.

Shock and Awe

As a photographer, I love seeing others’ photographs. It seems to me that over the last decade or so, there’s been a growing intent to create a sense of ‘shock and awe’ in our imagery. As if by creating unimaginable images, we can grab attention of more people, and that results in greater engagement and greater rewards to the creator of those images.

Let’s talk about the value of ‘shock and awe’ in imagery, especially in photography. Can it be mysterious? Certainly. Perception of mystery is a popular response to images that appear to be “out of this world.” They definitely encourage imagination and (sometimes) gullibility.  My personal feeling is that painters and illustrators can get by with a lot more shock and awe than can photographers, because photographs remain generally accepted as ‘coming from reality’ while paintings and illustrations are not.

When done honestly, photographs of unimaginably exotic places and moments can be highly mysterious. I find the most intriguing images in the ‘shock and awe’ category are those that are honest photographs of real subjects and real stories that clearly stimulate the imagination. There are many, and I admire the works of photographers who go to great lengths to show them to us.

And, I suppose, so can hyper-saturated photographs containing unreal colors or super-imposed subjects masquerading as reality be mysterious. To me, such images tend to fall on the right side of Novelty: Interest relationship curve. The more gaudy and unbelievable they are, the farther down the slope they go, to a point where I and most people would consider them to be bizarre, and not in an interesting way.  But who knows, perceptions are highly personal.

I try to be authentic in my own work. I believe strongly that photography should inform our perceptions of reality.  Heavily manipulating photographs for the purpose of creating mystery through shock and awe isn’t something I choose to engage in, because my left brain quickly labels them as ‘bizarre.’

Many other elements of imagery can compel a sense of mystery and cause our brains to jump into imagination mode, at least until they become common and uninteresting. A new presentation method, such as printing images onto highly glossy metal surfaces, can be perceived as new and mysterious and generate high interest. High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is another example. The advent of vibrant acrylic paints is another. When the first photographs appeared in gallery wraps, that was a definite departure from the traditional, and people still find it to be very interesting and enjoyable way to present wall art. And what about writing captions or poetry within the framing of an image? Pretty interesting at times.

Consider also examples of artists re-introducing methods and presentations once considered archaic and subsequently generating high interest, partly because those presentations had never been seen by modern people. Platinum-palladium printing, or carbon printing, or tin-types, or any number of once-archaic alternative processes in photography are very interesting, initially because we perceive them as novel and let our imaginations fill in the gaps about how they were created.

There is no end of ways to change methods or approaches that cause a sense of mystery and create high interest (or low interest).  Photographers are supremely adept at doing this. Feel free to comment and share other ways you’ve seen artists induce novelty to their artworks, and whether you think of them as interesting or not.


In serious studies of art, we seem to skip over the fundamentals of how we as humans behave when we encounter the range of beauty, inspiration, message, or any host of outcomes often assigned to art appreciation.

In this article, I’ve tried to describe my interpretation of the involuntary psychological connection between mystery and imagination to explain why images compel engagement. Humans, like all animals, constantly seek mystery.

Visual encounters that trigger first a sense of mystery, then imagination to solve that mystery, is as old as humanity itself. Knowing this linkage exists helps us understand why certain images grab our attention and compel us to think about (imagine about) them, often for several minutes or even years. The association between mystery and the imagination also helps us understand why we dismiss common, cliche images and quickly reject bizarre, “unreal” or otherwise extremely novel  images.

I go through periods of my art-making when I begin suspecting that my images are too boring, and not worth making anymore. At the same time, I’ve gone back to those images that are more abstract and mysterious, and respond to them in a completely different and more enjoyable way. I think if I can find that zone between too common and too novel, I will eventually get more enjoyment from my image-making. And if I’m able to find that sweet spot, I hope others will too.

J Riley Stewart, 2020

D.V.M, Ph.D., Photographer

Art Requires a Bit of “Stewing”

Chapel of Ease by J. Riley Stewart example of making photographs
“Chapel of Ease” – Moss drapes the portico of an antebellum church ruin in the Carolina Lowcountry.

I like taking photographs, but I love making photographs. And making photographs requires stewing over them.

This article comes from a selfish, artist-centric perspective, but I thought you might appreciate hearing what one artist thinks about rushing the process of artmaking.

Making art has nothing whatsoever to do with enjoying art. In fact, when the process of making art becomes important to the process of enjoying art, something has gone terribly wrong. The end result should stand on its own without you having to consider whether the artist used oils or watercolors, or fat brushes or bamboo sticks, or a digital camera or a film camera, or whether it took the artist 5 minutes to make the artwork, or even 5 years. Enjoying art requires only the finished piece, the fine art product.

So, why even talk about the extraneous aspects of making art?  Because sometimes we artists need to remind ourselves to slow the hell down and stop being in a such a rush to produce “anything, just to get it on social media.”

Making art is one of those things you can’t rush. Even Bob Ross, who used to create those beautiful mountain landscapes in 30 minutes on TV back in the 80s, would make a number of practice proofs of the scene before going on camera. He sure did make it look easy, though.

In this digital age, so much is made of how quickly a photograph can go from “click” to “share.” Smart phones have literally shortened this time to mere seconds through any cellular connection. Thousands of software tutorials show us how quickly we can modify a straight photograph, right from the camera, to any number of “artistic” renderings with just a few clicks of the mouse.  But is ‘being quick’ a good way for an artist to behave?

Using film like I do has a way of slowing the process of making a picture.  Selecting a composition, setting up the camera, and even recording the shot in my field log is a very deliberate and careful process.

After settling on a composition, the picture-taking process is very mechanical, very non-creative. I think it’s fun, but I can surely understand why some wouldn’t find it so. Then there is the time-consuming process of getting the picture to a state where I can see what I actually took (or more precisely, what the camera gave me).  First I have to develop the film, and it often takes me a couple weeks to get to that. Next, I have to scan the negatives–which may take a day or two–and still I only have a very preliminary look of what I envisioned in the field.

But once I have the negative digitized, the creative part starts again. And it takes me days to weeks to turn what the camera gave me into a finished fine art print for exhibition.

That’s the point with making art: you can’t rush it. It should be a very deliberative process. Numerous artistic decisions and actions have to be made; often by trial and error.  Some of these deliberations are downright painful in terms of the mental anguish involved. But this ‘stewing’ over my art is so worth it.

As with many things in life, the personal return from making art is proportional to the level of investment: the more I find myself stewing over a particular photograph, the more excited I get about it. I feel very little emotion toward pictures I take with my iPhone and share through social media. In such pictures, I’ve invested almost nothing. They are mere snapshots.

Pictures that require personal investment and stewing are a different story.  I like taking photographs, but I love making photographs. And making art requires stewing over them. Often it’s a fight. Sometimes it turns to hate. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose.  Regardless, I’ve learned something in the process as an artist, and from that I get personal satisfaction.

What do you think about this?  Have I overlooked an element of making art that benefits from doing things fast instead of deliberately?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

“Chapel of Ease” is available as a large-scale, hand-varnished fine art print from here, and you can see other images from the Carolina Lowcountry while there.


We take pictures of what we see….and what sees us.

picture of an old apple tree in the Allegheny NF of NY State
“Recital” — An example of a photographic subject that saw me as much as I saw it. 

Chances are, you take pictures. And before you take a picture, you have to make a mental decision of what to take a picture of? Often, a photographic subject sees us as much as we see it.

There’s a quote that’s always stuck with me, and I wish I could remember who said it first, but it goes something like this: 

“I don’t take pictures of what I see, I take pictures of what sees me.”

That statement really resonates with me.  My favorite photographs often contain some subject that caught my attention and held me captive for several moments. Subjects sometime seem to see me as intently as I see them. 

A good example of this is the old wild apple tree in “Recital,” which I found in a clearing in the Allegheny Mountains of New York.

I first noticed it while driving on a small road last Autumn. And just like when you first see a person at an event who looks interesting and find them looking back at you, this simple gesture invites further conversation, doesn’t it?  

It doesn’t always happen this way. There are some people at that same event who are oblivious to my presence: So they become oblivious to me.  It’s a natural behavior; it’s no fun talking with someone who turns their back on you.

It works the same way when I’m out taking pictures.

The truth is, this tree wasn’t that pretty when I first saw her. The sun was high in the sky and washed out everything in the clearing where she lived. But her character was hard to miss even in such harsh light, and she was definitely staring at me. I promised her I’d come back when she was feeling better, and we could have a longer conversation. (She agreed, of course). 

To make a long story short, over the course of 3 days I drove by her clearing several times at different parts of the day, trying to find a time when she was better suited to have her picture taken. It finally happened on the final evening of my trip, when the setting sun made her shine as if she were the only important being in the clearing, and I enjoyed what appeared to be her unique way of dancing in the spotlight! 

Has this happened to you? Do you sometimes get the feeling that a photographic subject seems to be as interested in you as you are in them? 

That’s what it means by “…taking pictures of things that see me.” Even if it’s a tree.  And there’s no better way to remember the encounter than by taking a picture! 

That’s what I love about photography!

Until next time,

Explore similar images and subjects that seem to see me while walking around:

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Why do we love pictures of iconic subjects?

picture of Old Rag during a passing rain storm
Passing Storm, Old Rag Mountain

I’ve been thinking this week about my recent trip to Shenandoah National Park, when I couldn’t resist taking a picture of one of most recognizable icons of the Park, Old Rag Mountain. I wondered why it is that we can’t resist taking and making pictures of iconic subjects. 

Old Rag Mountain is certainly iconic to anyone from northern Virginia who has visited the Park. It appears from several turnouts along Skyline Drive, and it also appears prominently from the roads down in the valley in Madison County, Virginia. Unlike many of the peaks that sit in this part of the Blue Ridge, Old Rag is a solitary old thing, making it easy to identify. Kinda like the big dipper. For many of us northern Virginians, the profile of Old Rag symbolizes all that is beautiful about Shenandoah NP.

The 3300 foot summit of Old Rag is known as a great hiking destination. If you live in northern Virginia, you may have made this hike at some point; millions of people have.  For many Virginians, the hike up Old Rag is an annual pilgrimage. It’s a popular hike for young couples who, apparently, are testing the mettle of each other.  Those who make it to the top together, I guess, get to take their relationship to the next level. Apparently.  And people have even asked to be buried on Old Rag, according to a good friend of mine. 

Because of our feelings for Old Rag Mountain, you’ll find lots of pictures of her on the internet. 

Natural icons like Old Rag rarely excite me as a landscape photographer. I have only a few iconic subjects in my portfolio, like Purple Mountains Majesty (Grand Teton NP) and Yellowstone Drama(Yellowstone NP). 

By definition, taking a picture of an iconic subject means that you’re not the first to do so. In fact, the more iconic the subject is, the more it’s had its picture taken. Who hasn’t seen the hundreds of variations of Ansel Adams’s picture of the Snake River? It’s an iconic scene. But today any picture from the same vantage point is also common, cliche, and even boring at this point.  But still, if you’ve ever been to this vista over the Snake River valley and didn’t take a picture of it, well, you’re the exception to the rule 🙂

Driving up and down Skyline Drive on my many trips to Shenandoah NP, I’ve probably passed Old Rag Mountain hundreds of times. Until my most recent trip, never have I stopped to take her picture. I didn’t feel I had anything new to say about her. I don’t want to be boring. 

On my most recent trip, I witnessed a rare face to iconic Old Rag, and I knew I had to share it with you. I found this moment to be quietly dramatic, with heavy foreboding clouds and rain storm, and with the forest all wet and dark, but through it all, Old Rag catching the proverbial silver lining.    

Pictures of icons like Old Rag Mountain are important to us. They remind us of important experiences and make us nostalgic about those moments. And the fact that a mere image can do that for us is nothing short of amazing. And that’s what I love about photography!

Before leaving, I wanted to ask if you’ve seen the trailer to my new book  “At Water’s Edge?” If you’re interested in helping me support the children under the care of the Marland Children’s Home in Ponca City, OK, you can order the book directly from Blurb. Thank you in advance!

Until next time,

PS. Clicking the image of “Passing Storm, Old Rag Mountain” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and see how it might give you just the right place to go when you need a bit of quiet drama.

Did you enjoy this edition of Friday Foto? Feel free to share this email with someone you think might also enjoy it, and invite them to subscribe to “Under the Darkcloth.”  And please leave me a comment or ask a question by replying to this email. 

Copyright J. Riley Stewart, 2018, all rights reserved.

Are we just a bunch of sun-worshippers?

I’ve been thinking this week about how something so common in our lives–sunset– always compels our attention, and why that is.

I just returned from a short visit to Shenandoah National Park. I’m lucky to live within an hour’s drive of the Park, or as I like to say the Park is “within 15 degrees cooler” from where I live. And during August, that 15 degrees can make a world of difference.

One evening I happened to be at the Skyland Lodge just before sunset, and something happened that made me ask myself: “Why do we (humans) do that?”

Skyland Lodge has a large picture window facing west, and just outside the window is a narrow deck running the entire length of the window. As the sun began to set, minute by minute, people calmly migrated from inside to outside, each person quietly finding a spot to stand along the deck to watch the sun set. 

I wonder, is it just the mere beauty of a sunrise or sunset that attracts our attention, or is there something more to it?  Why is it we might experience hundreds of such moments in our lives, and, still, the excitement for one more is just too great to ignore? I’m convinced there must be a “sunset” gene in our DNA that programs us to seek and witness as many as we possibly can during our lifetime. And in the iPhone era, being a witness to a sunset requires we also take a picture of it. 

I have to admit something. When I’m out taking pictures, sunrises and sunsets are way, way down on my list of priorities. In fact, I tell myself to purposefully ignore chasing such moments. I tell myself that there are far more interesting subjects to capture than just another pretty sunrise or sunset. I tell myself that the interweb is chocked full of sunrises and sunsets, and I don’t need to contribute further to the clutter. 

I tell myself these things, but when it comes right down to it, and when I find myself standing before an exciting sunrise or sunset, I have no other choice than to set up my camera and get ready to capture the most beautiful moment I have ever seen. Again, I think it must be something in my genes making me do this. 

Sometimes, I’ll even consume several sheets of film on a single sunrise or sunset. Sometimes, I’ll return to the same spot on different days, or capture the same “moment” in both color and B&W.  I just can’t help feeling that I must remember what I’m about to witness, and therefore take its picture.

Are you this way as well? Do you chase those moments as the sun rises or sets?  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised– because I know you’re human !

I’m sharing one of my recent sunset photos with you today. Clicking the image of “The Rapture” will take you to its place in the gallery, where you can explore the details and see how it might give you just the right place to go when you need to satisfy a compelling need to witness a sunset. 


Picture of J. Riley StewartIn the meantime, if you want to connect with me on Instagram just click the Instagram button in the footer of this email and follow along. I’ll do the same for you.  I’m doing my best to post a photo-of-the-day, and having a lot of fun seeing what my instagrammers are up to. 

Copyright J. Riley Stewart, 2018, all rights reserved.

Escaping the noise of summer: Do you have a “quiet space?”

Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw
Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw

Do you have a “quiet space?” It’s fascinating how an artful image can become that place. 

We’re having quite a strange summer here in northern Virginia. I made a resolution to get out more this summer and experience nature, but early July was blazing hot and muggy, which kept me close to the AC.  Then a tropical weather pattern decided to sit over the top of us, giving us almost daily rain storms. It’s been here ever since. I’m actually enjoying it though. And it hasn’t kept me from getting out. 

If you live in an area where the weather is intolerable this summer, I hope you’re doing okay, and remember that it’s only temporary. Winter is just around the corner.

There’s few things I enjoy more than heading to the Appalachians during the summer. In early July, my son and I went camping in the Bolar Mountain Recreation Area, way down in southern Virginia on the border with West Virginia. We both needed a break from the daily hubbub. And even though I had my camera gear with me, this trip wasn’t about making photographs as much as it was about enjoying our time together camping, canoeing, and enjoying the peace and quiet. 

Along the road to the campground was a turnout overlooking the lake and the surrounding mountains. “Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw” is the only photograph I took during our trip, and it was taken from this turnout. We spent many hours parked on the turnout, usually just reading, watching the sky, and talking quietly between ourselves (there was never anyone else on the turnout with us). It was a great spot to really get to know the lake and see its many faces. 

Spending a lot of time in one spot is the only way to really know a place. I don’t sit still often enough. Usually I’m more anxious to capture a photograph and run off quickly to get the next one. Afraid I’m going to miss something I guess, or maybe it’s just in my nature to be a ‘spring butt.’ 

But, as I said, capturing photographs wasn’t my mission on this trip, so I didn’t feel compelled to chase the light. In fact, I didn’t feel compelled to chase anything. 

So it was that we spent hours up on that turnout overlooking the beautiful lake and mountains. During the day, power boats and jet skis were a constant threat to the senses. But something both I and my son noticed was, after sun down, this place became profoundly quiet. Not just human-quiet, but nature-quiet as well. Not a bird tweet or a bug chirp. Nothing but quiet; for hours. Both of us living in urban Virginia, we found the quiet to be almost surreal. And peaceful.

It was this profound quiet that I wanted to remember from our trip to Lake Moomaw, and that I wanted to share with you in “Quiet Evening on Lake Moomaw.” 

I hope you enjoy your August, wherever you live, and I hope you have a place to go when you need some peace and quiet.

Do you have a “quiet space?”  Art can often become that place. A quiet scene in your own living room, a “place” to lose yourself in and escape all the noise and stress, if only for a moment, can make all the difference. 

Until next time, best regards,



Is there a lingering bias against photography in the ‘fine art world’?


The sun does magical things in the mountains.
“Purple Mountains Majesty” …..The sun does magical things in the mountains.

I want to talk about something that, in the broad scope of all we are dealing with in our modern culture, isn’t that important. But still, whenever we see bias raise it’s ugly head, shouldn’t we speak up?

The bias I’m referring to is that held by art snobs (or are they?) who have yet to accept that a photograph can be a form of art. I truly believe these folks are the exception and not the rule, but in my own little sphere of creating photographs intended as art, I see this bias far too often. So I say “Time to get real, folks.”

As Kathleen Brussard at the Art Institute of Chicago says in the related link (below): ““It’s an interesting moment. Earlier generations were struggling to have photography taken seriously. We’re way past that now.”

In its most visible form, the bias against photography as an art form takes shape in the exclusion of the medium of photography in art shows. Here’s a recent example from one of the most popular art shows in the northern Virginia area:

“..The following mediums are accepted:PAINTING – DRAWING – SCULPTURE ETCHING – WOODWORKING – GLASS.   We cannot accept fiber arts, photography, furniture, and crafts at this time due to space limitations.”

Clearly the sponsors of this popular show consider photography to be in the same category as “crafts” and “furniture.”   And “space limitations” is just another way of saying “your medium is not important enough to devote any wall space to it.”

My other pet peeve is when I see distinctions being made between “artists” and “photographers,” like “We accept artists and photographers,” or “we exhibit art and photography.”  Really?? I get the feeling that those who make such distinctions really don’t respect photography as an art medium, but they have to include it in their agenda (whatever that happens to be), and thus add photography reluctantly, and separately. It would be different if they said “painters, watercolorists, illustrators, and photographers,” but they don’t, they say “artists and photographers.”  That’s like saying “cooks and pastry bakers,” or “musicians and clarinet players.”

For the most part, and most clearly in what I call the sophisticated art world, photography as an expressive art form is unquestioned today. But getting this acceptance did not come automatically.

Almost as soon as photography was invented in the early 1800s, the debate began whether the rather mechanical process of making photographs could be considered an art form or not.  At that time, the question was “could” a photograph be expressive (i.e., artful). That question had to be answered first. After all, most paintings aren’t considered art either. But the question of whether painting could be expressive was never under debate; clearly it “could be.”  Acceptance of this new fangled invention called photography as an expressive art form required evolution, and time.

While many early photographers took the path of straight portraiture and documentary photography, others took the path of creating pictures of highly expressive subjects, Notable among them were Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson. These early pictorial photographers purposely created images specifically to gain acceptance in the European art world. The pictorial photographers were successful, and by the late 1800s, art exhibitions and galleries began including photographic prints in their art exhibits, lending credence to the claim that photographs could, in fact, be expressive art. So, the question “could photography be an expressive art form?” was really laid to rest over 100 years ago.

Aside from its many uses to merely document the human experience through the decades since photography began, it is clear that photography today is an accepted art medium. Photography has kept pace with, and in some cases led, breakaway art movements throughout the 20th Century. Today almost any well-known and respected museum has sections dedicated solely to photographic art; and there are a number of museums and galleries dedicated specifically to art photography. Photography has stood its ground in the art world for decades, and it’s time for the 21st Century art snobs to realize that fact.

So, why is there a residual bias against photography as an art medium. To be categorically excluded from an art show merely because my chosen medium relies on a camera is akin to a painter being excluded because they use a pallet knife instead of brushes. That almost never happens in general Calls for Art (“Oh, we’re sorry, we only accept paintings on linen”), and it shouldn’t happen to photographers. Camera-based art can be every bit as expressive as any painting or illustration. And that’s an opinion shared by the most sophisticated art galleries and museums on the planet.

One reason why art snobs today might be reluctant to accept photography as an art form is the same reason given in 1888.  In that year, Kodak introduced its consumer-grade camera that put photography in the hands of every man, woman, and child who could click a shutter. If everyone can do it (i.e., take a photograph), then it can’t be art, right?

Well, we can just as appropriately say that giving a brush to someone doesn’t make them a painter, either. The tool doesn’t create the art, the artist does.

I know that the state of photography today, with billions of digital images being shared on the internet by every Tom, Dick, and Harriet, can easily give an artful person cause to ask the question about photography as an art form. Personally, I find that 99.9% of the photographic images I see day in and day out are far from what I would describe as “expressive.”  So we have to ask the right question, don’t we? CAN making a picture yield something that is expressive? The answer is definetly yes, but, like most paintings, most photographs are far from being expressive and artful.

The art world in general is well beyond asking if photographs can be expressive; clearly they can be. Any measure one uses to judge acceptance of photography by art collectors proves this. Photographs often sell in the millions of dollars and in my experience, galleries  and art shows in which photographs are allowed compete very well with oils, watercolors, or any illustrative artworks.

Instead of excluding the medium of photography from art shows and instead of making false distinctions between “artists” and “photographers,”  it’s time for art snobs to give the medium of photography the respect it deserves. Let the artistic talents of one who uses a camera stand on his/her own merits, just as you allow those who pick up a brush or pen.

Related article:

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