THE POWER OF THE SUBLIME

The nat­u­ral drama of strong weather and pow­er­ful na­ture can be turned into awe-in­spir­ing im­ages

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You could call it ‘how to enjoy a per­fect storm’: the sublime is a spe­cial case in which we ex­pe­ri­ence a sort of fas­ci­nated de­light – which is dif­fi­cult to pin down – at scenes and sit­u­a­tions that are over­whelm­ing, vast, and even ter­ri­fy­ing.

If you’ve stood on the edge of a vol­cano’s crater as the ground starts to shake, or been caught out in the open with light­ning strikes get­ting closer, you’ll get the idea. In fact, it was th­ese kinds of nat­u­ral forces that in­spired many Ro­man­tic artists and po­ets of the late 18th cen­tury to cre­ate an art of the sublime. The essence was de­scribed best by one of the first writ­ers on the sublime, Joseph Ad­di­son, in 1712, who wrote about scenes and events that were “…at the same time, as Dread­ful and Harm­less; so that the more fright­ful Ap­pear­ance they make, the greater is the Plea­sure we re­ceive from the Sense of our own Safety.” Vis­ual tech­niques for do­ing this work in both paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy, and in­clude making the most of scale and height, tow­er­ing skies, small fig­ures in big land­scapes, ar­eas of low-key light­ing (think dark, brood­ing storm clouds), a pref­er­ence for back­light­ing when­ever the sun briefly ap­pears, and dy­namic move­ment in the sky.

A dark stormy sky over an equally rough sea at Port Eynon Bay in Wales, with no colour worth speak­ing of, con­veys a sense of the 18th-cen­tury Ro­man­tic no­tion of the sublime

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