“Genius Loci”: Why Places Can’t Be Described Objectively

 What is that magical difference that make us feel carried away while looking at one picture, while remaining rather indifferent to an other one? What makes us fall in love with one place and cross many others without relating to it? Pictures (of places), especially ones depicting landscapes have a very strong recalling power. They can transport us to future horizons, imaginative or real countries that all mix with our personal story and intimate feelings. With one landscape comes a dream, nostalgia, magnificent ambitions or simple childhood memories. Places are like pictures. Each of us could be looking at the same and get away with a different impression. Every single photograph we take will have a unique composition, angle and message, and has been taken at a specific time with a specific mindset when pushing the button.

I don’t know what makes a “good” or a “bad” photograph, but my personal tastes brough me to rough framing, natural, rather dark, rainy or foggy atmospheres. I don’t care if color balance, exposition or blur is not perfectly managed. I don’t like this idea of a technically perfect shot. Good technicians do not make inspiring artists to me. I like what is real (landscapes of urban and rural scenes, mostly) with a touch of poetry, like when you walk through a scenery (city streets, fields or mountains) with music in your ears. You are here, but slightly away at the same time, as your mind goes wild while your feet remain on the ground. I also get inspired by everything related to manual labour: craft, tools, materials, traditional making process of food, clothing, shelters, because through this work you can feel the country, the ground, the culture and the landscape “behind” the way of life.

That is certainly because I am a geographer, but it feels right to me to look at the landscape, the ecosystem and people’s gestures and habits as one coherent whole, a balanced system where everything is related to everything else. I tried for years to capture the essence of that “Genius Loci” (the “spirit of the place”) through academic research, but I couldn’t. Every time I was getting closer, with around 160 parameters, I was in fact pushing my goal away as the “spirit” can’t be put in a box, nor even in 160 or 500. It is a spirit: it is what everyone of us feel deeply inside of themselves at one specific time (that spirit can change from one day to the other, from one minute to the other, and won’t be remembered and described as it has been experimented at the “t” time). It took me seven years of research to reach the conclusion that places can’t be describe objectively, like the academic tradition is doing for centuries. Just like eras and times, places are terribly over-simplified in our history and geography school books to make us draw a very rough static picture of “the world” in our minds with clean little boxes and lines to separate cultures and civilizations. The reality of our living world is completely different, and  it is very hard to look at it with fresh eyes once we’ve been “preset”.

Now, I’d say photography is one of the best way to “catch” and communicate that spirit of the place, along with music and video (that brings both together), because it shows the inner point of view of one person. It is intimate, subjective and sometimes artistic too. To me, “Genius Loci” sits between series of tangible things (topography, climate, living species, remoteness from other places, national context, density, cultural area where it belongs, era, political context + 151 more) and intangible phenomena, such as all the connexions that happen in our brain depending on when and how we experience that place. Artists will probably call it ‘inspiration”. Scientists would maybe evoke “enlightenment”. Religious people might say “epiphany”. However, I believe that what makes us suddenly “fall in love” with one place, one landscape or one photograph is more than that. It is a very complex reaction involving a large part of our own personal story, who we are and the way we feel (our “mood”) when we get there, if our mind is open, if we already have preconceived ideas (“presets”) about this place, how we experience that place, and what exactly is that specific place compared to all other places around, and to all the other places we already “know”.

Below is a collection of pictures that, to me, succeeded to capture a piece of that “Genius Loci”, in unique and different ways. By not trying to be “perfect clichés” for the cover of a touristic magazine, those pictures reflect a simple yet very pure and deep impression of one person walking through without any other intention than “seeing and feeling”. They feel intimate and universal in the same time and thus reflect the paradox of places themselves.

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Source: Unsplash

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