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The significance of insignificance

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The mountains have this particular effect on me. Whenever I am surrounded by these giant stone walls, I get this feeling of insignificance. This is no bad thing at all. It is very humbling in a positive way. A reality check for the ego. Whatever feelings of grandeur or catastrophic worries might fly around in the mind, the sight of rugged peaks around me immediately brings perspective. Maybe this is because the landscape I grew up in is as flat as a pancake, or maybe this is something that happens to people who have lived in the mountains all their lives.

Another way that mountains humble us humans is their lifespan compared to ours. Time is a relative thing, as we know; just remember the last time you waited thirty minutes for your dentist appointment. But even if we put relativity aside for a moment, mountains and mankind operate at completely different timescales. It took hundreds of millions of years for the movement of tectonic plates to create the mountain ridges we know today.

The oldest human ever recorded lived to be 122 years old. For most of us, though, getting beyond 75 is pretty good. I cannot even compare these numbers to the age of our mountains as we know them. Rationally I understand it, but I cannot truly get it. This difference in age also highlights that planet Earth will be perfectly fine in the discussion around the man-made impact on our climate. It’s the humans we need to worry about. Mountains have seen things we cannot even fathom and will outlast us with ease. The withdrawal of glaciers is a worrying sight, but mountains have the patience to stick around and replenish these thick layers of ice. Humans do not.

Mountains inspire us to push ourselves further than we thought we could go. To overcome our relative insignificance. Just look at it from an engineering perspective and all the marvels that humans have built, tunnels that pierce through the heart of a mountain for dozens of kilometres, mountain passes that swirl their way along the facades at altitudes of 2000 meters and up. Mountains demanded of us to bring our A-game. Getting from A to B in a mountainous region is never just that. And then there is the sportive element of getting to the top of a mountain. Whether it is true mountaineering or hiking or cycling, getting to the top makes you feel proud and small at the same time.

There is something we share with mountains, and that is their variety in appearance. No mountain is the same. The edges of their peaks are unique and create facades that are never replicated. Like human faces, there may be similarities, but every mountain is unique. This is further exaggerated by the weather conditions in Alpine surroundings, which tend to vary wildly. The weather patterns can turn a valley on its head. A valley that would be described as cosy on a sunny day can turn into a dark and hostile place when the clouds and storms come in.

And then there is the light. The way weather forms in the mountains means that there are few days with nothing but a blue sky. Usually, some clouds will form and because of the way the wind batters these peaks, these clouds will move with speed. For photographers, this creates ample opportunities to capture a scene that is illuminated in a way that may never happen again.

This variety in conditions combined with the sheer difference in size and age creates this feeling of insignificance that I value very much. The moderative effect of insignificance, together with the fact that nothing is straightforward when mountains are involved, sets the tone for inviting the best versions of ourselves to show up, humble as ever.

Read more from Erwin Hartenberg

Visit Erwin’s website to view the original of this article


8 COMMENTS

  1. WOW, I think sir you and JRRT really capture spirit(s) of the Old Man in the mountains! Your Nikon is a beautiful instrument like the photos you made. Can I ask if these tripod or hand held and which card you use? Great way start my week end if possible think you and Dave S should collaborate at some point, his Df your Z.

    • Thanks! All are shot handheld, some even while climbing up the mountain on my bicycle (obviously not the ones with the 105mm, that would require too much acrobatics…). The card setup in the Z6 ii is always the XQD in one slot and SD in the other. My laptop has an SD slot so I usually use that to read the photos. The Df is a magical camera, I loved that thing. (Bought it twice….)

  2. Thank you Erwin, for showing these images.
    A favourite for me is ‘Dark Day’ – wild, ominous, foreboding. A great catch. Luv it.

  3. Thanks Erwin,
    I share your feelings about mountains and your images are beautiful, illustrating your points well. Kevin

  4. I like the perspective of the 40mm lens in particular, it just seems more “natural” than the usual use of wider angle lenses in those situations.

  5. Hi Erwin, thank you for your reflections on mountains and people, and for these beautiful photographs. You appear to have had the mountains to yourself – not a sign of other people or vehicles, just a jet sneaking into view over the mountain in one of the shots. Lovely article. Keith

  6. Erwin, Thank you. Your search foro cameras and mine are very similar. My first M3 was purchased in 1972, and was followed by other Ms and Nikon SLRs. I had Leicaflexs and Leica Rs, before I fell back into a Nikon F, but an M has been a continuing part of my life (just one M4 now). My Q2 is a delight, and a Nikon Z711 is on its way from the dealer I prefer to use. My early Leica 1s are still fully functional, like the 3C made in the month I was born.
    Your pictures have brought me into my reminiscences of travelling to, and in, the three passes for many summer holidays – times of joy and enjoyment. Thank you.

  7. Thank you, Erwin. Also loving the mountains, I can only agree. Your images do not only superbly illustrate your point in the article but are great works on their own. The combo of your Z6ii and the small 40 is an excellent kit for sure, and you know how to work it. Well done and thanks again! JP

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