Are Landscapes Memorable?

Morning in Zemi Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey

Zemi Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey

Well, it’s obvious that I find landscapes extremely memorable. But it’s good to be reminded occasionally that my predilections are not universal. That’s what MIT found recently, that depictions of nature are the least memorable category of images. I expect there’s significant bias built into this study (the subjects “participated through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, which farms tasks out to people sitting at their own computers”, which already tells you a certain amount about the demographic in question), and I’d love to see a similar study compare results for different states, countries, professions and such. I also wonder a bit about the quality of the nature images they used; a competent composition can make a big difference in memorability over the average national park snapshot.

But let’s face it, people find things they’re familiar with memorable, and most folks in this country are a lot more familiar with humans than with nature. I’m rather the opposite: I rarely forget a peak or canyon, I remember individual river rocks over gaps of years, but I’ve learned through hard experience not to greet someone I think I recognize. I’ve been wrong and embarrassed too often, even in cases where I’ve been virtually certain.

This study’s issues with people’s sphere of experience reminds me of an anecdote I heard once, possibly true, about a teacher from urban London who went to teach in rural Wales. She showed her class of young children a picture of a sheep, and asked, “Who can tell me what animal this is?” Silence. “Anyone?” More silence, and quizzical expressions on the children’s’ faces. Just as she was thinking that she’d been saddled with a class of total idiots, a little boy shyly asked, “Miss, could it be a three-year-old Border Leicester?”

In any case, as much as I love making images of wild, lonely country, it’s a lot of fun to shoot landscapes with people in them. When such photos work, they can give a sense of scale, interaction, dynamism and personal relationship that trees and rocks alone seldom achieve.

Summer in southern Colorado's Chama Basin

Who says I don't take people pictures? Chama Basin, Colorado.

2 thoughts on “Are Landscapes Memorable?

  1. I saw this study as well, and your take on it is really refreshing–there definitely is a societal explanation for the sorts of images that stick in our memory. Perhaps its my training as an evolutionary biologist, but my initial reaction to the article was that perhaps there was some sort of advantage for remembering faces. In other words, maybe we’re evolutionarily ‘hard-wired’ to remember faces of friends, family, enemies, etc.

    The true reason is some mix of our society and our genes, I’m sure, but either way it was an interesting article. Like you, though, I really enjoy making images of quiet, lonely places–whether they’re memorable or not. :-)

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