On Genius Loci in Photography and Landscape Architecture...

Genius Loci or "The Spirit of the Place"

Alexander Pope created the term “genius loci”  with the following lines from Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
 That tells the waters to rise, or fall;
 Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,
 Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
 Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
 Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
 Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;
 Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Pope's verse laid the foundation for one of the most widely agreed principles of landscape architecture which is to relate the design to the context. This is the principle that landscape designs should always be adapted to the context in which they are located and that to design a place well is to get to know it: to study it, to analyze it, to ask it questions, to embed yourself in that place.

Sandstorm in the Dunes Alight Collection by Jonathan Knight

Skyline Series #3 in Dunes Alight Collection


I have transferred this term from my education and experience in landscape architecture to fine art. My photo trips are not just excuses to be living on the road for long periods, but it’s important to me I embed myself in a place for long periods of time to truly get to know it, understand it, and understand what the gods of that place want to communicate to me. A tourist with a camera takes a snapshot of a beautiful view in hopes of capturing the essence of a place; they rarely, if ever, succeed. Even after months of researching a trip, I will often still spend 2-3 days simply walking around a location without my camera to understand what emotions and feelings it evokes within me. I arrive at a location and eat, sleep, and work in that location for weeks in the case of the dunes in Death Valley or sometimes months as was the case on the Pacific Coast Highway. What this accomplishes is transferring the thought process to “capturing a view” to “capturing an emotion” and the true essence of the place: its genius loci.

Dune Wave by Jonathan Knight in the Dunes Alight collection

Ocean Wave in Dunes Alight Collection

As a journalist-turned-designer, the driving interest in my work is to unify the ethical and documentary obligations of journalism (storytelling) and its common ground with the projective, forward-thinking obligations of the design fields (futuretelling)."

Jonathan Knight