What Are Totems?

What Are Totems?

Looking at a book on Alaskan Totem Poles a few years ago got me thinking that totems were panoramics turned on their end. In photography, panoramics are used as a compositional solution to eliminate endless, uninteresting skies. Painters have always had the option to paint in an incredible sky, but photographers have to wait for the light, or make adjustments.


As my landscape photography moved west, I, too, found the panoramic format a useful solution in Big Sky country. Minimizing uninteresting sky can emphasize the actual landscape, and in experimenting with a panoramic’s ratio of width to height, I concluded that the narrower a panoramic, the more interesting the result so long as the compositional components still fit together. In essence, the less vertical image surface area required to tell the visual story, the more elegant the compositional structure seemed to me.

Composing vertical slices of landscape turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated since it is contrary to our habit of looking horizontally. When landscape elements fit with a visual harmony, I’m able to use my motion stroke to partially deconstruct patterns, textures and emulsions by reducing them down to colored forms, if as a whole they maintain enough context.

Recently I have begun composing Totems within the camera, rather than choosing a portion of a vertical composition after-the-fact. Meeting the challenge of creating a compelling Totem from an expansive landscape causes me to see differently, and more intimately. Here’s hoping that my totems will allow others to see differently, too.


  1. Hey Gunnar — I love these totems. I want one for my new cottage! What a cool idea.

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