While photography books have always taught me the importance of “seeing”—it seemed like perhaps there was a significant blind spot in my vision as an artist. My emotional attachment to the natural world, coupled with self-interest, had left me with a shortness of vision—making any hopes for a distinct style or a resolved purpose impossible. I have since removed the cognitive blinders, and the following essay shares this process of discovery.
I began my journey as a landscape photographer because of my unyielding passion for the outdoors. Taking pictures and being outside made me feel good. As I tried to develop my own personal style, I looked at the work of my contemporaries and practiced their methods and techniques. I went to distant lands, and justified the long drives and expensive equipment by believing that I was maturing as an artist, and promoting environmental stewardship through my pictures.
I operated under this logic until very recently, when I realized that despite my passion for the natural world having always been very real and compelling, I was moving towards a disingenuous relationship with nature. Capturing a “wow shot” seemed to drive me more than my own artistic expression. And as I continued to study the works of other popular photographers, I felt a bizarre compulsion to mimic their compositions and processing techniques. It felt as though my passion for presenting nature’s beauty was being misplaced.
This started my thinking.
Perhaps I was exploiting the beauty of the landscape. I feel good connecting with nature, but in the end, does nature benefit from this exchange? The feelings seemed reminiscent of an experience that I had in San Diego as a young boy when I went to SeaWorld. The animals, especially the Orca whales, fascinated me. But when my mother explained to me that those whales had been captured in the wild, wonder and amusement was quickly replaced by disappointment and a sense of deceit.
Do I, as a landscape photographer, portray nature in the same manner that SeaWorld does? Exploiting facets of our natural world in order to derive fleeting moments of admiration?
While we are all comforted by the beauty of nature, and her infinite ability to inspire and renew the soul, perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security, a state of complacency where our images no longer tell a story about nature, but instead reflect cultural projections, and hyper-stylized versions of the natural landscape. This summarizes the dilemma for me, and perhaps for other landscape photographers—diverging motivations and misplaced efforts that end up taking energy away from the real struggle. I am reminded by a quote from photographer Peter Henry Emerson.
“Nature does not jump into the camera, focus itself, expose itself, develop itself, and print itself. On the contrary, the artist, using photography as a medium, chooses his subject, selects his details, generalizes the whole way we have shown, and thus gives his view of nature.”
By giving our view of nature as inexhaustibly nourishing, do we run the risk of distorting or misrepresenting the environmental reality? And does this distortion encourage change, or simply desensitize the viewer? Whether we know it or not, perhaps landscape photographers are missing key opportunities to create a substantial and transformative environmental narrative and dialogue as a direct result of our photography and the process we enjoy to create it.
It is important that we not underestimate the power of the photograph to convince. Ansel Adams harnessed this ability, using his photographs as a powerful tool to fight increased levels of urbanization and development. And like Ansel, I’m sure most photographers today have some type of environmental perspective, but do our images share that viewpoint? My photographs didn’t prompt any profound conservation efforts. Instead, the images represented my own self-interests, an exploitation of nature, and an idealized version of the landscape that failed to create meaningful dialogue. The photos portrayed nature as inexhaustibly nourishing, despite our environmental reality telling a completely different story.
If there was ever a time in the history of photography to become engaged in the issues plaguing our environment, now is that time. The threats against nature are unprecedented, so I believe now is the moment to advocate on nature’s behalf. Let’s renew our allegiance to the natural world by vowing to create images that are didactic, spur meaningful dialogue, and go beyond the simple “wow shot.” It’s difficult to truly transcend the conventional, but I believe it is becoming increasingly more important.
Both SeaWorld and landscape photography are joined in a common cause of promoting the beauty of nature. This is a noble and important mission—but perhaps the animals and the photographs aren’t removing our cognitive blinders, but distorting the view. Now is the time for self-reflection, now is the time for change, because no longer can we afford to be diverted by what we wish to believe.