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Believe me, that was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders. ~Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Introducing his book, Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote, “most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.” Without intending it, I realized a few years ago that the same has become true of many of my photographs.
It is the nature of landscape photography that we often portray things prone to crumbling, erosion, death, or other forms of transformation or destruction attributed to natural forces. If it was not for these forces, the scenes we photograph themselves would not exist. But these are not the causes of the destruction that Abbey writes about. He is referring to the destruction of natural things—both physical and experiential—by humans, often for short-sighted or ignoble reasons. The same is true for those photographs I refer to above.
Some of my photographs inspired otherwise-uninspired photographers to sleuth the places where these photographs were made, to make copies of my compositions (and to claim these copies as their own), to claim bragging rights for having found my “secret” spots, to advertise these places to the world, and in so doing to unleash stampedes of yet more people—often other photographers—upon these places. On three occasions I can name, natural formations I discovered were destroyed by people, either by nefarious intent or by overuse, and I suspect I could find more if I scoured my archives. On other occasions, increased visitation also resulted in “development” of parking areas, toilet facilities, interpretive signs, “improved” roads and trails, disruptions to wildlife, regulations, and prohibitions (almost always limiting or eliminating camping).
Speaking about this concern with fellow photographers, outdoor writers, conservation advocates, employees of the National Park Service and of other agencies, a point commonly raised is this: to advertise and to “develop” these rare and wild places is a good thing because if more people see them, more people will become motivated to advocate for their preservation. Although not obvious, the first part of the argument, by virtue of being true, negates the second part, at least when it comes to truly wild and sensitive places. It’s true that social sharing, development, and increased use of a wild place means that more people will see it, but no people will ever again experience it as a wild place.
Conservation efforts require political action, and our political climate has become hostile to such efforts in recent years. Some claim that photographs of such places help conservation efforts. While it’s true that some photographs indeed play an important role in such efforts once they become politically feasible, the great majority of landscape photographs do not. Even if such places gain some form of legal protection, what ends up being preserved is not the place, but a different place—a place where experiences that were previously possible, no longer are.
One person suggested that I am being selfish in withholding information about certain places, denying others the experience that I had. This is an untenable argument because the experience I had was derived, in a large part, from discovering the place without having prior knowledge of it, and in equal part from the fact that when I discovered the place, it looked wild, sounded wild, smelled wild, and felt wild. To popularize such a place, is to guarantee that you will not have the same experience that I had. More than that, when such places become popular, the experience I had can no longer be had by anyone else, ever again.
To be selfish is to lack consideration for others. I don’t believe that I am being selfish by refusing to disclose such locations. In fact, I believe the exact opposite. By refusing to be complicit in making these places known and popular, let alone “developed,” I am preserving for others the ability to discover these places for themselves, and to experience them in their wild state, just as I have.
Indeed, who is more selfish? Is it the person who wishes to protect people’s ability to experience the thrill of discovery, the peace of being in a place unmarred by humanity, and the opportunity for solitude among wild beauty? Or is it the person who wishes to extinguish even the possibility of having such an experience, in place after place, until the experience can no longer be had at all?
I am adamantly opposed to sharing information about such places in public, and to further development in wild lands. There is no shortage of already-developed scenic places—more than a person may visit in a lifetime of travel. Such places are maintained and managed for the purpose of visitation by those unable or unwilling to venture into the wild but still want a taste of it. That is a good thing! However, there are not many places left where one may still experience wildness, solitude, freedom from the congestion and noise of humanity, and freedom from humanity itself. I believe that such places should be left alone to remain wild. Paraphrasing Wallace Stegner, that only few people will ever visit such wild places is not a detriment—that is precisely their value, and what makes them wild to begin with.
Photographer Harold Feinstein made this beautiful statement: “Photography has been my way of bearing witness to the joy I find in seeing the extraordinary in ordinary life.” To those obsessed with finding “secret” spots at all cost and to copy other people’s compositions rather than pursue creative expression: consider that, in making certain places and certain composition overly popular, we have accomplished the opposite of finding extraordinary things in ordinary places—collectively, we made some extraordinary places, ordinary.
Some may argue (perhaps as a means of allaying guilt) that in this day of GPS and social media, the popularization of scenic wild places is inevitable—a matter of when, rather than if, leading to such rationalizations as, “someone will reveal the location of these places, anyway, so it may as well be me.” Even if true, I think that there is great value in delaying the inevitable for as long as possible, rather than hastening it.