AMA: Landscape Photography and Conservation

Two questions I received recently (via my Ask Me Anything form) touch on the topic of the impact that landscape photography may have on the very thing we photograph: the landscape.

Huntington Witherill asked:

I’ve often wondered… Given that landscape photographers’ works tend to glorify those sacred places celebrated through their photographs – and presumably, those very same photographs then serve to call attention to and attract the masses, who subsequently and unintentionally, thereafter tend to overwhelm the very places we, as photographers, are hoping to preserve – are our photographs inadvertently contributing to the accelerated demise of the places, themselves?

Brent Clark asked:

After completely finishing a photograph, do you ever have problems sharing it with the world? Do you have collections of finished images you keep to yourself that will never see the light of day? If so, what issues do you have with sharing your work and how do you overcome them? Of course, I ask because I have these problems. I find that sometimes I like my images less once shared!

Teapot RockThis has been a somewhat painful subject for me as I have good reason to suspect that some of my own work has contributed to the degradation (in one case, destruction) of some places I loved. The images on this page are all from such places, and with one exception (as far as I know), are the firsts of their kind. The exception is Teapot Rock, which I mention below, that was photographed before me by Michael Fatali, and he deserves credit for it.

As I have stated before, I have no desire to copy the works of other photographers. Also, since my early days of photographing in places that were off the beaten path, I refused to share specific information about locations. Huntington touches on one reason for it: I knew, even before the days of social media, that these places had a limited “carrying capacity.” Some are so fragile that increased visitation would harm their natural characteristics, and all possess qualities of experience—remoteness, solitude, quiet—that, once disrupted, will never again be possible. But there is another reason: as one who prides himself on being a creative and self-expressive artist, I have little respect for the copycat culture that pervades so much landscape photography.

Unlike other creative media, where direct copies are either dismissed as plagiarism or considered as “cover versions,” every day I see photographs passed along as “owned” by photographers who copied them from others without consequence. Among these are some of my own original images, and I suspect most of those who copy them today don’t even know who it is they are copying. I’ve heard some who are more politically-correct than me state that there’s “nothing wrong with that.” I disagree. I think there’s a lot wrong with that (by “that” I don’t mean iconic and easy to find views, but compositions resulting from original creative vision).

Copying other people’s original compositions diminishes the value of the original creations, pays no respect to original creators (arguably it may even affect them materially and deny them rightful sales and credit, as current copyright laws don’t protect public views), and although the photographers who pursue such images may disagree, it also highlights a pervasive problem: what’s now known as the “creativity crisis”, promoting conformism and template thinking, and discouraging, or at least failing to reward, creative thinking.

As far back as the mid-1990s I was called out in public on the website when I refused to provide location details to a photographer, and he took to the internet to see if he could get the information from someone else. He called me out by name and sparked a lively discussion on whether I had the “right” to withhold this information. Later, the identity of the location made it into a guidebook (through a friend of a friend I trusted with the information), and today the place is no more than yet another well-worn checklist item for photographers traveling in the area. Thankfully, this particular place was not very ecologically sensitive and has not suffered much damage, but it is no longer a place where a wilderness lover can go to find peace and solitude. The same is true for other places featured on this page.

At one point I made the poor judgment of revealing to someone the location of a formation known as Teapot Rock. (It’s the only place I will name here since it no longer matters.) Within just a few weeks of me starting the chain of information, Teapot Rock was destroyed. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) investigation was closed without any material findings, but the report included this text:

“When the geologist started looking closer at the Teapot feature on the canyon floor, trying to determine the cause of its fate, the geologist noticed the soil crust around the base and around the backside of where the feature once stood was heavily disturbed by human footprints. With so many footprints around one has to wonder if someone accidentally or possibly intentionally caused the Teapot to fall. The geologist also noticed that rocks, not common to the formation layers or features, were placed onto stem formations near where the Teapot once stood.”

Other places I photographed have remained photogenic but have become overrun with visitors, some behaving irresponsibly. One was turned into a visitor attraction and you can no longer camp there, nor hope to experience the place in solitude; others are now covered in litter and rogue vehicle tracks, some have been vandalized with carvings and graffiti.

These days I am cautious to deliberately compose my images so that it is difficult or impossible to derive their location. Whatever you may think about this practice, I can’t bear the thought of being the cause of destruction of more such places.

This leads me to Brent’s question. Yes, I do have photographs I love that I will never make public. These photographs feature rare and delicate formations, undiscovered historical artifacts (rock art, intact tools, ancient structures, etc.), and other features that I know will not survive long once discovered by the public. Over the years I have in fact found traces of other visitors to a couple of these sites, and was grateful that those visitors had left them undisturbed. I am confident that anyone who discovers them as I have: unexpectedly, by exploration and curiosity, will have a far more meaningful and satisfying experience than if they were just following some directions or tips.

There is a common and mistaken trope among many photographers that landscape photography is somehow good for the land in some unequivocal way, that it may move people to want to preserve and appreciate certain places. Even if this was true at one time, and may still be true for some people, on the whole conservation of land no longer has anything to do with photographs (at least not the vast majority of photographs), and a lot more to do with politics. Also, it doesn’t even matter if the great majority of people who will arrive at such places will treat them with respect. Many are of such nature that even just one “bad actor” can destroy or alter their character forever. I refuse to become complicit in that, if only for my own peace of mind.

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7 thoughts on “AMA: Landscape Photography and Conservation

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  1. Good thought provoking essay. Over the years I have changed my thinking to be more in line with your essay. Originally I used to share locations but now I simply identify it for a particular area. For me part of the reason I photograph landscapes is to find those unique images and/or locations. I plan trips pretty throughly but it the surprises that I find that are more satisfying..

    I partly disagree on copying compositions. There are some iconic locations that have been photographed thousands of times and unique compositions are difficult to find. In those cases I may end up with compositions that are almost identical to others but it is still a recording of my experience at that location.

    1. Thanks, Joseph! Note that I explicitly said I was not referring to iconic and easy to find places, but to composition that would require some effort to find and to copy.

  2. I so respect your honesty and integrity. I appreciate your photography and a part of me would love to see your unpublished landscapes, another part of me is gratified that there are beautiful unique and even ordinary landscapes that fine creative photographers have held sacred and kept them undefiled. Thank you for responding to Brent’s question honestly and assisting your readers in thinking through the ethics and responsibility we have for our actions. When I see programs on State parks, for example, with people trekking through almost on top of each other it makes me sad because I am aware of the destruction they are doing, and that eventually those areas will have to be closed an will never recover. It is not just physical damage from walking, but it is the spiritual damage from “sightseeing” without respect for the land, and the indigenous people who at one time inhabited it, honored it, and held it sacred.

  3. Hi, this is a worldwide problem, here in Chile we have seen this not only with photographer, generel tourism is affecting the wild places also. Usually they get attracted to a place by photos on the social media.
    There is an alliance working on this, take a look at Nature First Photograpy , I like thier principles and the simplicity of the way they apply to our regular activities in the field.
    Cheers from Arica, in the north of Chile.

  4. Thanks to Huntington and Brent for the questions, and thank you Guy for the clear and meaningful response. I think there is no other issue in landscape photography that saddens me more. Although I lack an audience, I have long hoped that those who do, and obviously share my passion and pleasure for experiencing places in their elements (climate, light, and culture), would be able to encourage and motivate conservation through those images I also loved. I have learned that, with few exceptions, it just doesn’t happen that way. I picked up a camera because of Galen Rowell, but I didn’t love mountains because of his pictures. I love them for deeper reasons I don’t understand. Maybe I loved deserts before I saw a photograph of one (as you know, Ed Abbey simply seduces one into the aridity).

    I still want to try to communicate the ethic of conservation, but photography, though very important to me and part of my experience, may not be the medium. I get lost in the conflict of ego and heart.

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