The Wilderness Within

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It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey.”
- Wendell Berry

Landscape photographers often draw from a connection to wild places to explain their photography practice. It's reasonable to believe that this demonstrates an authentic passion for nature, a virtue that by extension imbues the photographs. But then, so frequently and easily, this connection manifests as images of popular and already-seen destinations, adherent to a formulaic approach to making photographs.

Pursuit of the unoriginal in landscape photography is a thread-bare subject, yet untold numbers of these images are created, shared, or used promotionally every day. In the face of this, it's equally reasonable to explore how this impacts our development as photographers, and importantly, its bearing on the connection to nature that so many among us articulate.

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Unless we never present our photographs to others, instead dwelling upon them in isolation, an expectation of a response is implicit in their creation. Hence we share them, often (perhaps mostly) online. We're encouraged to do this because images of iconic places are so easy to "like". Zabriskie Point beneath rosy clouds, for example, garners reaction from all sorts of people. For novice photographers, or those trying to build an audience, or attention-seekers, this has become a common, even important, form of encouragement.

For others, this likeability is used as advertising, whereby vividly saturated images of popular destinations -- replete with tips, tricks, and workshops dates -- are pumped into our social streams. These can be effective, shiny lures, and in this sense I have no issue with their promotional use. The persistence required to build a business by promoting the already-seen isn't commonplace, even if some of the photographs used to do it are. (I do argue, however, that this practice yields more harm than good, both to a photographer's "brand" and the at-large photography community).

Images of this kind can also mark our evolution as photographers and artists, once we develop the habit of asking why we photograph. In my files, for example, are images of storied Mount Rainier, Death Valley, and Glacier National Park. Early on, my guiding motivation for photographing in these areas was simple: this is what landscape photographers do.

I still regularly visit them because they're freeing landscapes that offer diverse modes of exploration. I rarely chase their iconic views anymore, and many (though not all) of my images made in recent years have arisen from an inward trend towards discovery, rather than the outward one towards shiny or shocking. The point is that commonplace or otherwise, successful or not, my evolving perception of these images informs the creative impetus for those I make today, and more important than this, the personal value I derive from photography.

And so, to answer the question of what another image of Zabriskie Point can accomplish: making it offers community-based rewards that are important as we develop photographically; it can help us to achieve professional objectives; and if we're self-aware, it can reveal our path as artists (or whether we want to be artists, at all). These are all good things.

I also believe that to forge our identity as photographers (or not), to express ourselves through photography in a way that's unique and even valuable (or not), to discover and pursue the art form of photography (or not), each of us must probe the veracity with which our images are made, shared, and promoted.

I say "each of us" deliberately: some of the most persistent voices within landscape photography espouse pursuit of the already-seen, implicitly or otherwise, through their daily interactions with others. To see what I mean, simply review the social streams of certain landscape photographers who are popular within social media or, for that matter, publications with wide reach into the amateur photography community.

I'm not calling popularity a crime; I'm stating that popularity used to promote formulaic photography as a means to an end homogenizes the benefits we might otherwise discover through our work in this medium. This is especially true for a person still bringing form to connections between nature and her photography, a process that's artificially simplified when the formulaic or already-seen becomes its product.

In the most egregious examples that I've encountered, a reverence for wild places receives platitudes in order to promote a business. It's beyond the scope of this writing to address this in detail, but it exists, and shouldn't be a surprise. This brand of thoughtlessness has existed since the first days of human commerce, and will always have its place within landscape photography.

There is a great commercial value in effective instruction on photography technique. In addition, iconic places are good platforms for instruction. There is also great personal value in exploring and expressing a connection to the natural world (in any medium). Technique -- wherever it's practiced -- and expression are not the same, and gaining this perspective is critical to our character as individuals, let alone as photographers.

For example, I am a member of a handful of photography forums where I've found astonishing the frequency with which images of already-seen locales are presented amidst a flourish of finality, as if to say, "there, at last, we can all go home". I'm being slightly facetious, and some of these photographs are indeed beautiful, replete with intense, moody light, and well-processed, too. But what can you honestly say about their sense of familiarity? Good capture?

An image of Zabriskie Point beneath rosy clouds doesn't provide credibility, because so many already exist. No rarified air is consumed by its creator. It doesn't make us artists or artistic. It doesn't make us accomplished or authoritative. It doesn't demonstrate a unique, personal connection to wild places.

We need to be vigilant: repetition can so easily become a race to the bottom. Yet when the most tangible response to our photography is elicited by the popular and formulaic, when honest efforts at self-expression fail when measured against symbolic forms of approval found online (i.e. a like, retweet, or comment), when many who have positioned themselves as teachers embody a "rinse and repeat" approach to photography, why explore originality?

Why move through the wilderness that's outside, in other words, as a method for exploring the wilderness within? It's far simpler, it turns out, to let place replace a connection we cannot legitimately proclaim without doing hard work.

Exploration, after all, is an exhausting, uncertain undertaking. No formula is provided, nor does it exist. There is no map, let alone guarantee of a destination. Some people respond to the notion of exploration--and all the grime, suffering, fear and isolation it comes with--quizzically, repulsed, humored, but certainly not as if it's the most viable way to bolster and expand our connection to wild places and, by extension, ourselves.