The following article was originally published in On Landscape Magazine.
Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. ~Wallace Stegner, Wilderness Letter
Most of my photographic work is done in places that are relatively close to my home in a rural desert town. In my mind, this is the most beautiful and inspiring landscape that I can hope to live, work and be in. Some are surprised to learn that I do not offer guided tours of the wild lands I work in, and I generally do not respond to queries about specific locations where my images were made.
In the past I also declined to contribute to guide books about the area, and resigned my position with a local business committee that sought to encourage increased tourism in these places. Such decisions are, undeniably, in conflict with economic interests (my own and those of tourism-related businesses in my area) and may seem questionable until one considers that taking the opposite approach would conflict with what to me are more important interests.
At the root of such positions is the fact that I live where I do, and work as I do, not as the result of a calculated business decision, but rather because of two powerful life goals, which are these: my love of being in the wild, and the inner rewards I find in making expressive art. To encourage greater visitation to the places I love, or to encourage fellow photographers to pursue the same subjects as I do, rather than find their own creative expressions, would be in contradiction to both these goals.
It is not often acknowledged that photographs depicting natural subjects may be created for reasons other than capturing the pleasing visual characteristics of a particular subject or place. Photography can also be practiced as an expressive art—art meant to communicate subjective thoughts and feelings, rather than objective appearances. Moreover, art can be pursued toward a variety of desired outcomes, the most common of which is producing aesthetic artifacts; but that is not the only reason to practice photography, nor necessarily the most rewarding one. Some photographic artists, me among them, produce art primarily as a means of finding and engaging in personally meaningful experiences, and with the hope of not just showing our audiences where we’ve been and what we’ve seen, but also something of our inner states of mind, as inspired by an intimate and lasting relationship with such places.
The notion of wildness is one most humans today, especially those living in industrialized countries, do not have personal familiarity with. Indeed, many may not ever have the opportunity to experience remote and wild places in solitude, without a hint of other human presence; to hike far into places where there are no trails and where other humans may never have visited; to rely on one’s own skills and faculties in order to navigate the terrain, to tackle obstacles; to provide for one’s own water, nourishment, warmth and shelter; to experience a place without the aid or interruption of machines and gadgets; to be disconnected, physically and emotionally, from the din of cities and mass media. Most humans living today may never experience the peace of perfect silence, or have the opportunity to spend a night gazing into an immense star-studded sky free of artificial light pollution.
In my mind the loss of such experiences amounts to a silent tragedy, because those who have lost such things often do not know that they lost them, or how deeply moving and rewarding they can be, to a point of affecting one’s course of life and factoring into their most difficult and important decisions. Such experiences are not possible within the bubble of managed and controlled areas and without wildness, even in places otherwise regarded as natural or protected.
I am often greeted with skepticism and even some disdain when stating that I do not pursue my photography with the intent of promoting conservation of such places. This is not because I do not want these places preserved, but because I am at odds with what I know the effects of such efforts to be. Even if successful, they most often result in loss of wildness: preserved lands managed for visitation and recreation, and having to compete for “value” with industry. Rarely acknowledged is the fact that the value of industry and the value of wildness are not the same thing, not measurable in the same currency, and not interchangeable. My refusal to make public those places I love is exactly because I care about them deeply.
Regardless of any formal designation, many such places are not—and cannot be—protected due to their remoteness; and those that are protected, are often only protected as mere appearances, rather than as places where one may find wildness. Conservation efforts may “protect” such places in the sense that they appear to the eye as they would if left untrammeled, but often at the loss of other dimensions of experience: silence, solitude, remoteness, difficulty of access, risk, mystery and discovery.
Political correctness aside, the very presence of humans may alter such places profoundly and irrevocably; and the more they are visited, the less wild they become until they cease to be wild altogether. Simply stated, there are too few such places remaining, and too many of us. To turn such places into tourist attractions is, in my mind, often as destructive to their nature and to the experiences they have to offer a solitary and skilled wanderer, as any other form of human exploitation, and I do not wish to be complicit in hastening their demise.
Like most photographers of natural things, I did not begin my journey with any aspiration for making expressive art. At the time I did not even know what it meant. Rather, I wanted to share the beauty of the things and places I loved. In those days it was inconceivable to me that anyone might be moved to go to the effort of tracing my steps in such wild and remote places just because they liked my photographs of them. Those days are now gone.
In recent years I’ve had my wilderness camps invaded multiple times, very often by photographers; and many now consider it almost a sport to sleuth the locations of other people’s photographs, advertise them for profit or bragging rights, and turn them into “must see” checklist items. Casually sacrificed in such decisions are experiences inspired by wildness and discovery, which can be among the most rewarding things that a person will ever feel. Wildness can only be assured by such things as anonymity and difficulty; and discovery is only possible when one does not know in advance what they may find.
As one who has seen such places utterly transformed with popularity, and as one who has learned the immense personal benefits of creativity and self-expression, I can’t emphasize enough how much I believe the copycat mentality to be damaging—to the places, to the original artists whose creative work is turned into common cliché, and to the imitators who may gain a trophy image but deny themselves the experiences and rewards of making original and personally meaningful work. And for what? For a few attaboys?
To anyone who wishes to elevate their experience of photography beyond simply seeking pretty places and checking known compositions off a list, my advice is this: find places and subjects that are personally meaningful to you, and immerse yourself in getting to know them—and yourself through them. Express your own thoughts and feelings about your own subjects. Do not encumber your art with the petty expectations of others, and do not sacrifice those things that are sacred to you in the name of lesser motives, no matter how popular or profitable. Examine your convictions and your work and, should they conflict with each other, find a way to reconcile them. The peace of mind you will gain will far outweigh the regret of failing to live up to your own sense of what is truly important. Do not compartmentalize any part of your life, be it work or photography or ethics, as separate from others. Find a consistent philosophy by which to conduct yourself as a person, as a professional, and as an artist.
Francis Bacon wrote, “He that gives good advice, builds with one hand; he that gives good counsel and example, builds with both; but he that gives good admonition and bad example, builds with one hand and pulls down with the other.” And likewise I cannot in good faith care for the sanctity of wild places while also contributing to the loss of their wildness. Nor can I acknowledge the importance that creative self-expression holds in my own life—and my gratitude for the complex ways in which my journey was affected by finding a personal kinship with my subjects—and not advise fellow artists to invest time and effort in finding their own.