A Tombstone In Your Hands

| August 31, 2018

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Guy


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.

Into The Blue

 

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (16)

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  1. As a misanthrope I fully agree.

    No need for constant foot (or worse, vehicle) traffic in every location.

    No reason to abet in destruction by giving directions to the masses.

    No need for ‘everyone’ to see ‘everything,’ or worse to share pretty photos of THE spot (yes, I’m guilty).

    As you’ve suggested frequently, there are far too many places where photographs are all the same, as if holes had been drilled for tripod feet to be placed perfectly. These images are really nothing more than notches on a gunfighter’s weapon: proof of the kill. No need for that in this day and age.

    By keeping locations quiet you contribute to their preservation. And that’s a good thing.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thanks, Bob!

      The irony is that, being committed to making original and creative work, I actually benefit from others churning out the same predictable, almost indistinguishable, photographs. But I think that the more important point, regardless of how one feels about plagiarism, is how much one values protecting irreplaceable places and experiences.

  2. Joseph Smith says:

    Perfectly expressed and spot on. As Bob noted, having that notch in your Instagram belt has led to swarms of ‘photographers’ seeking to document their “adventure.” It’s not selfish what you do; it’s not compulsory for you or I to send up a signal flare every time we find something interesting to photograph.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you, Joseph. Regrettably I don’t think we’ll “win” this war, but as I said, we can at least delay the inevitable. We have huge industries with considerable political power that work (and drive public opinion) against this ethic.

  3. Dan Baumbach says:

    This is an unfortunate trait of our consumer society where experiences are not viewed as life enhancing, but as another thing to be consumed. We even develop bucket lists less we leave this earth without consuming everything.

    By all means have your solitary places and if you wish, by all means keep them to yourself. We’re not consumers, we’re lovers.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Absolutely. On the other hand, we can’t be hypocritical about the fact that some of us profit (both emotionally and financially) from these resources. But that statement should be qualified. I may profit from a resource but I leave it intact. If you visit a place after me, you will not know I was ever there (unless it was close enough that my footprints are still there). This is a very different kind of use, and ethic, than that of those who just want to “get the shot and move to the next item on the list.”

      • Dan Baumbach says:

        “On the other hand, we can’t be hypocritical about the fact that some of us profit (both emotionally and financially) from these resources.” So you profited from the resource. You also profited by taking the time to discover it. Let others who are interested in discovery profit the same way. There will always be something new for the consumers. We are a capitalist society. If your discovery prompts other’s discoveries, you’ve more than given back for all you’ve gotten.

  4. Lori Ryerson says:

    As often is the case, we are in agreement on this. Funny enough, I see that your post pre-dates my own on this subject by about 24 hours. I didn’t see it until after I’d published something about not identifying a location. I have had many discussions in the last 2 weeks overseas with a number of photographers, about not identifying the spots where we’ve photographed, other than naming the country. Hopefully, we can mitigate some of this by being wary of publishing the information.

  5. Lydia Goetze says:

    I, too, agree completely. In the 1950s and 60s I think the Sierra Club large format photo books contributed to influencing the preservation of then-wild and/or significant landscapes. But that time has passed, and as photographers and outdoors people, it is now our responsibility to refrain from identifying places. This will both help prevent overuse and also let others experience the joy of exploring and finding special places of their own. To carry that one step further, we could try to communicate this ethic to all sorts of outdoor, climbing, cruising, etc print and online publications that we read.

    • Guy Tal says:

      I agree, Lydia. What worked when there were far fewer photographers (and people), no longer works. And you absolutely will find advocates for good stewardship among so-called “recreational” users (terrible term), not so much among those industries whose business it is to extract and deplete those resources.

  6. Stewart Hunt says:

    Hi Guy, Is this a case of the law of unintended consequences? Clearly you started photographing the wilderness before the massive growth in digital photography and reach of the internet. But unfortunately once you publish a picture of a place it can no longer be a “secret place”. You cannot use the wilderness as a resource for your own profit (by selling images) and then lament that other people may choose to seek out those locations. The only way to preserve a “secret place” is to keep it secret, do not publish images of it and maybe remove existing images from your website for the most fragile locations. Saying this breaks my heart because surely we should all be able to find our own compositions without having to “steal” from others and without destroying the wilderness. I believe that if anyone copies a composition they should have the simple courtesy to credit the person they have copied, in the same way if they uses digital techniques to substantially alter their photographs they should have the courtesy to outline their techniques. Not to stifle any creative freedom but for the slightly higher ideal of seeking to educate and inform.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Hi Stewart,

      Let me address your points separately:

      “You cannot use the wilderness as a resource for your own profit (by selling images) and then lament that other people may choose to seek out those locations.”

      Legally speaking, this is not a true statement. In this case it doesn’t apply to photography (and I’m not suggesting it should), but as a general statement it it false. If someone has, say, grazing or mining or logging rights in a public resource, he/she can publish the pictures and information about the place and their use of it, and nobody else can go there and practice their own grazing, mining, etc.

      “The only way to preserve a “secret place” is to keep it secret, do not publish images of it and maybe remove existing images from your website for the most fragile locations.”

      That’s exactly what I do. On a couple of occasions I was caught off guard unintentionally and a place became famous because of me, but I generally go out of my way to compose my photographs such that they don’t betray their locations.

      I’ll leave alone your comments about labeling and giving credit since I wrote about these topics in other essays.

      When it comes to the use of public resources, what we have is what’s known as “the tragedy of the commons,” which is a situation in which, if everyone used a resource according to their self-interest, the resource may be destroyed.

      If you look up proposed solutions to the tragedy, you will find that they fall into two categories: government regulation, or voluntary cooperation among users. In this case we have neither. The government (at least our government) does not decide on conservation regulations based on any criterion other than profitability or political expedience, so it’s unlikely we’ll find help there. Also, we’re not likely to get every user of these resources to voluntarily agree to act in the best interest of the resource. Other than those knowing about these places keeping them secret, they have no other protection from overuse. Certainly, we can’t expect that to be a very effective method of protecting them, but it’s the only one we have.

      This leads me to the point of this essay, which is this: as people who not only use wild places as resources but also care about their welfare, we are in a unique position of having to reconcile conflicting interests. When we encourage overuse of natural places, or change their character to fit a particular use, we also act against our interest as stewards of these places. I can’t live with this paradox, but it seems many can (especially when the resource is not in their own area, town, or country, or some other place they visit casually and don’t expect to be back to again).

      When it comes to copycats, I can’t prevent anyone from copying my work (public views are public resources) any more than I can prevent someone from carving their name into a tree, spraying graffiti on a rock, or driving their vehicle off road into a sensitive ecosystem. What I can do is to not contribute to the problem (by making more such places widely known), and to proclaim such behaviors as wrong, hoping that it becomes a public perception, so that those who commit those acts are regarded as bad actors. Regrettably, in photography, these people often are rewarded with popularity and awards. I think that needs to change.

      Guy

      • Stewart Hunt says:

        Hi Guy, Thanks for your considered responses to my comments, I enjoyed your legalistic response to my linguistically clumsy observation on using the wilderness as a resource, but I’m sure you understood my point! You have a difficult problem with your paradox which I think you are acknowledging is in part due to culpability. We seem to be in agreement that we must love and enjoy and above all preserve the wilderness at all costs. I live in the UK and I think it is fair to say we have none left. I’m looking forward to reading some more of your thought provoking articles!! Stewart

  7. Jeremy says:

    Beautifully written.

    I do wonder what the future holds for the trophy photographer. With the advancement in video games/3d modelling software, I don’t think a future where a digitally created landscape will be indistinguishable from a photograph, is very far off. Perhaps these digitally created worlds complete with digital avatar will draw those uninterested in a deeper connection, away, leaving more solitude for those who remain.

    Just a thought and perhaps hope to hold on to.

  8. Brad Mangas says:

    The most self-satisfaction that I ever receive is when I discover what was previously unknown to me. I have even recognized photographs by other photographers from my area and made a conscious effort to not go to those locations. Not really because I would feel like I would be copying what they have already photographed but because it just doesn’t seem like my own discover after that.
    It is not surprising that currently many would like to take most of the work out of just about anything. They seem to completely miss the point that the discovery is (speaking for me) 90% of the satisfaction. The only frustration I experience is when I discover something that so overwhelms me I struggle with how to portray such feelings in my photograph. I may never completely figure out how to do this, but then again, the possibility of doing so is what keeps me trying again and again.