Earlier this year I accompanied a friend to one of Utah’s most iconic and often-photographed roadside views. We were not actually there to photograph the view, but to see if it may have been too crowded to incorporate into the itinerary of an upcoming workshop (it was crowded). Shortly before sunrise, virtually no room was left to fit even a single tripod. Among the latecomers were two photographers who arrived just as the golden light unfolded. They were muttering loudly until another photographer concluded his work early and vacated a spot, which they quickly swooped in to fill before embarking on a profanity-laden rush to set up their cameras before the light faded. Five minutes later they were already on their way back to the parking area. As chance would have it, we saw them shortly after at a local café, waiting for their breakfast at a table adjacent to ours. They were still engaged in a loud and cantankerous exchange about their morning experience. As the arrival of their food put an end to the conversation, one commented to the other, “Oh well, at least we got the shot.”
Often, when asking photographers why they repeatedly photograph the same iconic places in the same way the retort is “they are iconic for a reason,” which is true, but few take the time to articulate what that reason is. If the reason is only that they are beautiful to behold, then there is no reason to photograph them at all, as many spectacular images of them can be seen in books, postcards and online. That leaves two other possibilities: bragging rights and the quality of the greater experience of being there. The former is easily dismissed when you consider that there is little to brag about when you’re following directions to a roadside attraction; the latter, however, raises a more difficult question: if you got the shot but didn’t get the true experience of being in a wild and inspiring place, what have you really gained?
What is the worth of a shot without an even more worthy experience? It’s like earning a medal for driving a car to the finish line of a foot race, getting a high score on a test for which you were given the questions – and answers – in advance, or winning a baking contest with a pie purchased at a bakery. In order to feel (and not just claim) the experience, in order for the image to mean something more than a predictable trophy, it should be the legitimate reward for something more challenging and deserving than a few minutes of jockeying for a spot and an hour of indignant gripping. Don’t you think?
Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 48 of Landscape Photography Magazine.