Disclosing Photo Locations: How Much Information is Too Much?
Posted on 03 July 2010
In the summer of 2010 I had the good fortune to join a several fine photographers (Charlie Cramer, Mike Osborne, and Karl Kroeber) for a few days shooting in the Tuolumne/Tioga Pass area of Yosemite National Park. Getting to spend time with photographers who have so much experience and knowledge of Yosemite was inspiring, and I’m grateful for the chance to join them.
While sitting around during the “boring light” hours one afternoon – while waiting for early dinner and travel to a shooting location before the good light – Mike mentioned that they were going to a place that was best not publicized, and he joked that he “might have to blindfold” me if I were to accompany them. Mike was a Yosemite ranger for decades before he retired and it is clear that he loves and cares for the place deeply. He mentioned a few of my posts on this blog in which I had named photo locations and given, in his opinion, a bit too much information about where they are located. This concerns him because he has seen the damage caused by publicity of certain special locations first hand. He also feels that it is often better to gain information about these places the old fashioned way – by word of mouth from an acquaintance or by sleuthing them out yourself. In addition, he also points out – correctly, I think – that many of the photographs I post here are not so much about the specific location as they are about some thing I saw there, and that it might make sense to title photographs in a more generalized way with that in mind.
Mikes’ comments have caused me to think quite a bit about this issue. First, a few words of self-defense, but then some changes that I decided to make here at the blog and in other places where I share my photographs.
As we sat in a motel room talking about this, my first thought was, more or less, “How can my little photography blog have any serious effect?” Meanwhile, Charlie was on his laptop looking up web rankings for various photography web sites and blogs. Now no site like this one is going to get hundreds of thousands of hits, but it surprised me quite a bit when he pointed out that I get more traffic than some fairly well-known photographers. So perhaps it is possible that some of what I post could have an effect. This was a new realization.
Another thought was that these places are not “just photographs” for me – in my mind they are almost always connected to stories. While another person might look at the photographs purely as images of subjects and places, for me they are also associated very specifically with the situations and conditions in which the photographs were made. When I look at the black and white photograph of trees along the shoreline of a lake that I posted recently, I recall the choice to be there at this time on this morning, the recognition that the sound in the cold early morning air reminded me of autumn, running into a ranger who apparently thought that I had illegally camped overnight at this spot, and the process of slowly considering how to compose a photograph of this scene. And I want to tell those stories.
But Mike is right. Or at least partially right. OK, he’s mostly right.
Several times during the weeks before I wrote this, people had contacted me to ask about photographing a location shown in one of my photographs. Several weeks ago one person asked about a particular photograph and seemed to want some pretty specific details about the location – and the follow-up messages sounded to me a bit like a request for information about “where to put the tripod” in order to re-create my photograph. (I don’t have a problem with people using the photographs of others as a learning tool or for inspiration, but in the end the goal is to photograph the subject in your own personal way.)
With all of this in mind, I started to think more carefully about how I’ll identify and describe my photographs. Careful readers may have already noticed a change when some photographs were given titles that reflect a more general identification (e.g. “lake” without the name of the lake) and when descriptions of how and where have become a bit more general. I can’t say that I will never offer specific location information. For some photographs the location still provides the most appropriate title for the photograph and revealing it creates little risk to the subject, but I’m going to try to refrain from needlessly letting my inclination to “tell stories” about the photographs lead me to offer inappropriate details, especially when the area is fragile and/or already too accessible.
Thanks for your understanding. And thanks, Mike, for encouraging me to think about this.
(This article has been edited since it was originally posted in the summer of 2010.)
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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