Photographing Icons – Or Not
Posted on 17 August 2012
Yesterday I shared elsewhere a photograph that someone had posted featuring a line-up of scores of photographers, arrayed tripod-to-tripod, ready to photograph one of those iconic views that we all know so well. I suspect that we have all been to such places and either found the experience of seeing and photographing them to be powerful… or we might have been repulsed by the crowds of people all apparently trying to “capture” the same thing, among them perhaps a number of folks who might be trying to almost literally recreate versions of the scene that they had seen elsewhere.
The point of the share (seen here and here) was not complimentary. My reaction to the photograph was to wonder, even more than usual, why people would want to make photographs that way. I phrased it as, more or less, “yet another reason to avoid photographing icons.”
However, a person wrote to me after I posted and pointed out, with a bit of anger and with some justification I think, that complaining about and putting down those who want to photograph a beautiful place might seem a bit pretentious and self-righteous.
She has a point.
While there is something a bit troubling about seeing dozens of people lined up to make the very same photograph, some of us might be a bit too quick to jump to overly negative conclusions. Perhaps there is a way to cast this as a positive lesson, rather than ridicule. So let me engage in a bit of reflection and honesty.
I’m not big on shooting icons. I find it more challenging, interesting, and rewarding to look for things that might not be seen at all if I didn’t take the time to see them. However, I have photographed icons (as will be clear if you ever look at my Yosemite photographs, along with a few others) and still do on occasion.
Doing photography is a journey. We all began (or are beginning) somewhere and we are all at different places in the journey – and we are certainly not all on the same path. I recall clearly the early discovery stages (not entirely different from today’s late discovery stage! ;-) when I was first trying to understand how to make photographs, both from the technical and aesthetic perspectives, and I looked to the photographs of others for models of subject and interpretation. I thought about how marvelous it must be to be able to photograph certain things in the ways that great photographers had photographed them, and in trying to understand how they did this I most certainly imitated and even tried to reproduce what they did. And, in fact, imitation and copying have long been powerful and effective tools for learning the basics of an art. Why should it be different today? (One just doesn’t want to stop there at the imitative stage, right?)
I still photograph icons on occasion. I’ll mention two circumstances in which this happens, though there are others. First, if I travel to a place where such icons are found, I happen upon them, and I have not photographed them before, I will often shoot them just so that I have the images in my archive – and partially to see if I can photograph them in ways that reflect the way I see them. (However, I’m perhaps less driven towards this than some. I recently photographed in Utah for the first time – really! – and I drove right past things like Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch without stopping as I followed my own sense of what was interesting to photograph.) Second, in places that I know tremendously well – to the point that I’m well beyond shooting the icons most of the time – I will drop everything and head to such icons when I think that truly extraordinary conditions may occur. Yes, this has taken me back to Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley, Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge, and others from time to time.
Another admission: When I do find myself at these places with at least a few other photographers around, although I usually prefer to work entirely or nearly alone, I can enjoy the social aspect of the situation, as well. I’ll bet that quite a few of you do, too. :-)
However, having backtracked a bit regarding the possible negative implication of my original post, I still encourage photographers who haven’t yet tried it to step away from the icons. Slow down and look around and get to know the inner character of the places you visit, too – and not just the icons. And when and if you do find yourself in one of these crowds, consider some of the other subjects around you, wander off, and enjoy looking beyond the obvious.
Let me conclude with a story and a photograph. A few years ago I had gone to a small eastern-Sierra lake in early October, a place renowned for its stunning autumn aspen color. I had photographed there before, starting perhaps just before the recent flood of new DSLR owners and workshop participants of the past few years. One early morning I got it in my mind to head to a spot along the shore of this like that I knew about, a place that can, when conditions are just right, provide a beautiful scene that includes the lake shore with autumn-brown grasses, surrounding groves of aspens including one stand that rises high up a nearby slope, and beyond that conifer forest rising into rocky slopes and eventually giving way to alpine peaks, which were touched with a bit of new snow on this morning. As you can imagine, as I approached this spot my anticipation increased.
I came around the final bend before the lake, at the point where I planned to set up along the shoreline… to find what must have been at least three workshops set up – yes, “tripod-to-tripod” – all along the entire lower portion of the lake. My initial reaction was a combination of being a bit upset that some workshops could take over almost completely a photographic location and a bit of simultaneous bemusement that people would want to do this. Not sure what to do, but certain of what I no longer did want to do, I parked, shouldered my tripod and gear and started walking. I eventually ended up next to an aspen thicket that looked much like many other aspen thickets found throughout the eastern Sierra. I walked quietly into the grove, for the most part simply looking around and becoming aware of my surroundings: variations in the colors of the leaves, the contrast between their bright but ephemeral colors and the solidity of the trunks of the trees, the cool autumn air, the sounds of the grove, and fallen leaves scattered on the forest floor. My focus tightened – away from the grand view I had originally been looking for – until I was looking at individual branches of individual trees and even at individual leaves.
© Copyright 2012 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.
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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