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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Last week, I traveled to China as part of a photographic tour—I and several others were invited to present our work about “place”—a topic that suddenly changed into “photography and tourism” a few days before the trip began…  While I feel very comfortable discussing “place”, the connection between photography and tourism is a much less comfortable discussion for me.  Obviously, photographs can be used to generate interest in tourism—it’s just a form of advertising—the best example being Ansel Adams, who married into the gift shop at Yosemite—a wonderful marketing tool for both the photographer and the tourism industry.

Americans believe that nature is best experienced as wilderness—defined as the natural world without the influence of man—exemplified by many as the vision of Ansel Adams–and we have created a park system to allow that illusion for visitors.  That millions of people crowd the most well known of these sites is thought of as, at best, an inconvenience, one we try to politely ignore.    I worry that my own photographs of the Alaskan Landscape will attract people to come and see for themselves—places that I was fortunate enough to experience in solitude might become overrun—to become a tourist attraction—and thus destroyed as wilderness.

The Chinese seem to have a different view of nature and man—one that is comfortable with experiencing nature while being part of a crowd.   Our tour group went to the Baijia Cliff site at the YunTai Mountain Geo Park—a site designed for massive crowds—stone sidewalks and steps, signs, guards, and little boats with men with traditional straw hats to continuously pick up any litter that might fall into the water—intended to accommodate 10,000 visitors a day, all on a path about a mile and a half long.  And the only way to see the place was to join the crowd.  One of my American colleagues remarked that this little excursion perfectly matched his vision of hell.  My own feelings were more positive.

What surprised me was the beauty of the place—red sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, reflecting pools, mountains in the distance—all experienced in the comfort of a happy crowd.   The new emerging Chinese middle class is sufficiently affluent to travel to the park—and it’s nice to see so many people doing so well, reveling in the freedom of enough.

Some in our group noted the similarity to Disneyland—perhaps a not inappropriate comparison—both places are actively managed for the pleasure of the crowd—but US parks are really no different—we only manage them for a different illusion—that of wilderness.    And it is possible to create the illusion of wilderness (especially with a camera), even in a crowded park.

But the path through the gorge reminded me of 19th century railroad photographs—a balance between nature and man—and while the absence of the railroad might make for a picture more closely aligned with our vision of wilderness,  including the railroad makes for a more interesting picture.

I purchased a copy of Robert Adam’s book, Beauty in Photography:  Essays in Defense of Traditional Values in the early 1980s, one of the first photography books I ever bought (when I began a database to track my book collection, this book was the first book I entered).   I have probably read this book at least 50 times, and my copy is far from pristine—a soiled and torn dust jacket, multiple underlinings, and notes scrawled on the insides of the covers.    The book discusses not only photography, but Art, beauty, truth—all the big ideas—in a way that makes sense, but requires careful attention from the reader.   In Adam’s two additional books of essays, Why People Photograph and Along Some Rivers, additional ideas are added to the core created in Beauty in Photography,  but the earlier book is central to his thinking.  And the most central essay is that titled (surprise) “Beauty in Photography”.

8-0551 Selawik River, 1990

Adams argues that the proper goal of art is beauty (page 24), and that the beauty he is most interested in is Form.  “Beauty is, in my view, a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life…”  and then goes on to ask “Why is Form beautiful?  Because, I think, it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.  James Dickey was right when he asked rhetorically, ‘What is Heaven, anyway, but the power of dwelling among objects and actions of consequence.’”

I grew up in a culture that did not value Art (a farming community) largely, I think, because art was not seen as being useful—the coherence and structure underlying life was imposed on the community in the Sunday sermon, and the fields and pastures of the farms provided enough visual pleasure for anyone.

I no longer believe in the sermons, though the form of the fields and pastures of that landscape still give me pleasure (there is something entirely sensuous about the green of a cornfield in evening light in May—why would one want to waste money on a painted canvas?).    I began making photographs right about the time I left the farms, and I remember thinking that what I liked about photography was that I could discover things without struggling with words—I wouldn’t have described it then as a search for Form, but now I think that was precisely what I was after—some way of describing coherence and structure.   Photography was, for me, very useful—a tool to help figure out the world.

The question remains remains—is Art enough?  Adams speaks in other places of the consolation offered by pictures, but when faced with suffering, pictures seem so ineffective.   But I offer them anyway.  Visiting my mother is easier when I turn on the digital picture frame I left in her room—sometimes the pictures will stir her failing memory.  And I have, on occasion, offered prints to family and friends going through rough times—I’d like to think that the pictures help.  I’d like to think I’m doing something useful.