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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.

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