Browse any internet photography forum and the majority of the landscape images will be of well-known iconic locations or common subjects. A frequent criticism of landscape photography revolves around this fact, with critics observing that too many photographers pursue the creation of derivative photos of well-known locations, all while calling themselves artists, instead of seeking out more creative work. This viewpoint has come to resonate more with me in recent months and I have been seeking to get beyond standard views of icons in pursuit of more personal work. Still, some iconic locations do represent another increasingly important aspect of my pursuit of photography – placing more emphasis on enjoying the experience of visiting incredible places as an equally important result of a photography trip. Icons have achieved their status for very good reason and experiencing some of those places for myself holds significant value, value that at times exceeds the value of pursuing creativity and originality.
I can vividly remember three particularly memorable images I viewed when I first took up landscape photography. One is an original take an a little known location in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The other two are of icons – Badwater in Death Valley National Park and the Subway in Zion National Park. At the time, I had not traveled much and in viewing these images, I felt the pangs of wanderlust for the first time in my life. I wanted to – needed to – experience those places for myself.
Death Valley came quickly and I visited Badwater within about six months of seeing that memorable image. I fell in love with Death Valley instantly and have returned at least once a year since that time to explore the park – both iconic and off the beaten path locations. Visiting the Subway has been more elusive. This fall, I finally ended up in Zion with a permit for the Subway and two good friends who were willing to come along, even though they have both visited and photographed the location previously.
Given my goal of creating more personal work, why visit this location and spend hours photographing the area only to create derivative images that are almost exact copies of hundreds that have come before? Because sometimes photography is about conveying and documenting an experience that is important to me and sometimes it is about the creative pursuit of more original images. Sometimes these pursuits overlap and sometimes, in the case of visiting and photographing icons, they do not. In the case of visiting the Subway, the experience is what I was seeking first and the photographs are a benefit. Now, I have my own images to bring me back to that day – the ruggedness of the hike, the feeling of arriving in the incredibly cold and surprisingly sterile yet still magical Subway, the interesting conversations, the slips and falls, the funny moments, and everything else that made that day quite memorable.
I will happily add this image to my personal favorites knowing that it is no more creative or original than any other images from this place and I’m okay with that. This photo represents something I have been seeking since I first saw that photo of the Subway years ago, thinking at the time that I would probably never actually get to see it for myself. To be fortunate enough to visit and experience this place, and hundreds of similar ones in the intervening years, is more than enough for me, even if the result will never rise to the level of art.