Wandering Zion Canyon last week was pure joy, exactly the kind of experience I envisioned when I decided to make nature photography my livelihood. I was photographing what I wanted to photograph, simply because it made me happy. When I found this little scene beside the trail I worked it to death, experimenting with depth of field and composing close, far, horizontal, vertical, wide, tight, up, down, front, and back. I had no illusions that I was creating something that would make me lots of money or give me great notoriety--I just plain liked the scene, and the challenge of trying to do it justice.
This experience at Zion crystalized some thoughts that had been troubling me for most of the Utah trip. During our travels Don Smith and I browsed a couple of nature photographers' galleries in Nevada and Utah, photographers who are far more well known than Don and I are. The photography was very nice, though perhaps a little "souped up" for my taste. Browsing these galleries, then visiting each artist's website, I found myself particularly bothered by the pretense they use to present their photography. Rather than allowing their photography to stand by itself (something all good photography must ultimately do, and these photographers are capable of), they have gone to great lengths to manufacture the illusion of divine inspiration behind their work. This hyperbole seemed to extend to their images as well, some of which (but not all) stretched the bounds of credibility. It was clear to me that they had crossed the threshold separating a love for nature from the drive for "success."
I certainly can't fault their success, as each has achieved far more notoriety (and I assume wealth) than I've seen (so far). In fact, it's quite likely that their divine embellishment is the prime reason for their success. But at what cost? Even discounting the fact that a true relationship with God is personal and never a marketing tool, I wondered how these guys can live with themselves among their peers. The photographers most respected by other photographers are those who let their images do the talking, keeping their personal insights informative without being self-aggrandizing.
One of the great things about art as a livelihood is that, unlike most other professions, the work itself is the ultimate standard. Accomplishments, degrees, awards, and resumés may advance doctors, lawyers, professors, and so on, but in art it's all about the product. Those of us who do this for a living know the effort and skill a great capture requires and are frankly not impressed by inflated, self-congratulatory tales of hardship and spiritual whispers. What seems to motivate these photographers is a distorted definition of success that sends them seeking fame and wealth rather than respect and contentment. Of course this success distortion isn't limited to photography--we run into it in politics too, where far too often the politician who makes the most outrageous claims, with little or no regard for truth, becomes the politician who garners the most votes. (Sigh.)
Another unfortunate byproduct of this warped view of photographic success is the need alter an otherwise mediocre capture in a deceptive manner by inserting objects after the fact, altering color in post processing, or even by defacing Nature to get a desired effect. These tactics are analogous to the professional athlete who poisons his (or her) body with performance enhancing drugs to maintain a competitive edge. Not only does it damage the perpetrator, it damages the credibility of the entire industry. Regrettably, these distortions engender the attention they crave.
This mercenary approach to fine art photography isn't limited to these two photographers, not even close. Conversely, the nature photography profession is full of successful, albeit more anonymous, photographers who have earned the respect of their peers with the skill and passion demonstrated in every image--Charles Cramer is my personal favorite, but there are many others worthy of more recognition than they receive.
So how does the photographer who shoots for love of subject compete with the photographer who shoots for love of recognition and wealth when, regardless of skill behind the lens, the photographer with the most eye-popping images and outrageous marketing gains the most attention? Maybe I should start garnishing my images with inflated moons, meticulously positioned maple leaves, and vivid rainbows. I could further grease my path to "success" by channeling spirits, inflating my hardships in the field, implying divine guidance, and feigning humility. Hmmm....
Uh, I don't think so. My antidote for these temptations is recognizing that photographers who resort to such tactics have been lured by faux-success, a mirage that entices with the trappings of success without delivering the wellbeing. When I find myself envying other photographers for their wealth and notoriety (I am, after-all, human), I just remind myself that I am incredibly fortunate to make my living doing something I so thoroughly enjoy. I may not be able to impress people with the car I drive, the house I live in, or the toys I have, but I still get immense, solitary satisfaction from the images I create. And I wouldn't trade for anything the pleasure I derive from wandering places like Zion or Yosemite or Mono Lake in search of scenes that please me and me alone.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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