The Ethics of Nature Photography
Producer and photographer Guy Hand reports on how some photographers ignore, manipulate, even destroy pristine landscape to shoot that one stunning, singular magazine cover.
CURWOOD: Ansel Adams, America’s most famous nature photographer, was born 100 years ago. Through exquisite black and white prints, Adams opened our eyes to the beauty of the American West and he worked to preserve its vast spaces. He believed that art and environmental activism should intertwine, that landscape photography should flow from a deep empathy for the land itself. Legions of photographers have since followed Adams’ path through the West’s grand photographic terrain. But photographer and radio producer Guy Hand explains some of them have forgotten what was most important to Adams – empathy for nature.
[SOUND OF CAMERA CLICKING AND PEOPLE IN BACKGROUND]
HAND: In photography school, instructors taught us all about light and composition but very little about relationships. After graduation, as a photographic assistant in New York, I had the good fortune to follow some of my favorite photographers around the world.
MAN: So wed like to do here two shots.
HAND: We shot in the jungles of Borneo and the beaches of Bora Bora. We snapped our way through the Philippines, the Swiss Alps and Death Valley. But we seldom developed relationships with the places we photographed.
MAN: The most difficult thing for me is the light.
HAND: Time was tight, deadlines non-negotiable, and the imperative to bring back stunning, singular images often eclipsed everything else. We were, in a sense, blinded by our own visual ambitions. So when I heard that a photographer had damaged delicate art, possibly the most frequently photographed icon of the desert southwest, I was saddened but not surprised.
HAVEY: From KUER News in Salt Lake City, Im Michael Havey. A photographer who lit fires under Delicate Arch during a workshop has changed his plea to "guilty" on seven federal misdemeanors. Each charge against Michael Fatali of Springdale carries a fine of up to $5,000 and six months in prison. Fatali originally pled innocent after setting a series of fires to demonstrate a nighttime lighting technique to amateur photographers. The fires have discolored the red sandstone around the arch and may prove impossible to remove.
MCKINLAY-JONES: This stuff right here, thats rabbit brush. And this is four-wing salt bush.
HAVEY: Ranger Karen McKinlay-Jones of Arches National Park is pointing out the plants were passing along the trail to Delicate Arch. She investigated the Fatali case and has agreed to show me the damage done by the photographers fires. As we climb uphill through spectacular red rock sandstone, Karen reminds me of the good things art and photography have done for the national parks.
Arches National Park Ranger Karen McKinlay-Jones points to discolored sandstone at the base of Delicate Arch burnt by a photographer's illegal fires. (Photo: Guy Hand)
[SOUNDS OF HIKING]
MCKINLAY-JONES: My first views of Yellowstone were Thomas Moran – his paintings. And so beginning with those early portrait artists and then people like Ansel Adams, all these people have encouraged people to come to parks. And sometimes if I sound harsh about commercial filming or whatever, I always have to go back to the idea that it was through art – be it painting or sketches or photography – that the national parks have really become even more popular and accessible to the public.
HAND: After a good 45 minutes, the trail narrows to an icy ledge of sandstone. Karen carefully steps to its far end and stops and turns toward me. She wants to catch my expression as I round the final corner and suddenly see Delicate Arch for the first time.
(Laughs.) Geez. Amazing. No matter how many pictures of the place you see, it never prepares you for the real thing.
HAND: Its unbelievable.
JONES: Like I said, you know, Ive been up here probably over 1,000 times. I still get goosebumps. I still love watching people as they come around the corner and they see it, and they are just blown away.
HAND: Its an elegantly surreal site. This perfect arch perched on the edge of a sheer cliff. Edward Abbey said that if Delicate Arch has any significance, it lies in its power to reawaken our awareness of the wonderful.
JONES: Lets go over and take a look.
HAND: The Park Service has spent many thousands of dollars restoring the Arch and from a distance you wouldnt notice anything was wrong. But close up you can see the work hasnt erased all the evidence of the fires that were set here, even though they were lit over a year ago.
MCKINLAY-JONES: It spread from where Im standing here in front of me and all the way up to where you can see that dark spot on the rock.
HAND: Wow. Much bigger than I had thought.
MCKINLAY-JONES: You know, we averaged it at about two to three feet wide.
HAND: Karen assures me that the fires were an aberration. In the 18 years shes worked here shes never seen anything else like it.
[SOUND OF COUNTING]
HAND: Not far from Delicate Arch, landscape photographer Steve Mulligan is counting off a long exposure hes making in Canyonlands National Park. He shakes his head at the thought of damaging the landscape just to get a picture of it, but he knows its happened before in the town where he once lived.
MULLIGAN: In a small city park in Colorado Springs, there are a couple hundred of these one seed junipers, which are old – theyre a couple thousand, I think. Oh, thats bright...they are some of my favorite trees in the world.
HAND: Several years ago a photographer used those trees as his subject. Along with a camera, he carried another piece of equipment: a saw.
MULLIGAN: He was cutting off big branches so no one else could recreate his photo, as though all these trees hadnt already been photographed thousands of times.
HAND: Steve lives in nearby Moab, Utah, a town flanked, not only by arches and canyonlands, but by chunks of beautiful country overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Countless movies, commercials, music videos and magazine ads have been shot here. Crews helicoptered SUVs onto buttes and turned red rock monuments into mammoth beer cans. Not exactly what Ansel Adams would have pictured, but big commercial productions infuse isolated towns like Moab with jobs and cash.
VON KOCH: Our office issues anywhere from 45 to 50 permits a year.
HAND: Mary Von Koch supervises film and photo shoots for the BLM office in Moab.
VON KOCH: The shoots that, I think, have the most impact are movies. We generally have anywhere from 120 to 300 people on set if we have extras. So, there definitely can be environmental impacts in the desert from having that many people and equipment on location. But for the most part, you can go out and you really do not see impacts to this area that you could say are specifically from filming.
HAND: One movie filmed a scene with 350 stampeding horses.
VON KOCH: And the lands from that are still reclaiming themselves. But it is a slow process. And we knew that with shallow soils and our low precipitation that it was going to be a while.
[SOUND FROM MOVIE STAMPEDE SCENE ]
HAND: The movie was "City Slickers II" with Billy Crystal, filmed here in 1993. Local conservationists were not at all happy about this stampede scene. They also accused the film crew of building an unauthorized road in a protected wilderness area and dumping contaminated water into a local drainage.
STANTON: There has to be a balance between the environment and the economy.
HAND: Bette Stanton, former head of the Moab Film Commission, bristles at accusations leveled at Hollywood by people she calls ‘extreme environmentalists. After all, if camera crews hadnt been here to bolster the economy, Moab would have been in big trouble when its uranium mine closed. Yet she says environmentalists are pushing the industry away by demanding tighter restrictions on filming and lobbying to turn one of the her favorite locations into a wilderness area.
STANTON: Ill be damned if they didnt designate that whole cotton-pickin area as proposed wilderness. Now, of all the country, thats the easiest for film companies to get to. This is where they have been through all of these years, able to go in there and do all of this filming and all of a sudden its proposed wilderness, which put the brakes on and we had to find somewhere else to film.
McHARG: I think that line of thinking isnt conscious of the actual environmental impacts that are very real in filming – either commercials or films or even still photography.
HAND: Herb McHarg works for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a group fighting to get the American Red Rock Wilderness Act through Congress. He challenges film permits whenever he believes those shoots threatened public lands. But Herb worries that the images, themselves, might do more lasting damage.
McHARG: When a commercial shows sport utility vehicles, trucks and ATVs crashing through stream beds, through potholes, through vegetation and sensitive soils, and then members of the public see those things occurring, then they want to go out and use those same machines out on public lands. You wouldnt think of filming a vehicle crashing through Central Park, lets say, in New York, but thats exactly whats happening out here in these wild landscapes.
(INSIDE BOOKSTORE SFX)
WOMAN: Do you have any books on antiques and all that stuff?
KNIGHTON: I usually have the Coevals in…
HAND: Jose Knighton, the manager and book buyer at Back of Beyond Books in Moab, thinks that nature photography affects culture in even more subtle ways. He began thinking about it when a photographer friend walked into the store one day looking for a calendar.
KNIGHTON: I said ‘Well, lets go back in the back where I have all the calendars – all the landscape calendars – take a look at this years crop of eco-porn. The phrase just popped out of my mouth. And the more I started examining it, the more relevant it actually seemed, and I started looking at landscape photography in the way you would look at foldouts from Playboy: the very selective precision with which somebodys, you know, posed the landscape.
HAND: Jose wrote an essay that was picked up by Harpers. It created a stir in the photographic community.
KNIGHTON: The phrase that came up in my article that was ‘beefing up the bosom of the Grand Tetons, essentially.
HAND: And in the same way that glamour photography distorts our view of women, Jose believes landscape photography can distort our view of nature.
KNIGHTON: Somebodys looking at this glamorous photograph of the Grand Tetons in sunset light, with, you know, storm glow and everything. You just realize what youre not seeing is out there in all the plains around the Tetons, youve got fences that are blocking off the migration of antelope herds and wind up being trapped against those fences in blizzards and starving to death. You know, there needs to be some way of balancing those manipulative, glamorous images with whats really going on in the landscape.
[SOUNDS OF CLASSROOM]
HUCKO: Well, under here it looks a little flat to me. What do you have in terms of a filter?
HAND: Bruce Hucko agrees. He stands with his students in the red glow of Moabs Grand County High School darkroom. Hes teaching his class to make their first photographic prints. But he also hopes to teach them that photography is more than technique, that it should also include a respect for what gets centered in the viewfinder. That message is all the more important, Bruce thinks, in light of the fires set by the photographer at Delicate Arch.
HUCKO: And I view his act as though he had taken a razor blade to the face of the person he was photographing. I mean, its worse than vandalism.
HAND: Surprisingly, a three-year-old Navajo girl helped teach Bruce a lesson about building relationships between photographer and subject. He was hiking out of the canyon with the young girl riding on his shoulders. Below them, a few of his workshop students were beginning to take pictures.
HUCKO: And she yelled down to those people ‘Are you cheesing the canyon? And you know, at first I went ‘Isnt that cute. And then much later I thought about it, and I went ‘Oh my God. She is so right. What she was saying was ‘Are you on a good rapport with the canyon? Have you put yourself in a situation with the canyon so its going to smile back at you?
HAND: Of course, plenty of photographers work for a good rapport with their subjects. Yet after two decades making a living in photography, Ive realized its not so different than any industry that profits from the natural world – whether it be logging, mining, agriculture, or art. In any of these pursuits, we have the choice to see nature as an object to be exploited or, as Ansel Adams did, as a relationship to be nurtured; to see not only with eyes, but our hearts and minds. For Living on Earth, Im Guy Hand.
[SOUND OF CLASS. MUSIC: Dawna Hammers, "Harmony", DEEP INSIDE (new Clear Music - 1995)]
[SOUND OF SNORING]
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