The Cycle of Documentary Photography as it Pertains to Diluted Truth (Introduction)

This is the first in a series of four short essays

In school I never much cared for literature classes. Because as the semester wore on, inevitably they would shift from discussions on the stories read within the class, to a deeper meaning behind the stories themselves. As we spoke of themes and hidden clues to the authors real intentions, I would speculate, or wonder, what if the story was written just as that - a story? What if Frost was simply ranting on a time when the path split in two, and not trying to compress an entire life of choices into this short parable. Because we always would like to look deeper, to be the one to find more meaning in something. And this reasoning offers context as to why people look at art as a whole, to see something within themselves, within the work, that was not always defined by the artist. But to say that all works have this deeper meaning cannot be true, but what of it is projection? And what of it is inherent?

I think it’s clear that my style of photography can most closely be defined as documentarian. A look that has progressed and shifted through photography itself in different forms. It is a style that seeks not to tell a story of deeper meaning, but to simply tell the story of what is. It’s often presented without comment, without a structure, only to inform the viewer that this, as a subject within the photo, has existed at one point in time. There are no claims made that it will exist in the future, or even that it exists now. For the moment the shutter is pressed this image, like all images, exist exclusively in the past. And through that, I’ve come to realize that all photography is a story of what was. Never of what is or what will be. So how can we claim, as documentary photographers, that what we offer is the truth? I argue instead, that it is simply one form of truth, and in acknowledging that it must be understood there are other forms of truth, meaning the image itself is a lie.

Once this has been accepted, it can be defined that photographs lie in three distinct ways, each stemming from the same cycle of repetition:

Production - The taking of the original photograph
Distribution - The original photograph is offered to the public in some form
Reception - The original photograph is seen by a third party
Consumption - The original photograph embeds itself into the third party
Interpretation - The original photograph becomes distorted when reflected on by the third party
Projection - The (potentially incorrect) themes are pushed into the third party’s work
Reproduction - New work is created retaining elements of the original photograph
Repetition - The cycle begins again

The first lie is a personal one. It is embodied in how we perceive memories due to the retelling as seen within the image itself. Skewing what we remember as having occurred when we were there as the image was taken (this can also skew the memories of those who were not there, or were the subject). As an excess, think of a photograph from your youth, perhaps one when on vacation, a photo that you have seen time and time again is best. As the photograph is of you, it’s clear that you were looking at the camera when it was taken - or at the very least, not at yourself. Yet try to remember anything about that moment other than what you can see in the frame. We can make easy assumptions like, “dad always had the camera, dad isn’t in this photo, therefore, he probably took it”. But to recall anything else will lead us down a path with no acceptable answer at the end.

The second lie is an artistic one. Photographs are often spoken of in terms of inclusion. Terms and phrases like “The Subject”, and “The Composition” (as a noun, a thing) are used to describe the acts the photographer took to bring things in to the frame and arrange them in a pleasing manner. However, the reality is that photography is an act of exclusion. By excluding more of the foreground the image becomes more visually dynamic through the rule of thirds. We, as photographers, are constantly shifting, nudging, and re-framing to bring our vision into the scene. All these exclusions, of which there are many for every image, lie to the viewer through not malicious intent, but rather one of storytelling.

The third lie, is that of a shifting baseline. I have written of the shifting baseline often, including it within other essays, but as a tool it outlines and reiterates the messages found here. With each passing cycle of repetition, the work shifts further from the source and acknowledges less of what it was each time. Yet, as is often seen even within my own work, there are certain elements that remain despite their inability to correctly tell the story that should be told - the story of the truth.

It isn’t enough to understand, or even accept that the above is factual, it must be worked on as a task much like any other. To see that there are lies surrounding us that are presented as truths is a burden that is passed along through each repetition. To stop this however, is impossible as we cannot remove the lie from the image. The task then becomes a goal of awareness and understanding. To accept and see that not always is there a hidden meaning of mystery and decoding life’s secrets, but that the hidden meaning is seeking out the factual in all photographs.

Poolside

Jenny and I are sitting in the hot springs pool of the Days Inn in Thermopolis, Wyoming, the evening of our last night here. The weather is calm and clear after a flash thunderstorm appeared earlier in the day. It left a fresh scent in the air, keeping the dust and dirt down or washing it away entirely. As we sit down and relax another group comes to join us. The woman walks up, complaining that her box of wine was now empty as she quickly hops in.

“Where are you from?” She asks.

“Portland. Oregon.” Jenny quickly replies.

The woman thinks for a second to herself, staring at her empty glass.

“I’m from Wisconsin. We’re the only state without an accent!” she proudly proclaims. Saying it with a kind of enthusiasm like it was the state motto on the billboard as you cross the border.

Wisconsin: The Accent-less State.

“That’s neat” Jenny says with a puzzled curiosity, “We’ve never been. What is there to do in Wisconsin? Like, if we were to visit?”

“Well.” She pauses, thinking for a second. Her eyes moving back and forth while her tongue shifts in her mouth, “we’re the only state without an accent!”

A few months later I tell this story to a co-worker from Wisconsin who has as very distinct accent, she doesn’t find it as funny.

The Balancing of Collections and Conservationalism

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment” - Ansel Adams

When Ansel spoke of the protection of our environment it was done so with a certain unbelievability that we were facing these problems. Corporations and individuals that would seek to profit over the lands that should belong to all of us. It was these same special interests that caused the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy valley in order to serve as a reservoir for San Francisco. But I imagine that he would not have predicted the feverish pace in which we are inadvertently consuming our parks.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the National Parks System. It’s been called by multiple people to be the greatest idea that we as Americans, in both the society and government, have ever had. I’m inclined to agree, and it’s easy to see why. Throughout the retched and disgusting political campaign for president we have had to endure this year (on both sides of the aisle), the National Parks and their centennial are a glimmer of hope, a reminder of what we can do when we are focused and coordinated in our efforts. A look at what can be done to preserve some of the most spectacularly beautiful places on the planet from both a visual and historic perspective. But I am concerned that we as photographers are contributing to their inevitable decline.

This is a piece that I have been meaning to write for the last year. I’ve scribbled notes and thoughts down helping to point me in the right direction from the Tetons and Yellowstone in Wyoming, Crater Lake in Oregon, as well as Yosemite, Lassen, and the Redwoods in California. It’s a piece that I have struggled with, as what I believe to be the core issue is one that I simply don’t want to face. And with some respects writing about it acknowledges the problem for me in a more tangible way.

It was just last week that I sat 8,000 feet above sea level, watching the sun set over the Yosemite valley. Directly behind me purple light washed over half-dome. While to my left the mountain range of the Sierras seemed to continue on forever and lead me to wonder how to moon could rise over a never ending landscape. Just to my right was El Capitan, now covered in shadow but still bringing so much wonder and natural beauty to this location. This one location on the planet that at that point may have very well been the most beautiful to see. But in all honesty the best part was the silent understanding I shared with the 8 or so other people there. Each was respectful of personal space, and without saying a word as the last light for the day would trickle down the granite walls, people simply enjoyed what was happening before them. Cameras were understandably present, but those of us with tripods kept them out of the way, and cell phones only popped up every couple of minutes to take another quick image. Yet one thought continued to exist, how can I justify my being here? How can I justify my camera being out?

This isn’t a question of how we photograph, but why we do so, and do we deserve it? Are we doing more harm than good? And is it worth capturing the photo at the cost of irreversible environmental damage?

Climate change is a known fact, is man-made, and is wreaking havoc on both our natural and unnatural worlds. It’s important to get that out o the way up front. I won’t debate the numbers or reasons as to why it’s happening, because for far too long we have argued those same topics while global temperatures have risen and mass extinctions are beginning to take place. These changes are already manifesting themselves within our National Parks, and one need look no further than the now almost inappropriately titled Glacier National Park to see this.

The United States Geological Society states in plain text that “effects of global climate change are strikingly clear. Glacier recession is underway, and many glaciers have already disappeared.” But the easiest way to see the changes is by looking at the numbers. In 1850 it was estimated that there were up to 150 individual glaciers precent in the area. And 60 years later in 1910 when the park was established most were still present. Yet as recently as 2010, the USGS considered there to be just 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres remaining in the park, even more horrifying is that most models show that within the next 15 years most of the largest glaciers will be gone as well. And yet as photographers we have an innate drive to not only see these areas, but to capture them for ourselves. Even more curiously is that the images we are taking are not new, but ones that have been captured time and time again to the point where the most popular viewpoints will often be riddled with tripods and cameras at certain times of the day. Why are we so driven to have for ourselves what has already been done so many times before?

The common camping and hiking motto of “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.” is one that I argue is in need of updating. As we move beyond the recession and housing bubble of 2007/2008 vacations, travel, driving, and wanderlust are rising dramatically. As of 2014 Yosemite capped visitation levels after seeing record attendance in the four-million range. With many visitors traveling by car and clogging the few small roads within the valley and the rest of the park, it was seen as a much needed measure that unfortunately didn’t go far enough. But it is because of this traveling that the motto fundamentally can no longer be a statement taken at face value regardless of how hard you may try to leave no impact. Each mile driven, each car through the front gates of the park, each person utilizing the facilities including bathrooms, trash, and lighting leaves something behind that hurts the area.

If we as photographers seek to document and preserve all aspects of our planet through our images, we must ask ourselves what is more important - collecting the images for ourselves, or leaving the planet in better shape for future generations? As an exercise I opened Instagram on my phone and tracked the #Yosemite hashtag for 10 minutes. During this time 60 images were posted, and all of them had another that looked similar or was of a similar viewpoint. So if these images are so near to one another, why do we care so much?

Understandably for many photographers it is the imposing of their own “artistic vision” onto a given scene but I don’t buy into that as an argument. That is not to say that artistic vision and ones personal experiences aren’t reflected in the work they create. That is absolutely true. However as more images are taken of any given place, a point of diminishing returns is reached. As an exercise if we were to look at the tunnel viewpoint within Yosemite Valley and all of the photographs taken from this landing spot over the 100 years since the Parks Service was founded, when would we stop seeing unique variations? If we can assume that these variations do inevitably slow down and may ultimately (potentially already) come to a complete stop with a photograph taken at every point throughout every day throughout every month within a year. If this were to happen, we could compile a record of each one, see all the different focal lengths and shutter speeds imaginable as we flip through them like a slideshow.

With this point of diminishing returns, we can look at the timeline as also having a point in where the images taken are doing far more harm than good. By estimating an average value for all photos taken, and the average environmental impact done by taking those photos, a clear line in the sand could be drawn to provide a point in which from a conservationist perspective photography should be stopped from that area. I’m aware that this is an outlandish notion, and one that will never be put into place. But the questions it outlines I feel are becoming increasingly valid. The notion that we can be either a collector or conservationist is one that despite my own creation I have struggled to grasp. The two do not seem to be mutually exclusive at first. However I feel that over time that perspective will change.

Looking at the animal conservation activities of the mid 1800s we see the same flawed, albeit with good intentioned, logic. It was William Hornaday who as one of the first true preservationists changed how we look at saving the species around us who have often required saving due to our own more selfish acts. As a prominent taxidermist, Hornaday learned in the 1880s that there were fewer than 300 wild buffalo roaming the Great Plains of America. Due to the obscene hunting practices taken by the white settlers crossing the country, their numbers had dwindled fast over the prior decades and he saw this as his last opportunity to preserve the American Buffalo for future generations. To do this he prepared the only way he, and others at the time really knew how. Kill a few more, taxidermy the carcass, and send it off to museums. The thought of restoring life and leaving the natural world was one that didn’t come to Hornaday for another twenty years when he worked with an effort to breed them in captivity and ship them back to Montana.

I believe that we are in a similar position as Hornaday, having relied on old methods of so-called preservation through documentation, rather than true preservation, perhaps the change is coming, however I worry that we may be on the cusp of hurting ourselves further.

Looking at Instagram once again and the why of people taking photos I feel as though it is our own community doing the most damage. Needless to say there are photos being taken of families, of one's self, in front of these viewpoints. These are not the images that I am concerned with. Rather it is the prolific use of professional images being posted to social media that causes a snowball effect. With the accessibility of high quality photographs and camera equipment, the desire to replicate a famous Ansel Adams shot, or even the photographer you admire on social media is growing. More people post these images, leading to more people driving to take them, leading to them being posted, and the cycle repeats.

Despite corporate interests, and our government's willingness to align with them, through climate change, and a National Park who’s name will soon speak to what once was, not what currently is. Alongside tourism, photography, collecting images, and conserving the places we take them; it is at the ground level that change begins. And yet I cannot say with any degree of certainty that what I’ve stated here will matter in the end. I doubt that I will even adhere to many of the thoughts, and as I write this I’m planning to visit another park in the coming weeks. Driving there, polluting, capturing the same images. It’s an addiction, and one that will not only be hard to break on an individual level, but a near impossibility on a global level.

It was John Muir, the true founder of the National Parks System who said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world”. I hope I can learn to have that strand guide me, and support me, rather than pulled out and unravel before my feet.

If you have interest in learning more on William Hornaday and conservation efforts I highly recommend this episode of the 99% Invisible Podcast.