Picture: Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
This month I was fortunate to spend a week traveling through Death Valley as the guest of some friends who were leading a photo workshop. We arrived at Zabriskie Point on the first morning, which is one of Death Valley’s prime photographic postcard locations. Zabriskie Point is a true icon, in that it has become one of the ‘must-have’ shots for photographers traveling through the park. It was somewhat disheartening for our small group to crest the hill only to find a large workshop with two dozen other photographers lined up on the hill below and in front of the paved viewpoint. Their presence in front of everyone else made it difficult for anyone who arrived later, or those with mobility issues who were limited to shooting from the paved viewpoint to enjoy or photograph the scene with any sense of unobstructed natural beauty.
A friend remarked to me this week that nature and landscape photography has become like a competitive sport. I found that to be both an incredibly appropriate and sad assessment when discussing those many “must have” icon shots. Seeing this group, who set themselves up to arrive early and get the best location in front of everyone else, seemed to epitomize that competitive urge to ‘get the shot’.
So, “Why do photographers flock to the icons?” With a vast and increasing number of talented photographers out there, the continued hunt for the ‘trophy’ shot seems to draw more and more people to these often limited-sized locations like moths to a flame.
Without passing judgment, as I’ve stood at these icons myself many a time, I sometimes picture us photographers as the great white animal hunters. We seem to all want to show off our own trophy wall, with the heads of bears, boars, deer, elk, buffalo, antelope, guinea pigs, hamsters, and gerbil’s, forever staring out into space with their glazed-over eyes, wall mounted to a wooden trophy plaque. But rather than animals, it’s our shots of Zabriskie Point, or the Racetrack in Death Valley, Tunnel View in Yosemite, Snake River and the Oxbow Bend at the Grand Tetons, and Delicate and Mesa Arches in Utah, to name but a few.
So how do I handle icon shots? If it’s my first time to a location often I’ll visit and shoot the icon, if not just to have my own version of it -but as much to get the need or desire to have that shot out of my system. There’s also the fact that the shots of these places sell, which ironically further compounds and exacerbates the Icon Dilemma, and thereby creating the urge for more and more photographers to get the same shot for themselves.
I walked away that morning with my own decent shot of Zabriskie Point. It’s a nice shot, and some might even call it dramatic. But for myself, there’s absolutely nothing unique or special about it, save for the fact that it nicely recorded my experience and vision of a special place, albeit a place that hundreds of thousands, if not a million or more people and photographers have stood before me.
Picture: Photographers lined up at sunrise, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California
As a professional photographer, I’ve always found the greatest reward was walking away from an icon shot with something I consider unique; not something that’s become everyday common. This morning was truly one of those mornings where, when life hands you lemons…, make lemonade. There may be more than million shots of Zabriskie Point out there, but I’m certain there are far fewer which accurately depict the experience of what it’s like to photograph these days at any of the great American landscape icon locations.
But once you’ve gotten that icon shot out of your system, it’s at that point, rather than experiencing a twisted mass of photographic humanity, one which sometimes brings out some of the worst inconsiderate and most selfish behavior of certain photographers, you can turn your attention to experience the real beauty of the place you’re at. After one or two “been there, done that” times at an iconic location, I’ll often just avoid the spot altogether, preferring to seek out my own personal visions and experience. There really is something far more special about photography when you’re not having to worry about getting someplace first, or whether there will even be room for your tripod legs to enjoin the tangled web.
I’d love to hear some of your thoughts; how do you feel about shooting the icons? Is there a dilemma for you between the desire to photograph a true iconic location, yet not wanting to be part of that herd mentality?
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