Over the years I have struggled immensely with what the value and purpose of my photography should be. The simple road would be to create pretty or trendy pictures that appealed to the masses. Marketing savvy would be paramount to skill, technique or vision along this route. Money, fame, adoration, at least among your social network, would all be relatively easy to obtain.
The other road is desolate, harsh, lonely and far more difficult. It involves sacrificing a part of yourself that you never ever recover. When you create from your heart, soul and mind a piece of you dies and in turn lives on in your work. Solace is achieved through the satisfaction of being true to oneself and through a higher purpose.
When I moved to Colorado in 1998 and began photographing the landscape my purpose documentary. I wanted to preserve my experiences and share them with others. Over time this evolved into the desire to create images of pristine and beautiful landscapes. I traveled to many of the same locations that the famous photographers of prior generations had. Unfortunately I was always disappointed. The places that they had photographed no longer existed, at least not as they did in the images. Man had left his mark and changed these places forever.
Two of the most apparent changes were roads with their signs and telephone poles with their lines stretching across the sky. Vapor trails from jet airplanes were another problem but I gave up trying to work around them very quickly. With the advances of digital photography and programs like Photoshop I was able to remove some of the troubling elements and signs of man from the images. The pretty pictures were popular but I always felt that they were a lie. What had become of the landscape and these great locations was deeply troubling to me.
In 2011 I once again set out to create images that captured the beauty of the American West. One of first places that I visited was Taos, NM. The are countless images of the San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos by the likes of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston as well as artists like Georgia O’Keeffe. There has been several changes to the church and the surroundings since those images were created. Most of the changes I found objectionable to images that I wanted to create.
I found myself forced to use tight cropping and heavy shadows to hide or exclude what is in reality the truth of the location. If you were to travel to the church you would have a hard time seeing what is in these images unless you looked through a lens. There are just to many distractions that take away from the place. I began to ask myself if there was value in hiding the truth to create a pretty picture or was it harmful.
On a few subsequent trips to New Mexico I visited a few ruins. These places were built by people that had no electricity, machinery or steel tools. They were built entirely by hand from natural materials that were gathered locally. One Pueblo had returned to the earth from which it had come. Only from an overlook could you see what appeared like lines of dirt. These were where the adobe walls once stood and had melted back into ground. The only sign of man was broken pieces of pottery and chips of stone. The ancient people that lived here left little trace.
Chaco canyon was another place that I visited. The structures here were far more elaborate and made of stone. It was truly a remarkable place. Once again the had of man was everywhere. Every time I composed an image there was a road, a sign, a piece of trash or a car in it. People had lived in the canyon for century’s and left nothing but sticks, stones and pieces of pottery behind. Now metal, plastic and paper litter the area.
One of the first really troubling things that I discovered was the amount of vandalism that had occurred to the rock walls and Petroglyphs. This turned out to be very common in the places that I visited in New Mexico and Utah. The Petroglyphs, such as this one of a bear hunt near Moab, were often riddled with pock marks from bullets and graffiti. Most of the graffiti was of some idiot writing his or her name in an act of conquest.
After this same scenario repeated itself over and over everywhere I went, I questioned the validity of hiding the truth in order to create the pretty picture. For awhile I had to abandon landscape photography altogether. I spent the better part of a year photographing people and street scenes. It made me take a closer look at what we are leaving behind. Unlike the people that lived in Chaco and the other ruined Pueblos, the things that we leave behind don’t melt into the earth. Most of these things come from far off places and are not made of natural materials.
These issues ate at me for over a year. Early this year I attempted to once again create beautiful landscape images with little if any sign of man. Immediately this was a problem. After spending so much time photographing in an urban setting I found myself drawn to man’s relationship with and impact on the land. I decided to photograph the telephone poles, the roads, the buildings and junk that is left behind. No longer do I feel the need to hide the truth in order to create the pretty picture.
My creative efforts and images now have a higher purpose. My desire is for the viewer to decide what is or isn’t beautiful. I want people to stop and ask themselves; Is this the best we can do? or is there a better way? Just maybe it will inspire someone to come up with a better way that has less impact on the environment for us and future generations.
One of the reasons this matters is the impact waste has on all of us. The use of raw materials and energy leaves its mark on the landscape and effects the environment. Waste makes this impact far worse than it needs to be. All energy production has an impact, some of it more than others.
A few months ago I began the Random Colorado project where I will travel to 25 random locations in Colorado. The idea is to learn a little about each of these locations and look at man’s relationship with the land and impact on the environment. The project is a mix of conservation photography, history and on occasion true and honest beauty. So far I have visited 14 of the 25 locations. Without question we have had far more impact on the land since the late 1800′s than all the people that came before us. This problem is only going to get worse as the population increases and consumption goes up unless we find a better way.
Pretty pictures aren’t often the truth or reality. They are lies allowing people to live with delusion that what they do doesn’t have an impact. Why are we so drawn to the beautiful, pristine landscape image when we do so much to destroy it in reality? I don’t have the answer and I’m not sure anyone does. I do hope that my images will cause people to pause and ask themselves; Is this the best we can do?
What are we leaving behind and what is the cost?