Landscape Photography: Inspiration, Preservation, Conservation and the Environmental Movement

Long waves of blue lupine glistened in the golden hour light as I slowly made my way up Flower Dome. This was a photography oriented Sierra Club Outings trip and none of us were in any particular hurry to arrive at our destination to watch the day slowly to slip back into the darkness of night.

Waves of Lupine and Light

There was plenty of time for conversation along the way and I used this opportunity to check in with Roger about how the trip was going. Roger, a senior trip leader, was mentoring an aspiring trip leader who created this outing as a photography oriented multi-day backpack. Roger showed great enthusiasm about the landscape and spoke mainly about its immense variety, variety that met us at every turn of the trail on this seven day backpack—forested valleys of virgin trees, tall sub-alpine grassy meadows, fields of boulders stretching out to the distant horizon, steep hillsides of mountain huckleberries and stunted trees, Lyman Glacier leading up and over Spider Gap, mountain lakes, passes with views reaching out in every direction, and flower meadows. Roger did not dwell much on the iconic spots of beauty we experienced along the way, Image Lake and Flower Dome, giving them no more emphasis that all the other parts of the ecosystems along our journey. A long unbroken silence ensued and Roger eventually confided that he was concerned about the type of people that his men-tee and landscape photographer was attracting to the trip. Were these photographers more interested in using this trip as a way to get beautiful iconic shots of small slices of this vast Glacier Peak Wilderness Area rather than experiencing the wilderness in its entirety with its immense variety of landscapes? And were these landscape photographers at all interested in learning about current environmental challenges for the region?

Image Lake at Sunrise

This trip was six years ago which seems like almost an eternity in the evolution of digital landscape photography. Much has changed since then and most landscape photographers are now acutely aware of how their role in publishing location specific images on social media can have adverse effects on the landscape. Even a image of a seldom visited site can inspire thousands and sometimes upwards to a million people to think about retracing our steps so they too can take an image of nature at the pinnacle of its beauty. This burning desire to go to these places will still be there regardless if the specific location is shared or not. As landscape photographers, however, it is still difficult for most of us to reconcile the potential negative consequences of sharing an image with our desire to inspire others to develop the same appreciation and love for the environment that got us into photography in the first place. We want it both ways, to inspire others and also to conserve and protect not only these precious environments where beauty is at its pinnacle but also to be good stewards of the earth in general. But is it possible to have it both ways?

I never question the authenticity of a landscape photographer’s belief that they hope to inspire others through their images to participate in the same love, sense of wonder and veneration for nature that they feel while photographing beautiful landscapes. I believe the landscape photographer’s feelings are honest and genuine. But I think it is important for myself and other landscape photographers to recognize that not everyone feels that this kind of inspiration best serves the goals of conservation and the broader environmental movement and may actually be counter productive. The focus of much of landscape photography today is on the sublime beauty of very small parts of vastly larger ecosystems. This is also the case even when we move beyond well known icons such as Delicate Arch, Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lakes, and Tunnel View at Yosemite. Landscape photographers gravitate toward places where nature’s beauty soars toward its pinnacle of beauty regardless whether these places are iconic or not so well known. Even this pinnacle of beauty will not be high enough for the landscape photographer who aspires to go higher still and through composition, photographic technique and artful processing creates a romanticized vision of the landscape . There is no doubt that many of these images inspire others, but do they really support the goals of conservation and the environmental movement that are more focused on protecting larger ecosystems? We will explore this further in the paragraphs that follow.

American Conservation Movement Early Beginnings

To understand the roots of the American Conservation Movement we first must go back to the predominant view toward nature at the time of the founding of this nation. For this underpinning we need to look no further than this biblical passage:

” Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Genesis 1:28”

This of course provides a scriptural basis for the concept of Manifest Destiny. It is our destiny to lay claim to and settle the American wilderness. During this time no one thought much about the consequences of their actions toward the environment. When one looked out west, America contained vast swaths of seemingly unlimited wilderness available settlement. In his now famous thesis, The Frontier in American History published in 1893 (1), Fredrick Jackson Turner established the settlement of the American Frontier moving further and further west as a stream of events that shaped the psyche of the American People and made them unique-their love of freedom of the frontier, distaste for authority, self reliance and independence—a distinctive willingness to seemingly forever reinvent themselves at places where new settlements met a wilderness frontier. It is somewhat ironic that at the opening of his thesis Tuner announces that at the close of the nineteenth century and with the push of settlements out to the west coast, there is now no new American frontier. While this was true in a geographic sense, the idea of the American frontier even today is internalized in the American psyche as is evident in the attitudes of many that there are vast swaths of unspoiled land out there and no one needs to worry much about developing new land as there is an endless supply. We see this even among photographers who suggest there are an endless supply of wilderness locations of potentially iconic value just waiting to be discovered. At least in Washington State based upon my long history of wilderness travel I know that this is clearly not the case, and yet these attitudes persist–all we have to do is move to the next frontier.

Mind Wandering in the Desert
As much as I love the Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley, it hardly feels like wilderness to me when I see thousands of foot prints going in chaotic directions everywhere I look. Photoshop has made it easy to erase some of the negative aspects of the experience, but it does effect how I feel about the place.

Beacons of Light
Zabriske Point is only about an hour and a half from Las Vegas and its proximity shows. Death Valley is the largest National Park in the continental US and is also one of the most loosely regulated. Social trails crisscross this area every way one can imagine and new ones are sprouting up all the time. Down below in the valley scores of workshops head out onto the mud playa and visible damage is everywhere. How much longer can this be sustained? Are we furthering the cause of conservation by joining this stampede visiting these areas?

With the rapid industrialization of America in the Nineteenth Century and some of its negative consequences, a group of writers known as the American Transcendentalists, chief among the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, began offering a substantially different view of nature. The transcendentalists held that people through nature could directly experience the spiritual realm without any assistance from organized religion. The path of transcending the ordinary material world was through contemplation and direct experience of nature, both within oneself and in the natural world outside of oneself.

In his essay Nature Emerson describe the experience of transcendence this way:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

If nature provides the window into transcendence and living a more fulfilling life, does it make sense any longer to conquer and subdue nature? After all, a conquered and subdued nature is no longer available to support personal and spiritual development.

Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny and in the name of God-” The Last Resort by the Eagles Don Henley/Glen Fry

Denali National Park
If the American Frontier exists anywhere any longer it is here in Alaska, but I must admit with the steady procession of tourist buses headed toward the Denali back country and countless cameras dangling out the bus windows, when I was there a few years ago it hardly felt like a frontier to me.

Emerson met a much younger Thoreau at Harvard and encouraged him to explore transcendentalism and start writing a journal. Eventually Emerson granted Thoreau permission to build a small cabin on his land at Walden Pond where Thoreau conducted a two year experiment living in harmony with nature. The written account of this experience in his book titled Walden Pond provided a modern day source text or scripture, for an emerging environmental movement. For more on Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement see my blog post Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the negative consequences of rapid development were becoming obvious to many Americans-soil erosion due to excessive grazing and poor farming practices, deforestation, and polluted air. This spawned a growing back to nature movement and John Muir tapped into this sentiment becoming a spokesperson and advocate of an emerging environmental movement. Muir advocated preserving wilderness areas for their own sake, and much of this effort was focused on landscapes with breath taking scenery, the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountains. Muir started the Sierra Club as an organization to help promote preserving wilderness lands and the club eventually recruited Ansel Adams to be be their resident photographer to assist in this cause. Adams’s images focused on the sublime beauty of the region bringing to many artistically crafted Black and White images of such iconic places as the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras.

From Preservation to Conservation

During the early part of the Twentieth Century a battle emerged between preservation and conservation. Although preservation and conservation may seem like they are addressing the same thing, protecting the environment, there is a key difference. The US Forest Service describes the difference this way: ” Conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, while preservation is associated with the protection of landscapes” Conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use. Conservation focuses on the sustainable use of natural resources and therefore accepts such commercial uses as forestry, creation of water reservoirs, and even eco-tourism as long as these uses are consistent with the sustaining the natural landscape as a natural resource.

Evening has Come to Pass
John Muir said of the Mount Rainier Wildflowers “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I have ever beheld in all of my mountain-top wanderings.” I could not agree with him more!

These two perspectives came into conflict during the later part of Muir’s life with the proposed damning of the Hetch Hetchy River in the Yosemite National Park. The City of San Francisco claimed it needed the water for the city water supply and also falsely claimed that access to this source of water would have prevented the San Francisco Fire. Muir’s, nemesis, conservationist Gifford Pinoget, argued that damning the river to create a water supply was in the best interest of society. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester of the United States argued that conservation of natural resources was best achieved through management of the wilderness for the greatest public good. With Muir saying “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man” the two view points could not be further apart.

Hetch Hetchy Before and After Photos–the before image reminds me a bit of the Yosemite Valley which managed to dodge a similar fate.

In the end In the end Gifford’s point of view won out, and Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913. But Muir succeeded in the elevating awareness of the consequences of Gifford’s perspective on the environment making it easier to win similar battles in the future including one which would have dammed the Grand Canyon.

From Conservation to Environmentalism

As America and the World for that matter approached the twenty first century and beyond, awareness increased of significant life threatening environmental problems such as destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, air pollution, acid rain, and contamination of the oceans . This helped move the focus of attention beyond local, state, and even national borders. With the recognition of these problems that transcend borders, the environmental movement began broadening its focus beyond just preserving wilderness areas with aesthetic value to taking steps needed to confront these much larger issues. Many began seeing the global environment itself as interrelated organism where the actions of humans were the primary cause of major imbalances. Many started to question whether it was even possible to manage resources in a manner that would keep the environment in balance and began advocating more drastic measures to head off the destruction of the planet (3).

Conservationism, properly understood, employs traditional values of environmental stewardship. A good steward takes care of what has been entrusted to him or her, thereby leaving an inheritance for the next generation. In the past many thought this stewardship could be accomplished in a manner that also protects and even promotes economic interests. As the focused shifted from Conservation to Environmentalism many began to doubt this. A divisive political landscape emerged where some political leaders turned a blind eye to environmental threats primarily because addressing these threats would have an adverse effect on the economy and would also move us closer to what they feared was creeping globalism and loss of national identity. This helps explain part of the reason behind the irrational denial of the reality of global warming by many American citizens.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset
Upon my recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area I was astounded at the beauty and immensity of the Marin Headlands Natural Areas just across the bridge from the populated city. Are not these wide open spaces just as important to us as distant wilderness areas?

Preservation, Conservation, Environmentalism and My Personal Journey

As a landscape photographer each of these trends in the evolution of the environmental movement continues to effect me. I no longer seek to conquer the next frontier in landscape photography with daring treks to locations known to no other, in Washington State these locations no longer exist as has been the case for quite some time now. My frontiers have moved inward and have more to do with bringing to the photograph my highly personalized experience of the scene. I am still a big proponent of preserving all remaining road-less places commonly thought of as wilderness areas. Designated wilderness areas represent only 2 percent of the continental America landmass and are far too precious to be squandered for any economic gain. The drumbeat of the economy will not skip a beat if we keep these areas commercial free zones, shutting out potential mining and drilling interests. But I now recognize that many of these areas are wilderness in name only with commercial establishments common around their periphery, and through Eco-tourism including photography workshops throngs of people visit these places every day. The idealized concept of the wilderness, a kind of pristine and untrammeled Eden, exists primarily in photographs from professional and serious amateur landscape photographers, not in reality.

Garden in Paradise
This near far focus stacked image is actually fairly close to what a person would see from a low perspective, but am I trying to create the impression of a new found Eden with this image?
St. Helens First Light
With the eruption of St. Helens Nature has taken us from Ashes back to a kind of Eden, but are we overly romanticizing this event in our countless images with similar perspectives taken from roughly the same area Johnson Ridge?

I have also matured in my perspective about conservation and sustainable use of the land. We cannot only focus on preserving areas of sublime natural beauty if this comes at the expense of loosening protections of surrounding areas that provide critical habitat to birds and wildlife. Commercial harvesting of timber in our national forests need not have adverse effects on the environment and may even help control the spread of diseases and provide important fire breaks. Ecosystems extend way beyond National Parks and Wilderness Areas and some lead right up to the door highly populated metropolitan areas. Conservation of these ecosystems and protection of biodiversity out of necessity will need to take into consideration societal and commercial uses of this land. With my increasing awareness of environmentalism and that I live on a planet where all ecosystems are interconnected, I now also realize that although I may act locally I also need to think globally. We cannot solve such problems as global warming and contamination of our oceans without reaching out across national borders. Environmentalism has also taught me that ultimately I may need to make sacrifices to ensure the health of the planet, reducing activities with a heavy carbon footprint such as consumption of meat and use of cars to frequently travel to far away wilderness areas.

Rainier Rising Over Nisqually Delta
This wildlife refuge borders the highly populated Greater Seattle Tacoma area, and hardly meets the definition of wilderness, but from a conservation perspective this is one of the most valuable partials of land around for providing essential habitat to birds, fish, and wildlife.

Back to our original question–Is it possible for landscape artists to inspire others through their creations to be good stewards of the environment? First let us look at this from a historical perspective of how one Landscape Painter, Albert Bierstadt, and one Landscape Photographer, Ansel Adams, had a profound impact through their ability to inspire to also shape the perceptions of the public on the environment in a positive way. Although Bierstadt is not a photographer, in his time painting was the primary visual method of artistically representing the landscape and his approach continues to have a major influence on landscape photographers in the present day.

Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West (2)

The Last of the Buffalo by Albert Interstate 1888

In the above image, “The Last of the Buffalo” the legendary artist Albert Bierstadt portrays a dramatic confrontation of a Native American Plains Indian in a with a large buffalo. In this confrontation both the buffalo and Indian are going to die. The scene itself is heavily romanticized bearing little resemblance to anything real. The landscape itself is a composite of several scenes, with mountains, canyons positioned unusually close to the wide open prairie. Although there is a seemingly endless supply of live buffalo in the distance, old buffalo skulls and fresh carcasses are in the foreground and still other animals look at the confrontation with unusual interest. The image is not only a blend of different scenes but also a time blend of an earlier more Eden like wilderness with the end of the innocence in the decisive moment of the confrontation.

This was Bierstadt’s last painting completed toward the end of the Nineteenth Century close to the time when Turner announced that the frontier in American history had ended. By this time Bierstadt was acutely aware that the once vast heards of buffalo were nearing extinction and that most Native American tribes had already moved to distant reservations of largely undesirable land. Bierstadt intended this painting to not only raise awareness of the blight of the Buffalo and the need for conservation practices to protect remaining animals, but also to raise awareness of how the conquering of the American Frontier Wilderness displaced and brought great harm to indigenous populations.

The painting itself which was very large measuring 6 by 10 feet sold for $50,000, a record price for any piece of American art work in the 19th Century. The Last of the Buffalo in a immediate sense reflects Biersdadt’s reaction to the poaching of the Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. The painting had enormous impact in raising awareness of the near extermination of the Buffalo with influence reaching to the top levels of the US Government and a short time later new measures were put into place to manage and preserve remaining Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park.

Ansel Adams : Landscape Photographer and Conservationist Influencer Extraordinaire

Even today, no other landscape photographer is more associated with efforts to preserve wilderness areas than Ansel Adams. And yet is is difficult to point to any single image as the one that carried the message forward of the need to conserve and protect wilderness. Adams’s ability to capture the beautiful mystique of the wilderness, an emotional feeling that transcends the realism of the physical space that was also accurately represented in his images, is without parallel. When seeing his images, who would not want to preserve the last remnants of America’s beautiful wild places?

Mount Williamson 1944-thisis one of Adams’s most famous images and example of his capturing the “mystique of nature”. Adams took this photograph during his voluntary assignment to photograph life at the internment camp located at Manzamar for Japanese Americans during the second world war. The boulders in the foreground beautifully echo the shape of the distant peaks. Adams was convinced that the beauty of the Eastern Sierra provided the internees some respite from their captivity, but one could also view the field of large boulders as a metaphor for the challenges of living a life in prison when one committed no crime.

Adams’s role in the environmental movement started at an early age, when the Sierra Club took notice of his photos and recruited him as guide and their official photographer. Not long after that Adams was offered a board of directors position which he held from 1934 to 1971. The Sierra Club used Adam’s Images from his 1934 book titled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail to help promote the creation of a new national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada.

The book Sierra Nevada The John Muir Trail influenced both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea. Ickes showed Roosevelt Adams’s book and Roosevelt was so smitten with the beauty of Kings Canyon he kept the book that Adams had originally give to Ickes. When the Roosevelt administration asked the Sierra Club to help support what they envisioned as a road-less and non-commercialized Kings Canyon National Park, the Sierra Club immediately tapped Adams to go to the United States Congress to help promote the idea. Although the there was a fierce debate in congress, the bill passed and the park was formally created in 1940. Imagine this today, the executive branch of government and the Sierra Club joining forces in the cause of conservation!

Half Dome Reflection
I am forever grateful to John Muir, Ansel Adams, and others for helping preserve this National Park Treasure

Ansel Adams is an excellent example of a landscape photographer who could inspire others to support conservation causes through the sublime beauty of his landscape images alone. These images did not overtly support conservation causes or document environmental issues. His ability to inspire, motivate and encourage others to aid the cause of conservation rested solely on the respect he earned through his realistic representation of the natural world in the creation of his emotionally charged black and white images. In this role he is an excellent example for other landscape photographers to use their influence to support the higher cause of preserving and protecting the natural environment.

Lower Yosemite Falls
I can only imagine the sense of wonder that trailblazers John Muir and Ansel Adams felt with their first encounters of the Yosemite Valley

Reflections on Bierstand and Adams and a Changing Social Environment

These are just two examples of visual artists who had a profound effect on shaping the American perception of environmental issues. There are countless others both in the past and who are currently active, but I chose to concentrate on these two because of their special historical significance. Through their ability to inspire others with their creations they also helped shape the political landscape resulting in changes the helped preserve and protect the environment. It can be argued that both individuals created idealized representations of the landscape. Their focus was primarily on places where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, not giving much attention to the more mundane aspects of nature. But it is the more mundane nature that is more typical of larger ecosystems that extend far beyond areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty. This might not have been much of a concern during the time period time of these two artists. But as we move forward to the current age where social media dominates as the primary way images are communicated much has changed.

Before and After Pictures of California Poppy Fields during the 2019 Super Bloom
Photo Credit worldsokayesthiker

Captivating images of places that are inherently beautiful (even with just a cell phone snapshot) can draw thousands of people to a site in a very short period of time. We saw this recently during the 2019 super bloom in Southern California where in a short period of time social trails emerged where there were none before due to a rapid influx of social media tourists-tourists who find out about a picture/selfie worthy spot of extreme beauty through posts made on social media. In this new social media reality many Landscape Photographers are reconsidering how they share images of beautiful locations. The initial reaction was to stop geotagging or providing specific location descriptions of where the images were taken. Latter developments included public shaming of landscape photographers who violated leave no trace rules especially those who wandered off trail into flower fields. Although I believe both of these reactions, along with including reminders in posts about leave no trace principles, have had some impact in slowing down the pace of environmental damage caused by social media tourists, it has not stopped the damage that continues to creep further and further forward.

Future Steps

What is needed at this juncture in our history I believe is for landscape and nature photographers is to reevaluate what they take images of to begin with, not just focusing on the small areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, but to include in our portfolios a more balanced representation of the larger environment in which these areas of often idealized beauty are located. In short we need to get people excited about protecting and preserving nature in the broader sense, the environmental ecosystem/s, not just specific locations whether geotaged or not. For this we will also need to inspire people to develop a reverence for nature, and share more about our experience of nature and less about specific locations. In the remainder of this article I will discuss these steps in greater detail that landscape photographers can take to help shift the focus of attention and accomplish this goal.

Step One: Create and Post More Balanced Portfolios

Rather than put all your energy into creating a single epic image from a location, aim instead to create a balanced portfolio of images that better represent the variety of scenery in the environment you visited including its various ecosystems. In the pre-social media era this used to be more of the norm. Images were shared in collections often using slide shows, online galleries, or even heaven forbid albums with actual paper prints. It was common to see in these portfolios not only images of specific sites of iconic beauty (weather well known or not so well known) such as high mountain lakes and waterfalls, but also images of the macro world, intimate scenes, geological features, trees and the forest floor-in other words all aspects of the environment one has visited. Social media has reduced our attention span to less than a second per image so most photographers shifted their focus to just putting their most immediately impactful (not necessarily their best) image forward. For some photographers this also meant taking fewer risks and going to specific locations that have a proven track record of yielding popular images on social media sites. We all know some of the sites I am talking about: Mt. Rainier’s Little Tipsoo Lake, Delicate Arch, Oxbow Bend in the Tetons and numerous others that appear all to much in social media posts. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as these posts draw even people to these over visited tiny sections of our National and State Parks–this has got to stop and each of us can help. It will not stop through merely withholding location data-people are far too smart for that. As we publish more balanced portfolios and people get exited about the larger environment and variety of scenery, flora fauna, and geology–we will help stop the stampede and inspire others love for all of nature, not just an overly idealized wilderness Eden that Jackson Turner informs us long ago vanished with the settling of the American Frontier.

Creating more balanced portfolios may at first seem contrary to a highly curated approach to releasing nothing but the best images, but this need not be the case. I have seen excellent portfolios consisting of between three and five images. The portfolio taken as a whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts and some of the images within the portfolio such as excellent macro and intimate scene images may actually be rescued from social media obscurity as they achieve better context through their association with a strong balanced portfolio. Providing a backstory behind all of the images along with some natural history will also help establish needed context. Individual images can have their own stories and descriptions ideally presented as mini chapters of the larger story of nature and the environment. Portfolios where appropriate can also include images that are more documentary, highlighting before and after changes to the environment resulting from either good or bad behavior. The recent trend in including stories with multiple images on Instagram and Facebook is a step in the right direction, but many of these posts at this juncture still seem incredibly shallow to me. We need to take this to the next level of actual portfolio posts of images that can be viewed in more depth for longer periods of time than a quickly disappearing story.

Providing context to images will have the added benefit of helping arrest the sense of burnout many of us feel looking large collections of nothing but once in a life time epic images. After awhile we suffer from epic beauty overload. We appreciate images with epic sunsets, rainbows, and flowers at peak bloom in part because these are rare occurrences. But when we see it all of the time it is no longer rare. The viewer will only be able to participate in the emotions and experience of a rare event if the portfolio also has images that include some of the more mundane aspects of nature. These are absolutely necessary for the unfolding of the portfolios story. Consider it a creative challenge to present some of these more mundane aspects of nature in a creative light that will draw the viewer in. This is far more a meaningful test of ones photographic and artistic skill set that taking a compelling image of what everyone already knows is one of earth’s most beautiful places.

Step 2: Inspire Others to Develop a Reverence for Nature

With Thoreau’s publishing of Walden at the time the settlement of the American Frontier was reaching its end, Thoreau introduced to us a fresh vision of nature-not as a wilderness at the frontier waiting to be conquered (or in modern times something to be checked off of ones bucket list), but rather as the source of our personal and spiritual transformation. Thoreau himself found his spiritual fulfillment not in some faraway place of iconic beauty, but rather along the humble shores of Walden Pond only a few miles from his original hoe in Concord Massachusetts. This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization, can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now. Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered. For more on Thoreau and Walden Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

Walden Pond Rivisted
The journey to Walden pond for each person will be different, but all of us will share in a common vision of transcendence.  This pond for me is my Walden Pond close to where I live in Washington State USA.    I believe for me that it evokes some of the same mood of  the transcendent that Thoreau felt at the shore of the actual Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. 

In my encounters with Nature and Landscape Photographers I have found that most of them quietly share this Thoreauvian vision of nature as a source for spiritual fulfillment. For most of us Nature and Landscape Photographers Nature is our sanctuary. What better way to inspire others to share in this vision of Nature than taking the example from Thoreau and visiting Nature in close by places? What better way to shift the focus overly visited spots to nature in all of her manifestations than use our photographic and artistic skill set to find and unleash the often hidden beauty of nature in close by and often overlooked places? The beauty of these places in Thoreau’s words may not “rise to the level of grandeur”, but the beauty is there nevertheless. Once others see this beauty in our images, they will not want to retrace our footsteps to the same location but will be inspired to find nature’s subtle beauty everywhere, including in their own back yards.

Bleeding Hearts of the Forest
This is a beautiful scene taken in a quite ordinary second growth forest across the street from my house. I doubt hoards of people will be visiting this spot any time soon!

Step 3: Share More of Your Experience of Nature and Less About Specific Locations

Rising from the Clouds
Numerous people asked me for the exact location of this image and I politely ignored their requests. A simple Mt. Baker I thought was sufficient for an image that had more to do with a combination of unusual weather conditions along with my own state of mind.

I have found that when I visit a National or State Park and let my own intuition guide me to what excites me about a place, it usually has more to do with the journey of movement through nature and the landscape and less about specific locations. I will call this the personal experience of nature. Getting this experience and associated emotional reactions into an image we share is no small task. It is relatively easy to go directly to known spots along the way the have high image potential, but our strongest images may not be there. Our strongest images will be those that integrate our internal experience of the place, call it our inner landscape, and the outer world of nature. Many of these images will not be at the obvious places of beauty. Creating and sharing our personal experience is also what will make our images more unique and better aligned to our personal vision. For more on personal vision see my blog post: Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self. There will be less emphasis on merely documenting a scene, however beautiful that scene may be, and more emphasis on creating art that although faithful to the material world leads to the transcendent and encourages others to embark on similar personal journeys through nature. For more on the transcendent in photography see my post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact. For more on sources of inspiration including internal sources see my blog post Sources of Inspiration.


Fast forward six years and I am on a return journey to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, once again with my friends from the Sierra Club. We are doing the 50 miles Spider Gap Buck Creek Pass Loop. Much has changed since my last trip six years ago. I notice there are about three times as many people doing this strenuous loop trip. What brought all these people here? Did I help contribute to the popularity of this loop trip through my social media posts? If hoards of people found this arduous multi-day backing trip deep into the heart of Washington’s most remote Wilderness Area is there anything left unexplored? Is there any longer a wilderness frontier for Landscape Photographers willing to go the extra mile or even the extra 20 miles?

Spyder Gap and Upper Lyman Lakes Basin

As I descend from Spyder Gap down a glacier toward the Upper Lyman Lakse basin I find myself attracted to middle of the day scenes transformed by distant clouds softening the light and changes in my own attitude. I am no longer just going for the iconic shot of Image Lake in epic conditions and am using my intuition and own thought process to help guide how I make my images. But I still feel the pull of social media shaping my expectations. Clearly I have a long way to go in this photographic journey.

Glacier Peak Gentium Flowers

I think back on earlier threats to this wilderness environment. Kennecott Copper had a legacy mining claim and planned to build a huge open pit copper mine on miners ridge that would have forever marred the epic view that we now take for granted from Image Lake. Thanks to the efforts of countless environmentalists and a land exchange this threat was ultimately put to bed. I think back when I was in my early twenties and made my first journey to Image Lake when I saw a huge group of long haired nature loving young people, scores of tents were pitched at the shore, and evidence of lake shore trampling everywhere. The condition of the lake is actually much better now. Are the selfie happy Instagram influencers any worse than this bunch of characters from my past?

Image Lake Viewpoint
I do not think this scene would be the same with a large open pit copper mine in the distance.

The long arm of history informs us that it is a mistake to assume that everything that is important and significant is happening right now. The current challenges may seem immense but there is opportunity to make a big difference just as there was opportunity at the time when Turner announced that Americas Wilderness Frontier is no more. It was not destiny that drove Albert Bierstadt and Ansel Adams to choose to use their artistry and influence to advance the causes of conservation. Although both were influenced by people who came before them, they both had free will and exercised that free will for the betterment of the environment. They made positive choices. As nature and Landscape photographers we too have free will. Will we use this free will to rise to the occasion? Will we use the artistry and craft of photography to inspire others to love and protect nature everywhere-not just in those spots where her beauty reigns supreme, but in all of her manifestations, some close to home, even out our back door? If we accept Thoreau’s message, that nature points to the divine, then our willingness to accept this challenge may also be the key keeping this pathway open for the salvation of the world and all of its inhabitants both human and non human, every living thing, even the spirits in our material world—keeping a pathway open to sources of inspiration for our children’s children and more generations still to come.

“None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild”. John Muir

“In Wildness is Preservation of the World” Thoreau

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2019

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(1) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the American Frontier in History, 1893

(2) Peter H. Hassrick, Albert Bierstadt Wintness to a Changing West, 2018

(3) Liz Sonneborn, The Environmental Movement, 2007

Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self

One character trait that I have found in Landscape Photographers is that they are always searching.  They are searching around the next bend for a better perspective for their subject, be it a mountain, lake, or field of wildflowers.  They are also working with previously unexplored ways (to them at least) of creating images: black and white photography, abstracts, new processing techniques and macros.  They begin exploring the use of a more telephoto perspective, perhaps a tilt/shift, or an extreme wide angle lens.  Landscape photographers will research for hours looking for a unique destinations or composition finds.  All of this searching and exploration typically occurs against a background of constantly evolving sense of self and who the photographer is as a person. But the landscape photographer may be barely aware the he/she is changing as a person.

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Denali Polychrome River Delta & in Monochrome (120 mm) 


The Photographers Path

I have read through a large number of bios of landscape photographers (including my own) and there seems to be a common thread of what brought them to landscape photography that goes something like this.  “Early on I started out my photographic journey with a desire to share the incredible beauty I was witnessing during my hikes, backpacks and adventures in the great out of doors.  I purchased my first camera and started taking and sharing images.  Although these images were not that good people reacted favorably to them which helped encourage me to develop my photographic skills which are still evolving to this day.”  There is often little mention in these bios of any inward journey or even personal struggles that helped shape who the photographer is today.


Secrets of the Forest (Poo Poo Point, but such a scene could at a forest anywhere 470 mm)


Conformity in Photography

Recently I have read numerous posts and essays from accomplished landscape photographers who are concerned that we are headed toward a visual conformity of images and styles in the field of landscape photography.  These posts often place the blame on the social media and how it acts to influence the behavior of the photographer causing people to gravitate to the same iconic sites and compositions that seem to be popular on the internet.  The antidote to all of this is typically to distance oneself from the influence of the social media, stop shooting iconic sites, start exploring out of the way previously undiscovered places, and to put down the expansive wide angle lens and take up different approaches to photography including abstracts, black and white, macros, etc.

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Wild Geranium Sunrise at Oxbow Bend (Iconic yes but I believe this is unique 23mm)


I struggle with this characterization of events that have led to the current conformity of visual content and styles in landscape photography and also the recommended steps to separate oneself from the herd.  Finding ones photographic vision is intrinsically related to a lifelong journey of discovery of ones authentic self.  If one is firmly planted on this inward journey one can faithfully deliver ones photographic vision at either an iconic site or at one known to no other.  What makes one vision unique is not the physical location but the integration of one’s inward journey  with the physical landscape.  I am constantly amazed that  just when I thought I have seen everything when it comes to an iconic landscape someone will come along with a very unique vision for that place.  What I typically notice with such photographs is a tremendous sense of enthusiasm for the iconic site and a story where the photographer shares some of their inner journey, often emotionally based, that helped shape the image.


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Spiral (35mm)


There is little doubt that changing ones shooting style, lets say trying black and white or macros, can help develop the photographers skill set and may even remove blocks in the way of bringing his/her vision to fruition.  But these steps should not be mistaken for the vision itself.  There are plenty of black and white images that lack vision just as there are hundreds of images of obscure and unknown places that slip into mediocrity.  A transition to a different photographic style and shooting locations also makes sense as a marketing strategy to better differentiate ones product.  But vision is ultimately connected with integration of ones inner landscape with the the outer landscape, not  a particular kind of photography or location.



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Foggy Trail (Mt. Si the most traveled trail in King County looking quite different! 16mm)

Social Media

To me social media has received a bad rap in all of this.  If anything the social media is neutral and merely a reflection of the photographic community.  There is no doubt that blindly chasing the social media in order to achieve greater popularity will cause people to gravitate to iconic sites, image cliches, excessive use of wide angle compositions, and eye candy sunrises and sunsets.  But the social media itself is not responsible for this behavior.  Each photographer must choose how to convey his/her photographic vision.  It is not a personal vision if one is merely recreating compositions and processing methods of those who came before them.

I would go as far as to say that any photographer that has rose to popularity in the past five years and perhaps going back even as far as ten years owes his/her rise in no small measure to being discovered by the social media.  With perhaps a few exceptions they would be all virtual unknowns if it were not for the ability of social media to bring them visibility.  Even as the photographer gets discovered by the social media, many will then attempt to distance themselves from what brought them to fame and this is typically done in critical discussions of the social media on you guessed it the social media itself!  It is understandable, however, that photographers would eventually take this step of limiting the effects of social media, sometimes even going into a social media celibacy. The path of discovering ones true creative potential, ones authentic self, may demand just this.

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Prickly Pear Macro (105mm Macro)

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Jade Vine Abstract (105mm Macro)


The Authentic Self

That we can discover ourselves suggests that there is more to us than we know and we are mostly a mystery to ourselves. We do not know “all we are.”   There is a movement in evolution of American history and culture called Transcendentalism that will help us in the understanding of the Authentic Self.   Depth psychology pioneered by Carl Jung can also help us in understanding concepts that will shed some light on what it means to discover one’s Authentic Self.

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Indian Beach Dreamtime Stepping Stones: Jung thought dreams provided important insight into the workings of the unconscious mind (19mm)



A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of people and nature.  A common theme especially in the writings of Thoreau is going back to nature to find one’s self in other words finding ones own Waldon Pond!  Adherents believe that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, and they have faith that people are at their best when truly self reliant and independent.  Key figures in the American transcendentalist movement include Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  Adherents believe that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with as little attention and deference to past masters as possible.   Transcendentalists have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community can form. Even with this necessary individuality, transcendentalists also believe that all people possess a piece of the Oversoul or (God). Because the Over-soul is one, this unites all people as one being.

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Spirit of our Ancestors (A different view of iconic Spirit Falls) (16mm)

Now you are probably asking what has this to do with Landscape Photography?  Finding ones self will involve becoming more self reliant and limiting the influence of others and the social media on ones own creative development.  Finding ones self may also involve a more deliberate return to nature and meeting nature on its own terms without preconceived notions for an image.

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self.  There is something which you can do better than another.  Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.  Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

—-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance



Rivers Bend Eagle Cap Wilderness (I have never seen this photographed before 16mm)

Depth Psychology and Carl Jung

The self in Jungian Psychology is an archtype signifying the unification of consciousness and unconsciousness in a person, and representing the psyche as a whole.  The Self is realized as the product of individuation which in his view is the process of integrating one’s personality.  Jung, like the Transcendentalists considered that from birth every individual has an original sense of wholeness – of the Self – but the development of a separate ego-consciousness diminishes the sense of Self.   This process of ego-differentiation is necessary providing the skills one needs to make a living and survive in society and is the task of about the first half of one’s life-course, though Jungians also saw psychic health as depending on a periodic return to the sense of Self, something facilitated by the use of myths, initiation ceremonies, and rites of passage.  The task for the second half of life (may be earlier for artists) has more to do with individuation and the integration of unconscious (personal and collective) and conscious elements in order to achieve the health of the pysche as a whole.  This involves confronting ones own shadow or parts of one self that one does not want to acknowledge as one progresses to self knowledge.

Now again you are probably  wondering even more what does this have to do with landscape photography?  Finding ones vision in photography will require a lifelong path of self discovery and the road ahead will be difficult to follow and ultimately can be only followed by the self reliant individual alone.  Just as new landscapes are discovered, the individual will discover previously hidden parts of him/herself that will set a new course for the journey.  Great works of art are often created not so much with the completion of this journey but during the emotionally charged struggles along the way as one resists coming to terms with all elements of who one is as a person  This is the journey of the artist and what Joseph Campbell referred to as the hero’s journey.

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Misty Morning at Yellowstone Falls (Iconic yes but definitely a different mood!  Iconic sites can have symbolic value in the collective consciousness  62mm)

Authentic Self Revisited

Finding ones authentic self for most of us is not a journey that will end anytime soon.  Just when I think I know myself I will find out I do not know myself hardly at at all.  And that is how it should be.  It is a process of self discovery coinciding with our photographic journey.  Ones emotions rising out of the process of self discovery will merge with and become part of ones feelings about the landscape and together find their way into the artists photographic creations.  If you stay in tune to this struggle and journey it will shape your vision as photographer allowing you to distinguish yourself  both shooting the iconic subject and your favorite haunts that no one else knows about but you!

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Sounds of Silence (A seldom photographed spot along the Kendal  Snowshoe Trail 18mm)

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Wilderness Gone Viral

Are we loving our wilderness and natural areas to death?  Social media is creating an increased awareness among photographers, backpackers and hikers of new opportunities to visit beautiful locations in our National Parks, Forests and Wilderness Areas.  Thanks to Facebook and Instagram this information now travels like wild fire, especially when someone posts a beautiful image of a previously not so well known location.  Some of these images come from professional photographers, but they also come from people who have developed the knack for taking awesome images with their cell phones including selfies against a background of nature’s infinite splendor and beauty.


Franklin Falls Love and Death

Above is an image from a couple years back of Franklin Falls. During the year I took this image I showed up at these Falls a couple of times and in both instances there was absolutely no one there, just the sound of the water, otherwise silence and solitude. No such luck anymore! This landmark close to Washington State’s  I-90 has become the latest hot-spot to attract throngs of visitors including some groups approaching fifty or more people. I have seen a few images this year where there were literally over a hundred people around the Falls, one was recently published by the Seattle Times. Now it is easy to understand why this is so, this place is absolutely beautiful, especially in Winter. Everyone has an equal right to go there. Social media increased awareness of the site, now everyone wants to go and shoot that precious selfie with the ice covered falls in the background!


A multitude of people at Rattlesnake Ledge on a Sunday Afternoon

All of this raises an interesting dilemma for photographers. Do I let people know precisely where an image was taken, or should I just be general and not share important details? For the most part I have chosen to share the detail and am likely at least partially responsible for throngs of people loving certain sites to death.  Anytime I have an image that goes viral, I notice a definite uptick in people going to that very same location.  Now of course I am not that only one that contributes to this and there are photographers with far more influence than me who also contribute to making sites go viral.  But as others go to the same site, they encourage still others to go, and so on and so forth as droves of people head to a trending site.   The sites we are talking about, however, are not only online but also occupy physical space in the great outdoors!


Gold Creek Pond (I have seen about a twofold increase in visitors this year)

What is a photographer like me to do?  Should I stop  posting pictures on Facebook so at least I do not help nurture too much awareness of a beautiful landscape?  For the most part I have chosen to not do this and here is the reason why.  Awareness is one of the best ways to protect a beautiful landscape.   The most dedicated and passionate supporters of our natural areas are people who visit them on a regular basis.  So in one sense the more people that visit a natural area (National Parks, other Public Lands, and even Private Lands), the better.  But although awareness is one of the best ways to protect a beautiful landscape, it is also potentially the cause of lowering the quality of the wilderness experience.

Some of you may ask: “Erwin-should not we keep our secret spots private and not let others know about them?”  In part I agree with this and I have a few places that I keep secret also.  But if you are going to post images of these private spots on social media I doubt they will be secret for long.  People can use an image as a basis to search and make a correlation with google earth to find out the exact spot.  This search process is similar to face recognition except in is site recognition.  The cat almost always finds its way out of the bag!  So if you truly want to keep it secret, do not post an image on Facebook or Instagram at all!  One of the only ways to currently capture images that have not been posted too much already on social media is to go to difficult to access areas.  Many well known photographers are doing just that in order to keep themselves in the social media limelight.  It is just my opinion, however, that the ultimate test of an accomplished photographer is not getting images where few have gone before, but rather their ability through creative photographic and processing techniques to make even the seemingly mundane and familiar look beautiful.  Nowhere is this ability more needed than with raising awareness of the need to protect public lands because if the truth be known much of the vast expanse of lands that are public are not considered very attractive or interesting at all. Photographers can help in this regard by presenting even these areas in the most favorable light.

It is encouraging to know that we can have a high level of awareness of a landscape and still control the number of visitors if a government agency reduces the number of visitors into an area through the adoption of a permit system.  This is what has been done for backpacking at both the Enchantment Lakes and also Mt. Rainier National Park.  Both of these areas are considered environmentally sensitive and simply cannot absorb the impact of an uncontrolled number of backpackers.


Larches in the Enchanted Mist (Enchantment Lakes Core Area)

Mt. Rainier National Park has done a great job over several decades in not only reducing any further environmental impact caused by uncontrolled visitation, but has actually manged to restore meadows and shorelines in many parts of the back country.


Bench Lake Early Morning (Mt. Rainier National Park)

Although a great job has been done in reducing environmental harm at both the Enchantments and Mt. Rainier there are still problems.  The Enchantments allows an unlimited number of through hikers that make the arduous trek in through Aasgard Pass and out through the Snow Lake Entrance.  While anyone making this trek in a single day deserves recognition for this accomplishment, there are just too many people doing it. When I was at the Enchantments last year there was literally a steady procession of people all day long hiking through the enchantment lakes core area.  At some point, unfortunately, a permit will also need to be required for the through hike in order to maintain a good quality wilderness experience and minimize damage to the environment. When I was at Mt. Rainier to take the above image of Bench Lake there was a group of young men camped right out at the lake shore which is strictly forbidden.  Why were they there?– to get that precious image of the feet hanging out through the tent door looking out to the lake and Mt. Rainier!  When we confronted them they pleaded ignorance, but I think they knew exactly what they were doing wrong and should receive the maximum fine of $5,000 and 6 months in jail.  I might be a little extreme here!

Personally I think everyone in our nation has the right to visit our national parks, forests, and wilderness areas.  Any kind of allocation scheme for providing permits needs to treat everyone fairly.  It my opinion it is elitist to think that one person has more of a right to visit an area than another, including photographers.  If the right to enter into a wilderness landscape is restricted through a permit process, there needs to be alternatives for the scores of people that need to have contact with natural areas on a regular basis.  This means that some areas cannot be subject to the permit system.  Mt. Rainier has adopted this policy in the areas around Paradise, Sunrise, and Tipsoo Lakes.  Access is only limited by the number of parking places for vehicles.  Areas that are not environmentally sensitive likely should also not be restricted.

Social Media has also increased awareness of beautiful sites where access to the site is over private property.  Such is the case with Washington’s Spirit Falls close to the Columbia Gorge.


Water Spirits in the Forest (Spirit Falls)

The White Salmon River is a designated national scenic river and therefore has certain protections.  To the best of my knowledge property owners do not own the river itself. When hundreds of people began making the journey to the falls, spurred by Facebook and Instagram photos, private property owners clamped down and cut off access to the primary route to the falls.  Personally I do not feel that even a private property owner has the right to prohibit access to such a beautiful site, and it will be interesting to see how this one plays out in the future.

Landscape photographers when conducting photographic workshops can also contribute on a larger scale to a lower quality wilderness experience for others.  I have personally witnessed this at locations such as the Columbia Gorge and Zion National Park where large groups of photographers participating in workshops commandeer the best viewing areas for themselves.  At a recent trip to Elowah Falls there were so many unattended tripods in front of my viewing area where I set up my tripod earlier I had to just give up.  There were also non-photographers in this area that wanted desperately to take in the same scene but could not do so.  Also at Mt. Rainier I have seen large areas of freshly trampled flowers soon after a workshop vacated the area.


Elowah Falls

Most national parks and forests closely regulate conducting workshops within their borders but there is loose enforcement and even when photographers get permits they do not always adhere to the rules and regulations.  Many do not even bother with permits, and associated requirements for first-aid certifications and insurance.  Personally I do not think there is enough wilderness bandwidth to accommodate the huge number of photographers on the workshop bandwagon and there will need to be some kind of lottery system to allocate permits for certain areas along with better enforcement of current rules and regulations.

Our nation is entering into a challenging time where some elected officials would like to make our National Parks and Public Lands available for commercial use including drilling for oil.  Advocacy and direct political involvement, although critically important, are not the only ways to help protect and preserve our wild areas.  Increasing public awareness of our wild areas exerts a powerful influence even if there is a potential downsides of people loving a place to death.  As more people visit our wild areas it will become increasingly important to share knowledge through social media of good environmental stewardship and there will also likely need to be an expansion of the permit system.  Environmental stewardship is key and I will discuss this in a future blog post.  Thanks everyone for reading this blog entry and let me know your thoughts and concerns along with your honest feedback!