Thursday, December 17, 2009
seeing beauty versus photographing it
I live in a beautiful place. There is certainly some ugliness -- mostly in the form of strip-mines, but also a lot of litter on the road sides -- but overall this is a beautiful place. Hills and mountains close in around the narrow valleys and hollers, where communities form like Christmas lights strung along the creeks and streams, and narrow ribbons of asphalt thread among the houses.
Every day, as I drive to and from work, or go out to run errands and go shopping, I see beautiful, inspiring scenes that make my heart sing with joy. Yet when I contemplate photographing this beauty I run up against rarely discussed, yet nonetheless existing "rules" about what makes a beautiful photograph.
For example, electrical wires, light poles, transformers, and other such things are not suppose to "mar" a beautiful photograph of nature. Yet, almost every view I have of the mountains, forest and sky has such things within it. Over the last several years, as I've done more and more photography, I've thought a lot about this.
The human eye in daily life, looks past things like wires and poles, street lights and traffic, and is inspired by the natural landscape beyond them. In our minds we edit out these things, they do not distract us from the view. But the literal eye of the camera locks these trappings of modern industrial society into view, creating images that do not conform to social conventions of natural beauty.
Some man-made objects are acceptable in nature photographs -- the older the better! Old barns, old fences (at least wooden ones), old houses, antique cars (not your old rusted clunker on cinder blocks), old wagons, old tools hand tools (not old rusting mining equipment!). But the kinds of man-made structures (untidy utility poles, trailers and double-wides, pick-up trucks, gas stations and Dollar General Stores) that often end up in one's view around here don't qualify as acceptable backdrops or foregrounds for nature photography.
The biggest problem with this disparity between people's daily experience of nature, and social standards for natural beauty as represented by nature photography, is that it can lead to degradation of the environment. Places like this are often viewed by those with the power to make such decisions as not beautiful or scenic enough to be worth saving.
Between 1976 and 1982 as I did the research for my masters thesis and doctoral dissertation in the nearby mountains of southwest Virginia, I observed a distressing scenario unfold. The United States Forest Service was developing the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and had selected the theme "Rural Americana" for their development. To achieve the idyllic rural vistas that the Forest Service desired for tourists, they decided it was necessary to obliterate several existing rural communities, such as Fairwood, condemning property through eminent domain and bull-dozing homes and outbuildings. Real rural Americans were not "rural" enough for the Forest Service.
It is this type of mindset that also leads decision-makers to say, "what's one more strip-mine?" in eastern Kentucky? How can it matter to anyone whether yet another mountain top gets denuded of forest and turned into rubble. But it does matter.
I live in a beautiful place -- for now.