Avoiding Icons… and Discovering Your Own

Photography is, in its essence, an acquisitive art form. It is a creative process, to be sure, but it is also an extractive one. Images are like visual trophies, something to bring home from the hunt. I don’t mean to disparage that notion – that visceral sense of accomplishment and pride is part of photography’s irresistible charm. But too often we set out with a camera to take someone else’s picture – to copy a picture we have seen somewhere before. Too often, photographers – including myself, by the way – go chasing after icons: whether it is grizzlies catching salmon at Brooks Falls (think Tom Mangelson), or the winter sunset on Horsetail Falls in Yosemite (Galen Rowell). Legions of photographers have made the pilgrimage to copy those pictures, to make them their own – not with any expectation of doing them better, I suspect, but simply to possess them. The results may be pleasing enough, but rarely give you the exhilaration of real creativity.

Case in point: I set out this weekend to shoot the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park near my home. I try and go every year around this time, simply because it is so stunningly beautiful – a Paradise in Green.  Invariably I take the legendary Hall of Mosses trail because it has the iconic moss-draped trees that you see in virtually every picture of the park.  The weather wasn’t terribly cooperative (you really want overcast here, not sun) but I dutifully hiked in and got the big trees. The irony is that those iconic pictures leave me utterly cold. That scene has been done to death, and I frankly couldn’t think of a way to shoot it that hasn’t been done better.

At the end of the day, the pictures I’m most pleased with were taken along the road getting there and back, not at the Hoh itself. They are images of trees that haver probably never been photographed before, along a lakeshore background of natural, painterly color. It was the kind of situation that reminds me why I love what I do: a chance to wander, look and take chances – and yes, to discover something for myself.

So can we all agree to declare a moratorium on re-shooting the same old, familiar pictures in the same old places?  Let’s stop chasing icons.. .and make some of our own. Your pictures will be better, editors will love you….and maybe you’ll remember, like me, why you loved photography in the first place.