I was just looking at an online gallery that showed the astonishing beauty of Iceland from above, in aerial photos. And while the landscape is and always will be beautiful, the photos failed to instill this instant desire in me that I often feel when I see photos of a beautiful place: to go there and see that with my own eyes. Why?
Because I’ve seen it all before. Iceland has become a photographic “hot spot” in recent years, and it seems that there’s a couple of photos that just everyone has to make. And if you can afford to rent a Cessna for the aerial tour of the island, you’re going to come home with those exact images that I saw in this gallery.
Maybe it’s just me, or perhaps “us photographers” who spend a lot of attention to photography every day, but the amount of time that it takes until I’m getting bored with a certain photographic subject or scene has decreased a lot. Everyone can be a photographer nowadays* – put into the right place at the right time by tour and workshop operators to make “the trophy shot” – and then share the result on social media.
You go there, point the camera that way, make the photo, post it online, get the cheers from a crowd that seems to almost mechanically react with “liking frenzy” – to photos they’ve seen before! Because this time it’s their friend John who made the photo, but last time it was Moe. That’s different!
It takes something away from photography. I like the thrill of exploration and the challenge of photography as a technical art form, the persistence it may require to get a photo that does justice to a place you found and hold dearly.
But there’s no discovery in trophy photography, there’s no exploration, no “working the scene” to get the best possible angle. The challenge to one’s photographic eye and vision is limited, just like the demand for photographic skills. Because it’s all been done before by others for you (“got EXIF?”). The only thing that’s missing at iconic locations are pre-installed tripod legs, maybe with a little instruction placard “24mm, f/11, polarizer.” :-}
I think it’s really, really hard to make an iconic photo location “yours” through a photo that is not just different, but also works. Photographic design and composition is and always will be a bit of a mystery, and tastes differ of course, but I think that through the sheer amount of trophy photos that we’re seeing from iconic locations, we’re getting programmed to see and appreciate those places in a certain and only way. “That’s how you make that photo. Boom!”
“A photographer’s main instrument is his eyes. Strange as it may seem, many photographers choose to use the eyes of another photographer, past or present, instead of their own. Those photographers are blind.” (Manuel Alvarez Bravo)
I found my photographic voice in intimate landscapes from anonymous and nondescript places when I still lived in Germany – in part simply for lack of “iconic” locations, no doubt. But now that I’ve seen so many photos of the iconic places that I’ve never been to, I don’t feel compelled to even go there.
I rather try and keep finding my own photographs in all the non-iconic places. There will be less cheering for them without doubt, but the photos are truly mine, and that makes me a whole lot happier.
*) At least for a while – I see quite some people who lose interest in photography after a year or two, maybe three. And well… I used to think that’s a pity more often in the past.