On my drive home from Corona del Mar earlier this week I listened to an NPR broadcast with Alain de Botton about the value of art as therapy. As author of the study he was promoting the idea that art should have a therapeutic value but over the years the art establishment, the guardians of art, have changed the idea of art to be so subjective, so elusive, and so without defined meaning that art has become whatever the viewer wants to see in it.
Anyway, the discussion digressed and wandered into the territory of why people insist on seeing the original artwork, sometimes paying a premium to museums for the privilege, when seeing a good reproduction in a book or print will give them the same satisfaction, visually at least. An interesting comparison was made with regard to books and music. You would not insist on hearing only the original of Beethoven's 5th (even if you could, which you can't) nor would you only listen to it live. I have at least 3 recordings of his 5th symphony and have yet to hear it live. I doubt anyone feels they can only really hear Beethoven if they attend a live concert. The same with books, I think it's safe to say that anyone would achieve the same amount of pleasure by reading a 20th century copy of Shakespeare's Henry V without having to hold the original folios.
All the while I'm listening to this I'm thinking of how it relates to taking and owning those iconic shots we all gravitate to. For the tourist, perhaps a well produced postcard of Mesa Arch at sunrise will do. But for the photographer, what is it about bagging the big game of scenic icons?
I can only answer for myself. To a great extent it's a matter of doing it; of applying my skill level against what has been set as a standard. By standard I mean those top 10 images of [insert iconic scene here]. There is some sense of accomplishment in bagging an icon at 5am. It's totally personal, I don't expect to sell any of my Mesa Arch sunrise images, I expect most people to yawn when they see (oh, god) another Mesa Arch at sunrise picture… But that's okay. I have hundreds of interesting photos from that trip, the Mesa Arch photos are a small minority of the pictures I made while in Canyonlands. I would severely regret not taking the opportunity to grab the icon while it was in reach. And, as a photographer, I had to grab that icon while bathed in its iconic light, at literally the crack of dawn, and again literally, accompanied by 15 or so other pilgrims.
Then there's visiting the place where someone like Ansel Adams stood and seeing first hand the places he photographed; and this is not something you can get by buying a postcard in the gift shop. By being there you feel the texture of the place, the smells, the wind, the bite of an early morning, the desire for more coffee. There is nothing like that in a postcard or picture book.
And, it's fun.
Unfortunately, the internet has shown everyone, and I mean everyone, the beauty of these spots and now they all want to see them and, for better or worse, jostle with me for position in the early morning to photograph them for their own collection of icons. It's The Tragedy of the Commons once more.
Keywords: Alain de Botton, Canyonlands, Mesa Arch, Utah, icons, originals, photographing, photographing icons, photography
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