The Earth is shrinking again. It is the kind of thing that gives landscape photographers nightmares. Pick a spot, as remote as your imagination allows, pick a hostile environment, pick someplace dangerous. Pick Mount Erebus, an active volcano on Antarctica, pick its very rim which overlooks a permanent lake of fire. Now you’re really out there, you might think, far from civilization, cut off from the world in a way that modern citizens cannot even conceive. But don’t check your iPhone. If you do you’ll find that you are in a local WiFi hotspot. You can upload your Instagram images right then and there, post to your Facebook page, and send a text to coworkers and friends.
Ansel Adams, who did most of his best work in the 1930s and 1940s, says that he photographed less and less as he became more active in the Sierra Club and in the printing of older images. But a simple graph suggests a more likely possibility. When Adams made his iconic images Yosemite Valley had 30,000 visitors a year. In the 1950s that number would skyrocket until today you have a ludicrous three and four million visitors a year. The should hire cowboys to bring them in in herds. How can you photograph a landscape–to take the landscape seriously rather than something ironic–when your tripod is in danger of being bumped by the click-clicking hordes? How can you feel anything genuine?
You can’t be Ansel Adams anymore, anywhere on Earth. You probably can’t even be Timothy O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan worked on some of the western geologic surveys after the Civil War. Unlike others, he responded to the landscape in a strongly aesthetic way. (Adams, in fact, was a key early champion of O’Sullivan’s work.) While he wasn’t the first man to see these scenes–all were inhabited by indians and had been for eons–and while he he wasn’t the first “white man” to see these scenes, he was one of the first, if not the first, to photograph these places. It was wide open, from a landscape photographer’s point of view. The entire West was his Yosemite.
But there are no new Yosemites to be discovered anymore.