A New Way of Looking at Nature Photography

Tue Feb 02 2016


There is an old philosophical question to test our perceptions of reality that asks, “"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I was thinking of this question recently when a discussion erupted online about the meaning of nature photography.

There are varying definitions of nature photography, some from organizations with an interest in photography to federal agencies, such as the National Park Service. Most commonly, that definition is limited to an exploration of landscapes, wildlife and plant life as they are found in their natural environment. Some definitions will explicitly exclude people from the definition, such as the case of Denali National Park in reference to its Professional Photographer Permit program. There, the park excludes "[p]hotos that focus on people, man-made objects, or human activity" from its definition of nature photography.

For many years, that was my approach to nature photography. I shunned the notion of including human-made elements or even humans themselves in my images. This was a stunning reversal of my origins in photography, which was more photojournalistic in nature as I documented life aboard two Navy ships. But when I embraced nature photography, I did so whole-heartedly, with a purist’s drive to keep people out of the image.

Even as I developed more professionally in my photography, and came to realize the value of putting the human element in the image for purposes of enhancing stock sales, I still stuck to that purist view of nature photography as landscapes, plants, and animals in their natural environment.

But living in Alaska changed all of that.

In the world of Anthropology, you cannot study humans in isolation from their environment, or vice versa. While broadly speaking it is the study of the human experience, one of its sub disciplines, cultural anthropology, explores who people live and interact with the world around them.

My early forays into Alaska photography continued where I had begun, examining the landscape, both big and small, and the many critters I encountered. But as I spent more time away from the typical photo locations, I came to increasingly understand the connection between that land and the people who relied on it. Whether the Nunamiut in the Brooks Range in their constant search for caribou in the fall and winter, or the Yup’ik and Denai’ina Athabascan people in their search for salmon in the summer, the story of the land includes a rich history of the people who live in it.

But it is not merely the Alaska Native people and their continuing a traditional way of life, but we all maintain a connection to the natural world. The question at the opening of this piece could take an additional step, “If we could hear it, how would it make us feel?” Stock photos with people in them don’t sell well just because we can imagine ourselves in the scene with a surrogate model in place, they sell because we are reminded of our connection to the natural world.

While some may consider the value of nature an abstract thing, it is not abstract to those of us who have spent time hiking, canoeing, skiing, kayaking, or sleeping in it. Our fond memories of time in the wild stay with us either because of how it made us feel, or the company we had with us. Either way, value comes from the connection. There is inherent value also in maintaining natural biodiversity, in preserving ecosystems so that they can support the many links in the circle of life.

And so, nature photography can explore all of those things in the absence of a human presence, it is also disingenuous to suggest that nature photography can exist in a vacuum without any interaction with the people who depend on it.

a nunamiut elder searches for caribou
a hiker overlooks a lake from high up