I recently was invited, and privileged, to join a not-so-secret society of published writers and/or photographers to discuss projects, technique, and, among other things, the ominous ruin of art.
Ruin of art? This coming after the announcement that the world’s largest stock image provider, Getty Images, is making a majority of its collection free to be embedded on a variety of internet and social media platforms.
"It is impossible for you to make a living these days, my young friend," a nice, however, pessimistic writer opined. "Too many are taking it up."
Forgive my coarseness, but please, spare me the melodrama. Sure we have cameras that have taken on the appearance of cigarette lighters and oil paintings that are created with filters in software packages from Adobe and Corel, but I fail to see the ruin of art. The constant theme in life and art is change. Technology, methods, the amount of people involved; you get the idea. All this fear does is to block the freedom of expression that creative pursuits allow. Call me crazy, but I’d rather pursue what gives meaning to my life than worry about the devaluation of the photographic process because iPhone users give away their images so they can exclaim, "Mom, I was published!"
Besides, maybe I am a hopeless optimist, but I think it is great that more people are taking up photography. If more people pursue creative outlets I think it really does make the world, to quote every single elementary school teacher I had, "a better place." Does the young punk rocker who picks up a guitar diminish Jimi Hendrix? When a student writes a story does it lessen the impact of Ernest Hemingway? Of course it doesn't, and it may lead to the next great novel. I am fine with that (especially as a Hemingway super-fan).
I am inspired by the writings of John Muir and George Schaller, who eloquently shared their wild experiences and zeal for conservation in numerous publications. Their words touched the conscience of many and led to, among other accolades, the establishment of Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Club (Muir), and over twenty parks and nature preserves around the world for wildlife conservation (Schaller). Am I the only writer to be inspired by their life’s work? If not, should I quit writing on similar topics because “too many are taking it up?”
Spoiler alert: not a chance.
Both Muir and Schaller had to work hard to protect wild lands and have their message heard. Anything worthy of pursuit requires effort on our part. To be intimidated by the mere suggestion of mass human pursuit in personal endeavors is disadvantageous. There are over 7 billion of us on this big blue marble and it would serve us well to accept that others share similar avocations. Let my inspiration beget your inspiration.
I express myself through wilderness exploration and photography. I want to share my passion for the wild with my friends, family, and readers. The wild lands I wish to see preserved or better preserved and the wildlife protected is conveyed through my words and images. I am inspired by heroes who made positive changes in their respective fields, not by those who buy $12,000 lenses and $7,000 camera bodies and claim, dubiously, to be "professionals" on social media. If that were the only requirement for professional photography then Visa and American Express are the world’s largest photography associations. I am, however, inspired by anyone who wants to get out and experience wild lands, protect wild lands, photograph or paint wild lands, and doing all that with a positive attitude. There is room for everyone; it just depends on the angle you fix your vision on.
Ultimately none of this matters. Currently, I am working on an extensive project documenting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the neighboring Coastal Watershed because it is important and personal. This is an area I love, am emotionally attached to, and have actively participated in for most of my life. It is a land many depend on, from economic benefit to spiritual renewal. Over 17 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and most do not understand its complex biodiversity or the conservation threats it continues to experience. Whether from agriculture runoff, salinity changes, or unregulated fracking, the watershed, even with current restoration efforts underway, hangs from a precarious thread. It is a daunting task but it is something I have, and want, to accomplish.
While I understand the market is less conducive to professional photography and nature writing than in years past I am no less excited to share the thumbprints of my experiences with you. Without others we can not foster a love of land and sea. But is the market less conducive to this? Or do we have to be more creative in our approach to sharing experiences and information. The answer is an undoubting “yes” and is applicable to a number of different fields. Regardless of what you choose to accomplish in life it probably will require persistence, creativity, and a touch of confidence. Getty Images accepted that they had to fundamentally change their business model in order to remain relevant in the digital age. The majority of photographers I know only make a portion of their income from the sale of stock images and they too had to change their business model to remain relevant. Much like the species a wildlife photographer studies, we must be willing to adapt; which is no reason to think it is impossible to succeed.
And, in case you were concerned, I do not think art is ruined. Thank you.