Is Half Dome is a joke God played on photographers ? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Is Half Dome is a joke God played on photographers to teach us humility?

I just read an essay by Mark Citret in which he suggests that man and man’s structures are as “natural” as anything else in nature and it started me thinking, as his essays have a tendency to do.

Edward Wesson took photographs of groceries and chemical plants and showed us more than we would see ourselves if we had been there. Moreover, once you see a Weston cabbage you will see more, everytime you look at a cabbage, for the rest of your life.

Ansel Adams took wonderful photographs of landscapes but (with exceptions) usually conveyed 1/10 (a kind estimate) of the visual experience that being there in person would provide to even the most obtuse observer.

Down deep, I think all landscape photographers know that they are failures. There was an old movie called “Hicky and Boggs” with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They played private detectives and the running joke was that they used huge 44 magnum pistols. Everytime they missed the bad guys they would turn to each other and say: “we need to get a bigger gun”. It seems to me that people are packing more and bigger cameras into the wilderness, and coming back with wonderful photographs, compared to other photographs and pitiful abstractions compared the scene that they photographed.

Isn’t it a much higher calling to show our audience that there is beauty everywhere in their everyday lives, then to convey the impression that beauty is reserved for the affluent that have the wealth and leisure to travel to remote “unspoiled” places.

When I go to a Museum and look at an Ansel Adams print, and mentally compaire it to simular vistas that I have actually experienced, I feel like if this is the best, why should I bother to even try?

-- Neal Shields (, December 18, 2001


"Down deep, I think all landscape photographers know that they are failures."

If their objective is to convey exactly what it's like to "be there," yes. But if the picture is meant to portray things that someone may not have seen (or at least not in that way) at the scene, I'm not so sure.

Your question seems to imply that the role of the landscape photographer is simply that of the postcard photographer: a pleasant depiction of impressive scenery that will substitute for "being there." But slides and color panoramas and videotape can do all of those things better than can a black-and-white landscape photo, which means the landscape photographer might be after something deeper and more meaningful than a postcard.

P.S. I agree that it's important to show that there is beauty everywhere. Actually, even Ansel agreed with this: plenty of his images (including many of his most famous ones) were made outside of the national parks. often in very mundane settings. It's probably safe to say that the demands of the buying public (rather than the efforts of Ansel himself) are responsible for the predominance of his Wagnerian wilderness scenes.


-- Micah (, December 18, 2001.

I'm not going to say that all landscape photographers are failures, because failure is entirely relative to an attempted feat or goal, and what a photographer is trying to accomplish is entirely unpredictable. To me, trying to describe the beauty inherent to nature is like trying to describe God in finite detail using the limited means of modern English. I sure as hell can't do it, and I've yet to see someone who can. The best I can do is to photograph the landscape. I do it and I love doing it- I wouldn't have it any other way. Have I ever captured the essence of God and the full impact in a moment of time at a particular place? Not quite. Will I ever? Doubtful. But does that mean that I, as a landscape photographer, am a failure? Not in the least. My goal in photography is to do things to the best of my ability, and I do that nearly every day. I may not be able to create a photograph that, to me, has the same emotional impact on me that actually being there does, but that's not quat I'm trying to do. So I don't sweat it.

-- David Munson (, December 18, 2001.

I guess your motto is "I can't fail if I don't try". It's a wonder you make it out of bed in the morning.

-- Wayne DeWitt (, December 18, 2001.

Hi Neal,

It seems this is the time of year for these philosophical discussions. You have posed an interesting question.

I'm not sure if I agree with your tongue-in-cheek statement; "Down deep, I think all landscape photographers know that they are failures." . . but I think I see what you are getting at. I know from my own experience that I am never completely satisfied with my final image no matter how good or bad it is, but rather than feeling it is, or I am, a failure, I like to look at it as; "next time I'll do better" .

This urge to produce something better than the last image, is what gives me the drive to go out in the early hours of the morning or late in the day, lugging heavy equipment many kilometers across rugged countryside to find that elusive, "best" image.

I take images of the landscape, primarily for myself and secondly for my audience. If I am able to evoke an emotional response in my viewers, that is a bonus, but ultimately my landscape photography is a personal experience.

When I do shoot for an audience, it is to provide, for those less able or less fortunate, a window into what it is like, "out there". I also shoot to educate people about how beautiful these places are, but also how fragile they are as well, and how we must protect what is left before it is too late.

As an aside, I am a Divemaster as well as a photographer and I have taken many tourists out to photograph the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. Some of these tourists, the affluent and the not so affluent, particularly from some of the larger Asian cities, have never even seen the sea until they arrive in Cairns, for their "once-in--lifetime" five day holiday. By showing them and educating them about the beauty of this wonder of the world, I hope that they go back with a better appreciation of nature and conservation. It has always amazed me how this experience changes people and I have had comments about how they never realised how fragile this ecosystem was and that they can now appreciate how we must protect these unique systems. With my landscape images I hope I can have the same effect, and educate those people who are unable to visit these often, difficult to get to places.

But, far from just taking the grand vistas I also look down at my feet, or at the tree trunks or around the rocks, finding the small worlds within worlds, which many pass by without even realising they're there. Just this morning I photographed some stunning seed pods amongst the leaf litter on my own bush property. Certainly the vistas are important, but so are the details .

William Blake wrote;

To see a world in a grain of sand And heaven in a wild flower Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour.

I prefer to photograph the beauty of nature and hopefully inspire people to think about the folly of not protecting these wonderful areas. Others photograph the destruction of nature, heavily logged areas, factories where once stood trees, pollution, etc, etc. and their message is "look at what we've done". Whether groceries and chemical plants are as "natural" as anything else in nature is a debatable point, but for me they're certainly not as beautiful.

I'm sure you'll get some interesting comments.

Kind regards

Peter Brown

-- Peter L Brown (, December 18, 2001.

John Fielder (and others) talks about three scales of landscapes, the microcosm, the intimate landscape (no horizon) and the grand scenic. I think that the first two enjoy every bit the success rate of cabbages and chemical plants... but clearly the grand scenic is tough to capture. On the other hand, if you consider the photograph as a recording of light, not things, there are many grand scenics that capture the majesty of the moment of light... and since we can't all be there to witness every sunrise, sunset and clearing storm, efforts to capture that light are well worth the effort.

-- Glenn C. Kroeger (, December 18, 2001.

Good question Neal. But I think you underestimate cabbage. I love those Weston photos too, but I don't think for a moment that he captured more than 1/10 of beauty and wonder of this fantastic vegetable. That came out sounding kind of funny, but I'm quite serious. It is easy to think that Weston is doing a better job but comparing him to A. Adams is like comparing...well, cabbages to half domes. A cabbage is something you can hold in your hand, nature surrounds you. Although people tend to go to places of high visual interest, the things that make the experience of being in nature what it is are overwhelmingly non-visual. It is the wind, smell, temperature, etc. It should come as no more of a surprise that a lowly photographer can't capture all of nature than it should that Weston photos don't taste good (speculating).

-- Mark Meyer (, December 18, 2001.

Wayne, let's just say that if I take a picture of the sun on the horizon, it is probably a sunset.

-- Neal Shields (, December 18, 2001.

I don't agree that a well executed landscape photograph would provide 1/10 of the visual experience of beeing there. In fact from a purely visual point of view, it can be more satisfying than the actual experience, especially if unique conditions are captured. However the experience of being in a landscape far transcends the visual aspect, and this is what I think is missing in landscape photographs. On the other hand, there isn't much more in the experience of looking at a pepper, than, well, looking at it.

-- Q.-Tuan Luong (, December 18, 2001.

I didn't think photography was about the visual experience of being there anyway...? The photograph can never be a true representation - it's two dimensional; in most of the cases we are talking about it's not in "realistic" colour, we have manipulated it with focal length, viewpoint, film, printing, filters etc. And is half-dome really 14" or whatever tall...? so forget 1/10th - how about 1/500,000th or something In fact it's often much further from the reality of the scene than most of our conditioning allows us to realise.

A better starting point is, perhaps, the emotional experience of being there.

-- Tim Atherton (, December 18, 2001.

Well isn't this just so much fun, To say that landscape photogos know they are failures is just so much rubbish, plain and simple rubbish. So dispensing with that rather rude insult to one type of photographer, lets look at photography in genreal.

Photography is a two dimensional representation in an chemical reaction( OK digital too ) for a breif part of a second( I ignore reciprocity failure, or any failure) as focused by a lense to limit the field of view. Well of course that will not represent the whole experience of a mountain or a leaf. The photo is a microcosm. The mind of the viewer is what really brings a photgraph to life. The famous masters of photography are able to bring to life our imaginations so we can tune into the photo and remember or contrive an experience that has meaning. I do not conjecture that the meaning will be good or bad, but the most popular photos are usually pleasant.

The miniscule moment in time and the limited view of the horizon taht the captured image portrays is tha clue to our mind's eye which is stimulated and creates the rest of the experience by retrieving memory o just letting the imagination contrive the rest of the reality. What is fun about large format is taht more detail is available for the mind to assimilate and then to process and work with. This conveys a higher sense of reality. Clearly a watercolour landscape image painted on paper can please the eye and mind but has less detail. I guess that too would be a failure. I guess too that a portrait photo or painting would be a totoal failure by the first author because the person aws not able to be heard, touched, smelled etc....

So the photo is the key to unlocking the eye of the ind that completes the image. I will go out on a limb and compare it to a fragrant smell that also unlocks the imagination or memory to trigger a response.

The response to a photo is a widely varied as the truth.


-- ED (, December 18, 2001.

Neal: It must be the season that brings all these great thought- provoking posts to our forum. You mention Ansel Adams and his great shots of Half Dome, etc. Thinks of this though...when you go to photograph Half Dome, you have one or two days, you take what lightings conditions nature throws at you, and do the best you can. Ansel lived in the park for years. He was shooting in his own back yard. If the light wasn't right, he could go home and drink coffee until conditions improved. That doesn't take away from his photography, but it sure makes things easier. As for me, I live in the coastal plain of Alabama, where there aren't any hills over a couple of hundred feet and certainly no great vistas stretching for unlimited miles. Yet, I have make some good photographs by concentrating on the small segments. I feel that I have make people look at our area with a new appreciation. I am not a world famous photographer, but my work sells reasonably well at the art shows simply because I work hard to show that our part of the South has a beauty of its own. I would be as lost photographing the Western parks as Ansel was when he tried to photograph the South. As for Weston's pepper series, he got a lot of flack, including some from Ansel Adams, for photographing "vegatables". Have you priced a pepper print lately?

As photographers we can't always capture the overwhelming beauty of great scenes, but we can intrepret and sometimes show things the average person would never notice or think about.


-- Doug Paramore (, December 18, 2001.

Do we photograph a scene or do we create our emotion that we experiance upon viewing a scene. If a viewer of the photograph experiances an emotion ( not necessarily the same emotion as the photographer) then the photograph is a work of art. IMO. I dont know if it was Westons intention in his peppers and shells to express the emotions these images create in me as the viewer, but these are among the most erotic works of art I have ever seen. His nudes to me are representations of the landscape.

Adams has created a body of work that interprets the grandeur of the SW. His later prints have been described as Wagnerian. I would perhaps use Beethovans (th as a better example. Some of the earlier prints aare more reminiscent of the 6th symphony.

Some of us photograph our feelings aroused by the scene before us and not the postcard image.(At least this is what we try to do- and on occassion, succeed.

-- Barry Trabitz (, December 19, 2001.

Apples and oranges. The camera lens can capture a scene with more detail than your eve can ever see. Sharp from corner to corner. Ready to be studied and enjoyed. Your eye sees a very small narrow field directly in front of you. But it can update that information a billion times a minute. Your camera only updates once. God's creation is "beyond finding out" both for your camera, and your eye.

-- Jim Galli (, December 19, 2001.

Yes, at a certain philosophical level landscape images (as do all images) fail. But it is the failures that we cultivate for they push and prod and throw us out of the comfy little rooms that we busily build for ourselves (and are built for us). I'd rather be free and failing in the attempt to look beyond the "real" than caged and surrounded by beauty. Beware! Your assumptions (or is it your audience) are leading you into a trap.

-- John Powers (, December 19, 2001.

"Try again, fail again. Fail better."..........

-- Stephen Vaughan (, December 19, 2001.

I was under the impression that Half Dome was a practical joke God (using a glacier) played on a rather large piece of granite.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, December 19, 2001.

"When I go to a Museum and look at an Ansel Adams print, and mentally compaire it to simular vistas that I have actually experienced." That makes sense, since virtually every Ansel Adams image you'll see in a museum is in black & white. Reality is color.

Tuan said it best in his post, but let me add some of my early morning thoughts:

large format photography at its best, for it's practioners, is to me about spendingthe time really contemplating and being in the moment of contemplation. It is about abstracting out some aspect ofthat experiencethat i can either contemplate again later, or share with another person for them to contemplate what I saw and abstracted out.

Photography is an abstraction, not a recreation of reality. At its best all art is an abstraction that resonates outwards, a photograph is its own reality, an object to be dealt with not to be confused with reality. After all we don't expect "Hamlet" to be an accurate depiction of the Danish royal court at some point in the middle ages, or a Rembrandt portrait to be a four dimensional (height x width x depth x time) depiction of say, a Polish knight or a Dutch burgher -- so why should we expect a photograph to compete with an experience of reality.

How can any photograph compete with the realness of an experience? You are in Yosemite Valley, looking up at Half Dome: the wind is blowing, you hear moving in the trees, you see it in clouds are moving across the sky. There are all of the millions of other things going on, outside of you and inside of you; time is flowing. The photograph sits (or hangs there in front of you in your home or in a gallery. all ofthose other million of things are going on again in a seperate time-space now, you are now looking at a print of Half Dome. Maybe it was made while you were there, maybe it was made at another time by other eyes and hands and experiences, but either way you are no longer contemplating Half Dome itself, you are looking at a frozen instant (or maybe it is made over several minutes and depicts a longer passage of time - but still a particular passage of time,) seen from a particular vantage point, framed a certain way, seen with a certain intent, recorded with a particular media, reproduced a certain way, printed to a certain size, presented in a particular way, seen now by a particular set of eyes --your eyes-- processed in your mind with your own particular set of emotions (I mention this first as I believe very strongly that photography is foremost comprehended in your emotions), intellectual constructs, and imaginings.

"A higher calling"? May be, but you have to make people listen. And that is what Adams was doing with his photography. Saying "look at these places, these places should not be taken for granted, they need to be preserved, set aside, perhaps revered. I agree with you that we would all be better off if we treated all of every day life with such attention.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, December 19, 2001.

Ansel Adams had the good fortune to see Half Dome frequently, in all kinds of conditions. Knowing it intimately was not a problem. Rather, his challenge was to see this beautiful mountain every day and not take it for granite.

I'll be good next year, I promise.

-- Kevin Bourque (, December 19, 2001.

I think Ellis Vener’s answer has helped me most because this really was a question. I didn’t mean to be rude or insult anyone’s work. Obviously “failure” was a poor choice of words. Photography is a hobby for me and one that I don’t spend enough time on. Someday when I retire, maybe. Most of you could drop your camera and accidentally take a better picture than my best work.

What I like about photography as a hobby, is that if forces the photographer to look at things that everyone else’s brain has been trained to ignore. Somewhat recapturing some of the child like wonder that most of us tend to lose as we get older.

I was raised in South Texas, the beauty of which I will defend to the death, but grand vistas aren’t around every corner. On a visit to New Zealand, I shot frame after frame of breathtaking vistas, only to get some of the most boring prints that I have ever seen. That pretty much got me out of the grand vista business.

What Ellis says about abstracting something out rather than trying to capture the whole may be what I needed to hear.

-- Neal Shields (, December 19, 2001.

I think strong photographs are the result of an intimate visual dialogue beteen the artist and subject. The photograph is the material product of this interchange, and if it can be characterized as "beautiful" in and of itself, then I think it has succeeded, regardless of how it compares to the original "scene".

-- Chris Jordan (, December 19, 2001.

I think Neal is right on the money. The almost complete fixation photographers and photo editors have on the cliché is beyond pathetic and represents the complete failure of imagination. I mean does the world really need one more picture of halfdoom, the Tetons, or the Grand Canyon rim with the obligatory gnarled juniper tree in the foreground? All these people rush off to phtoograph the landscape and end up taking the same worn out “icon photos” that have been done a million times before. In short, a lot of landscpae photography is nothing more than pretty scenery realistically captured in good light ….ZZZZZZZZZZZZ. It replicates looking out a window rather than into a dreamy painting. But each to his own.

The really talented photographers can achive visual impact in their Backyards and don’t need to rely on “perfect” and pristine landscapes, or exotic places. If you can’t take good shots in the local park, what makes you think you’ll do better by lugging the gear into the unspoiled backcountry? Do you want a record, or art?

Think about this: The pristine Sierra Club calander shot of a place untouched by mankind DOES NOT represent how most view the landscape; not the way most people encounter. So why are so few photographers interested in documenting the landscape from a human interaction standpoint - how people usually see it? Doesn’t this approach have potential?

-- Karl Barsworth (, December 19, 2001.

I guess if being a landscape photographer is being a "failure", I hope one day I will be as big a "failure" as Adams.

-- Pat Kearns (, December 20, 2001.

"I think strong photographs are the result of an intimate visual dialogue beteen the artist and subject."

Nice language, but what does it mean? Landscapes don't respond to my attempts to start much less continue a dialog. They seem rather impassive to attempts to communicate with them. All I end up doing is having a dialog with myself, making choices of where I want to point the camera, which lens, filter, film, framing, timing (now or later, and if so, when?) and exposure to use in an attempt to find a visual equivalent for my internal intellectual & emotional machinations.

I "listen to the trees" as John Sexton calls the process, but I don't engage in a dialog with them. I don't think they care whether or not I pull out a camera or not.

Photographs, paintings, sculptures, plays, poems, architecture, drawings, music, trees, glaciers, mountains, solar eclipses, prose,etc. -- good, bad, or indifferently executed --are just metaphors for somehing else. It is when I am compelled to start looking beyond the surface and start getting curious about what else is going on, that's when, for me, photographs (et. al.), whether someone else or I made the thing I'm responding to, start getting interesting, which is i guess my criteria of good.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, December 20, 2001.

Neal's reference to his New Zealand trip and the resultant "boring" vistas strikes brings up an interesting point. When I visit new territory, I have that childlike awe that comes about from being in a new environment. Sometimes we have to get over that initial "infatuation" and look beyond our feelings as we assess the attritutes of the surrounding landscape. For me, LF photography makes me study my environment as I try to determine what it is that provokes those feelings of awe. I think that most of us can trust our gut instincts. However, it's being able to quantify and qualify those emotions that makes the difference between a photograph that is personally fulfilling versus one that is mediocre.

Happy holidays to all and best wishes for a productive (and fulfilling!) 2002!

-- Matt Long (, December 20, 2001.

Ansel Adams reportedly took over 40,000 photographs. Somewhere between 10 and 40 of these are recognized masterpieces. We do not say that he was a failure because his batting average was less than 1/1,000.

-- Dean Jackson (, December 28, 2001.

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