Is It Good?

In Rants and Sermons by David30 Comments

By now there’s a good chance you’ve heard about the 4 young men from High On Life, a British Columbian clothing company, that have been wheeling their way around the USA in a bright blue bus, and, as it turns out, wreaking some havoc on the National Parks in the name of self-promotion and fun. Their latest escapade, and the one for which the internet is calling them out, and for which it looks like forgiveness from the masses is a long way out, was a willful departure from the path at the prismatic springs in Yellowstone, and into some very delicate ecosystems. This departure happened in the face of several well-placed signs warning in no uncertain terms of the havoc this kind of stupidity can cause. All for what? Some soon-forgotten video like the one they made as they drove across flooded salt-flats and leaving tracks that would out-last the videos by a long-shot? Or the selfies they took as they rappelled over the edges of arches, an activity very clearly contra-indicated by signs? And now Federal charges are pending. And sponsors are dropping out. And they’re a cautionary tale on my blog. That itself is a bad sign.

These young men obviously wanted to do some good. For their brand, certainly. And for others who might long for a little excitement in their lives. That impact is largely gone now. Their brand will be lucky to survive. They have lost their integrity and their audience, but I suspect they lost their way some time ago if they’re this willing to overlook the impact of their foolishness. I could give a sh*t about their brand, but the ignorant destruction of beautiful things gets my ire up.

As photographers I suspect most of us ask, “Is it good?” about our work? And by this we mean is it technically good. Or does it connect to our audience? Or does it succeed in expressing my vision. All good questions, forgive the obvious pun. But I think we can do better. I think we can ask, “is it good?” in a larger sense. Does it do good?

The news is full lately of photographers doing stupid things. A barn at a heritage site in Florida recently burned to the ground because a photographer with more pyromania than taste, or sense, apparently, thought it was a good place to spin flaming steel wool. That spinning fire shot was interesting (maybe) when we’d never seen it before. Now that the novelty has worn off it’s clearly nothing more than a cheap parlour trick. There is no shortage in this world of true beauty, and of stories that need telling. If the best we can do is selfies with spinning fire, we’ve jumped a tired shark and should probably consider a purer form of narcissism and self-absorption. Wanking, for example. It’s still free and, done right, hurts no one.

We can do better. We can create images that create new understanding, that open our eyes to beauty, that stir in us the desire for change and ignite in us the motivation to act on that desire. Photography as a storytelling medium can be so much more than trite, novel, or mere eye-candy. Eye-candy, as a metaphor is a terrible one. Even real candy is crap for anyone that eats it more than very occasionally. And that’s what we’re doing more and more – devoid of substance and anything the human mind and soul can take nourishment from, we’re pumping out saccharine images. We’re trading impact for likes and it’s a foolish trade that will hurt us all in the eyes of a public that values photography less and less every day.

I still believe there are no rules in art, and in writing this I am not saying others ought to do this or that. Public opinion and local law enforcement has a way of judging the most egregious of those offences as we’ve seen recently. What I am saying is that we have an opportunity with this medium to communicate messages – and to do so in a way that does no harm – that speak directly to our humanity, and that do good. And I think those of us that choose the long game, and prefer impact over the fickle appetites of audience, will create something better than a very temporary social media following – we’ll create legacy. Long term that’s a better trade in truest sense of the word. And a more human one. A good one.

In short, “look at me” as an ethos or a modus operandi usually does more than simply backfires. It harms others. It nourishes no one. It leaves more than just footprints, it leaves the sucking trail of egos wielding their craft more for themselves than for others, and we are all poorer for it, having lost the respect of audiences that require that respect if they are to listen to our stories, and feel the weight of the beauty we see.

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  1. I heard from a psychologist that you once wrote a piece on letting go of narcissism by taking one of your favorite prints, and leaving it on a public bench with a note for the one who finds it. Is it true? I have searched, looked and read quite a few of your very inspiring post, but that one I can’t find – is it on your homepage?

  2. Simply Outstanding work. I love your work especially the black and whites. I would appreciate you a lot if you could help me. I am a physically handicapped photographer and i photograph people and flowers. I would like your guidance and input with all aspects of photography and what i should read and follow. Please do take some time to respond to my comment. I shoot in manual mode.

    1. Savio – Thanks for writing. I’ve written a lot of books and eBooks, and blog posts which are free. Perhaps the best I can suggest is that you take some time to read through the archives of this blog and learn what you can from them. If buying a book is within your means, or you have a library that carries photography books, perhaps look for Within The Frame, Photographically Speaking, or The Visual Toolbox. Craft and Vision also has some great eBooks which are free and might be a good start for you:

  3. Not the latest or last group to willfully ignore the rule in Yellowstone. This year already one person had the brief but rather unpleasant experience of falling into a hot spring and was boiled to death. Rangers declined to retrieve the remains. Can you say “well done”?

  4. David, I missed this great piece in the busyness. You are a “rare combination,” provoking in the best sense with your photographs and words. I don’t know how to send a private message, so I’m taking the risk to post my thoughts in response…

    It’s a deadly photographic narcissism: “I took it; therefore, it is good. And, everyone will love it (meaning me).” The sad reality is that the exposures (It might be a mistake to raise some of them to the definition of a photograph.) are multiplied by the repetition of many like-minded egoists. The pattern diffuses the discussion of creative art and lowers the general expectations until anyone with a phone can substitute for a real photographer at a wedding or in the news. Grow up thinking destructive self-expression is “cool,” and you reproduce yourself in people who don’t know that they are destroying.

    Well, it can turn you (me) into an angry cynic …until I put any of those self-magnifying expletives they call “art” up against one print from one master. Name your own master. Monet was my first. Ansel Adams made me fall in love with the world and take my own photos that I hope are more than snapshots. I am trusting that the real art will outlive the fads and fancies of the age of narcissism, with living masters and advocates like David duChemin, and more others than I know.

    But when it comes to “political narcissism,” I am a bit more pessimistic. Since art reflects all of life, the more deadly real narcissism is in the “leaders” we choose. Our cultural life no longer seems to have a collective plural. More dangerously, this “I do whatever I want” of the power of money and the ignorance of voters turns my pessimism into worry and fear. We Americans don’t seem to be able to tell the narcissists to go home and stare into their mirrors, so we wind up with one who is running for President who loves to use his own exposures and projects as proof he can do everything “better.” It scares me – the way he uses the word “beautiful.”

    In episodes like these people with “Life on Low,” I wish I were a judge and jury. I would put these artists who cannot read into jail until the total cost of the destruction was recovered to the original, both financially and in time to heal. Then I would let them out of their cells to see the “before” and ask them if they now understand the cost of doing good.

    In times like these, I am wishing for Thomas Jefferson. There was not a trace of narcissism in his Declaration. Next weekend, all of us try-to-be-creatives might take a glass of whatever, stare for a while at a print from our personal master, and read the paragraph that starts, “We hold these truths to be self-evident:…” You Canadians can pray for us on your Independence Day.

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  6. Sad but true on your comments. Too much these days is for the “shock” value that someone is looking for. And today’s media (of which I was once a part) looks daily to do the same thing. And it is not about just destroying nature and this beautiful world we live in but the loss of life that can occur. Several years ago, a film production company was using an area near some railroad tracks without the permission. In the end, one of the production company died when a SCHEDULED train came through hitting the person. Too many times we don’t think far enough ahead to judge what our actions may do. But, for a lot of people, they are just looking to get their hits on facebook or twitter or flickr or whatever the flavor of the month is.

  7. Here in Japan, an iconic tree hill in Hokkaido was cut down by the farmer who owned the land, because winter trespassers were damaging the farm’s soil. It’s sad to think of a farmer backed into that kind of action because of thoughtless photographers chasing a “me-too” image.

  8. This is a great post. I think the question -Does it do good? needs to be asked more often by many photographer in more situations than just before ruining values of nature.

  9. Hi David,

    You are absolutely right!!!! And keep saying it.

    The absolute fixation with ‘self’ has brought us emptiness of spirit, the glib attitude that ‘nothing matters’ is all and the entire of life . The ultimate end result is a writ empowering me to do whatever I want with beauty – pinch its cheeks, dirty its meaning and crisscross it with blue / yellow / ochre – ‘Oh well, they can make another one.’. The world as disposable ‘joy farm’ where I pleasure me and yuk, yuk hoop-de-do all the way across historic, ancient, landmark, important icons and ‘stuff they believe’ is vastly sacred: ‘Like, wow, It’s all a game, right, and I want my 2 minutes of fame. Let’s do it!!!’.

    As an abstract photographer; as a conceptual thinker with a surrealist tendency, I peer around the corner and down the crevices of nature to where light and wonder merge into the song of the universe. I seek the dense, confounding mystery of marvels, the soul of rock and the wavering magic of grass shadows all wound up as part of ‘we’ that defines ‘us’; all bounding forth in a startling moment of form, contrast, outline and color. It is, this way of seeing beyond, that becomes a most devine mingling of camera, nature and perception. ‘Click’ the frame / the image becomes part of our understanding so much wider than ‘me’ or ‘what I want’. To blithly mar, deface, trash and disrespect the grace and power of what lies beneath the sky round low in the cool valley or the hot sand of Africa meeting the sea or the spire edges of tall wood into the fog; to fail to protect and love where we are is to never know who we are.

    But there is hope. The strong-laid power of the image maker and his camera has the full-throttle up power to change this ignorance into appreciation and reverence. Let those who harbor disdain for the cricket and reedy bog; let them come into my temple and I shell teach them the rapture of seeing through the lens so that all the earth becomes their own, a great place of foregiveness and peace. ‘Click’ and the change begins!!!

    I love photography for it has become my deepest heart and greatest thrill. Let us all keep up the valient struggle to create images that move spirits and alter, however slowly, ‘what is’ into ‘how the world should be’.

    My respect and best wishes to all of you, Steve – fine art photographer & painter in New Haven, Ct.

  10. Hey David,

    Great thoughts! Spray and pray photographers hungry for attention they haven’t received since their third grade teacher sent them to the principle’s office to discuss anatomical drawings found in the desk drawer!

    Societal de-evolution in it’s purest form. Social media fools who couldn’t carry on a conversation long enough to make a beautiful portrait, or take their time, find a pristine setting, study it, and photograph it without leaving a trace of their ugly presence…

    Come on people, slow down, smell the roses and “Make it good”… forget about the fools on social media. Crate art for yourself and maybe someone that could really benefit from knowing you!!!

    Wank on David!

  11. Were I the judge, in cases of overt stupidity leading to damage/harm for the lame purpose of gathering meaningless views, the morons would be fined one dollar for every view their stupidity got them on youtube or wherever. The “cooler” the stupidity, the more expensive. “4,000,000 views? Well done, bro! Now pay $4,000,000 and you’re free to go home.”

  12. Shouldn’t it be within us all to follow the words of the medical world’s Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm”? It absolutely drives me crazy hearing stories like these. It should be common sense. I had a brief “discussion” with another instagram poster who was asking if we should even be sharing photos of these beautiful places for fear that it will only drive more people to seek them out (i.e. the plane crash in Iceland among so many others) and ruin the experience for generations to come. Reminds me of that movie, “The Beach”, where everything is paradise until the people come 🙂 Anyways, thanks for your words. I want there to still exist places not already overrun with the effects of all those come before that I can show my kids. I want them to see it’s possible to experience the beauty and wilderness and wonder of a place without having to make their own mark on it.

  13. Excellent post, David, and sentiments I can wholeheartedly agree with.

    One of my good landscape photographer friends, Mark Hespenheide, gave the one of the best bits of advice that’s hung with me for years, and your thoughts here really dovetail nicely. He said:

    “Mediocre landscape photography can only reinforce the ideas about nature that we already hold. Good landscape photography can introduce us to new ways of seeing the world. Truly great landscape photography can change the way we perceive our place in the world and the way we interact with the world.”

    I think we should all strive for something more than mediocre, better than good.


  14. Wow David. You’re my favorite author/writer but this post is my favoritist. Hey, like proper grammer, education is important but caring is importanter. If you ever need a gooder ghost writer, look no further. Seriously, even outside of the content, reading your writing is like staring at a beautiful painting or listening to a piece of music that stops time. It’s enrapturing. If there existed a Group of Seven (writers) you would be one of them. Plus you take pretty good photos too!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Reid. We’re way overdue to connect… I hope you guys are well and happy.

  15. Very well spoken! I am in absolute agreement with all the previous comments. I think Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and all the other great masters of our craft that have left us with truly worthwhile legacies would also be in full agreement with this essay.

  16. David, here’s what I posted yesterday on Fine Art America site.

    Insignificant things, minor societal issues, can lead to catastrohpic results. Right up the street from me, a meth head started a fire near a “tree” and the result was the loss of the World’s 5th largest/oldest tree!

    Probably no signs nearby saying “don’t start fires near this 3500 year old tree” but this place, a small park, should have been treated as a National Monument, instead of some flunky roadside park. This was a known hangout for drug users, but wasn’t enforced, since there was hardly anything of any value there. Until the ONLY thing of value there, was destroyed.

    The issue isn’t really just those footprints from those jerks, but like my example, more jerks later might walk over there and do some irreversible damage to the edges and the site would never recover. So the “potential” loss is what the laws are trying to protect, for all of us, not just those jerks and their blog content.

    This same woman has been in the news again, arrested again,


  17. A thoughtful post and timely reminder for us all.

    On the front of the High on Life bus was painted the slogan “If you can, you should.” Well, no, not if what you’re doing involves outright damage or destruction of, or blatant disrespect for, a part of nature or historic artifact. We photographers are constantly told to learn the rules and then break them, but all photographers should follow an unassailable one: do no harm.

  18. I nearly spat tea all over my computer when I read “Wanking, for example. It’s still free and, done right, hurts no one.” I love your use of words. You so often beautifully express yourself. This post is perfect. There are many fads out there that won’t last. Only done for the likes. No true self expression. That’s why I have enjoyed watching you grow as a photographer. You don’t follow fads and you have a beautiful way of expression that is continually growing (in both your images and words!). Thank you.

  19. You have hit the nail on the head so to speak… comments like this are why I follow you an several others who believe in making good photos that not only look good but “do good” I refer to it as photography with soul or heart.
    Thanks for being brave enough and having the profile to make it count

  20. Hear hear! I couldn’t care less if people like the photos I post to Instagram. I share because I want people to see my work and (hopefully) get some feedback. And I’m for sure not going to be following any fads. I simply want to improve my photography every time I go out. Thank you David for your message. We could all stand to read it.

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