Landscape Photography is Not So Bad: You Will Not Fail

Landscape Photography is Not So Bad: You Will Not Fail

The largest single landscape print I have made to date is a ten-foot-wide panorama of the Painted Rock at Fort Irwin.  Titled A Thousand Words Fall Short, I donated it to a Veterans' clinic on the 4th of July.  Printed on Fuji-crystal archival paper, front-mounted to 1/4" museum acrylic with an anti-glare coating, and backed by a solid sheet of aluminum, it really caught and exalted the light in the humble hallway where I was honored to see it hanging a couple days ago.

A Thousand Words Fall Short

The soldiers call the half-mile-long regal formation running alongside the road leading into Fort Irwin "the rock pile." Each graduating platoon claims a rock and decorates it with elements including their insignia, the names of their platoon members and leaders, and phrases in Latin dating back to classical antiquity and the Roman Empire, celebrating martial courage, valor, and honor as old as civilization herself. I recognized "Veni, vidi, vici," meaning "I came, I saw, I conquered"--a phrase attributed to the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar when he was reporting on one of his campaigns to the Senate. It was quite an honor to finally see the fine details writ large in the epic print as I photographed it hanging there on the wall in the clinic. To me, photography has always ultimately been about the epic print.

I have donated well over 100 pieces to area hospitals, and a few months back, after visiting the Veterans' Clinic to see one of my other installations, I became inspired to drive out to Fort Irwin that very same day to shoot a massive panorama wherein one could enjoy and read the artistic details on all the painted rocks. For I had overheard one of the Veterans lamenting that in the current photograph they had on display, one couldn't enjoy the details of the artwork, as it was, "all blurred out."  

And so, a few minutes after hearing that, (and after picking up my gear which was always on "standby"), I found myself once again heading East on I-15--the epic highway which had so often taken me on past Las Vegas to all the glorious sights and National Parks of the American West including Zion, Bryce Canyon, Page, the Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, the Colorado Plateau, Toroweep, the Wave, and the Grand Escalante Staircase, to name a few. I could hear Torweep's 60-mile dirt road calling me on back:

Toroweep Sunrise, Nikon D810, 14-24mm F2.8

But this time, I was heading on out to the desert to shoot a seven-shot panorama of the Painted Rock with a Nikon D810.  

As I drove along on that beautiful day, I reflected how even the very worst days for a landscape photographer were far easier than an average day for a soldier. Sure, we were both out in the elements, but while a warm bed was at the most just a few days away for the landscape photographer, soldiers could be out in the field for weeks, months, and even years; far, far away from home, while often in harm's way.  

While I had to wake up at 4 am to catch a sunrise, I at least had the luxury of sleeping the night before. While beauty constantly greeted me along the long hikes in all her myriad forms, rain or shine, sleet or snow, the soldier often had to deal with IED's and enemy fire. While a seemingly "bad day" could claim my camera or lens with a gust of wind or a minor slip on a wet rock, a soldier could lose far greater things transcending all those replaceable material possessions, which we so often value too much. The very roughest times I had ever experienced, when I was delayed overnight in the High Sierras without shelter as a winter storm moved in, would have been a Sunday picnic for many a soldier--a pleasant walk in the park.

And thus the emerging genre of "Woe is Me--Landscape Photography is so so Hard" rings a bit hollow. Google "landscape photography fail" and dozens of videos now show up, each one outdoing the previous one with "Woe-is-Meishness" (Yes! That is a word!).

All Landscape Photographers Will Fail

Winter Landscape Photography – The cold hard truth!

The UGLY side of Landscape Photography

Landscape Photography Fail - Beaver Dam

Nor am I the only one who has noticed the rise of the somewhat silly "Woe is Me" genre which is captured in this rather hilarious video:

One of the commentators states, "Great satire !!!!!!!"  But the thing is, it isn't really satire.

For folks who wander outdoors, being subject to nature while in nature is not all that surprising. Or at least it probably shouldn't be. And thus it oft surprises me that landscape photographers sometimes seem surprised. When it rains, one gets wet, even if one doesn't vlog it. If it's cold out, one gets cold. If the wind blows, cameras get blown over, especially if one leaves them out overnight. Sure, the "grand tragedies" can make for good click-bait leading to product placement, but is it art? Does it truly exalt the higher art and greater spirit of landscape photography?

There are very few serious landscape photographers who have not oft found themselves tired, wet, and cold. There are even fewer who have not lost equipment to the natural elements, even though most don't leave their cameras in gusting winds overnight. A commentator on one video went so far as to compare a fallen camera to a "fallen soldier," writing, "Oh god. I had no idea it would be so bad. The first shot we see of the camera in the distance looks just like a fallen soldier. It looked so human. I genuinely felt my stomach turn:"

No. A fallen camera does not look "just like a fallen soldier."  

I do not need to tell anyone that the two entities are worlds--no universes--apart.

While a lot of the rocks celebrated the idea of "first in," and "first to fight," the very highest one stated, "last out."

We landscape photographers have it easy these days. With amazing GPS, seasoned maps, graded back-roads, and a parking lot now placed in front of most every epic Ansel Adams photograph, life is good. Despite all its relatively small pitfalls, landscape photography is by and large quite safe and beautiful, especially when compared to other far more difficult pursuits and sacred duties. And well, I guess that after visiting that Veterans' Clinic and thinking on it, I have found it difficult to take the "Woe is me" weather report videos all that seriously. They seem to detract from the photography, which, all in all, is always a luxury and privilege--even on the very "worst days" when one has to wake up at 5 am (Woe is me!) after a good night's sleep and the "cruel, cruel wind" deposits a bit of sand in one's camera. Perhaps the videos have a tinge of disrespect about them, and not just toward the art of photography, but towards something far greater.

While I was taking photos of the freshly-mounted print on the wall, a Veteran walked by.  

"Cool photo," he said.

"Thanks!"

"You take it?" He asked.

"A few months back."

"Epic shot--I can read my fine artwork here," He paused, looked for his rock, and read, "Veni Vidi Vici," pointing at his art.  "Not sure what it means, but it sounded cool at the time."

I was about to tell him what it meant, when he smiled and said, "Just kidding," saving me from supreme silliness.  "I came, I saw, I conquered," he said solemnly, pausing a moment as if he had found something new in the words. Silence filled the hallway.

"You want your photo with it?" he suddenly asked.

"Thanks," I said. "But it's not really my photo. It's yours."

"OK cool," he grinned, "Thanks for the photo," he said, turning and walking off.  

"Not at all man--thanks for your service."

Of course, the words fell short, but they were all I had.

Today there's a small tag beside the photograph with its title: "A Thousand Words Fall Short"

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26 Comments

I really enjoyed hearing the story behind this piece. Thank you for sharing. Now I want look into seeing if any hospitals in my area would accept any artwork. Such a cool thing to do.

Elliot McGucken's picture

Thanks Tyler! Yes I think that sometimes today's vlogs seem to focus too much on the story in the video, while completely ignoring the far greater stories beyond it. If we shoot for ourselves or for social media likes and product placement, I think we will feel failure often. The moment we start shooting for others and giving the work freely, it becomes priceless.

If anyone ever feels their art is falling short, the quickest way out of this is to look around and find someone who would appreciate it--a school, or hospital, or friend.

We're part of a far greater story. Imagine if Michelangelo had vlogged himself up there on the scaffolding in awkward positions for hours, days, weeks and months on end as he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and then throwing in the ceiling for a few seconds at the very end. But it was never about him. It was about the art. He didn't create the myths nor Biblical stores--he served them.

(https://100swallows.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/michelangelos-agony-in-the-... "They told the greatest sculptor to go paint

He suffered unspeakably in that chapel. There were about eleven thousand square feet to paint, and he was not a painter but had to obey an order given by the Pope.
He sat on the wooden plank of the scaffolding up in the air with his legs dangling and worked looking up. All the time he rubbed his neck, it ached so. For fun, he drew a little caricature of himself (yes Michelangelo was the first to vlog!!!) painting a saint on the ceiling, his head bent back as far as it would go.
https://100swallows.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/michelangelo-caricature.jpg

(Michelangelo Vlog)

Vasari, who had done some fresco painting himself, marvelled at the way Michelangelo held up through the long ordeal:
“He executed the frescoes in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impared his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards; and this lasted for several months afterwards. I can talk from personal experience about this, since when I painted five rooms in the great apartments of Duke Cosimo’s palace if I had not made a chair where I could rest my head and relax from time to time I would never have finished; and even so this work so ruined my sight and injured my head that I still feel the effects, and I am astonished that Michelangelo bore all that discomfort so well.” (Life of Michelangelo, Vasari)

" )

Nor was Michelengelo alone in being inspired by those eternities. Next time you venture out into Zion National Park, contemplate the names of the rock formations: The Three Patriarchs, Angel's Landing, Towers of the Virgin, The Pulpit, Great White Throne, The Watchman. What is the meaning of all this?

Of what greater things were they trying to speak of? "What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

And then, as you retire to your tent, take out a copy of some of John Muir's essays and poetry and witness how Milton's Paradise Lost and its notion of Eden inspired the National Parks system. And as sure as the poetry inspired Muir and those early Zion settlers, perhaps it can help inspire our art.

The legendary outdoorsman John Muir, who greatly inspired Ansel Adams, saluted the inspirational qualities of epic poetry, writing, "I remember as a great and sudden discovery that the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure; and I became anxious to know all the poets, and saved up small sums to buy as many of their books as possible. Within three or four years I was the proud possessor of parts of Shakespeare's, Milton's, . . . and quite a number of others."

Next time you head on out on a landscape trip to Zion, take Muir's writings as well as his reading list, and you will learn of exactly what it is that the Watchman is watching. :)

Out of curiosity, where did you get the print processed and mounted? I have been looking for a group that can handle large panos like this for a few projects I have on the back burner (only because I couldn't find a house that didn't charge an arm and a leg), and would appreciate any suggestions, especially since it seems from the story that you are very satisfied with their work.

Elliot McGucken's picture

Prolab Digital next to LAX! Ask for Joe or Julien & tell them Elliot says "hello." :)

Elliot McGucken's picture

(310) 846-4496, https://prolabdigital.com/ Ask for the "Artist's Discount," and tell them Elliot says hello. :)

Thank you! I will try them out!

Paolo Veglio's picture

After reading the title I was ready jump in and argue with you. Then, halfway through the article, I saw where you were going and changed my mind, but by the end of the article I wanted to argue again, but for a different reason, because I felt it was a bit silly to compare soldiers and landscape photographers. But all in all this is actually a good piece, I really loved the story.

My thought on the vlogs is that photographers do them, partly as marketing tools, and partly to show the general public that landscape photography is not always beautiful sceneries and permanent vacation.

Elliot McGucken's picture

Thanks! I wasn't comparing soldiers to landscape photographers. That was someone else: "A commentator on one video went so far as to compare a fallen camera to a "fallen soldier," writing, "Oh god. I had no idea it would be so bad. The first shot we see of the camera in the distance looks just like a fallen soldier. It looked so human. I genuinely felt my stomach turn:"

No. A fallen camera does not look "just like a fallen soldier."

I do not need to tell anyone that the two entities are worlds--no universes--apart."

Point of fact, you were comparing. "Sure, we were both out in the elements, but while a warm bed was at the most just a few days away for the landscape photographer, soldiers could be out in the field for weeks, months, and even years; far, far away from home, while often in harm's way. " I grant you that comparison was intended to make the photographer seem silly but it was a comparison.

That said, the very concept of comparing a photographer to a Soldier rings hollow and borders on the absurd. Linking any similar action that a photographer may take (being in the elements) to that of a soldier seeks to glorify the action by association. While I believe your intentions were pure the execution left me feeling uncomfortable.

Elliot McGucken's picture

Again, you are confusing my words with the statement made by someone else: "A commentator on one video went so far as to compare a fallen camera to a "fallen soldier," writing, "Oh god. I had no idea it would be so bad. The first shot we see of the camera in the distance looks just like a fallen soldier. It looked so human. I genuinely felt my stomach turn:"

No. A fallen camera does not look "just like a fallen soldier."

I do not need to tell anyone that the two entities are worlds--no universes--apart."

In the article, I stated that the task of the landscape photographer was far easier and very different from the task of of the soldier on any given day. I stated that the soldier had a far greater and more difficult task--"a thousand words would fall short."

I have donated over 100 works to area hospitals, and I wrote the article to encourage folks to also donate their work to those who might appreciate it, while humbly acknowledging that soldiers oft donate something far greater. In the bigger picture, landscape photography is not that hard, nor difficult.

With many youtubers feeling like they are failing, I thought I would say, "Hey--you don't have it so bad. Serve someone with your work, and perhaps you won't feel like you are failing."

How might you word an article encouraging folks to donate their photographic prints?

The title of the piece is "Landscape Photography is Not So Bad: You Will Not Fail."

The message is that art often succeeds better when we focus not on ourselves so much, but on others who have it far harder.

So, to summarize, "Landscape Photography is Not So Bad: You Will Not Fail if you donate your work to hospitals, schools, churches, charity auctions, and Veterans' clinics."

I'm in no way confusing your words with the statement made by someone else. I'll again provide direct quotes to support my statement.

"As I drove along on that beautiful day, I reflected how even the very worst days for a landscape photographer were far easier than an average day for a soldier. Sure, we were both out in the elements, but while a warm bed was at the most just a few days away for the landscape photographer, soldiers could be out in the field for weeks, months, and even years; far, far away from home, while often in harm's way."  

Are these your words or was this a statement made by someone else?

"The very roughest times I had ever experienced, when I was delayed overnight in the High Sierras without shelter as a winter storm moved in, would have been a Sunday picnic for many a soldier--a pleasant walk in the park."

Again, are these your words or was this a statement made by someone else?

If these two examples are your words then you did compare the worst days for a landscape photographer with an average day for a soldier. Just because you concluded the obvious - that being a photographer is a pleasant walk in the park when compared with being a soldier doesn't mean you didn't draw a comparison.

The fact that you were thinking along these lines because someone else made a stupid comment about a camera looking like a fallen solider doesn't mean you didn't also draw a comparison.

You're speaking to the reasons you wrote those things. I'm addressing and refuting the following "Thanks! I wasn't comparing soldiers to landscape photographers"

Paolo Veglio's picture

"In the article, I stated that the task of the landscape photographer was far easier and very different from the task of of the soldier on any given day. I stated that the soldier had a far greater and more difficult task--"a thousand words would fall short." "
This is what I call a comparison, and there's nothing wrong with it now that I know you wrote it to criticize whoever made the fallen soldier vs camera statement.

My point is that the fallen soldier reference comes after you discuss how tougher a soldier's life is, and that is what confused me. If I were trying to criticize that statement, I would start with that and go from there.

Look, I'm not trying to be a jerk, and I apologize if I sounded like one, but I wanted to give some (hopefully) constructive criticism, since apparently I'm not the only one that misinterpreted that bit. Still, I appreciated the article and the bottom line message.

Chris Ward's picture

Was through there in 2010 and remember the rock pile...and also the flash floods, sand storms, smelly bunk spaces, and the heat! Love the story and brought back a few memories. Thanks!

Elliot McGucken's picture

Yes! The heat! Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks! :)

Elliot McGucken's picture

In what capacity were you through there? Did you paint one of the rocks perchance?

Elliot McGucken's picture

In what capacity were you through there? Did you paint one of the rocks perchance?

Chris Ward's picture

was there supporting the Canadian Battle Group heading overseas that year. I know they painted a rock or two, but I was not personally involved with actual painting. Do you have a 100% image of this viewable somewhere? I'd love to scan through it and see if I notice any familiar crests.

Elliot McGucken's picture

Greetings Chris!

Here is the original of a slightly-closer panorama with even bigger details on the rocks:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/herosjourneymythology45surf/32035463573/sizes/o/

Fort Irwin Painted Rock 6-shot Panorama! Fifteen Foot Panel for a Veteran's Clinic! Elliot McGucken Fine Art Landscape & Nature Photography

Please let us know if you recognize any of the art.

And please feel free to share with the artists if you know them. :)

Thanks! Elliot :)

Chris Ward's picture

Thanks for linking the photo! I zoomed in tight and went through it...saw one crest that looked familiar, but it was deeper in the picture and at an odd angle. Searched google for other angles of it, but couldn't find anything. Nevertheless, a great piece of history there...even though I am in no rush to ever visit again! Thanks again for the good (and not so good) memories...lol!

Elliot McGucken's picture

Thanks Chris!! :) Glad you enjoyed some of the memories, and felt a tiny tinge of the ones you didn't enjoy so much too! Yes the desert is a bit warmer than Canada. :) Thanks again for your service! :)

Roger Spring's picture

I don't think it is that easy as a landscape photographer these days. Just a few days ago i hiked 5.5h to a spot in the Alps for a photo. there was no parking, cablecar etc. around it.

more and more I don't go to these spots with a parking right next to the spot. I prefere to walk a bit/lot and be on my own at the spot i love!

Elliot McGucken's picture

Yes! There is still a lot of "undiscovered country" out there.

Heaton is a youtube muppet with the wrong attitude about landscape photography. Unfortunately a lot of beginners assume he's Ansel Adams and some kind of authority on the subject because flickr use a photo of his tent on thier homepage.

Phil Wright's picture

The wrong attitude? Explain please...?

A thought for donating artwork to hospitals, etc. - find a competent sign shop, get a sponsor, and do a mural instead. Stitched panos from D810 files would likely have enough resolution, and there are printable wallcoverings that meet the specs to hang in medical facilities. The trick is finding a shop that can print them well, and finding a REALLY GOOD installer. This is one of My Gigapan images printed at 25' x 9' produced and installed in that manner at my office.

Elliot McGucken's picture

nice!! :)