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Ethics Committee

Seeing Beyond Beauty
By James Balog

It's a beautiful planet, isn't it? Mountains and deserts, plains and oceans, forests and icecaps: we humans are privileged to inhabit such an amazing world. Photographers are twice blessed because we have an artistic excuse-and in some cases a professional necessity-to spend an exceptional amount of our lives outdoors. We become sensitized to the subtlest variations of light coming from our solar system's glowing star. We become fused with our subjects, their power and beauty captured in our psyches the way their physical form is captured by our cameras. The opportunity to connect with nature has inspired me to create a lifetime filled with photography, as well as adventure sports, global travel, and the study of natural science.

All that said, why do I believe nature photographers must look beyond beauty? That we have an obligation not just to the joyous and light, but also to the dark and painful?

To be honest, I am surprised that at this point in history we are even debating the question. If the human race learned anything at all during the twentieth century, it surely is this: nature doesn't exist in a vacuum, but is constantly at risk from human technology and population growth.

The next step for photographers seems self-evident. I see, therefore I am concerned; I am concerned, therefore I photograph. Cornell Capa articulated a similar linkage for humanistic photography in the 1960s. It is equally relevant to natural photography today.

Imagine you are a photographer of the human scene, enamored of the human race and everything it represents. You have spent your life photographing street scenes, urban architecture, and character-filled faces. On the morning of September 11, 2001, you are in lower Manhattan. Do you keep your camera pointed at the light streaming through Little Italy? Do you work on a portrait of an elderly Chinese woman buying bok choy at an outdoor market? Or do you turn to the towering inferno of the World Trade Center?

The answer is obvious. You work with dark and painful material because the reality of the time demands it. Humans usually don't affect the environment in a manner as abrupt and dramatic as terrorists affected Manhattan. But our impact is no less significant through historical time: extinctions, climate change, habitat destruction, landscape modification, technology and urbanization are a few of the most obvious examples.

Dozens of different photographic treatments have already probed these issues. Even so, an extraordinary number of creative possibilities remain. And then there is the nearly uncharted artistic continent where human mythology, psychology, and perception intersect with nature: some photographers have mapped the most general features of that terrain, but we are still in its golden age of exploration.

I can't help thinking that we are engaged in this discussion at least partly because our culture has become conditioned to seeing nature within a conceptual box. I call that box "celebratory realism." The tradition was ordained by fine art photographers like Ansel Adams, the Weston family, and Eliot Porter, and popularized by dozens of pictorial magazines during the 20th century. In recent decades, a barrage of paper products-nature calendars, large-format books, greeting cards, and so on--has taken the genre into new commercial realms.

Markets for celebratory realism have expanded in direct relationship to changes in contemporary lifestyles. The more we are bathed in the glow of computer screens instead of sunlight, the more our feet pad along trails of concrete and asphalt instead of soil, the more we careen down the highway with one hand on the wheel and the other clutching a cell phone, then the more we need to vicariously experience nature through calming imagery.

Beyond these issues is the most fundamental reason why many of us stay locked in the celebratory box. As certain thinkers have already pointed out, nature has become a kind of religion for our secular, relativistic era. I'll admit that nature is all but a religion for me, too: as Edward Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire, it is possible to have a worldview built on "earthism" rather than monotheism or polytheism.

Understood from this perspective, celebratory nature pictures are akin to contemplating sacred icons. They represent an idealized vision of nature. They communicate sanctified, good feelings about our environment. And creating other forms of photographic representation is like trying to re-write the Bible.

But art is not holy writ. Since the late 18th century, art has reflected the dynamic response of individual artists to the surrounding world. Its fundamental mission within society is interpreting the world anew. We are free to see, reflect, and create. That can, of course, mean focusing on beauty. That can also mean walking the boundary line where humanity clashes with beauty, confronting subject matter that is not necessarily pleasing, idyllic, or comfortable for artist and audience. By experimenting widely, we can take art and our culture's understanding of nature into exhilarating new realms.

James Balog is an internationally acclaimed photographer living in Boulder, Colorado. More than a hundred fine art museums and galleries worldwide have exhibited or collected his work. He is the author of five books, including Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife and Animal. His text and photographs on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are featured in the November/December issue of National Geographic Adventure.

Seeing Beauty
by John Fielder

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