What We Can Learn From Iconography

by | January 23, 2013

© Bret EdgeWay back in the days of old, I’d head out on a road trip to an iconic national park with a couple dozen rolls of Velvia triple bagged in Ziplocs in the cooler. Images of Delicate Arch framing the snowcapped La Sal Mountains, wildflowers dancing in alpine meadows below Mount Rainier or the rugged Tetons reflecting in a beaver pool at Schwabacher Landing inspired an impressionable young me. I wanted to make my own photographs of these gorgeous locations. For thousands of novice landscape photographers, the ritual of reproducing photos we’ve all seen a million times is a valuable learning experience. We discover things like sweet morning light, how aperture controls depth of field and how shutter speed can turn a powerful waterfall into a delicate strand of white silk.

Beaver Dam, Schwabaher Landing © Bret Edge

Flash forward a bunch of years and I continue to find myself drawn to photographing the national parks. Moreover, I still find value in photographing the icons. I guess some things never change, although I no longer have to stress over the possibility of dank cooler water infiltrating my precious Ziploc’d Velvia film!

How can making images at a location that has likely been photographed hundreds of thousands of times possibly be of value to an experienced landscape photographer? The challenge is in creating a unique photograph. Perhaps it’s a composition that strays from the common perspective, shooting at sunrise instead of sunset, or maybe venturing out in unusual weather.

Washer Woman Arch, Monster Tower sunrise © Bret Edge

Whether we want them to or not, photographs of landscape icons saturate our memory. Close your eyes and think of the Maroon Bells. Chances are your mind’s eye took you to an autumn photograph of symmetrical peaks awash in alpenglow above vibrant yellow aspens and the whole scene reflecting in the tranquil waters of an alpine lake. Now imagine Mesa Arch. American Basin. Half Dome. Toroweap. Sit back and enjoy the slideshow! My point is, most of the images you envisioned were probably the common ones most photographers have seen over and over and over again. They’re in calendars. On postcards. In magazines and travel brochures and posters. We’re used to seeing them and when we visit one of these iconic locations ourselves, it’s all too easy to show up and set up in the well worn tripod holes of those who have come before us. Honestly, I don’t have an issue with this. These places are popular for good reason. But if you’re willing to take a chance, you might just find an even more interesting, more dynamic image right around the corner.

What do you stand to gain? Well, there’s the obvious—an uncommon image from a common location. More importantly, this exercise teaches you to expand your vision. As we approach a new scene we’re usually presented with at least one obvious composition. If it’s obvious to you, it’s probably obvious to everybody else. Make a mental note of it but allow yourself to continue exploring the scene. What if you move 50 feet to the left or right? Maybe a long lens would work to isolate an interesting scene within the scene? What would it look like in a different season, or at a different time of day? Or, go a totally different direction, as I once did at the Maroon Bells, and find something truly unique at your feet. The options are endless!

Storm over Superstition Mountains © Bret Edge

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