The End of Landscape Photography

Photo © Al Braden, 2021

This photo has been hanging in our den for years. Sandra might say, “Too many years.”

I’m an old school landscape photographer, an admirer of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter’s Sierra Club books in the late 60’s. Their breath-taking work was a call to conservation! A clarion call to appreciate nature – and through photography – share it with others. Show these beautiful places. Invite everyone to protect those places.

I was all on board and spent decades trying to follow in their footsteps. Being published in a Sierra Club calendar or coffee table book would become an unrealized life goal.

Admittedly, those are big shoes to fill – and those were very different and more innocent times. Nonetheless, it became my mission in whatever scale I could achieve. I’d love to photograph special places, exhibit prints and hope people would appreciate and conserve.

This particular photo, Big Bend Loop Camp #2, was taken in 2006. It’s at the bottom of the River Road in Big Bend National Park. It was loaded with meaning for me, symbolizing the oneness of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo as a life-giving power to the people of the region on both banks for untold millennia. Rock art and archeological sites in Big Bend go back over 8,000 years.

Ironically, standing below this river meander, I was looking north across a slice of Mexico into the park’s Punta del la Sierra range south of the Chisos. After a three-hour, twenty-five-mile rocky 4WD road, this was a long way from anywhere. I made a stitched panorama with my new digital camera and proudly framed it and hung it in the Austin City Hall public art exhibit for a year.

This remote place had special meaning indeed.

Looking north to Dominguez Mountains. Looking from Texas, across Mexico, then north to Big Bend. Loop Camp is near the bottom of Big Bend, 30 miles in either direction from pavement.

Photo © Al Braden, 2006

A couple weeks ago, Sandra and I were camping in Big Bend. One of our highlights was a similar 4WD trip to Loop Camp #2 that had graced our den for so long. We had a great adventure traveling the River Road/Camino del Rio and eventually arrived at Loop Camp in early afternoon.

Fifteen years later, it’s hard to describe the devastation.

Photo © Al Braden, 2021

Drought and water overuse on both sides of the border have reduced the once mighty Rio Grande/Rio Bravo to a trickle – now a small creek behind the wall of cane. Today, after a thousand-mile run, the river’s flow here is well below 100 cubic feet per second. The entire foreground grew in with tamarisk over the years and then burned. The powerful mountain ranges in the distance are currently obliterated by smoke from fires in the U. S. West. That plume – signaling the ongoing destruction of the western forests – caught wind currents bringing them all the way into Mexico.

Downloaded:  fire.airnow.gov 9-11-21

This scene now plays out in so many of our special places. Undoubtedly, the relevant coffee table book now would contrast what our most special places once looked like with what they look like now. I don’t know that I have the stomach for that work.

Sandra and I spent the summer camping in the West, trying to avoid the smoke plume. We cancelled a seven-day rafting permit on the Salmon River in Idaho when the northern shoreline was burning for over 10 miles. We cancelled a long planned two-week trip to Yellowstone when the smoke levels reached unhealthy – and certainly ‘un-scenic’. In the Great Sand Dunes, we almost drove into the 12,000-foot Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado before we could see them.

Now the smoke plume has reached south even to the remote areas of Big Bend.

While it’s been a discouraging summer for those of us seeking nature’s beauty, we know full well that the truth is so much bigger.

While I was dreaming of photographing coffee table books, James Hansen and others were sounding the alarm about climate change. Bill McKibben and colleagues were writing clearly of what was to come. Al Gore was publicizing an ‘Inconvenient Truth,’ while the climate denial industry was shifting into high gear. With the overwhelming success of the powerful ‘business as usual’ crowd, we are at a crossroad with very little time left. Maybe there are ten years maybe to take serious corrective action. Maybe not. Reality is rapidly outpacing scientific research. And the science is rapidly outpacing our political will. Is this a race we can muster the will to win?

Sure, there will be some days in the future when it isn’t smoky. When the light will be just right. When a beautiful landscape image will still be possible. When the electronic shutter will simulate ‘click.’ But can it still be made with innocence that this beauty is our ‘norm’, our ‘goal’, our ‘NorthStar’? And will it be accessible for all our peoples and their children?

It’s clear that you can’t save a national park – Big Bend or Yellowstone – if you trash the lands around it. National parks are not just some aesthetic ‘get away’ – but represent the best of the vitality of the Earth. Landscape photography, after all, is not the goal.

I think it is time to replace the picture in the den with something more realistic and relevant.

The UN – IPCC Report couldn’t be more clear. It’s not pretty, nostalgic pictures that are needed, but immediate and drastic carbon cutting responsibility by all nations – biggest first.

It’s not the beauty of the parks that we ultimately need to conserve. It’s the living potential in every child’s face as they stare into their future.