Dean M. Chriss

Photography "Hot Spots"
Photographers Gone Awry
January 7, 2016

Badwater Sunrise, Death Valley National Park
Badwater Sunrise, Death Valley National Park

This essay is a redo of one I wrote quite a while ago. It was about how photographs can help preserve a place and at the same time damage it by drawing an excessive number of people to it. Since then I became convinced that most photography in already protected places is a detriment to their conservation unless one photographs things like trampled vegetation. This is obviously because the photographs increase visitation, but it is not quite that simple. While every visitor has some impact, I think a disproportionate number of the additional visitors are photographers, and photographers often have a larger impact per person than the general public. That is most true when large groups occupy limited areas. Because photographers and their tripods occupy more space and stay there for longer periods of time they need to be much more considerate of others and more careful of the environment around them. Many are not. The large groups often form a human wall that blocks others, and it is necessarily right up front to avoid having others in their photos.

Photographs by Ansel Adams helped establish Kings Canyon National Park. Photographs by Phillip Hyde helped sway public opinion to preserve Dinosaur National Park and helped prevent Grand Canyon from being turned into a lake. In this country and around the world, photography played an important role in raising awareness and inspiring the preservation of imperiled places and wildlife. For some unprotected and lesser known places that is still true today. In the meantime many areas in established parks have become endangered by their popularity. Today nearly everyone is a photographer and over the last 15 years or so I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of photographers who value getting a shot more than they value the natural resources they photograph. Because they want a specific photo, a different perspective, or are being paid by a group in a workshop they tend to feel justified in trampling anything necessary to get what they want. As a result they have a large impact. If there weren't millions of us it might not be so terrible, but today there are millions of us visiting the parks and that behavior is no longer acceptable. I’ll share just a few of the countless examples. 

While in a national park visitor center I saw a post card featuring great photograph of a very nice waterfall. The location of the waterfall was not disclosed on the card, but I thought I knew where it was based on its background and and a hike I had previously taken. I asked at the information desk if there was a nice waterfall on a certain creek without mentioning the card. The woman on duty replied “Oh, you must have seen the postcard. We’ve had at least a hundred people bring the card to the desk and ask where the waterfall is”. She confirmed that the location I mentioned was correct, but continued saying there was no trail and all the foot traffic caused by the photograph on the card was tearing up the alpine environment. “We can’t stop people from hiking off trail, but we’d prefer you not go”, she said. I did not go, but many other photographers have and continue to do so. A photograph of the same waterfall by a different photographer was later featured in a popular magazine. That's great for the photographer, but terrible for the waterfall and the area around it.

I read an article in a photography magazine about accessing areas in a national wildlife refuge that are usually off limits to the public. It said you could pay an extra fee for a permit to do so. About a year later I called the place to inquire about getting the permit. The person I talked with said they stopped allowing public access to those areas last year after an article about the place appeared in “some photo magazine” and they were overwhelmed with requests for permits. The road and facilities were not adequate for the crowds of photographers, and they were not staffed to manage the people. So much for that photo hot spot. The only good news is that they closed public access rather than allowing the place to become overcrowded and degraded.

I have been fortunate to photograph at many so-called photography hot spots long before they were hot. Every time I went back after a place was discovered by the photography community it was insanely overcrowded with photographers. These crowds are often large enough to physically damage the landscape over time, not to mention destroying any notion of being a wild and pristine setting. Few things are as disappointing as getting up at 4 AM and making your way to some favorite spot you have not seen in a few years only to find so many photographers that you cannot even find a place to stand. Everyone has a right to be there, but when they all show up at the same time (like sunset) there are few opportunities for anyone, photographers and non-photographers alike. I cannot imagine how anyone can find such a setting appealing or how anyone can do creative work in those circumstances. Sometimes I stay and try to get a photo or two. Sometimes I leave without unpacking my camera. Regardless, I always make a mental note to not return. Younger people will probably never know these places as anything but crowded amusements. 

In the early 1980s to early 1990s I occasionally photographed Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park at sunrise. I would often be the only person there and sometimes I had the company of a few others at most. Everyone was considerate and careful about what they did. Watching and photographing the sunrise was a serene and amazing experience. The last time I went there at sunrise the place had been taken over by a mob of paparazzi-like photographers. It was among the most frustrating and annoying experiences I have ever had. People were photographing one another *on* the arch, which is actually illegal. The only photos possible were the ones allowed by my position in the crowd and the optimal focal length was the one required to keep people out of my pictures. On top of that all of the fragile cryptobiotic soil in the area was trampled and destroyed. I discovered from someone there that the place is now like that essentially every morning. Upon leaving I knew that while the place was still there no one could ever again experience it the way I had in the past. I felt lucky for my past and sad that others cannot have the same experience. 

I don't mean to pick on Mesa Arch. There are plenty of other photography "hot spots" that are swarmed by photographers on a daily basis at least during certain seasons. Schwabacker's Landing in the Tetons at sunrise, Arches' Delicate Arch at Sunset, Maroon Lake in the Maroon Bells "wilderness" at Sunrise, Zion's Watchman at sunset, and several viewpoints in Yosemite with views of Half Dome and Horsetail Falls immediately come to mind. There are dozens more. At Death Valley's Zabriskie Point people who feel no need to stay on established trails have cut ugly paths down the top of all of the thin ridges surrounding the overlook. Erosion has taken over many, turning them into unsightly grooves that will only get larger. Big crowds and bad manners change the very essence of these places. They give these sublime natural settings the atmosphere of a circus or sporting event. I think it is ridiculous to endure all of that to get a photo half the photographers on the planet already have. It is needless to say that non-photographers cannot enjoy these places either, but as my wife has often observed they tend to be more considerate than the photographers. Perhaps more photography workshops should stress etiquette, but it has to start with their leaders.

Speaking of manners and Zabriskie Point, I recently witnessed a group of photographers in a workshop there photographing Manley Beacon at sunrise from an unofficial trampled dirt "overlook" that puts them directly in the view of Manley Beacon for everyone at the large official overlook. I guess they deemed their own photographs more important than those of the mere mortals who stand where anyone naturally would. No one yelled at them but there was grumbling. A few days later at the same place tourists at the official overlook yelled "Hey, you're right in my picture", and a others chimed in to agree, when a couple of photographers began setting up where the photo workshop was a few days earlier. The photographers left, but they should have realized they were directly in the main view of an iconic scene from the official NPS overlook before anyone yelled.

One more example I must include here is the sunrise reflection of Telescope Peak in the small saline pool at Death Valley's Badwater that is shown at the beginning of this essay. The National Park Service obliterated this view forever in 2003 with a parking lot, concrete retaining wall to support it, overlook, boardwalk, and benches in the interest of accommodating throngs of visitors. One of the most impressive sights in the whole park is gone forever as a result. In addition to accommodating ever increasing numbers of visitors, one reason I heard from the National Park Service for building the overlook was that people were trampling the fragile environment at the water's edge. Ironically they were talking about the edge of the pool opposite the one from which the reflection was taken, and it is still being trampled today by people who do not see fit to stay on the boardwalk. It’s all a matter of numbers. The sad fact is that many people, including photographers, use no common sense and ignore posted rules to lessen their impact on a place.

Entities like the National Park Service are not much help. Instead of thinking about fair ways to restrict the number of visitors to a level the environment of each park can tolerate, their motto seems to be “If they’re at the gate we must accommodate”. Bigger parking lots, bigger visitor centers, wider roads, paved trails, and shuttle bus systems are among the current solutions for packing increasing numbers of people into the parks. They put up a few "Stay on the Trail" signs that are often ignored to mitigate the impact and then wonder why everything in the parks is deteriorating. Reservation systems that limit the number of people in the parks, or in popular areas within the parks, at any given time are the only way these places can be preserved for the future given ever increasing park usage. They are easy and cheap relative to constantly expanding park infrastructure and destroying more of the parks in the process. Such solutions are unpopular because everyone wants to preserve the national parks unless it becomes inconvenient.


P.S.: I know that many are courteous, follow the rules, and do their best to minimize their impact on the places they visit. I still had to write this because I see this sort of thing so often it appears to be the norm rather than the exception. When it comes to nature photography the subject is always far more important than the photograph. If more photographers kept that in the front of their minds this would be a far less serious issue. Living by that rule and all of its implications is guaranteed to minimize your impact on the places and creatures you photograph. When multiplied by millions of us, everything matters.

Notes: In the early 1980s the roads in Canyonlands National Park were dirt, canyon rim overlooks were completely natural, and you could hike all day without seeing anyone. The roads have since been paved and widened twice, canyon rim overlooks were paved and had railings installed. Visitation has increased by eight times in 35 years to about 453,000. Annual visitation to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks has increased by about 1.5 million, 1.4 million, and 1.7 million respectively during the same period. Visitation to all of the national parks combined has increased by about 81 million. In light of these numbers it is easy to see why the "national park experience" and the parks themselves have changed so dramatically.