Overlook, Monument Valley, Arizona, 2009
Ever since John Ford’s epic Western movies made Monument Valley an iconic setting over 70 years ago, travel photographers have been shooting this vista from a bluff overlooking the scene, earning it a place on the list of the Greatest American Travel Clichés. There are several ways to leave the cliché behind and make an expressive interpretation of such a scene. Catching the glow of a setting sun on these buttes offers a way to blunt one cliché with another. But what if it is overcast, and there is no visible sunset? Leaving the overlook and going down into the valley might provide another fresh approach. But if logistics limit us to this particular overlook, what other options might be available? For me, the answer often comes through layering and juxtaposition. I walked up and down the overlook, which is quite expansive, looking for a strong foreground element I could compare to the buttes in the distance. I found it in a pair of massive red boulders, streaked with marks of time itself. Monument Valley is a geological textbook, created millions of years ago when the ocean floor cracked, land emerged from sea, and eventually became sandstone. The twin boulders anchor my image, speaking of geologic upheaval, and pointing to the buttes that rise in the distance. Using a 22mm wideangle focal length, I unite the boulders with the vista. My goal is not to make a pretty postcard cliché, but to tell an epic story of geological process. (As for that large bird that flies across the frame at the moment of exposure, I attribute that to pure chance.)
Upon my return from Monument Valley, I saw an item in the New Yorker Magazine about the new book “Ansel Adams in Color” which featured a previously unpublished shot Adams made using the left hand rock to anchor his color view of this scene in 1950. Adams waited for much better light on this rock than I found, and he moved in on it to powerfully merge it with the butte on the left. See: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/10/ansel-adams-in-color.html
Camel’s call, Douze, Tunisia, 2008
A desert camel standing before a setting sun is one of the oldest travel clichés – dating back to the National Geographic magazines of the 1930s. What separates this image from a cliché is the turned head and open mouth. The camel seems animated, crying out for family or food. The sunset adds a poignant context -- the long night beckons, and this camel is letting us know of its needs.
First light, Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 2008
Mughal Emperor Sha Jahan built the Taj Mahal in 1648 as a tomb for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth. There must have been more than 500 people photographing the Taj Mahal at dawn along with me, yet I was probably the only one who focused on this particular part of the structure. Most were shooting the entire building, the same picture that is on all of the post cards. I found these ancillary spires and domes on the edges of the Taj to be just as exquisitely proportioned and beautifully illuminated as the far more famous central dome. However they are not what people expect to see when they think of the Taj Mahal. Why shoot to the expectations of others? It only perpetuates pre-conceived notions – also known as clichés. Instead, why not photographically isolate beauty where you can find it, and make it your own? Why not go against the grain to make an asymmetrical photograph of a structure known primarily for its exquisite symmetry? Which is what I tried to do with this particular image of the Taj Mahal, an image that blends abstraction with the rich warmth of first light color to interpret the rhythmic, undulating flow of Mughal architecture.
Shy child, Sebt-des-Gzoula, Morocco, 2006
We stopped at a large weekly market just outside of Essaouira, and noticed a young child cautiously watching me photograph. She was very shy, and avoided direct eye contact. When I saw her back away and press her head against a scarred wall, I made this photograph. It is the opposite of the clichés we usually associate with child portraiture. There are no smiles here, no acknowledgement of the camera. She seems to be away in her own world. An image such as this has a greater potential to express human values than the conventional smiling pose. I continued to photograph her and her family for a few more minutes, and she finally turned to the camera, but still remained a bit anxious. (You can see another image I made of her at that moment in my digital travel archive at http://www.worldisround.com/edit/new/389245/photo5.html
) When I showed her the pictures I had made of her, her apprehension turned to delight.
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 2005
The essence of ancient Greece is the Parthenon -- the central structure on the Acropolis that looks down on the city. Dedicated to the goddess Athena in 438 B.C., the Parthenon is revered for its classical perfection and is one of the world's most famous buildings. It has been used as a church, a mosque and an arsenal. It has been bombed and looted. Yet it still survives as the emblem of both the city and a civilization. It has been photographed over and over until almost any image of it runs the risk of becoming a cliché. To express my own impression of the golden Parthenon in early morning light, I don’t try to “show the whole thing.” I abstract it by including only a small portion of it in my frame, yet can still establish its scale by matching its size to two small visitors. I also made sure to incongruously include an ever-present construction crane that continues working on restoring the glory that was ancient Greece.
Overlooking Sagaing, Myanmar, 2005
Pictures of vistas, made from high hills or tall buildings, are a staple of travel photography. They are made so often, they have become travel clichés. Most are literal descriptions, and are not able to replicate the experience of being there. I usually avoid making such pictures, and hesitated making this one – until I saw the three monks on the rooftop in the foreground. The monks add expressive meaning to the picture, because of their scale incongruity and symbolic presence. Sagaing is a center of Burmese Buddhism, the temples that fill the picture are Buddhist temples, and what better way to humanize the image and make it speak than including three Buddhist monks on the temple roof in the foreground? A few moments later, they were gone. The opportunity to turn a cliché into a fresh vision was fleeting, and I was fortunate to have been there when those monks were walking on that roof.
Mekong Sunrise, Chiang Rai, Thailand, 2005
A few hours before we crossed into Laos from Thailand, I was taking my morning walk along the Mekong as the sun came up, hoping I see a small fishing boat to include along with the reflection of a rising sun. When my wish was granted, I was still faced with the daunting task of making an image that would avoid the sameness of all the sunrise clichés we all make of life along a river. I had my pocket camera with me, a Canon Digital Elph, which does not offer either a long lens or a wideangle to stress an idea. I was limited to normal perspectives. The first thing I did was to shift my vantage point so the reflection of the sunrise was broken in half by a spit of land instead of being portrayed as a typical continuous line. I waited for the fisherman to start paddling, so I could get some activity into the image, instead of a fisherman just sitting or standing in his boat. That helped add some energy to the image. The sun rising on a misty river over a lone figure in his boat is a timeless image but still a borderline cliché, so I used one more option to change the atmosphere of the picture. I boosted the ISO to 400, knowing that it would give me “noise.” The noise turns the image into a form of impressionism, putting this picture somewhere between a painting and a photograph. There is dream-like quality to this image that expresses how I felt, standing on the bank of the Mekong in the mist, watching this fisherman slowly make his way home as the sun struggled to break through. I think it succeeds in overcoming a cliché label.
Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun, Myanmar, 2005
I visited Mingun’s most striking pagoda in the heat of a Burmese noon, which ruled out using morning or evening light to help express my feelings about this temple. I decided to frame the pagoda within an archway to give a sense of depth and perspective to the image. Yet I did so with misgivings. Framing subjects through archways is a time-honored technique that, while not bad or wrong, has become a cliché. So I did what I usually do. I waited for a person to move into my foreground. A Burmese woman soon stopped for a moment in the shade of the arch to adjust her sun turban. As she reached out to wrap the turban around her head, I made this image. Now it tells a story. Because I have abstracted her by turning her into a silhouette, she becomes a symbol for every visitor. We can now imagine what it must feel like to walk out of the shade into the blistering heat to visit this almost 200-year-old Buddhist pagoda rising on its seven concentric terraces in the distance. Instead of making a cliché, I have made a photo that invites you to join this vicarious experience.
Canyon of the Merced from Valley View, Yosemite National Park, California, 2004
This image could almost be a “Kodak Moment” or picture postcard. In other words, this image was on its way to becoming just another pretty picture describing a beautiful scene. There is nothing wrong with such an image, of course. But pictures intended primarily as attractive descriptions are not a form of expressive photography. Would it be a cliché? Almost. Pretty of famous sights such as this one are made from the same spot in the same way over and over again. Eventually, such imagery fails to stimulate our imaginations and emotions. So what makes this particular image any different? How do I bring “fresh vision to a tired cliché? The top half of this picture is, indeed, a Kodak moment. On the left, we see 7,500-foot-high El Capitan, one of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks, in all of its pristine beauty, shot with a 24mm wideangle lens to add the context of the surrounding forests and cliffs. It’s the bottom half of the picture that departs from expectations, and involves what I feel is a fresh vision. I make sure that the Merced River, with its predictable reflection of El Capitan, is underexposed. I turn this river into a hauntingly dark channel, taking up almost half of the image. I position myself so that rocks break up the reflection of El Capitan, suggesting it, but not defining it. This image now becomes one with a split personality. The top is predictable, but the bottom is not. It challenges the imagination, conveys the sense of mystery, and yes, even suggests the possibility of tragedy that has always surrounded El Capitan, a rock-climbers dream. I must have had a premonition. Just a few days later, two El Capitan climbers would perish as an early fall blizzard swept through Yosemite.
Sunset cliché? Somewhere off Land’s End, England 2004
When shooting sunsets, I usually try to capture their effect on other things, rather just than shoot a sunset itself, which is one of the most common clichés in photography. I can even tolerate a cliché sunset if it incorporates a context such as an impressive ship or mountain range in the distance, or a powerful, abstract anchor in the foreground. I’ll also exempt lovely landscapes enhanced by the afterglow of a setting sun from my list of clichés – because such images are not about the sun itself, but rather the colorful effect of the setting sun.
Just shooting a setting sun because it is “pretty” is a tired excuse for an expressive image. We’ve seen those sunsets over and over again. Must we make still another one? So why did I even bother picking up my camera to shoot this sunset from the balcony of a cruise ship at sea somewhere off Lands End, England? What makes this particular sunset picture a non-cliché? Because I think it tells a story that appeals to the imagination. A tale about a wispy cloud that just wouldn’t give up. It kept clinging to this setting sun all the way down to the sea, reluctant to let it go and watch it finally slip below the horizon. That little cloud, which resembled an artist’s casual brush stroke, is good enough to make this into a story telling image and avoid the cliché. Yet just as this sunset was about to touch the horizon, something else happened. The round sun suddenly became an oval sun – with the little cloud splitting it into yellow and orange halves. It’s obviously a trick of nature, an illusion – since I’ve never noticed an oval sun before. The only thing I could do was to hold my shot until there was maximum tension -- created by the smallest possible amount of space – between the sun and the water. I exposed on the sun with my spot meter to turn the water black and give the sun and sky gain maximum color intensity. And I made sure that I did not split the picture exactly in half with the horizon. There is more water here than sky, which avoids that static, balanced look that plagues so many sunset shots. Adding the sun-warping illusion, the little cloud that wouldn’t give up, and my own photographic decisions together, I feel was able to lift this sunset out of the cliché department and put it into my keeper file. Do you agree? Is this a story-telling picture or just another sunset cliché? Please comment. Thanks.
Wet laundry, Shanghai, China, 2004
Walking the streets of Old Shanghai in the pouring rain, I noticed this man watching me from an upstairs window. Why the scowl? Could it be his soaking wet laundry? Perhaps – we shall never know. However I do know that by including that laundry in this frame, I avoided one of the oldest travel photo clichés of them all, the face in the widow picture. I know this cliché well – I’ve taken them myself, and have had my fill. I’ll leave the face in window (usually an upper story window) to others. If I make such a shot, I want to make sure that there is something else in the frame to add context and perhaps offer a reason for the person’s expression. I think the soggy laundry handling limply below this fellow’s grouchy gaze offers a possible explanation for his mood. And that’s why I think this shot manages to go beyond the tired cliché approach.
Sidewalk Siesta, Tecate, Mexico, 2004
The animals we see most frequently on our travels are usually dogs and cats. I choose not to use these sleeping dogs as subject matter in this picture, and instead go beyond the cliché by using them instead as context. I think this scene conveys the tranquility of a quiet neighborhood in this small Mexican town. These slumbering dogs are free to block the sidewalk, unmindful of the oncoming footsteps.