False Kiva Reality

False Kiva Reality

This past week the National Park Service (NPS) announced that they have closed access to False Kiva, an archaeological site in the Island-in-the-Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. The closure stems from years of abuse that the site has endured from run-of-mill knuckleheads, hikers, well-intentioned photographers simply wanting to “repeat or clone” for themselves a photograph that photographer Tom Till first made several decades ago.

I, for one, totally support the move, not only because of the aggregate damage being done, but also for all those photographers who flock there.

This is the Tom Till shot of False Kiva, made on 4×5 film, back in the 1980s.

I remember going to False Kiva in the early 1980s with my friends Glen and Mr. Till. Tom had a view camera and I had a 35mm. Since it was the 3 of us, it’s very likely that Glen had been there before. Tom’s image became the image standard for this place. It was published widely . . . . . and I don’t fault him one bit. And then people started to figure out how to get there. Landmarks help you triangulate. I’ve actually encountered people with calendars or Xerox copies of an image featuring False Kiva walking across and damaging the natural resources to get to the cultural resource. Not good! A while back the NPS decided that there was so much visitation to the site that they had to establish a “presence” there to let people know that eyes might be looking. That obviously did not intimidate some folks who would camp and evidently “party” in the alcove, move rocks and generally disrupt the environment. I’m glad it’s closed and I hope anyone caught violating the closure is fined heavily.

But that’s not my priority reason for supporting the closure. My real reason has to do with landscape photography and personal vision.

There is a problem with landscape icons. Usually, somewhere back in time, a pro like David Muench, Jack Dykinga, Guy Tal or the like finds an amazing composition featuring a well-known landmark such as the Mittens of Monument Valley, Delicate Arch, etc. makes the photo, publishes it and then the world descends on that spot to essentially make THAT photo. False Kiva is one of several Tom Till’s iconic area shots. Like a few others in the area the image was first made years ago and has simply been copied ever since.

Back in 1972, David Hiser first photographed Turret Arch through North Window and Mesa Arch at dawn with the beautiful under-glow. People flock to these spots now. You practically have to take a number and wait in line at Mesa Arch.

This is Hiser’s much-copied 1972 image of Mesa Arch

This is Hiser’s “FIND!” Turret Arch through North Window.

Basically all you do is go to the spot, found via GPS, image downloads and other means, set up, and wait for weather and lighting to play her part. The essential composition has already been established BY SOMEONE BEFORE YOU! All you do is tweak it a bit and wait, maybe change focal length, over-slide your saturation or make it Black and White.
Oh to have such a personal relationship with a saguaro!

It also happens to much lesser-known landforms as is the case with one of Jack’s iconic photos with a certain, very certain, curved branch saguaro in bloom. People go looking for it and miss the beauty all around them. Archaeological sites are particularly prone to this behavior as excess visitation can lead to very real damage. I’ve seen published (but not located) images of my own cloned perfectly. It makes me wonder if the person spends more time looking at a pirated print of my shot to line things up than he does in actual communion with the place.

The thing is, IT’S NOT YOUR SHOT! You are NOT BEING CREATIVE! Sorry, but not. You are not performing an original act. You’re cloning.

Yes, there is something to learn from cloning a fine composition first made by SOMEONE else, just like many painters paint like a chosen master for a while to learn their technique, their vision, IN ORDER TO ADVANCE THEIR OWN. However, most of these painters treat such paintings, however well done, as an exercise, not as a finished piece to call their own. (Unless they make their living at forging!)

Creativity – where fore art thou?

It does not seem to be the same for landscape photography. I type False Kiva into my browser and there appear pages of imagery, essentially the same composition, as well as a few maps and a video with directions. At one point in my career I would have been happy to have a few of these to call my own. I probably DO HAVE a few that are very similar, but the thing is, they never felt like a true, personal image of mine since my friend Tom made that first one, and so I let that place go and went looking for something I could call my own.

That is why I applaud the NPS decision to close the site. Photographers! Be free of the chains of cloning! Go back up the trail, out onto the land and be original!

(Note: I’m really speaking to those photographers who want to develop and be known for your personal artistic vision. There are those among us who simply “research” other people’s work, find the locations and then seek to fill their portfolios with cloned images in order to perhaps gain some sales and unearned notoriety. Don’t get me started on these ……….hmmmmm…….. how nasty to get?……..these imposters!)

7 thoughts on “False Kiva Reality

  1. Sadly, there are a number of people who consider themselves photographic leaders and experts, with the requisite books and accolades, who are some of the worst offenders. To them, the shallow results are the priority—impress the masses—with the experience simply a means to an end. And many of them will tell you to your face, Bruce, that they agree with you 100%, then go on to secretly look for another easy cliche.

    Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more rewarding, than being unique.

  2. Well said Bruce! I took a rather nice photo of Horsetail Fall back in the ’90s, but I never printed it, or sent it to publishers, or did anything with it, because I knew it wasn’t my photo – it was Galen Rowell’s photo. Of course many photographers have followed and have felt no such compunction. At this point the event has taken on a life of its own, and the vast majority of people who photograph Horsetail Fall don’t even know who Galen was, just like the vast majority of photographers who visited False Kiva had no idea who Tom Till was.

    But somebody had to be the first to copy Tom’s image and publish it, knowing that they were copying someone else’s photo. And somebody had to be the first to copy Galen’s image and publish it, knowing that they were copying someone else’s photo. I don’t understand that mentality, but apparently some people have no qualms about copying other people’s photographs. Or maybe they do have qualms, but the desire to make a sale or make a name for themselves overrides whatever doubts they might have.

  3. I must take a different point of view, Bruce. I remember having a an opposing discussion with Chuck Kimmerle at a Moab Symposium a few years ago. Perhaps his own brand of humor made him sound flippant, almost elitist about the concept of creating images of known places. I agree that if an image has been taken time and again and published as original art in the same fashion, it gets dull and loses its interest. But why undignify someone for visiting a beautiful place and at least trying to compose something with the known beautiful subject in the image? So if you travel to Rome, will you not try to capture an image of the the Colloseum just because so many others have done it before? I believe if you take that stance, then part of your argument is undignifying the place itself. Being a respected artist, you’re among the first to say that an artist experiences places differently than most and usually needs to stay within a space for enough time to absorb and be absorbed into it. If you take the stance that you would not shoot the Collosseum, you would likely be short changing yourself in experiencing the place for yourself. So before heading out somewhere to make some images, should you check online if someone has already posted an image of the subject? If so, how many posted images of the place would make you roll your eyes? If so, will you change your travel plans? I hope not. Because you would be short changing yourself of the opportunity to visit and experiences places with your own vision and sensitivities. You would also be short changing your admirers, students, etc of that too, myself included. I remember first meeting you at House on Fire years ago. I was with my then-wife and was just finishing up shooting that place for the first time. You arrived and were disappointed that the best light had already passed in order for you to capture the scene. I’m sure you had already taken some images of that iconic scene before, as many before you had. I remember asking you about another place in the general vicinity, made famous by John Sexton. Your answer was cogent. You said you wouldn’t tell me because I should do the research myself. If places such as those are publicized, too many people would trample on it and destroy it. Makes sense. The “too many people have been there and done that” argument makes less sense to me, and I speak as an admirer of your work and select others from the Moab Symposium.

  4. As usual, I completely agree with you, Bruce. For a student of photography, there is certain learning value in replicating the work of a “master”, but at some point the student needs to graduate and start creating unique work of their own. Perhaps there are simply a lot of photographers out there who just have no interest in graduating? If so, they are missing out on the incredible satisfaction of creating something original that adds to the ongoing conversation about photography and art.

    1. Charlotte! I like the graduation analogy. Some people are trying to skip class, or go to school, but not to class or spend all their time at recess while awaiting an honorary degree. Nothing really does like just doing it, day after day, over and over, year after year…….and I don’t mean chasing down someone else’s rainbows, but finding those important and perhaps fewer gems that are truly our own!

  5. Well put, Bruce, and the comments this post inspired are all valid and respected, although they don’t all agree. Trouble is, so many ‘photographers’ are being driven by the accolades they can acquire on social media when they publish ‘their’ shot, or their version of the iconic photo, that many don’t care to ‘graduate’ to the next level of creativity and experience. But just as sad is the fact that so many ‘buyers’ are looking for the iconic image, and that has driven many who make their living from photography to include those in their portfolios. Not including them can limit sales somewhat, which is the decision photographers have to face on their own, what to do…

    I have two stories I’d like to share. The first is that totally by accident, I discovered and photographed a young tree that grew in front of a large granite boulder in Happy Isles area in Yosemite. I loved the juxtaposition of that tree with moss and flecks in the bark that mimicked the boulder. I was proud of my photograph, but it never got printed or shown before I saw an image that William Neill had printed as part of his collection that was shown/sold at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite. That was MY tree and rock!! So closely composed to mine, but of course he had never seen my photo either. He did a beautiful job with it, and I respectfully put my picture aside after seeing the brochure promoting his picture. It just wasn’t going to feel right to put my own out there when his had gained exposure by that time.

    Second story: In April 2016, after speaking at your Photographers Symposium, I stayed around to explore new areas and visit some known places I had never seen. I had never been to Mesa Arch, after many years of photographing in the Moab and southwest, because it had been ‘done’ by so many. I typically asked myself ‘what am I going to get that hasn’t already been done?’ what underlay that question at that time was more like ‘what chance do I have of selling my photo of a place that has been done so well by the likes of Tom Till, Ansel Adams, David Hiser, David Muench…whomever?’ Because of that kind of thinking, I typically go down my own path and seek out unique vision, and if I visit an iconic location I try very hard to do something different with it. That’s hard in places like Mesa Arch, and yet I was drawn to experience it. I thought, what the heck? I want to see it at least, for myself. Of course I brought a camera, etc., and I got there early, too. 🙂 But I was not alone. I joined a group of 8 already there, and by the time the light was getting right, there were over 45 people jockeying for a position! I had people reaching over my shoulder with smartphones to snap a photo when the light got going. In the end, the experience was marred by the crowds. I’m glad I finally saw it, but did I experience it? Not in the way I had hoped. I had hoped among other things to hear the desert birds as they awoke and to celebrate the way the light bathed the rock as it rose. I was instead exposed to chatter, lots of jostling for position, and the concern of making sure no one knocked my tripod over!

    I think the commenter is correct in that to not visit an iconic location and try to interpret it for yourself would be a shame, yet based on my experience at Mesa Arch, I wasn’t able to find my creative muse for all the people that were hopping around. I haven’t come to terms with that issue, because I do hope to visit iconic spots to take in their beauty, for myself, but it’s not very easy to do in a crowd…

    We can’t control the fact that way more photographers exist now because digital made entry into photography so much easier for so many. Nothing we can do about that, but what we can do is try, as you are here, to share the importance of finding your own path no matter where you are. Teach creativity, teach the value of unique vision, to those that come to learn from us; that’s about all we can do. And I’m thankful that there are those of us out there willing to do just that. Thanks for posting this topic!

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