"A photograph is worth a thousand words," the unknown thinker said. I now understand this to mean, "A good photograph is worthy of a thousand words." Historically the great photographers who contributed to the good of humanity with their work used their heartfelt writing to give life and lasting meaning to their photos. What meaning could we gleam from Eliot Porter's images without his writings expressing the intimate relationships he had with animals and wilderness? What would Guy Tal's work be without his contemplative writings on life and philosophy? What would Ansel Adam's work be without his writings on technique, art and conservation?
An interesting study in contrasts is to examine the opposite situations: those where we see photographers who make consistently great images, but who do not accompany them with great writing. The only response we can come to upon reading poor writing or the lack of writing altogether is that these photographers are merely there to grab an image of light and color without a connection to the living organisms and ecosystems that the images represent.
I remember reading a few stories recently by some artists who's photographs I greatly admire. In these stories, they described nights of gambling, drinking, and driving through the night just to "get the shot," while fighting against nature, freezing their rear ends off, and scarcely making it back to their vehicles alive, while spending as little time as possible in nature. They were sure to later name-drop the brands and models of the several-thousand dollar state-of-the-art cameras and gear they used to grapple with nature and produce a memory card full of digital files that could be Photoshopped into marketable products that would produce decent sales numbers for their wealthy clientele, who would no doubt consume the product while sitting in their posh luxury apartments amidst the cacophony of city streets and sounds below, all the while far removed from any tangible appreciation for or connection with the natural world.
Many photographers view themselves as conservationists, but in this case you could easily make the case that some are more luxury product designers than anything else. They use use nature as a consumable resource to be manipulated for mere economic gain in much the same way as an oil drilling company or industrial development contractor would bulldoze or drill a majestic old-growth forest containing thousands of species of delicate wildlife in the name of some filthy green paper. If you photograph wilderness and wildlife without taking time and thought to know and love them, what have you accomplished? Without empathy, photos are meaningless. They are pixels and ink, without soul or purpose.
I don't want this for my work. My work challenges me to daily increase my understanding and knowledge of the places and natural phenomena I photograph. If I don't take the time to know these places better than those viewing my photographs do, what can I bring home worth seeing? I can't change or challenge someone else's views of these natural places if I don't develop my own first. This is a standard I aspire to. Whether or not I'll ever reach it, I do not know. For now, if I can learn more understanding and empathy each time I venture into the wilderness, I will continue to bring more meaning to my work.
I have so far to go, such depths to explore, so much to learn. My words and images can scarcely express what needs to be told about these places; certainly far less than they deserve.