An empty wilderness—choosing the stories we tell

Photo of An Elk in the wilderness

A wilderness scene or something else?

As I have mentioned before in my posts, I am currently working through a geography degree at the University of British Columbia, here in Kelowna. At first glance, you would think this has very little to do with photography. I mean, with course titles like “Development of Environmental Thought” and “Research Strategies in Human Geography”, you might be hard pressed to make the connection. However, these two courses set me off down a fascinating path that I think will have long-term effects on my photography. Let me explain. . .

You may or may not have come across the idea that the environment is a human construct—that is, we humans have created the idea of nature and the environment. When I first heard this idea I objected loudly. What do you mean constructed? The trees, animals, and insects all exist whether humans are here or not, so how can it be something we have constructed? While this is true, the way we view these attributes is not so clear. Consider the idea of “pristine wilderness” and what it conjures up in your mind. You may visualize rugged mountains, tall old-growth forests, or a savannah populated by the odd elephant and giraffe, but it is likely that your vision does not include humans. However, before European contact, places like Australia, the Americas, and Africa were all inhabited by indigenous peoples. So what does all this have to do with photography? Well, quite a lot really as there are some who believe that photographers have a lot to do with perpetuating the myth of an empty wilderness.

In 2000 Kevin DeLuca and Anne Demo published an article called Imaging Nature: Watkins, Yosemite, and the Birth of Environmentalism. In this piece, DeLuca and Demo look at the work of photographer Carleton Watkins, and specifically his images from the 1860’s of the Yosemite Valley. They outline how Watkins made his images and how, through gallery exhibitions, they became the primary way people on the east coast of the United States were introduced to Yosemite. The important point here is that photograph’s, which were meticulously composed by Watkins, told the story of this landscape to a generation of Americans.

Indeed, the telling of this story was seen as so important that, in 1865, the “First Commissioner for the Yosemite Commission” wrote to Watkins and asked “Are there any conditions affecting the scenery of the Yo Semite unfavorably which it would be in the power of the State to remove, or the further and increased effect of which might be prevented?” (Deluca & Demo, 2000, pp. 251-252). Yep, the officials were willing to cut down trees, and move other features so Watkins could get the shot. Also, ten years prior to Watkins’ arrival, the indigenous Ahwahneechee had been forcibly removed from the area by the armed forces. So, Watkins’ images of an empty landscape became another tool to remove the Amerindian from the landscape and build on the idea of an empty wilderness. Photography then became a political tool, as well as an artistic one. For me, this was all a revelation. Call me naive, but I had always thought of my photography as a way to convey the beauty or drama of some subject, or to simply record a moment in time. Always, it was art.

When we look through the viewfinder and frame our image, what do we leave out in the interests of aesthetics? In the past, I know that if I was composing a mountain landscape, I would exclude anything that detracted from the aesthetics of the image. These things were mainly signs of a human presence, or something that made the composition look untidy and less pleasing. By doing this, how do I change the story of what is really going on and what dominant narrative am I contributing to? These are some of the questions I now ask myself when creating an image.

Photo of photographers on a road

Tourists photographing the Elk from the 1A highway. Banff National Park.


  1. I actually blog as well and I am writing a thing similar to this
    specific posting, “An empty wilderness—choosing the stories we tell
    – Life & Landscape”. Will you mind if perhaps I actuallyimplement a lot of of your own suggestions?
    Thanks a lot -Stevie

    • Sure, add away. Maybe you could let me know when you publish with a pingback?