During my travels, I would inevitably encounter other photographers once in a while. One such meeting took place in Yellowstone. This photographer had a small portfolio that she carried in her vehicle. As we came across one photo, I stopped and questioned “Ooh, where’s that spot?” I had seen pix of that location before and had been dying to figure out where it was. Hesitantly, she began her spiel about how she didn’t know me and that this was a sacred location, and the person that took her there was a longtime trusted friend. Blah, blah, blah.
Did she think I was going to trash the place? Take my photos then tag the place like a gang member? Or was it just plain insecurity that I might go there and get better photos than her? Our conversation didn’t continue much longer, but she hinted it was near Zion National Park and only inspired me to find that location regardless of whether I was going to get any help.
On a previous effort to get a photographer acquaintance to reveal this spot, I was given the line “That was a five day backpack to get there carrying 100 pounds of equipment.” I think I unwittingly did my best teenager ‘whatever’ impression, because he stopped just short of telling me he had to cut off his sherpas’ tongues so they wouldn’t speak of this sacred land.
I did find the spot about a year later. You can get there and back in a day, not five. My first time there was a beautiful day for photographing and at one point Air Force One flew over. I’m pretty sure it was AF1 because I’ve never seen that many F-16’s escorting one airliner before (or since). This guarded location, in case you’re wondering, is known as Coyote Buttes. You now need a permit to gain access there because a video showing how to get to this location got posted to the internet once upon a time. These permits are available to those who can click at the precise seconds they become available each day for 6 months down the road. Or, you can go into the Kanab, UT BLM office and join many others in the lottery drawing for the next day’s permits. Videos of this are also available on Youtube!
In my initial meeting at Arizona Highways Magazine with then-photo editor Wes Holden, I had an image of what turned out to be Wes’ favorite spot to get away from it all. He admitted he loved the shot, but would be hesitant to run it because the place might get destroyed because of publicity. It was a waterfall, and waterfall locations are pretty rare in Arizona, so I could see his point. A couple years later I submitted the photo for a stock call and gave the place a very generic location in the title, which is exactly how it appeared in the magazine.
Some places just grew in popularity as the population has grown. Arches National Park would be a perfect example of that. Bryce and Zion used to garner all the attention for Utah’s parks and were often promoted with the Grand Canyon. Utah placing Delicate Arch on its license plate may have increased the attention on Arches NP more than any other event. Try getting a shot of the arch without any people in front of it nowadays!
When it comes to the internet, it’s almost impossible to keep anything secret. I’ve been known to pass along locations to people who I feel will respect the place, photographer or not. I am hesitant to post photos on the web that were taken in relatively unknown locations. When I do, it’s because I don’t think there’s a chance anybody will actually find it.
Photographers are supposed to be creative people, yet we seem to want to photograph spots that have been covered before. I was working with a book publisher once who put out a stock call to many photographers for images of the national parks. In his summary of all the work he viewed, he said to me “You guys all seem to end up at the same places. It just comes down to who got there at the right time.”
When I was starting out, often I would go to famous spots and try to capture images similar to what I had seen. I soon figured out the images of mine that were getting published were the places I had gotten a completely different take on. I had signed on with a stock agency, and would try to shoot with them in mind. One day I went in for a visit and explained I had some free time. I inquired about locations that might help sales and was told they could always use some more material on Sedona. Shortly afterward, I went to Sedona and spent several days getting some nice shots and then had the film processed. I went back to the agency, where they said, “Well, these are nice, but what we really meant was Red Rock Crossing. People always call for Sedona, and say they want something different, but end up choosing a shot of Red Rock Crossing.” For those of you unfamiliar with Sedona, Red Rock Crossing is the iconic image where the creek crosses in front of a large distinct sandstone butte. Elvis Presley and John Wayne both filmed there.
The creative side of me felt like I was just stabbed with a knife. The business side said “If someone wants to pay money for shots like that, it may as well be coming my direction.” I learned a lot from the person in charge of that agency and it definitely helped my sales. I still practice the policy from that lesson – when I go to a location I make sure I have several shots of the most famous feature, then I shoot for the unique features or details.
In my days as a photography student, there was a joke about a famous photographer whose tripod landed in the same three holes in the ground every time he revisited a location. It seemed very funny back then, but is something I have done on occasion since. When I find a spot that works but the light isn’t happening, I will return to (hopefully) capture it in the right situation. In my observations of other photographers, I have seen a lot of people drawn to the same spot as though there was a subliminal whisper in the air saying “Stand here – point camera this way – click now”. Maybe places like Red Rock Crossing and Coyote Buttes are just a way we have of connecting with each other “Oh, you saw that…..I saw that, too. Here’s my take on it.”