Luckily and amazingly, for 40 years I’ve been able to devote the bulk of my time and energies to environmental advocacy – by day as an environmental lawyer, and the rest of the time as a volunteer activist/leader. I’m proud to have supported – and been supported by – many fine organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, USEPA, Friends of the National Zoo, DC Habitat for Humanity, and others. I serve on two Sierra Club boards – those of the DC Chapter and the national board. I also serve as President of the International Dark-Sky Association. www.darksky.org.
Not until I was in my 30’s did I visit a national park, only then learning to love wild places. A 1985 backpack along the North Rim was a watershed. A single photograph almost literally summoned me to Monument Basin in Canyonlands National Park in 1990 and ultimately inspired me to become a part-time wilderness guide specializing in the desert Southwest. Since then I’ve taken dozens of trips to southern Utah, the Sonoran Desert, the Rockies and the Sierra. Doing so, I unknowingly busted my lifetime carbon budget, so I now travel only in association with business trips.
Everyone’s a photographer/videographer these days, which is terrific. These skills should be taught in junior school. It was about that stage in my life when I got a Kodak Brownie and started to develop an interest in image-making. My parents would sometimes roll their eyes when I asked to have yet another roll of film developed and printed, but always complied. As an adult, I took instruction at the Smithsonian in the 1980s, the USDA graduate school in the 1990s, and more recently with a private tutor. I’m now searching for another tutor.
About My Photographic Work
My values drive my image-making, just as they do my legal work. To the extent that I’m any good at either, its because my values and passions provide inspiration and energy. I’m sure I’d be no good at tax law or fashion photography – a sad commentary. There is also some ego-boosting involved.
My emphasis has evolved somewhat in recent years. While I once took artsy outdoor photos – of rocks, leaves, etc. – I’m losing interest in such. My interests are narrowing to the creation of images that create a sense of place. The response I’m looking for is something like: “wow, would I like to be there someday” or “jeez, we need to protect places like that.” (That said, I can’t resist making an interesting image – even a non-environmental one – when the opportunity presents itself. See the images in my “Misc” portfolio.)
I’m not in this for the money. Like any cook or singer, my aim is chiefly to get as many eyes on my work as possible. Accordingly, my friends can buy prints at marginal cost, and for those in the DC area I have a relationship with a framer who gives me wholesale prices. Others can have prints at average cost (meaning that a small contribution to my capital outlays is asked). I have 50 pieces hanging in Sierra Club offices – all donated.
Many eco-photographers, such as Rowell and Porter, have described their image-making as a matter of capturing on film the visual experience they have when viewing certain landscapes. This approach is often used to rationalize substantial reworking – even distortion – of the captured image, particularly in the realm of color saturation. I used to buy that. Now I think that everyone is doing their best to make the best images they can. If a heavy dose of Photoshop is necessary, fine – as long as the result is pleasing. I don’t apologize for using Photoshop.
Indeed, I spend quite a bit of time polishing images in Photoshop. While most digital cameras are set up to add “just the right amount” of saturation, contrast, and sharpness to the images they produce, my D810s are set to record the flattest possible image, adding none of this to the RAW files it creates. Starting from zero, I restore these values on the computer. I don’t add or subtract elements (like a bird or the moon).
Perhaps the most notorious “distorter” of photographic images was Ansel Adams. Long before it became fashionable, he would spend hours and sometimes days burning, dodging, and teasing a given print, often making as many as 80 versions before he was satisfied with the result. Said he: “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” And so he would virtually blacken (Zone 2) a blue sky over Half Dome taken at 3pm.
If you think this illegitimate or somewhat so, you should know that there is not currently – nor has there ever been – an objective photographic technology. No camera, and no combination of camera, developer, and print process, has ever produced an image that faithfully reproduces the scene as viewed by the photographer. Indeed, no two people view the same scene in the same way, given differences in our values and biases, as well as our visual acuity and ability to distinguish colors). My two eyes perceive the same scene in slightly different colors, and with slightly different brightnesses.
My bottom line: the best image is the one that best evokes emotion.
On Digital Photography
When I first filled this space with verbiage ten years ago, I argued that digital was better than film. Such arguments have been relegated to the dustbin of history – and removed from this website. I mean no disrespect to those who use antique cameras, just as I respect those who like to drive antique cars.
Reach me at jimdougherty-at-aol. Phone 488-1140 in DC.