Why am I Taking these Photographs ?
Essay by Steve Zigler
with introduction by Alain Briot

Other essays in this series

Tremont Starving
Steve Zigler
Why do we take photographs? Why do we devote such large amounts of time, energy and money to photograph certain subjects? In the context of landscape photography, why do we focus on specific locations that we visit time and over again, carrying with us on each visit the hope of creating better images of these places?

The answer is different for all of us. What is important is that we do know the reason why, a process that is not necessarily easy. In this essay Steve Zigler describes the process that led him to finding his answer to this question. I believe Steve's process can help us find our answer to this same question, making his writing a fascinating read.

Alain Briot

Why am I taking these photographs? Like all photographers I suppose, I frequently ask myself this question. And I frequently struggle for an answer. “I am taking these pictures to capture the beauty of nature,” is probably my most common thought. “I am taking these pictures to freeze a moment in time” is another one of my favorites. Sometimes out of frustration due to the lack of a suitable answer, I simply say to myself, “Because!” Such a simple question shouldn’t be so complicated to answer.

For the last three years, I have extensively photographed a small area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park known as Tremont. This location is about an hour from my house and I’ve driven there more times than I can count. I’ve experimented with numerous techniques, including digital IR, “Lensbabies,” pinholes, high dynamic range and reality-warping panoramas. I’ve invested an enormous amount of time and energy taking photographs of Tremont!

Tremont Timbre
Steve Zigler

During this time, I often asked myself, “Why am I taking these pictures?” As usual, a satisfactory answer eluded me, so I explored my motivation by assembling a portfolio of images that were taken along the stream that lies at the heart of Tremont. I thought a portfolio might help me develop some unifying theme to my efforts. The resulting images captured a lush canopy of trees with water cradling infinite rocks that have fallen from the ancient mountains. To provide continuity in the portfolio, I developed a monochrome, tarnished silver finish for the images in Photoshop. I was very happy with the portfolio, but, unfortunately, it didn’t help me understand “Why am I taking these pictures?”

Tremont Stillness
Steve Zigler

Next, I decided to write a short story to accompany the portfolio. Perhaps this would provide a context and motivation beyond the trees and streams and monochrome. So I researched the Tremont area and learned that it was clear cut by logging companies in the early 1900’s. The trails I used to support my tripod were once used by steam locomotives to harvest massive, four-hundred year old trees. Afterwards, my mind’s eye saw barren hillsides instead of a lush canopy. I also learned that air pollution in the Smokies today is the worst of all national parks. During the summer, certain pollutants reach levels in the Smokies that rival those found in Los Angeles. (Are you kidding me?!) Finally, I learned that insect infestations are slowly killing vast stands of hemlock trees in the Smokies. Through my research, I realized that the Tremont area is slowly reverting to the barren landscapes from the logging days a hundred years ago.

As I integrated these findings into my portfolio, I finally got it. I was taking these pictures because Tremont matters. These pictures are not about me or my portfolio. They are about Tremont. They are about a precious place to find peace and inspiration. They are about a place we must protect. In a larger sense, these pictures are also about the fact that we can change our planet and not even know it. Photographers know that pictures can make a difference in our world, but I never thought mine could. Now, I believe they can. But how?

Tremont Phantasm
Steve Zigler

That leads to the final piece of my puzzle. I recently shared this story with Alain Briot, who suggested that I donate a portion of the proceeds from these photographs to Tremont. The idea was brilliant! He may not have realized it, but this simple suggestion completed my puzzle. What better way to make a difference with these photographs than to give back to the inspiration behind them in the first place? The gallery owners who represent me immediately agreed to the concept and now we’re both donating a portion of the proceeds from my portfolio to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, which is dedicated to environmental education in the Smokies.

And, as a photographer, it brings me the added benefit of closure to the question “Why am I taking these pictures?” When it comes to my work in Tremont, I can honestly say I am taking these pictures to make a difference.

Steve Zigler

Essay and photographs Copyright © Steve Zigler 2007
Introduction Copyright © Alain Briot 2007
All rights reserved worldwide