The finale of the epic series "Breaking Bad" airs tonight. I don't watch that much TV, but when Netflix suggested I try this tale of a high school chemistry teacher who gradually changes into a meth kingpin, all the while believing his motives are justified, I tried it and was hooked. It also got me thinking about how easy it can sometimes be for photographers and others who value the beauty of nature to end up trampling on it.
No, I'm not going to give away how the series ends since I won't get to see it myself until tomorrow on Amazon Prime. I cut the cord for cable TV back at the beginning of this year. There will be no spoilers here for those who haven't succumbed to the temptation to watch Breaking Bad yet. But suffice it to say, the series strikes me as one of the best things I've seen in a long time. Walter White is already somewhat ill at ease with his life as the series begins when receives a diagnosis of lung cancer. His brother in law works for the Drug Enforcement Agency and gives Walt, a chemistry teacher, the idea to cook meth to raise money for his chemotherapy treatment and to leave a nest egg for his family. Over the seasons, as Walter White transforms into Heisenberg, his drug kingpin alter-ego, he never really means any harm — at least none that he doesn't have to and that is justified. It just turns out that way. He's just looking out for his family but ends up hurting them greatly and finds himself alienated both from family and friends. This is not what he set out to do.
Most of the action in Breaking Bad takes place in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. The local color of the city and the grandeur of the surrounding desert landscapes are beautiful and become almost characters in the drama themselves. The cinematography on the show also benefits from a time-lapse video technique that is apparently done with 35mm still digital cameras. Breaking Bad is beautifully filmed.
It occurred to me some while back after a binge of catching up on Breaking Bad that there are perhaps parallels between the trajectory of Walter White and that of some photographers and others who profess to enjoy and perhaps even revere the beauty of nature but end up taking actions that are counter to that principle.
Outdoor photographers sometimes go to great lengths to photograph various sights. Hikers can burn more than a few calories to get somewhere simply for the joy of doing so. The sights of nature can be glorious indeed and are worth some efforts to see and photograph.
But sometimes, even for the best of reasons, people can be tempted to go too far. Hiking the trail can go on for some distance and cutting a switchback may save a few steps now and then. The view from the trail may be magnificent but it can be tempting to find out if it's even better a few steps off the trail. But if everyone did this, there would be fewer flowers beside the trail next year. Stepping on native plants can easily kill them. But even stepping between them can cause harm since the soil, once compacted, repels water rather than holds it, eventually resulting in bare dirt rather than alpine meadows.
There are other ways that photographers have damaged the landscape they purport to admire too — anything from dropping litter to cutting back branches that block their view. As an extreme example, southwest landscape photographer Michael Fatali wanted to create a dramatic light underneath Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park for a photography workshop in September 2000. To do so, he lit several fires under the arch. I'm sure he didn't intend to, but the fire left marks on part of the sandstone next to the arch. He was eventually placed on two years' probation and fined over ten thousand dollars to cover the he cost of cleanup. In court, Fatali also admitted to lighting several fires in nearby Canyonlands National Park a few years before. In his quest for unique images, he clearly ended up taking things too far. In a subsequent message to the photography community, Fatali apologized for what happened and said that he "simply screwed up."
I've never met Michael Fatali but have long admired his work. He's a talented photographer. And I don't want to make this about him other than that his experience amplifies what well-meaning people can do without ever fully realizing how things might turn out. It's likely that after initially shooting with camera flashes and flash lights at night, he moved on to ever brighter light sources on subsequent trips until hitting on the idea of starting controlled fires to light his landscape subjects. I'm sure he never intended what happened. No one starts out lighting fires that damage national park lands, but one thing led to another and they eventually got out of control.
And Fatali is surely no Heisenberg of course. It's just that both show evidence of falling for the same slippery slope of seemingly benign but morally foggy choices. A small step off the beaten path may do no real harm. Another small one may be only marginally questionable. But the gradual incrementalism of rationalizing increasingly questionable decisions can lead to regrettable outcomes.
I've seen parents coaxing their kids to walk out across alpine fields to pose for vacation snapshots. Although they should, they may not know any better. But photographers and hikers who profess to value the outdoors they visit have an obligation to become educated in preserving the landscape. It's more fragile than many realize. When explorers first visited Mount Rainier's Paradise Valley they named it based on the incredible sights they saw. As more and more visitors go there every year though, the flowers only grow in abundance further from the visitor center. The park service has been working to restore the meadows, but they're up against a formidable foe — us. The same story is repeated most everywhere photographers, hikers and tourists congregate.
Tread lightly when you go out photographing in the wild. Even if your own actions cause only minimal damage, the result when added to those of others may be more than what you expect or would accept had you realized. Taken collectively, actions have consequences even if such is not always clear when viewed individually.