Colorful Cuthona (Cuthona abronia) – guest photo courtesy of Ron Wolf
[Editorial note: This is the second part of Infinite Possibilities, a series which started yesterday, refuting the belief that “it’s all been done” / “there’s nothing new under the sun” in photography. This series was originally written in early August 2006, then expanded and published on my old website in late October of 2009, and now expanded again as I republish it mid December 2010.]
Part 2: The Argument of the Unexplored
Related to the idea that “it’s all been done” in photography, and implicit within it, is the notion that the world is well explored now, with no secrets left to reveal.
Once upon a time, just a few hundred years ago, maps had large areas of uncharted territory on them. Sometimes they’d show sea monsters, and say “Thar be dragons”. Beyond that, people believed, lay the edges of the flat Earth. But, nowadays, The Age of Discovery is long past. We can look at maps, and everything is filled in. We can look at photos of the Earth from space, and get an account of what is where. We can access Google Earth from the comfort of our easy chairs, and look at detailed images of seemingly almost any part of the surface of the planet that we want.
Planes gird the skies. Ships crisscross the seas. In an age when we do cartography by satellite, surely, we’ve left no stone unturned. And life forms? Expeditions have explored and catalogued life in the Amazon and the Antarctic, the Gobi and the Galapagos, the Serengeti and Sulawesi, Zambia and Zion. Surely, we’ve thoroughly documented the life on this planet. Right?
Bill McKibben believed so, when he wrote that there was an excess of wildlife photography, and pushed for a moratorium, in his 1997 article The Problem with Wildlife Photography, in DoubleTake magazine. He spearheaded a contingent which pushes for a moratorium on wildlife and landscape photography, still.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, there’s actually plenty left to discover. The world is a very different place, when you explore it one footstep at a time, than when you zoom past it, or look at it from a distance.
For example, the world’s biggest cave was discovered, in Vietnam, earlier this year. Meanwhile, 176 caves were discovered in the Pang Mapha region of Thailand in the last several years. In California, where I’m writing this column, 17 caves have been discovered in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks region, alone, since 2003. Note that the article linked in the previous sentence says “…caves are discovered with almost mundane regularity…”, and mentions that a local, Scott McBride, has found 50 since 1994. The world is still rife with undiscovered caves.
There are big things still being found above ground, too. For example, the discoveries of several of the tallest waterfalls in the world, in Peru, over the last several years. Or, closer to (my) home, the discovery of a 400 foot tall waterfall in California, a few years ago.
As for life forms: there’s still a lot left to discover, there, too. This article, about the hundreds of new species discovered by the California Academy of Sciences expeditions over the last decade, mentions “we [the scientific community] have only documented and described an estimated 10 percent of the species on Earth”. Many of these newly discovered caves, mentioned a couple paragraphs above, are teeming with previously unknown life forms. Note that the Sequoia-Kings Canyon link, above, mentions finding 27 new species in the parks’ caves, in a recent survey. In this link, which discusses eight new species found in a cave in Israel, evolutionary biologist David Fitch of New York University says, “Many of these caves, like other geographically isolated systems such as oceanic islands, have a high proportion of endemic species found nowhere else. So the finding that there are several new species of invertebrates [in Ayalon Cave] is not really very novel.” The announcement of the discovery of the squidworm, a couple weeks ago, mentioned that it’s not only a newly discovered specie, but an entirely new genus. Further, the article notes that the layer 100-200 meters above the ocean floor is “rich in undiscovered fauna and flora”; and marine biologist Karen Osborn says, “I would estimate that when exploring the deep water column, more than half the animals we see are undescribed or new to science”. And, once again, you don’t need to go spelunking or go to the depths of the ocean, to find something new. Remember the new specie of giant rat announced in the news, last month? Note that the article linked in the previous sentence mentions that this giant rat is “…one of a number of exotic animals found by the expedition team” in New Guinea’s Mount Bosavi crater.
If you can’t afford airfare to New Guinea, then listen to the words of Dr. David L. Wagner, the author of Caterpillars of Eastern North America: “You don’t need to go to New Guinea. You go out your back door with a hand lens and you’ll find some pretty amazing things that a lot of people have overlooked.” He should know. As discussed in a New York Times article from Aust 8th, 2006, Quick, Before it Molts, he’s discovered six new species of caterpillar, within 30 miles of his home in Connecticut, in the past year. The article goes on to mention that “most caterpillars shed their skins five or six times as they grow and each stage … can have radically different markings from the previous one,” and, “…5-10 percent of the caterpillars in the book had never before been studied through their entire life cycles. The 700 species in the book are only a small fraction of the 5,000 east of the Mississippi”. As Daniel Janzen, an ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says in the same article, “You step off a plane in Venezuela and walk out into the forest, pick up … anything big enough to hold in your hand – it’s got a name … That’s not true for caterpillars, the world around”.
Scientists add about 15,000 newly discovered and described species per year to the roster of known organisms. While that number might seem surprisingly high, it’s actually artificially low: the number of species added is limited because there aren’t nearly enough scientists with the necessary taxonomic expertise to definitively determine a specie is newly discovered. The backlog is ever growing, while the limited number of qualified taxonomists sort through the flood of discoveries. And that’s not even including extinct species, to be found in the fossil record – which amount to a far larger number than the number of organisms alive, today. It’s also mostly not including microorganisms, such as the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undocumented species right beneath your feet, right now, as you read this. Further, I’ve already discussed the possibilities of photographing creatures which haven’t been “done and overdone” at the seashore, in my previous post The Allure of the Intertidal Zone. Moreover, just about each and every mining area in the world has unique combinations of elements, unique proportions of elements, and unique levels of pressure and heat, producing mineral compositions and mineral structures found nowhere else in the world, in almost every large mine.
In this post, I’ve dwelt on the unexplored in nature, for nature photography, because it’s my specialty. But – hopefully – it’s clear enough, that the concept that there’s new stuff to find and explore applies equally to all fields of photography. If we’re still just now finding the largest caves and waterfalls in the world, and 90% of this planet’s life forms have yet to be discovered, do you think the same potential for finding newness doesn’t apply to wedding photography, baby portraiture, racetrack photography, and all else? Of course it does.
The unexplored is everywhere, dear readers. It still abounds, today. It is simply false that everything has been discovered – and, thus, false that “there’s nothing new under the sun”, and “it’s all been done, already”.
Thanks for reading.
Colorful Cuthona (Cuthona abronia)
Photo © Ron Wolf, used by permission. Text © Mike Spinak. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.