The view from Morton Overlook, with
its multi-layered and interlocking set of
ridgelines, might be the nearest scene in the
Great Smoky Mountains National Park that
could be considered iconic. Photographers
breezily call these scenes "icons" and
depending on your artistic philosophy, this
could be either a good or bad thing.
The reality here is that the only folks who
care one way or the other about icons are
other photographers. Too many icons in
your portfolio might undermine your social standing among the camera literati. Morton,
whoever he was, presumably snapped a
photo here first and anyone who came
along after him is a plagiarizing, no-talent
hack. Exhibiting amazing foresight, he even
placed a sign before the vista with his name
emblazoned across its front, just to prove he
did it first.
Of course I am kidding.
Photographic icons are icons because the
scene possesses an easy, visual aesthetic that appeals to a wide range of people.
When a photographer walks up to one of
these scenes, there's an initial instinct to
photograph it a certain way because, a)
human beings tend to see things the same
way, especially those trained in the visual arts,
and b) the photographer has seen this image
before and he or she liked it and now wants
to possess it. This makes icons an easy target
for the beginner: a ready-made, aesthetically
appealing composition that only needs
some technical tweaking before pressing the
shutter, not to mention a nearly guaranteed
For the seasoned
photographer, an icon
is too easy, unoriginal,
and lacks the pure
pleasure of discovering
a unique, personal
vision of one's own.
Empty calories, you
I can appreciate both their
virtues and sins and come down squarely
on the fence in this friendly debate. Icons
are fun, particularly when you see one for
the first time. They are, after all, icons for a
damned good reason. And if it's not your
first time, finding a unique take on a tired
concept can be fun and exciting endeavor.
In this particular case, the image was more
about the unique atmospheric conditions
rather than a new and improved composition,
of which there are very few from this vantage
point. A stalled low-pressure system over
east Tennessee had me hiking and slogging
through mud and rain for five straight days
and it was wearing on me. When I sensed
some clearing, I wanted to wait out the
remainder of the storm from a high-elevation
vista where I could take advantage of any
drama between developing light and clouds.
Morton Overlook was my first stop.
When I saw that the ridges were visible and
the clouds lifting, I decided it would be my
last stop as well, icon or not. It was just past
4 p.m. in early April so any sunlight that did
happen to break through the clouds would
be low-angled and warm-toned. The scene
would also be backlit, a boon for even more
dramatic light with the moisture-laden air,
mist, and remnants of
fog drifting through the
I selected a telephoto
lens to compress
and flatten the scene,
and to leave out any
featureless sky or
messy foreground. The
repeating lines and "V"
shapes created by the intersecting ridge lines
help move the eye effortlessly through the
scene diagonally from the bottom to the
upper right corner. It had balance, flow, and
building drama. The only missing ingredient
But it never really came together as hoped.
For five minutes or so, warm, filtered light
illuminated the valley for a bit of subtle
drama, but not the epic light show that
my imagination had painted for me. But
it's a moody, evocative image that stirs my
imagination and represents a bit of real and
metaphorical sunshine after a particularly dreary week.
Comments on NPN nature photography articles? Send them to the editor. NPN members may also log in and leave their comments below.
NPN Editor-in-Chief, Richard Bernabe has been a full-time professional nature photographer and writer since 2003. He's had thousands of publishing credits in books, magazines, and calandars and regularly leads photography tours and workshops all across the United States and internationally in places like Patagonia, Iceland, and Peru.
Comment posted by Jim DeWitt on 04/03/12 at 1:53 pm
Nice article, Richard. FYI: Ben Morton was mayor of Knoxville in the mid-1920ís and became an important advocate for creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Frozen Feather Images
Go on, prove me wrong. Destroy the fabric of the universe. See if I care.
††††† - Terry Pratchett
Registered on 08/28/06, 876 Posts, 6187 Comments Comment posted by Lance Warley on 04/04/12 at 09:33 am
Cool article, Richard. You're so right - only photographers consider icons as less than the best, and only some photographers at that.
To me, it's ridiculous. The first time I walked into St. Patrick's Cathedral, it took my breath away. Likewise for the first time I saw Delicate Arch, Moraine Lake, and a Snowy Egret fishing. Did it matter to me that millions of others already had seen the same things? Of course not.