Throughout history artists have often come back to the same theme, a singular idea of paradise. Where does it exist and how to capture it has been tackled by painters and photographers alike. Think of Casper David Friedrich’s “Monk by the Sea” or “Wanderer Above the Mists”. Look at Ansel Adam’s “Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Denali National Park” or any one of the half million photographs that now exist of Antelope Canyon. Artists are obsessed with paradise. We all do it. We can’t help it.
National Geographic’s latest book Visions of Paradise tackles this very theme and offers exactly what you have come to expect photographically over the years. Geographic employs some of the most talented photographers in the world and they have the photographs to prove it. The list of names goes on and on, from documentary photographers to photographers who are considered fine art by most.
This book is in essence, a conglomeration of many different ideas of paradise. A simple idea, yet one that delves into varying complexities. Each photographer was asked to provide their own ideas of paradise, some were sheer beauty, some more spiritual. In the end one wonders if it is possible for there to ever be a singular and spectacular paradise. I, for one, have never been a firm believer in a single paradise. If it existed everyone else would be there.
The book is divided into three different sections; land, water, and air. While I sometimes appreciate having lines drawn for me, in some places during the book it makes the photos seem rather redundant. Each section has an introduction written on the theme, though the intros are thought provoking and meaningful recitations on the current situation of the planet, they seem to be incongruous with the photos and the theme of the book.
What is most interesting to me about this book is that approximately 80 photographers were asked to share their vision of paradise and very few images of cities exist within the book. Everyone has a vision of paradise but according to the images, very few of us live there. What seems to make up paradise is a lack of people, a lightly treaded upon wilderness. Does this mean that our existence in great numbers negates the vision of paradise? After thumbing through this book one would begin to believe that this is the case. Maybe in the end our vision of paradise is still biblical in nature.
National Geographic has always been to me a purveyor of the unaltered image. They have begun to break from that stance ever so slightly and include images that, while are not heavily Photoshopped by any means, are moving into the realm of not being a “straight documentary image”. Colby Caldwell’s image St. Mary’s City, Maryland, is an image with the appearance of being taken by a plastic camera. The photo is listed as being an inkjet print mounted and hand waxed on wood panel. Caldwell is quoted, “heaven is in the process of making photography”. While I wouldn’t expect Geographic to take this sort of photographic approach on a story in the magazine, I do applaud them for finding a place for something different.