Scenic Overlook

July 31, 2017

Lone Cypress Tree, Pebble Beach, California

On a trip to northern California some years ago, my wife and I took a spin along 17-Mile Drive south of Monterey, stopping for a look at the Lone Cypress perched atop a jagged outcropping of granite along the Pacific coastline.  This venerable tree, which has survived the vicissitudes of wind and waves for more than 250 years – as well as an arson attack in 1984 – is now held in place with steel cables.  Although I did not bring my camera along on this expedition, I noticed a sign at the top of the overlook that read: “Photographs or art renderings of the Lone Cypress for commercial or promotional purposes cannot be taken or created without written permission from Pebble Beach Company.”  Really?  I knew that a silhouette of the tree was used as the company logo at the nearby Pebble Beach resorts, but this was the first time I had ever heard of anyone claiming trademark protection for a living tree.  It was true that the granite outcropping on which the tree perched was owned by the Pebble Beach Company; indeed, the entire length of 17-Mile Drive was a private toll road belonging to the Pebble Beach Company.  Still, intellectual property attorneys not affiliated with the company are doubtful the courts would go along with its claim that its trademark protection extends to the actual tree.  Although the company has been zealous in defending its trademark, it has never actually had to file a lawsuit for trademark infringement.  Few artists or photographers have the resources to take on such a big company; in fact, none has to date.

Whatever the merits of the Pebble Beach Company’s position, the Lone Cypress holds a lesson for any serious photographer.  It is this: If the thing you want to shoot is so familiar that someone has slapped a trademark on it, you should probably point your camera elsewhere.  Trademark protection or not, there are subjects so familiar that they are better suited to a postcard than to a work of art.  Even if you present a well-worn subject with consummate skill in a new light or from a better angle, you must still overcome the viewer’s sense that he or she has seen it all before.  This is not to say you can’t take your shot anyway, only that you have a lot to overcome.  As a general rule, it is probably best to avoid the scenic overlook where you must elbow your way through the crowd to get a clear shot.

Having said that, I do not think the pursuit of novelty for its own sake will necessarily yield much beyond novelty for its own sake.  I am struck by something Arthur Schopenhauer said:  "The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees."  Schopenhauer was a philosopher, not a photographer, and he was speaking about truth, not a work of art.  Yet I believe the same principle applies.  If the photographer can take what has been staring you in the face all along and make you see it as if for the first time, then he has done his job.