American Photo: His activism has made him one of the most influential photographers of our time.
His is not a household name, even in genteel households familiar with photography’s luminaries. He wouldn’t be counted in the firmament of Avedon, Leibovitz, Cartier-Bresson or Helmut Newton, the subjects of American Photo’s prior Master Series issues. Robert Glenn Ketchum, a champion of the modern environmental movement for more than 30 years, may well be the most influential photographer you’ve never heard of.
You probably know the photographers who blazed the trail for Ketchum’s unprecedented use of photography for environmental advocacy — William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. Just as Jackson’s 1871 photographs of Yellowstone were the argument that convinced legislators to preserve it as America’s first national park, Ketchum’s 1980s photographs of Alaska’s threatened Tongass rainforest were instrumental in leading Congress to set aside a million of its oldgrowth acres as America’s largest national forest — all off limits to logging.
The difference is that unlike Jackson, Ketchum did massive research on his subject and actually lobbied for its cause. Among many other tactics, he visited members of Congress to present them with his newly published Aperture monograph on the Tongass — just as Ansel Adams had worked those hallowed halls in 1936, his own prints in hand, to bring about the establishment of King’s Canyon National Park. And then there is Eliot Porter, whose color photographs celebrated a more intimate kind of natural beauty than Adams’ grand black-and-whites, and who was a mentor to Ketchum until Porter’s death. It is sadly ironic that Porter’s most conservation-oriented work, his photographs of the Colorado River’s Glen Canyon, were published by the Sierra Club only after a massive hydroelectric dam had already flooded the area to create Arizona’s Lake Powell.
“I want my work to be political, like Porter’s,” says Ketchum, whose recent focus has been on photographing and lobbying to protect unsullied Southwest Alaska, in particular the rich fishing grounds of 5.6-million-acre Bristol Bay. “But I never want to be in the position Porter was in, where it was a lament over something already lost.” Indeed, Ketchum means to intervene — in Southwest Alaska and elsewhere — before irreversible damage is done. “I always want to be out in front of an issue,” he says, “so that the work, instead of being about sorrowful regret, can be cutting-edge advocacy.”
While Eliot Porter certainly viewed his photographs as polemical, for him the argument seemed to end once the pictures were seen by the public. For Ketchum, by contrast, photography is just the starting point for an agenda of short-term exhibitions, mass mailings, public events, PowerPoint lectures and other tactics — sometimes subversive but always media savvy — that bring attention to his environmental causes. He traces that key difference with his precursor back to his own MFA work at the California Institute of the Arts. When he was at the school in the mid-1970s, it was a hotbed of politically driven, multimedia performance art, which had picked up where art-forart’s- sake “happenings” left off. “I’ve always viewed my art as a total package,” Ketchum says. “For all the work that the pictures have done, their use was mostly traditional and following in the footsteps of previous historical action.” For Ketchum, though, any performance aspect is for the sake of environmental advocacy, and any advocacy project is multimedia and pragmatic in nature. “Every lecture I give, every press conference I hold, every guerrilla exhibit I throw up in Patagonia store windows is timed to make a difference,” he says.