American Photo: His activism has made him one of the most influential photographers of our time.
That total package is also designed to reach larger numbers of people than could be reached with traditional means of photographic dissemination. Yet at the very core of Ketchum’s work is the photographic book, a medium that often limits distribution to no more than a few thousand copies. “Where I feel I changed things and did something different was in working with a nonprofit publisher to turn picture books into advocacy tools,” he says. That nonprofit is Aperture, perhaps the most committed publisher of serious photographic books, which has published seven of Ketchum’s monographs. These include 1985’s The Hudson River and the Highlands, 1987’s The Tongass: Alaska’s Vanishing Rain Forest, 1991’s Overlooked in America: The Success and Failure of Federal Land Management and 2001’s Rivers of Life: Southwest Alaska, The Last Great Salmon Fishery, among others. (See timeline.) Ketchum has taken these handsomely produced books and run with them, getting them into all the right hands — not just those of photography lovers. And with that kind of delivery the photographic book can be a persuasive political tool, condensing visual and verbal arguments into an armchair package.
Ketchum’s artistic thinking is in some ways quite unlike that of traditional nature photographers. He doesn’t force visual drama on his subjects. He tends to avoid familiar devices — such as near-far composition, shallow depth of field, off-kilter framing or toying artificially with the horizon line — that could call more attention to composition and technique than to the simple beauty of his scenes, at least the unspoiled ones.
Yet the seeming lack of a true center of interest in many of Ketchum’s best pictures can be seen as the logical extension of his experience at both UCLA and Cal Arts, which included work in other media. One key influence was Color Field painting, the mid-20th-century practice of creating oversize canvasses containing large areas of flat color, content that made no pretense of breaking out of the picture plane to simulate some other reality. In the 1960s, the movement spread from New York to the far corners of the Western art world, including California. Many of Ketchum’s photographs owe their flatness to this aesthetic — horizonless mountainsides that tip up toward the picture plane, tree trunks that line up with the edges of the frame, aerial views that turn geological features into washes of color. And Ketchum makes that connection clear by printing them at very large sizes.
The images that veer toward abstraction, however, are almost always the ones that depict virginal nature. In what Ketchum calls his “confrontational” photographs — images that show the corruption of nature for our excessive needs — the more-overt message requires a higher degree of realism. These images necessarily sacrifice the painterly for the political.
Unlike most photographers, Ketchum can measure the effectiveness of his work in acres saved — and, if such calculus were possible, species pulled back from extinction. Though salvaging the Tongass and saving Southwest Alaska have been two of his most conspicuous initiatives, other bodies of his work have supported similarly successful conservation campaigns, from New York’s Hudson River Highlands to whale nurseries in the Gulf of California.
Early on, he collaborated with Tucson’s Rincon Institute in a direct-mail and magazine campaign to protect nearby Saguaro National Monument from encroaching development; Congress upped that cactus kingdom to national-park status, and 30,000 acres were added to it in the process. On commission from Ohio’s Akron Art Museum he photographed the state’s Cuyahoga River Valley, a pollution-plagued area that had defenders already lobbying to protect it, ultimately helping to turn it into a national recreation area. And in 1993, working as one of the first board members of the American Land Conservancy, he used his photographs to persuade a donor to fund the purchase of private property in and around Big Sur’s Limekiln Creek — then transferred the land to the state to create Limekiln State Park.
Ketchum speaks without irony about the circle of life, and the creation of Limekiln State Park formed one. It was there, 25 years earlier, that he had stopped on the way home to Los Angeles from the legendary Monterey Pop Festival and taken his first landscape photographs. But that perfect circle also reinforced a more practical lesson for Ketchum: Important change isn’t accomplished overnight, and political activism takes at least as much patience as nature photography.