American Photo: His activism has made him one of the most influential photographers of our time.
Robert Glenn Ketchum: A Life In Photography
Starts college at UCLA, studying with influential photographer-teacher Robert Heinecken; fellow students include Jo Ann Callis and Patrick Nagatani. Pays bills by shooting rock bands, including the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. Shoots first landscapes at Big Sur’s Limekiln Creek on the way home from 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival.
Returns to California after four years of shooting in the Rockies, during which he has earned a living with commercial work and gallery shows. Studies briefly at Brooks Institute, transfers to Cal Arts for MFA in photography. Makes 30-by-40-inch dye transfers, one of the first color photographers to print at such a large scale. Curates shows of vintage work by James Van Der Zee and Paul Outerbridge at Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies.
Moves to Washington, D.C., to become curator of photography for the National Park Foundation. Organizes exhibit and bestselling book, American Photographers and the National Parks, about the relationship between photographers, the parks and the growth of public environmental awareness. Contributes to first photo exhibit ever held at the White House. Begins to shoot in the forests of the American East.
Moves to New York’s Hudson River Valley to shoot the area on a commission that includes photographers Stephen Shore and William Clift. Starts printing in Cibachrome directly from medium- and large-format transparencies at 30-by-40 inches. Shoots his first “confrontational” images of environmental degradation along the Hudson and elsewhere.
Aperture publishes The Hudson River and the Highlands. Ketchum begins to photograph in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass rainforest, work that shows both the area’s untouched beauty and its increasing despoliation by logging companies. In 1986 is commissioned to photograph Ohio’s Cuyahoga River Valley, a pollutionplagued area being proposed as a national park.
Aperture publishes The Tongass: Alaska’s Vanishing Rain Forest. The book is distributed to members of Congress and prints exhibited in the Senate Rotunda. Robert Redford offers Ketchum a three-year artist’s residency at his Sundance Institute in the mountains of Utah. Audubon names him one of 100 people who “shaped the environmental movement of the 20th century.”
Congress passes the sweeping Tongass Timber Reform Act, greatly reducing logging in the rainforest. Aperture publishes Ketchum’s Cuyahoga Valley work in Overlooked in America: The Success and Failure of Federal Land Management. Receives Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography and, next year, U.N.’s Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award.
Aperture publishes 20-year retrospective of Ketchum’s work, The Legacy of Wildness: The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum. Work is included in CLEARCUT: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, which ignites a firestorm of criticism of U.S. forest management. With ALC, funds the creation of Big Sur’s Limekiln State Park.
Organizes multiphotographer exhibit on the Tongass at Smithsonian; prior to its Earth Day opening, Alaska senators Stevens and Murkowski try to censor pictures and text. Ketchum alerts The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, all of which publish exposés the next day; the show is unchanged. In 1996 Aperture publishes Ketchum’s Northwest Passage, which brings early attention to global warming.
Aperture publishes Rivers of Life, with which the photographer raises funds for land purchases to protect Southwest Alaska’s rivers and fisheries. In 2002, Alaska says it will permit the open-pit Pebble Mine in the region’s Bristol Bay, creating a 20-square-mile toxic pool that could destroy the bay’s fishing industry. Aperture gives Ketchum its Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Amon Carter Museum mounts Regarding the Land: Robert Glenn Ketchum and the Legacy of Eliot Porter, a retrospective pairing Ketchum with his mentor. Attends a 2007 Washington, D.C., conference on global warming with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who supports his Bristol Bay initiative. Hand-delivers Rivers of Life to key U.S. legislators to advance protection for Bristol Bay; John Kerry co-sponsors Senate bill.
During Congress’ Christmas recess, Senator Stevens sneaks Bristol Bay off the bipartisan no-drill list. In January the government offers oil and gas leases in Bristol Bay. In 2009 the Obama administration cancels the leases, but the threat of Pebble Mine remains. Ketchum continues exhibits and shows relating to the bay.
“My photographs utilize texture compositionally,” Robert Glenn Ketchum writes in the Fowler Museum’s book Threads of Light: Chinese Embroidery from Suzhou and the Photography of Robert Glenn Ketchum. “Although photographic paper renders them with great fidelity, it does so on a glossy surface, completely devoid of relief. So I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea of translating my complex and highly organic images into textile form.”
Ketchum acted on that idea in 1986, when he first visited China’s famous Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute, just inland from Shanghai. He was met with courtesy and skepticism: The imagery he proposed translating into multicolored stitches was far removed from the traditional subject matter of Chinese embroidery, and the artisans were concerned that it would be too complex and time-consuming to execute. Not one to take no for an answer in his conservation work, Ketchum pressed his case. After some initial tests with simpler images, SERI and Ketchum began an artistic relationship that has lasted more than 20 years.
In accepting Ketchum’s challenge, the institute’s artisans had to expand their language of stitches to simulate photographic effects (see detail, above). Their vocabulary now includes dozens of different kinds of loops, knots and bundles. And Ketchum has asked for ever-larger and more-complex work, including multipanel images that have required several years to complete. The latter are Ketchum’s own nod to their creators’ heritage of elaborately produced standing screens—and the photographer has had them mounted in frames that feature traditional Chinese woodworking. Several are still in process, and more are planned. While not directly related to the environmental agenda that Ketchum has used his images to promote, these unique creations are a reminder that art is at the heart of his work. — Marvin Good