The original "green" photographer talks about how his art supports his
conservation agenda, the part he plays in national environmental legislation,
and his battle to keep a determined mining company from destroying one of
America's unsung national treasures.
Few photographers have Robert Glenn Ketchum's national political clout. His influence comes from years of using his artfully crafted images to make the case for preserving America's remaining wild lands. The subjects of that advocacy, and of Ketchum's numerous books, have ranged from New York's Hudson Highlands to the Tongass, Southeast Alaska's temperate rain forest. In recent years, though, he has focused most of his attention on Southwest Alaska, in particular Bristol Bay, which beyond its 5.6 million acres of pristine nature is the world's largest remaining Salmon fishery.
Threatened by both offshore drilling interests and an outlandish copper-mining project, this unspoiled area is the subject of Ketchum's two most recent monographs, Rivers of Life: Southwest Alaska, The Last Great Salmon Fishery (Aperture, 2001) and Wood-Tikchik: Alaska's Largest State Park (Aperture, 2005). The work featured in those books has been repackaged as a traveling exhibition called Southwest Alaska: A World of Parks and Wildlife Refuges at the Crossroads, which is in turn supported by Ketchum's aggressive lecture program. American Photo has followed Ketchum's career for years, but here the artist offers us the most in-depth look ever at his art, his politics, and his environmental mission. --RH
Other Artist Q&As
You've been working directly with the environmental lobby for years. Where does your photography end and the legislative effort begin?
They work side by side. When I was at Cal Arts doing my graduate work, I was surrounded by what at that time was a new art, performance art. Performance art was about the act of its execution. So I see my photographs as just a portion of my total output. The pro-active, political stuff that I work very hard at is part of my performance. Every lecture I give and every press conference I hold and every guerrilla exhibit I throw up is part of that performance, which is an extension of the work and timed to make a difference.
Yes, I do want my photographs up on museum walls. But to be so snobbish as to say that's the only place they belong defeats the real power of the work, which can go many other places and reach many, many more people. If showing the pictures in a Patagonia store window means a thousand more people are going to be sensitized to the need for conservation, then let's put up a great display there.
Have you actually done that?
Yes. Last Earth Day we put up my pictures of Southwest Alaska at the Patagonia in Georgetown [Washington, D.C.]. The store is on Wisconsin Avenue right next to the canal, an area hugely trafficked by both tourists and Washington's political movers and shakers. Patagonia was even handing out brochure material on our behalf.
At the same time we put up a show in the atrium of the [Ronald] Reagan [Building and] International Trade Center, which is one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington. The building is visited by lots of tourists and many conferences are held there. In fact we got in there at the invitation of [former Republican Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich, who was co-hosting a conference with [Democratic U.S. Representative from Colorado] Mark Udall on new technologies that will help monitor global warming.
Newt Gingrich believes in global warming? Doesn't that issue raise the hackles of every conservative?
Newt's got a new book out about how green is good and how it's a conservative issue too. He doesn't understand why the Republicans don't get it. He knows the Bristol Bay issue and thinks the area is better left as a salmon fishery.
Gingrich and Udall -- a Republican and a Democrat, so it was bipartisan -- had invited NASA and [defense and aerospace technology company] Northrup Grumman and myself to display at the event. Gingrich liked the way it all fit together: NASA and Northrop Grumman were showing aerial images of earth and explaining how they were developing satellite systems to track and monitor environmental pollution and airplane traffic, and my prints of Southwest Alaska were mostly aerials taken closer to the ground.
© Robert Glenn Ketchum
Click photo for more pictures of Southwest Alaska by Robert Glenn Ketchum.
Isn't it weird to come to terms with someone whose political record is so staunchly illiberal?
It's surprising but hey, the old idiom is true: Politics makes strange bedfellows. I've had other strange alliances. One of the biggest factors in my first real legislative battle, the movement to protect the Tongass -- Southeast Alaska's rainforest -- was the Garden Club of America. Its hundreds of thousands of members got on board and lobbied and wrote letters to newspapers and their congressional representatives. They were a force.
Yet you don't think of this society of somewhat older women who love their gardens as being political. Most of them are Republican and married to wealthy men, but many of them have, in their own ways, proactive lives focused on causes like preventing breast cancer and other women's issues. And they're also conservationists. They love their gardens and they love their cities and they're on their city beautification boards and committees. So it was an easy jump for them into national conservation politics, and the Tongass was a no-brainer issue. There was no reason to cut those trees down, and they got it.
So is Southwest Alaska an easier or tougher sell, given that it hasn't suffered the kind of environmental damage the Tongass had? In your Tongass book you had pictures of the destruction -- clearcuts, piles of tires -- side by side with pictures of old-growth forest, but in your two Alaska books it's all pristine nature. And you're doing this at a time when many conservation-minded photographers are making explicit pictures of environmental devastation.
Yeah, it's a weird kind of cycle -- they're all doing that and I'm back out into the pristine wild lands. So there aren't those kinds of pictures in this project, but what we do have is a really beautiful bio-diverse and different-looking habitat because it's tundra. It's not what most of the people in the lower 48 expect to be beautiful; when they hear the word Alaska they always ask me, isn't it pretty cold most of the time and always covered with snow? If they don't know what Southwest Alaska really is, they won't relate to it, they won't care. So the mission of the two Aperture books and the traveling exhibit and my unrelenting lecture program is to put it on their radar and to make them like it and want to keep the destructive development from happening.
The two books being...
Rivers of Life and Wood-Tikchik. Both of them deal with the same area in different ways. The first is about fisheries resource protection and the other is about land resource protection. Rivers of Life addresses the fisheries specifically, and Wood-Tikchik addresses the fishery's habitat.
The assault from offshore oil and onshore mining actually began after those books were published. They were about conservation-based issues that were on the radar before the recent mining and oil and gas exploration threat even emerged, and the new threats only made things more urgent. So when we morphed the two books into the traveling show, we had a much more specific target. And that information isn't in the books, but it's in the exhibition and my lectures.
Who's pushing for the offshore drilling, and is it really going to be allowed?
The oil companies want to drill in the bay, but if there were an oil spill it could destroy the area's well-established, 1.2 billion-dollar renewable industry, the fishery. And the long-term oil projection isn't that great in terms of volume and years of production. So the economic argument is on the side of the fishery. More important, [President George W.] Bush is trying to leave a legacy of green things, even though he's been the worst environmental president in the history of the world. The first gesture was the marine reserve that he created off of Hawaii. And the word in the underground of Washington politics that he's open to setting aside a couple of other areas, ones that won't be too controversial, so it'll look like he was a good guy after he leaves office.
The environmental groups and sympathetic legislators know this. They think Bush will be favorable to the bill to ban oil drilling off Southwest Alaska because the tradeoff against the oil isn't all that promising. He doesn't have much to lose, and he'll look like a great guy if he creates the largest marine reserve in the history of North America, which is what Bristol Bay would be if it's protected. So we're playing to the vanity of that.