Assignment: Earth Portfolio

A new school of "conservation photography" is helping to reshape the way we think about nature.

We the people, the dominant species on planet Earth, are losing the memory of what makes nature natural. Pastures become parking lots. Blue skies choke on molecules they were never meant to hold. Hearts that have beaten in the chests of species for eons go silent. And as the natural world disappears, as we humans live our modern lives of relentless techno-consumerism, our inner landscape changes as well. Choked by the speed of the digital age, distracted by the clamor of the ersatz, confused by purveyors of the useless, we succumb to a pervasive nature deficit disorder.

Photography can help us remember and reclaim our identities as part of the natural world. The photographic act is an act of love, forcing the imagemaker to stop, look, and look again, to feel whatever it is he or she has seen, and perhaps even to assimilate some aspect of the scene into the core of his or her being. It is a way of saying: Wait, let's pay attention -- I saw this thing, this moment, had this experience, and it was important to me and it just might be important to you, the viewer, if you were to see it, too. Photography is thus an antidote to the disorientation of our time; it replaces fragmentation with focus, forgetting with memory, indifference with affection.

These are the impulses shaping a new breed of activist photography oriented to the conservation of the natural and human environment. This is the goal that has brought together the members of the International League of Conservation Photographers, whose work you see on these pages. The ILCP wants to use photography to help the environment gain a stronger position on the agenda of politics and culture, and to help photographers work with scientists to show the public what is at stake. Imagemakers are the eyes of civilization -- discovering, framing, and interpreting reality -- and we can play a major role in shaping how humanity perceives and responds to the world around us.

Goals of this magnitude can require tremendous effort. Take my current work, The Extreme Ice Survey. I am traveling around the globe to record the effects of climate change on glaciers. Engineering and building 28 time-lapse camera systems that will survive avalanches, 200mph winds, and temperatures down to minus-50 degrees has been the single most daunting technical challenge of my career. The strain of traveling to 21 different glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Alps, the Rockies, and Alaska has taken a tremendous toll on my family life, friendships, and finances. Yet, as I see it, accepting the challenges and taking the risks are the only things worth doing. All of us have been granted that ancient Chinese wish -- "May you live in interesting times" -- and it leaves us with no alternative but to rise to the occasion.

The conservationist impulse has long been embedded in American photography. We build on the vision and intentions of others who pushed a path through the thickets long ago: Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson, the Weston family, Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams, and a dozen others. Public perception of extraordinary nature -- from giant sequoias to stalactite-filled caves, from snowcapped summits to raw canyons -- has always been shaped by images brought back from Odyssean photographic missions.

In 1871, William Henry Jackson led a seven-man photographic staff as part of a government-funded survey of the American West. Carrying rifles on their shoulders and making exposures on cumbersome glass plates coated with wet collodion emulsion, the team exposed civilization to a precise visual record of the glories of the Teton Range and Yellowstone, as well as a geological curiosity that had been dubbed Old Faithful by a previous expedition. In no time, Jackson's work, and that of a fellow expedition member, the painter Thomas Moran, stirred up policy makers in Washington, D.C. By March 1872, Yellowstone National Park had been created, the first major natural enclave protected by governmental fiat in the world.

After that, photography was an important part of many land preservation battles. Ansel Adams's images helped save Kings Canyon in California. The concept of the large-format "coffee-table" book was practically invented by David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club from 1952 to 1969, to promote exceptional landscapes. Spectacular imagery bearing witness to the wilds of Alaska was pivotal in ensuring public support for preservation of vast stretches of the 50th state in the 1970s -- and inspired my own career. (It should also be noted that just because photos get attached to conservation battles doesn't mean the conservationists win: Attempts to save California's Hetch Hetchy Valley early in the 20th century and, later, the Glen Canyon in Utah both failed.)

The tradition of conservation photography goes on today. National Geographic photographer Michael K. "Nick" Nichols brought back an extraordinary record of animal life from the heart of Africa during the late 1990s; with intense lobbying by scientist Mike Fay and policy makers, the images helped establish 13 national parks in Gabon. A lot more Sitka spruce would have been scalped from Alaska's Tongass National Forest had it not been for Robert Glenn Ketchum's large-format landscape work and energetic lobbying in Washington. In fact, no modern-day conservation crusade is complete -- or successful -- without elegant photographs to advertise the environment to a distracted public.

To a great extent, the images in this portfolio are meant to "sell" the natural world to important consumers, from members of the U.S. Congress to suburban soccer moms. Such consumers respond to beauty, and certainly many of the photographs in this issue celebrate nature's beauty. But people also need to be provoked, stimulated, and challenged, so there is room for tremendous experimentation and creativity by photographers in the pursuit of meaning and impact. All of this is what makes my job so interesting: Without creative vision, our civilization might be lost in amnesia and nature deficit disorder long before it ever has a chance to grasp that nature had any meaning at all.
--James Balog

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*Igor Shpilenok*
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*Igor Shpilenok*Igor Shpilenok
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*Igor Shpilenok*Igor Shpilenok
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*Igor Shpilenok*Igor Shpilenok
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*Igor Shpilenok*Igor Shpilenok
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*Michael K. Nichols*
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*Michael K. Nichols*Michael Nichols / National Geographic Society
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*Michael K. Nichols*Michael Nichols / National Geographic Society
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*Michael K. Nichols*Michael Nichols / National Geographic Society
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*Michael K. Nichols*Michael Nichols / National Geographic Society
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*Michael K. Nichols*Michael Nichols / National Geographic Society
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*Brian Skerry*Brian Skerry
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*Brian Skerry*Brian Skerry
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*Brian Skerry*Brian Skerry
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*Brian Skerry*Brian Skerry
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*Brian Skerry*Brian Skerry
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*Robert Glenn Ketchum*Robert Glenn Ketchum
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*Robert Glenn Ketchum*Robert Glenn Ketchum
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*Robert Glenn Ketchum*Robert Glenn Ketchum
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*Robert Glenn Ketchum*Robert Glenn Ketchum
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*Robert Glenn Ketchum*Robert Glenn Ketchum
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*Robert Glenn Ketchum*Robert Glenn Ketchum
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*Robert Glenn Ketchum*Robert Glenn Ketchum
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*Chris Rainier*
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*Chris Rainier*Chris Rainier
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*Chris Rainier*Chris Rainier
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*Chris Rainier*Chris Rainier
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*Chris Rainier*Chris Rainier
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*Chris Rainier*Chris Rainier
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*Karl Ammann*
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*Karl Ammann*Karl Ammann
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*Karl Ammann*Karl Ammann
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*Karl Ammann*Karl Ammann
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*Beverly Joubert*
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*Beverly Joubert*Beverly Joubert / National Geographic Explorer In Residence
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*Beverly Joubert*Beverly Joubert / National Geographic Explorer In Residence
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*Beverly Joubert*Beverly Joubert / National Geographic Explorer In Residence
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*Beverly Joubert*Beverly Joubert / National Geographic Explorer In Residence
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*Beverly Joubert*Beverly Joubert / National Geographic Explorer In Residence
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*Xi Zhinong*
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*Xi Zhinong*Xi Zhinong / Courtesy Wild China Film
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*Xi Zhinong*Xi Zhinong / Courtesy Wild China Film
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*Xi Zhinong*Xi Zhinong / Courtesy Wild China Film
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*Xi Zhinong*Xi Zhinong / Courtesy Wild China Film
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*Xi Zhinong*Xi Zhinong / Courtesy Wild China Film
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*Xi Zhinong*Xi Zhinong / Courtesy Wild China Film
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*Tui De Roy*
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*Tui De Roy*Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos
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*Tui De Roy*Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos
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*Tui De Roy*Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos
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*Tui De Roy*Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos
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*Tui De Roy*Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos
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*Tui De Roy*Tui De Roy / Roving Tortoise Photos
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*Gary Braasch*
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*Gary Braasch*2000 Gary Braasch
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*Gary Braasch*2000 Gary Braasch
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*Gary Braasch*2000 Gary Braasch
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*Gary Braasch*Austria's Pasterze Glacier in 1875.Courtesy H. Sluptzky/university Of Salzburg/gary Braasch
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*Gary Braasch*Austria's Pasterze Glacier in 2004.
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*Gary Braasch*2000 Gary Braasch
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*Gary Braasch*2000 Gary Braasch
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*Cristina Mittermeier*
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*Cristina Mittermeier*Cristina Mittermeier
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*Cristina Mittermeier*Cristina Mittermeier
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*Cristina Mittermeier*Cristina Mittermeier
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*Cristina Mittermeier*Cristina Mittermeier
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Portfolios-Patricio-Robles-Gil

*Patricio Robles Gil*
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*Patricio Robles Gil*Patricio Robles Gil
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*Patricio Robles Gil*Patricio Robles Gil
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*Patricio Robles Gil*Patricio Robles Gil
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*Patricio Robles Gil*Patricio Robles Gil
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*James Balog*James Balog
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*James Balog*James Balog
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*James Balog*James Balog
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*James Balog*James Balog
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*James Balog*James Balog
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*James Balog*James Balog
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*James Balog*James Balog
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*James Balog*James Balog
The-Photographers-Robert-Glenn-Ketchum

The-Photographers-Robert-Glenn-Ketchum

*Robert Glenn Ketchum*
The-Photographers-Brian-Skerry

The-Photographers-Brian-Skerry

*Brian Skerry*
The-Photographers-Chris-Rainier

The-Photographers-Chris-Rainier

*Chris Rainier*
The-Photographers-Christina-Mittermeier

The-Photographers-Christina-Mittermeier

*Christina Mittermeier*
The-Photographers-Gary-Braasch

The-Photographers-Gary-Braasch

*Gary Braasch*
The-Photographers-Igor-Shpilenok

The-Photographers-Igor-Shpilenok

*Igor Shpilenok*
The-Photographers-Beverly-Joubert

The-Photographers-Beverly-Joubert

*Beverly Joubert*
The-Photographers-Karl-Ammann

The-Photographers-Karl-Ammann

*Karl Ammann*
The-Photographers-Michael-K.-Nichols

The-Photographers-Michael-K.-Nichols

*Michael K. Nichols*
The-Photographers-Patricio-Robles-Gil

The-Photographers-Patricio-Robles-Gil

*Patricio Robles Gil*
The-Photographers-Tui-de-Roy

The-Photographers-Tui-de-Roy

*Tui de Roy*
The-Photographers-Xi-Zhinong

The-Photographers-Xi-Zhinong

*Xi Zhinong*
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