A Conversation with Robert Glenn Ketchum

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.

A-Conversation-with-Robert-Glenn-Ketchum
A-Conversation-with-Robert-Glenn-Ketchum

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 • Adam Bartos • Mitch Epstein • Bettina Rheims • Luc Delahaye • Martin Parr • Taryn Simon • Roger Ballen • Todd Hido • Andrew Moore • Paul Shambroom

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.

So there's a bill in the House to protect Bristol Bay, the marine estuary. But what about the rest of Southwest Alaska?

The onshore campaign is trickier, and the threat is more sinister. Part of the problem is that it's not so much a federal issue as it is a state issue, because the state owns the land. And the state essentially designated the area as a huge mining district when private prospectors found evidence that it's mineral-rich, and registered claims. Unfortunately, the very same area is home to the headwaters of Southwest Alaska's two most productive salmon fishery rivers, the Nushagak and the Kvichak, which are also a world-class destination for Rainbow Trout fishing.

So the state granted the mining interests exploratory permits, and they've already dragged in all their drilling equipment and are flying helicopters in and out. They've taken core samples that have come back very rich in copper, with some gold presence as well. The company doing this has American registration, but when you follow it it's actually Canadian, a group called Northern Dynasty. When you follow it even further, it turns out that Northern Dynasty is a shell for a London-based investment group that may include Middle-Eastern interests, possibly Saudi Arabians. We've actually offered a $10,000 reward on the Internet to anybody who can trace the corporate board lineage of this corporation.

This group's proposal to the state for the Pebble Mine, as it's known, is so huge that it could end up as the largest open pit copper mine in the world. And it will also create one of the largest cyanide-leach gold mines in the world.

What does that mean?

Cyanide-leach gold mining is the most lethal mining process ever visited on planet Earth. What it amounts to is that since nugget-size gold is pretty much all discovered at this point, the gold that's left is in the form of flake and it's suspended in compound rock. So they dig up tons and tons of rock, crush it, put it in a lined pit, pile it up on top of itself, and spray a cyanide solution over it. And as the cyanide trickles down through the rock, it extracts the gold.

The gold goes into solution?

Yes, it goes into solution and drains to the bottom of the pit. Then it's run through a filter and the gold is pulled out. And what you're left with is a toxic slurry that's primarily cyanide and can never be recycled. So it has to be contained forever in a lined pit. And with the Pebble Mine complex, the lined pit will be a slurry lagoon 20 miles square requiring an earthen dam -- not concrete, but unstable dirt and rock -- larger than the Three Gorges Dam in China.

© Robert Glenn Ketchum
Click photo for more pictures of Southwest Alaska by Robert Glenn Ketchum.

Unreal.

Totally. I mean, it's off the chart. It's so classically Alaskan in terms of being over the top.

So much so that [Alaska Senator] Ted Stevens is even against it.

Ted is against it. That's the amazing thing. Ted is probably pro the offshore oil because he's an oil boy. But he is absolutely against this onshore mind. Nobody in their right mind would vote for this cyanide-leach gold mine in the middle of a salmon fishery, but you can never underestimate the stupidity of the state. So the state's still supporting it and reassuring the second-stage permits. And the mining interests will come in and say to the people who live there, you'll love this because we're going to give you all jobs, which isn't true because the indigenous people don't have the right experience and they won't get those jobs. The jobs will go to guys brought in from out of state.

So why isn't the mine proposal getting as much attention in Washington as the offshore drilling agenda?

So the resistance to this mine is now happening at a much more grassroots level. It's being advanced by a lot of Internet users. It's a lot of smaller groups that are on the ground, a lot of native village groups, tribal corporations that'll be affected because this is all in and around their lands, and it will affect their subsistence way of life. It'll screw up their water. It'll screw up their air quality. It'll drive away the game that they depend on for their survival. Most of the native villages in this area hunt and fish entirely for life support, and many of the villages function almost entirely without cash.

These grass roots groups are using me and my photographs to familiarize people with the area and show why it shouldn't be trashed, and they've developed really interesting alliances with all of the national sports fishing groups and the big commercial marine fishery groups. So we're getting support not just from tree-huggers but from serious blue-collar families who are maybe not always allies of the conservation community. We're working it in a different way than through the legislators in DC. We're working it through public action. For instance, some of the locals went to the Northern Dynasty stockholder meeting in Canada posing as stockholders, and they stood up in the middle of the meeting and asked really pointed questions about the toxicity of the cyanide-leach process so that it would unsettle the investors.

At one point an executive from Northern Dynasty was asked who would be liable for the toxic waste after the mine closes -- who pays for the cleanup. And thinking he was, you know, in a sympathetic group, he said -- and this was with tape recorders running -- he said that our experience from other mines we've operated in Montana is that we will simply walk away from the site, back across the Canadian border. The American government will not pursue us, and it'll get dumped back on American taxpayers as a Superfund site [an area designated for government-funded cleanup of toxic waste]. The "spies" at the meeting recorded him saying that and brought it back to the native villages and played it. And the villages that had been on the fence, thinking they were going to get jobs out of the mine, are now uniformly against the proposal.

So if this campaign is so grassroots, how do people get to see your photographs?

They're handing out the latest book left and right. We did massive illustrated mailings to fishermen's groups. And we also did a huge targeted mailing to foundations whose charitable giving includes a marine fisheries component, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts or the Turner Family Foundation. We made sure that whoever was in charge of that part of their giving got my books and a description of the impending assault. One of the big hits was the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation of San Francisco, which has a specific interest in fisheries. They made a $10 million pledge, to be paid over three years to Southwest Alaska conservation groups, to deal with habitat protection and fight off these exploratory predators. That's a huge gift, $10 million.

I can't say the books did it alone. The books were part of a multi-faceted, ongoing campaign that involved hundreds of people on the ground, researchers, and environmental groups lobbying the heads of those charitable trusts. But the bottom line is that you can't make this happen if those people don't know what the place looks like and have no empathy for it. And the books fulfill that.

What was the outcome of your Washington initiative on Southwest Alaska?

On the second day of the conference at the Reagan Trade Center I held my own press conference. The plan was for me to give my PowerPoint slide show about the issue, because even in Washington most people still don't know where Southwest Alaska really is or what Bristol Bay is all about. The PowerPoint has a lot more pictures than the print exhibit itself. I go into my little story about how big it is, how many millions of dollars of commercial value the fish have, and then what the threats are. I use the pictures of the habitat to show them that it's not the frozen wasteland they might think it is. Southwest Alaska isn't even above the Arctic circle, so it's got a beautiful spring and summer.

The press conference took place in press conference Room 6 of the Capitol building. You don't get into those rooms unless you're sponsored by a member of the Senate or a member of the House. So in this case, [Democratic U.S. Representative from New York State] Maurice Hinchey, who's known me since the Tongass campaign, and [Democratic U.S. Representative from the state of Washington] Jay Inslee had set up and were hosting the press conference for me. They told me I'd be able to display a few prints and do my PowerPoint show for legislative aids to the House members who will ultimately be asked to vote for the bill, and who more than likely don't know anything about the subject. The legislators themselves usually don't come to events like that; they send their aids and staff members. The aids and staff digest it all and then go back to the representative's office and regurgitate it in round table discussions where the legislator is brought up to date on a particular issue or bill.

So that's what I thought I was going to do. It was the end of a long day I'd spent walking around lobbying for banning offshore drilling in Bristol Bay and turning it into a national marine reserve. I had targeted all my California legislators -- [Senator] Barbara Boxer, [Senator] Dianne Feinstein, [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, [Representative] Henry Waxman, [Representative] Loretta Sanchez, and [Representative] Jim Costa -- because they all know me. We knew we weren't going to get to all of them personally. But where we could we did a photo op, and where we couldn't we met with their top legislative aids and gave them our PowerPoint CD and written materials and, you know, did our pitch.

As an aside, we weren't inventing this. We were doing what Ansel Adams did in the 1930s when he lobbyied on behalf of the Sierra Club to make Kings Canyon a National Park. He walked around and showed his portfolio to members of Congress. But that day we were making the rounds with a film crew and with Cristina Mittermeier, the head of the International League of Conservation Photographers, who also had a photographer with her.

Was that part of the plan?

Oh, yeah, I've learned to do that. You come into somebody's office with six people and a film crew and everybody lights up. They're on their best behavior. And so that was part of it.

So I'm wearing my little Washington suit and it's toward the end of the day and I'm supposed to do this press conference. At three o'clock I walk into the conference room and it's not just filled with staffers -- here's MSNBC and NPR and all of the Alaskan media, and there's the head of the World Wildlife Fund and the head of Defenders of Wildlife. And I'm like, this doesn't seem right -- this is much bigger than I expected. Alaskan fishermen had flown in fresh salmon and Alaskan beer and all these other Alaskan products. It's clearly much more than a casual staffer press conference.

And who turned it into that?

Hinchey and Inslee, as it turned out. So I'm standing there waiting to speak, and Hinchey and Inslee walk in. And Maurice [Hinchey] walks over to me right away and says it's good to see you again and good to be working with you on a project again. And he says let me introduce you to my co-sponsor, who admires your work, and he introduces me to Jay Inslee. And Jay says, before I even became a politician, I read your Tongass book. I've lived in Seattle all my life, and that book was magic to us. And I just think it's great that now I get to work with you on Bristol Bay. And with that he turns to the microphone and introduces himself and Maurice, and does this very nice introduction for me. He says a few words about the offshore drilling bill, and that they've invited me here today to brief everyone on this issue because my books define it.

And then he says, we have a present for Robert. Three minutes ago we put H.R. 1957, the bill we've all been working for, on the House floor. We decided to introduce it early because Robert's here. And now we have to go back to the House floor because we're still in session. So we're turning things over to Robert, and you can direct your questions to him and enjoy his PowerPoint show. Then they both walk over to me and shake hands and walk out, and I'm speechless.

So I do my thing and take a lot of media questions. And there's a couple of Alaskan fishermen who are there from the villages and we get them engaged in the conversation too. Finally it starts to wind down. And a woman from the World Wildlife Fund who I work with comes up next to me and whispers, 'You're going to like this a lot. You know, there has to be a companion bill in the Senate.' And I said yeah, I know that. And she said John Kerry's going to be your sponsor in the Senate. So I got all that in one day. That was a really, really good day.

But how did you make those kinds of inroads years ago, when you were working on the Tongass book? You were pretty much unknown to the Capitol crowd.

At first I was basically led around by [former Wisconsin Senator] William Proxmire's staff and a group called the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council that was the primary grassroots motivators at that point. I didn't know what to do, and they were telling me. They were helping me put my Tongass work up in the Capitol rotunda, arranging to show it at the National Museum of Natural History, stuff like that. And we were coordinating events around those things to drive the legislation and make stuff happen. I was a willing participant, but I wasn't the orchestrator of it. From that time on I've just become increasingly more empowered. Nobody's leading me around doing this stuff; now I orchestrate it myself. I'm actually leading groups around teaching them how to do it better. That's all part of the "performance" that I was talking about.

© Robert Glenn Ketchum
Click photo for more pictures of Southwest Alaska by Robert Glenn Ketchum.

So where do the two Congressional bills stand now?

A few weeks after my exhibits in Washington I got a call from the World Wildlife Fund, asking if I could FedEx them a box of Rivers of Life books and sign two of them specifically for Feinstein and Pelosi. And I said sure, what's up. They said that Kerry was going to meet with Dianne and Nancy about getting them on the Senate and House bills as co-sponsors, and he wants to present them with your books.

So, you know, here we have a fairly significant legislator using my work to drive legislation. That's the best of all outcomes as far as I'm concerned. I also have enough respect in the conservation community that they all want to work with me. Those groups are calling me now and asking can you help us, we need your pictures, having realized that my photographs can help them drive their issues. It used to be me calling them up and saying I've got these pictures, maybe you can use them. So that's the good fortune of a 40-year career.

You'll appreciate this. When we brought the Southwest Alaska work out about three years ago and started to tour it, we approached the big museums where you really get high attendance like the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and offered them the show. They all know me, yet the response was always the same: You know, if this show were about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge we would probably take it. But this doesn't seem all that important and we're really not interested, thanks. Then, a few days after the press conferences in DC, after all the legislators had issued their own press releases on the matter, I got a call from the American Museum of Natural History saying can we reconsider that Southwest Alaska show. And so now I'm talking to the exhibits committee about bringing it to New York. Now you hear more about the Southwest than ANWR.

Has your political experience over the years had any effect on the way you shoot? Does knowing when you're shooting that the pictures will serve a political purpose take some of the art out of your photography?

Do I think about that stuff when I'm shooting up there in a plane or down there on a boat? As an artist, no, I'm not thinking about any of that stuff. I'm looking in the rectangle of the viewfinder, and the landscape is going below me at a relatively good clip because the plane's flying or the boat is floating along. It's all about seeing. It's about what's going on in the full frame of that rectangle. I've always operated like that.

At the moment of taking the picture, all the homework I've done -- research, interviews, and so on -- plays a subliminal role. I'm not thinking this is Grant River, an important stream I need to have a picture of. I'm thinking light, color, and composition. I'm deciding whether or not the horizon should be in the shot. I'm working out formal issues. The politics of it all is gone for the moment. When I edit for the books I come back to the political agenda. But later, if I've got a shot that isn't perfect but really serves the purpose of a book, it may get into the edit.

To me books and exhibitions are very different things. That same picture would never get into one of my exhibitions because my exhibitions are entirely about my art output. My books, by contrast, are a tool for communication. To me the art of the book isn't about making the book look like your art, which was more Ansel's style. The art of the book is to make a book that is a complete and moving vehicle, one that presents a whole lot of information to its reader. And that's a whole other kind of art, one that involves sequencing and editorial choice and integration with text.

So how much time do you spend actually shooting these days?

Some portion of my time is spent in my studio getting the work edited and organized, and doing all that other stuff you have to do to pay your bills and survive, which for me is largely sales of artwork. I've always been able to balance those things out pretty well, and in any given cycle or any given year, I may be doing one more than the other. But if you look at the Southwest Alaska project, I spent four and a half years in the field, sometimes nine months at a time.

The part of Southwest Alaska that this is all about is larger than the state of Washington. Yet it only has 150 miles of paved road. So I floated 16 or 18 major rivers and many lesser ones, and flew hundreds of hours, to do the pictures. That was the only way to access most of the area. I think you can really tell that by looking at the photographs. Some of the areas that I photographed are so pristine and so remote that the pictures just really look...

Wild.

Yeah. They look wild.

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