by | Dec 31, 2013 | Bulletin Magazine

Boulder, CO
For three decades, James Balog has been a leader in photographing and interpreting the natural environment. His work springs from his passionate, lifelong involvement with nature as an artist, scientist, explorer and adventurer. Marrying still photography, video, film, the written word and other media, Balog and his team aim to preserve a visual record of our impact on ice, air, water, forests and wildlife.

To reveal the effect of climate change on arctic and alpine regions, Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), the most wide-ranging, ground-based, photographic study of glaciers ever conducted. One aspect of EIS is an extensive portfolio of single-frame photos celebrating the beauty — the art and architecture — of ice. The other aspect of EIS is time-lapse photography: Currently, 28 cameras are deployed at 13 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, the Nepalese Himalaya, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. These cameras record changes in the glaciers every half hour, year-round during daylight, yielding approximately 8,000 frames per camera, per year. The time-lapse images are edited into stunning videos that reveal how fast climate change is transforming large regions of the planet. Finally, EIS supplements the time-lapse record with episodic repeat photography at 26 locations in the French and Swiss Alps, Greenland, Canada, Iceland, Bolivia and Montana.

Balog explains, “Glaciers can disappear in hours or days — with not a single human present to witness the change, let alone preserve a memory of what is gone. When these metaphorical trees in the forest fall and no one is there to hear, a collective ‘natural amnesia’ sets in. Ultimately, we hope our art not only touches the human spirit but shifts perception of humanity’s relationship to the natural environment, vital to sustainable living on a finite planet.”

EIS is featured in the highly acclaimed documentaryChasing Ice, which won the award for Excellence in Cinematography at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, as well as dozens of awards at film festivals worldwide. The film was on the 2013 Academy Award shortlist for documentaries. EIS is also featured in the 2009 NOVA/PBS documentary Extreme Ice.

Balog is the author of eight books. His most recent, ICE: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers (Rizzoli, 288 pp), was released in the fall of 2012. Extreme Ice Now: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report, was published by National Geographic Books in 2009. His other books include: Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest (2004), Wildlife Requiem (1984),Anima (1992), and Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife (1990), which was hailed as a major conceptual breakthrough in nature photography. He was the first photographer ever commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a series of stamps.

ASMP: How long have you been working with photography?

James Balog: I actually started writing stories. I did a bunch of spec work — mostly for small publications where I also included my photos. By 1978, I was on my way to making a living doing photo essays and writing magazine articles — on ice climbing for Mariah (nowOutside), Colorado oil shale for Geo and avalanche control for Smithsonian. Back then, not many photographers were also climbers. After just a couple of years in the business, I got the brash idea that my best work was not going to be what magazines would assign. I started studying black and white “concerned photographers” — the Capa brothers, Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Larry Burrows, Don McCullin — guys who were photographing drug addicts and prostitutes. I realized that there was nobody looking at nature in the same way. That was a critical step on my career path. In those days, nature coverage was all about celebrating the wilderness, with endless pictures of sunsets on mountain peaks. I thought, there’s a lot more going on on this planet; there’s a huge interface between humans and nature, and we’re nibbling away at it. Since then, that has been the leitmotif of my career. I felt it was my responsibility.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

JB: On and off for as long as I can remember.

ASMP: You are degreed in geography and geomorphology. Did you also study photography in school or did your exploration of this medium originate from more personal interests?

JB: I was a communications major but was always interested in how tectonics worked and how the land is shaped. I studied geomorphology as a junior and ended up going to graduate school, figuring I’d end up working with consulting companies that did environmental impact statements.

As the completion of my graduate degree neared, I realized I wasn’t cut out for the life of statistical analysis and computer modeling that was required by the field. But, I was cut out for climbing. Combined with photography, I saw it as a way to be outdoors and engaged with nature. I decided to abandon work as a scientist and pursue a life in nature photojournalism.

ASMP: When and under what conditions did you begin making pictures? Did you have significant photographic mentors early in your career?

JB: I had no friends or mentors in documentary photography as a profession, but I wanted to work for the big, glossy,color-picture magazines. Naivete, a willingness to take risks, good luck, the determination of a Clydesdale plus a unique combination of mountaineering skills and earth science background carried me forward. Minimal living cost — no family, no mortgage, an old yellow Ford Pinto sedan that my father had given me — helped too. Buoying the entire enterprise was a factor we don’t speak much about in our 21st century world of ironic distancing: the muses — or destiny, or fate, or whatever you want to call it — that played a part too. The net effect was that somehow I landed on the path I was meant to be on. By the time St. Helens started burbling in 1980, I had spent three years producing pictures and words, usually on spec, for various publications. The work wasn’t full time, and was repeatedly interrupted by better-paying work as a mountaineering instructor, carpenter and soils scientist. But the stories — about climbing Denali, ice climbing, lumberjacks and rock climbing — published in various magazines ranging from Smithsonian to Mariah(forerunner of Outside) to the Pan American Airways in-flight magazine, Clipper, yielded a presentable portfolio remarkably fast.

ASMP: Your first book Wildlife Requiem explored the subject of hunting in contemporary American culture. How did this project originate and what made you choose to photograph this theme?

JB: I was inspired by war photography. War photography had a long tradition of turning a glass eye onto horror and ugliness. I wanted to do the same here. They’re bloody, gruesome pictures, hard to look at; it’s hard for me to look at them now.

ASMP: Your second book, Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife, was published in 1990. How did this project originate:

JB: I was doing a job for the Geographic on endangered wildlife when the idea for Survivors hit me. There was this magnificent rhino at the San Diego Wild Animal Park staring at me. We stood there eyeball to eyeball studying each other for 20 minutes and that’s when I realized, “There’s a mind in there that’s forming opinions, ideas.” You can’t see any of this with a telephoto lens. I thought we’ve been looking at animals the wrong way. We always look for picturesque places to photograph them, which makes it look like they have these idyllic lives. Looking up close made me realize that this species is almost extinct. I wanted to put them in a setting that showed the alienation of that species from nature. That led to years of pictures of animals in front of artificial backgrounds with strobe lights.

ASMP: Which other wildlife subjects are particularly memorable based on your encounters in the studio, and why?

JB: The Florida panther on the cover of Survivors. I was concerned about being locked up in a small room with this large and sharp-toothed cat. The biggest problem I encountered though was that like ordinary housecats, all he wanted to do was sleep. Even offers of horsemeat rarely held his interest. Just before that exposure was made, he drifted off into yet another nap. But a noise offstage caught his attention and he gave me a piercing, haunting look.

ASMP: From 1998 to 2004 you photographed trees for your mega project and book Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest. In 2000, you changed your approach to making this work, inventing a method to photograph the trees from top to bottom. Was the impetus for making this change primarily content based/aesthetic or did technical/technological factors also influence your new approach?

JB: Initially, I built enormous portrait studios in the forest, hanging artificial backgrounds behind the trees and lighting them with strobe lights. Supporting the backgrounds soon became impossible, at least given the limits of available funding. In addition, I noticed that light, subject, moment, weather, scale, mood, and a hundred other variables always seemed in flux. An eclectic range of visual treatments, it seemed, would better reflect the chameleon reality. So I photographed in color one day, black-and-white the next. Formats ranged from 35mm to 4-by-5. Some images were complicated productions recorded on the highest-tech digital equipment, while others were snapshots on ultra low-tech plastic cameras. Customarily, when a photographer makes an image of, say, a redwood or a sequoia, we see either the base of the trunk merging with lush groundcover or a column of wood tapering upward into the mist. With good light, proper technique, and some luck, the photo will be an easily understood celebration of the tree. It will also be fundamentally identical to many redwood photos that came before. No matter how attractive such pictures might be, or how persuasive a testament it might be on behalf of nature, I was interested in finding something new. It took several months of working in the redwoods to develop that new approach. I learned how to climb to the tops of these gigantic trees. The process is technical and potentially life threatening; at the same time it is wildly exhilarating. I discovered how to rig rope traverses through the treetops, then slide down other ropes all the way to the ground, making a multi-image record of a subject tree as I descended. In some cases, it was necessary to make nearly eight hundred exposures to get an adequate representation of a single tree. But there were rewards: The mosaics from those exposures provided an unprecedented, undistorted view, one vastly different than traditional earthbound photography produces.

ASMP: How did you get the idea for the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS)?

JB: I had already fallen in love with ice decades ago, as a mountaineer and as a young scientist. I already had thought that ice was an amazing substance. I used to love to get up in the hours before dawn and go hiking out on the glacier in Mount Rainier or in the Alps and watch the light come up and hear the crunch of the frozen ice underfoot as you went up on the glacier. And I loved the pictures that the scientists back in that time were producing, particularly the aerial shots. Bradford Washburn [mountaineer, explorer, photographer, cartographer] was a famous photographer and scientist, in the States at least, and I admired his incredible pictures of these great ice streams with the moraines in them. So I already had a predisposition to be enraptured by these landscapes.

ASMP: In the EIS project, your photographic gear is left for many months in extremely harsh, frigid conditions. What kind of special equipment considerations or technical adaptations were needed to ensure consistent results? How long did you spend in research and planning stages before making your first successful pictures?

JB: I originally thought I could just go out and buy time-lapse equipment off the shelf. But, I needed a system that could withstand minus 40-degree temperatures, deep snow, winds to 160 MPH, rain, sleet, rock falls. Plus, many of the cameras would be in locations so remote that they couldn’t be visited with any regularity. I should have spent a year doing the research and development (R&D) on this. In my case I didn’t have the funding to do a year’s worth of R&D. But I really felt the pressure of time. I had been out to a lot of the sites where we eventually put the cameras — I had been out there the previous year, 2006 — and I had marked a lot of my camera positions, and [in 2007] I felt like, ‘I want to get out there now and pick up this story where I left off last year and keep it moving. I don’t want to spend a year testing cameras.’ In hindsight that was the right choice, because it got us going, and it got the record moving. As a practical matter, though, it created just horrendous stress. The technology was untested, I was freaking out, as you can see in the film (Chasing Ice). I wasn’t so much exasperated by the fact that one camera wasn’t working, but was in fact exasperated that the following week we were going to be in Greenland, with 12 of those same units and five people, with a huge financial commitment and a lot of helicopter time that we had booked. That train had already left the station, we were going, and now, as I’m standing at the edge of that glacier in Alaska, I’m realizing, ‘Damn, this doesn’t work.’

ASMP: What are the time-lapse values used in the remote cameras? Is this kept consistent across all locations or does establishing these figures depend on variables of individual locations where the cameras are placed?

JB: The cameras shoot on average every half-hour as long as it’s daylight. Our Greenland cameras are programmed to shoot every hour because we can’t afford to fill the flashcards as quickly there given the tremendous expense and difficulties involved in visiting those cameras.

ASMP: Your EIS project can now be experienced through the feature length documentary Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, who accompanied you as videographer on your first expedition. Was there an initial expectation to make a documentary film from this project? If not, at what point did the idea for the film really take shape?

JB: We actually did not intend to make the film. The film grew organically out of the Extreme Ice Survey. It really was an afterthought. I thought it would be valuable to document the field action and we might use some of the footage on the Web site or in my lectures. It took Jeff a year and half to convince me that we should make a movie out of it. It wasn’t until he cut a trailer that I realized that the potential was there and that he just might be able to pull it off.

ASMP: Your work deals with some pretty dire subject matter about the current state of our world. Do you have any words of advice about maintaining inspiration and a positive outlook in the face of such troubling issues?

JB: I’m worried that we might be doing too little, too late, but for the sake of my sanity, I can’t go there. I have to believe that there is still time. We are clearly in the middle of a crisis already. We are not looking at the crisis coming at us in the future; the crisis is upon us. One of the reasons I am optimistic is because I’m absolutely certain, based on all of the information I’ve been assimilating over the past six years, that we have the economic and technological solutions to this problem. We also have the policy solutions to this problem. What we’ve been lacking is political willpower, which is a question of human perception. Human perception has been changing and now it’s incumbent on all of us to push hard on those political policymakers to get their act together and do what needs to be done.

ASMP: For those who are not yet environmentally conscious, do you have any first steps to recommend towards becoming an environmentally responsible citizen?

JB: As I mention in the film “do what you can with the tools that you have.” Use your voice. Use your skills. Use your money. Use your power. The path forward is being traveled by individuals committed to improving their own lives and communities, by school children who can’t stand the inaction of their elders, by innovative entrepreneurs and corporations eager to make or save money, by military generals seeking to protect their country and their soldiers and by political leaders of courage and vision. We are all complicit in the problem and we can all be participants in the solution.

ASMP: What are your plans for the future? Are you currently researching or seeking to explore any new subjects?

JB: We are looking at expanding the EIS time-lapse camera network into the Southern Hemisphere, funding permitting. We will deploy cameras in several sites in Antarctica and in South America. Beyond that, I will continue doing self-directed projects through our new non-profit, Earth Vision Trust. I feel a great obligation to preserve a pictorial memory of vanishing landscapes for the people of the future.