Photo District News commissioned me to write custom content for a number of their advertisers, such as Canon and Nikon. Conceived of as mini profiles of contemporary photographic masters, these articles delivered a genuine narrative, with mentions of the client deftly woven in to the story.
online advertorial: PDN’s Master Series sponsored by Nikon, featuring James Balog
“Most photography that’s concerned with nature focuses on pure wilderness experience. But frankly, too many of those pictures look alike,” says nature photographer James Balog. “The room for creativity and innovation is in how we’re conceiving of our place in nature. That’s where the frontier is, and that’s where I’ve tried to be.”
To that end, the conservation-minded Balog has photographed chimpanzees as if they were dignitaries and trees as if there were Martha Graham dancers, al with courted limbs and grace. What he reveals—whether in magazines or in his book projects‚is not just the magnificence of nature but also the way in which all living things are connected. This latest Masters Series sponsored by PDNOnline and Nikon features 30 of Balopg;s unique images, as well as a Q&A, bio, and a selection of audio clips.
Photographing nature comes, well, naturally to James Balog, a conservationist and outdoorsman based in Boulder, Colorado. As a boy, he wanders the woods near his home, filling his senses with the raw beauty of the trees, the leaves, and the animals that roamed unfettered. This led to a passion for the wilderness and wild adventures such as alpine mountaineering, white-water rafting, backcountry skiing, and ice climgning. That hands-on, full-on sensibility is evident in Balog’s photographs, which have been published in any magazines both in the U.S. and abroad, including Time, Smithsonian Life, National Geographic, and Germany’s Stern. His work is also in many collections, among those of the Corcoran Gallery, the International Center of Photography, and Paris’ Centre National de la Photographie.
Balog, who in 1996 became the first photographer commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a stamp, hasn’t come this far simply by documenting the environment. In an unusual interpretive twist, he uses the gambits of portrait photography—the lighting, the backdrops, the exaltation—‚to display the “personality” of both animals and, most recently, trees. This wok has been collected in books including Animal, Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife, Anima, and his soon to be released study of the largest and oldest trees in America.
Did you start off as a conservationist or a photographer?
James Balog:I think they both go back so far that it's almost impossible to separate them out. If you go all the way back to childhood, I think you could safely say that it was the conservationist. Photography didn't click in until a bit later, in my late teens. But the interest in nature was very, very deeply embedded in me from the time I was a child.
Was that from your parents?
Balog: To some degree it was from my parents. We spent a lot of time camping in the summer, and they encouraged me to go on canoe trips with the Boy Scouts. But as much as anything, it was because I liked roaming around in the woods and looking at animals and hearing leaves crunching under my feet and being out in the sun and the light, even when I was 8, 9, 10 years old. All of that was very deeply a part of my sensibility and what I was interested in.
What part of the country was that?
Balog: I grew up in western New Jersey, in what was farmland at the time, in a little town called Watchung. Over the years, of course, that's become fairly heavily suburbanized, and I suppose we were part of the first wave of suburbanization. But there was still a great deal of open space around when I was a kid. At the time, I was interested in hunting. I thought hunting was how you manifested an interest in the outdoors. That's what you did 40 years ago. I could literally go out my backdoor with a shotgun and start wandering off in fields, where there were big open spaces you could hunt in. You can't do that anymore; it's all filled in.
Have you gone back and photographed New Jersey?
Balog: No. I have no interest in going back. You know, even as a little child I found myself feeling miscast in New Jersey. I was very aware of the fact that I was hemmed in by space. I remember sitting up in the tops of the trees I used to like to climb and look out from. I remember how euphoric that was and how open it felt to suddenly get these big vistas dropping away from you. I somehow learned that you could have those kinds of vistas if you lived out West, that that was a normal part of the landscape.
Did you go to school for photography? When did you pick up that part?
Balog: My only formal education in photography--my only formal education in image making--was in motion-picture film work. I took a couple of courses in that in college, and I took a number of courses in speech communications. But I took no still-photography courses. My only formal still-photography training was a one-week workshop in Maine with Eugene Richards and a one-week workshop with Ernst Haas in Aspen. Otherwise, I'm self-taught and more or less intuitively taught. I think nature has taught me more than anything else has. It's about keeping your mind and your eyes and your nerve endings open and reacting and sensing.
Were you looking at other photographers' work or nature photographers' work, or were you maybe more inspired by documentary photographers?
Balog: Well, early on I learned a lot from looking at other photographers' work, and I was inspired by people who were doing that modernist landscape thing--Ansel Adams or Edward Weston. I was inspired by what I saw in National Geographic. I also was inspired by Eugene Richards and Eugene Smith, their concerned humanistic photojournalism. Over time, I realized that because of my core interest in nature, I really wasn't an urban photojournalist, which is what photojournalism is about--it's about things that happen in urban places to the human race. What I was interested in was what's happening out in the natural spaces and what's happening between people and nature. It seems like a real shame that the environmental side of photography hasn't focused enough on this interface between humans and nature. That's a big story, and there's a lot to look at, a lot to think about, a lot to talk about. Yet most photography that's concerned with nature focuses on the pure wilderness experience. All those pictures look alike. The room for creativity and innovation and invention is in how we're conceiving of our place in nature. That's where the frontier is, and that's where I've tried to be.
I can see that. In typical nature photography, you don't really see the interaction. The photographer is invisible.
Balog: About a week ago, I was in Connecticut photographing the largest oak tree in New England on this farm. The elderly man who was the farmer who had lived on this ground for his entire life--he was 80 years old--was very interested in tagging along with me because he was in a camera club and he wanted to talk camera talk. He started talking about how they had this rule in the camera club that you couldn't show the presence of humans in the pictures, that you couldn't show anything. There couldn't be a wire or a phone pole, let alone any overt thing like a pasture or something. And I said to him, "The whole story about this tree is the fact that this 400-year-old tree is standing here surrounded by forest that's been mowed down and the only thing that exists now is a pasture." That's the story. That's what's interesting--not hiding from the fact that that happens.
In some of your pictures, the camera pulls back and we see the set, the lights, the backdrop, and all the trappings of photography.
Balog: Yeah, absolutely. In some cases, I allow the edge of the set, the edge of my own artificial, artistic imposition, to show up because I don't want to hide from that. I want to acknowledge that there is a living human and a living eye and a living mind and a living heart responding to what's going on out there. I'm not going to try and pretend that a human being doesn't exist in the interaction between photographer and subject.
As long as we're talking about that, you photographed animals against white backgrounds in your books Animal and Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife. What was the story that you wanted to tell with those projects?
Balog: Well, for the Survivors series, I originally came up with this idea of the white backgrounds as a way of focusing on the sculptural beauty of the animals and to drive the eye into seeing that more purely than you do when you're looking at an animal in a natural environment. I also wanted to symbolize the fact that animals were becoming endangered because they had no habitat to live in. It was, initially, also meant to be a symbol of alienation. As time went on, I came to realize that there was another thing happening, which is that the white backgrounds kind of created a theater screen. On that theater screen, you could sense the consciousness that was in the animal and find a connection between consciousness in the human mind and those animals. So, as I went from the Survivors series to the series that became the Animal book, I became more and more interested in that psychological connection and the expression of the mentality of the animals and the personality of the animals in this theatrical space that I had created.
What's the difference between expressing their personality and sentimentalizing the animal?
Balog: There's a fine line. Some people who are of a purely rationalistic, scientific frame of mind would say that any suggestion that there's a personality in the animal is sentimentalizing them. I disagree. I think most animal scientists today would tell you that the old European view--that animals don't have a personality--is wrong. You could talk to Jane Goodall about that, and I think she would support me. I want to evoke the personality in the animals. I was very afraid, originally, of looking into the animals' eyes in the pictures because of the danger of the viewer then getting all warm and fuzzy and smarmy about "Oh, look at this big pretty pussycat looking at me with big eyes." It wasn't until I shot the Florida panther picture that wound up on the cover of the Survivors book that I realized that you could have an animal image that was impossible to sentimentalize. That cat was in charge, and nobody but a fool would make that into a smarmy interaction between viewer and subject. So then I started to be more secure in the idea of bringing the eyes into the shot, in situations where I sensed that the animal was in sort of a mental and aesthetic control of the picture, and that I could be sure of their own power of mind and personality coming across.
From a conservationist point of view, if your pictures are trying to get people to care about animals that are in danger of extinction, wouldn't it serve you to have people identify with the animals?
Balog: I think there's ample opportunity for viewers to find images of cute and fuzzy animals in the world. I'd like to elevate the social dialogue a bit and recognize this broad consciousness that's floating around out there. Look, we come from a 400- or 500-year-old European intellectual tradition that says that humanity is the only place that consciousness and personality reside--and it says that in spite of tremendous observational and experiential evidence to the contrary. So I would like to see my pictures take the more forward-looking view and recognize the personality and the consciousness that are out there.
How cooperative are the animals when you're taking the portraits?
Balog: The animals are generally extremely cooperative when we take these portraits. I was really nervous about that, honestly, in the beginning of the series. But we found that in most cases, they're very curious about what's going on and they're interested in this sort of exchange, this eyeball-to-eyeball exchange. I assume they see the world the same way we do, and so they're interested in an exchange of another sentient being looking at them and them looking back and just kind of seeing what that's about.
Did you have any reservations about taking them out of their environment?
Balog: Yeah. There's a part of me that was very troubled about them not being in the natural environments, and I still am. I would rather see a rhinoceros in the savannah of Kenya then see it in a studio somewhere or in an outdoor zoo enclosure that we make to look like a studio. I talked at great length, in fact, to a man named Peter Singer, who's the leading theorist of the animal-rights movement. He looked me up one time when he was in Boulder, and we spent a day together and I expressed concerns about this to him, and he said, "Look, the fact of the matter is, you didn't invent the reality that has animals in captive environments. Once they're here, you might as well use those captive environments to create something that's socially and ecologically useful to them. " I think that's about as good an answer as I've been able to give myself.
So for the pictures that you took for those two series, a lot of those were animals in zoos and you just set up a backdrop behind them? You didn't actually remove the animals and bring them to your studio?
Balog: No, no, no. None of them were wild animals. They were all captive in some fashion, in closures small and sometimes quite large--sometimes many, many acres. We put up the background on stands and set the lights up and waited and induced the animals in with carrots and apples and hay--whatever it took to get them to come and be curious. We never harassed them. We never drugged them. In the old days, movie photographers sometimes used to drug animals to get them to be static for a camera. We never did anything like that. It was always a deep concern to stay respectful of the animals' experience and their space and create something that was emotionally tolerable for everybody.
There weren't any safety issues?
Balog: Oh, yeah. There were safety issues all the time. There were plenty of situations where you didn't want anything to go wrong. I was in a room with a grizzly bear that was marching around quite at will, and nobody could have stopped him if he had been in a bad mood. I literally had that bear within 15 inches of my face. It makes you a little bit nervous.
I've seen the nails on that bear...
Balog: They're so strong. The only thing you can do is to try and remove the fear from your mind and your body, be relaxed, be calm, be honest emotionally with them, and you can have a productive exchange. That's key. They sense fear, they sense hostility, they sense anxiety, and they'll react to that. So it's really important that no matter how things are happening, you keep your mind in control and not be fearful.
Which animals that you were photographing did you develop relationships with?
Balog: In the Animal series and in the Survivors series there are a lot of pictures of a chimpanzee named Sally. I worked with Sally over a three- or four-year span. I got to know her quite well. In fact, when we hadn't seen each other in four or five or six months and we'd come into a studio for the first time together, she'd kind of be just like my daughter is now. I've got a little 1-year-old daughter, and when she hasn't seen me in a day and I come around the corner, she does this double take and her eyes light up and she comes running toward me. Sally was the same way, like we were pals. In fact, during one period, she would just throw her arms up and come over and give me a big kiss. So it was great fun to have the relationship.
Much of the work we are talking about has been shot in a controlled environment, and yet you've also done countless adventure photographs and landscapes.
Balog: I've spent an enormous amount of my life outdoors. I've been on mountaineering expeditions all around the world. People have often asked me, "Where is that work in your books? Why is it all this studio stuff?" It's because I have always believed that books were a place where you should do special and innovative, interesting work. All of the more routine image making that I've done of pretty landscapes or adventure sports or whatever, I didn't consider to be aesthetically significant or aesthetically challenging enough to warrant making a book out of.
You've said that your most important work is your self-initiated work, so is the other stuff mostly for magazines?
Balog: Yeah, that's exactly right. When you're doing a magazine story, you're out there telling the corporate story instead of expressing something that's coming out of your soul and your life experience.
What magazines have you shot for?
Balog: I've worked for basically all the major picture magazines in the world. In America, it's been National Geographic and Life and Time and Smithsonian, Outside.Stern magazine in Germany. And a lot of those Sunday supplement magazines in Europe that are the basic picture magazines of Europe. Those were for a long time my standard bread and butter. But I do feel like the most meaningful work for me as a person has been represented in the form of these extended projects that one way or another eventually become books.
“Techno Sapiens” [a series on the overlapping of technology and mankind] was the last big project before you began the "Mega-Tree" series four years ago. How did you end up making the transition from humans to trees?
Balog: The question of motivation is one of the most interesting aspects of art there is, and I don't believe it's often enough discussed. I look at the past 20 years of my life and I wonder, Why was I doing these pictures of animals being killed? What did that mean? Why was I doing pictures of animals fighting for their survival? What did that mean? Why did I do pictures of animals meeting humans in a peaceful setting? Why did I make pictures of the human animal being trapped in the world of technology? What did all that mean? Those things are tied to external real-world issues, but they're also tied to things that were happening internally.
With your other projects, there was a social or political message that you wanted to come out in the pictures. What were your reasons behind wanting to photograph America's largest and oldest trees?
Balog: One of my biggest things with the tree series is I want to celebrate these distinguished, unique citizens of America. The culture at large doesn't know these trees even exist. Yet to my eyes, they're much more consequential members of this continent than the transient celebrities coming out of Hollywood. These guys have done something, and I would like to hold them up and exalt them and say, "Look at this. They're wonderful." That's the essential issue. At the same time, there are other issues happening. I've become aware of the degree to which the United States has been deforested. I would like to symbolically reconstruct forests. The big vertical shots in the Mega-Tree survey, for me in a very real, concrete, creative sense, are reconstruction. When I come home from shooting a tree, I've got CD after CD loaded with pictures. I start at the bottom of the tree and I rebuild it in Photoshop all the way back up in a composite. So it's like this ritual reenactment of giving birth to the forest again, giving birth to the places that were threatened and endangered and in many cases are gone, never to be seen again.
It's funny that you compare the trees to celebrities. I heard that early on, you approached Vanity Fair to fund the project and the magazine considered running these pictures of your famous trees.
Balog: They never did. Their initial option ran out and there has been some discussion going back and forth about how there may be an opportunity to run an extended portfolio, but it hasn’t happened yet. We’re still hoping.
Right now you're also editing the series into a book form, and you're hoping to find a publisher for it?
Balog: Yes. I have a long way to go between now and having a book finished.
This is probably premature, but do you have your next project lined up?
Balog: I hope I never do a next project. [laughs] I'm exhausted. I'm really cooked. For my next project, I hope I'm going to be able to conceive of something that I can do close to home with limited means. A lot of this project was born during a much more robust part of the American economic history, and the momentum of it has carried me through a somewhat marginal part of the American economic history. We may very well be living in marginal economics for a while, and I don't want to have to put myself through this financially again.
You just finished the tree project two days ago. Do you feel a sense of closure?
Balog: I feel a great sense of relief. I feel a sense of having enough closure--I know I don't have complete closure. I can think of at least four or five shots that I'd still like to get. It wouldn't be bad if I got them, but I can live without them. Cartier-Bresson said, "Nothing is ever perfect, and nothing is ever finished," and I feel like I'm very much in that condition. I could probably keep going for another 10 years on this thing. But for the moment, I have to respect the fact that I've got a finite amount of energy, got a limit to my financial resources, and it's time to just put some borders around this thing and bring it out into the world and let the trees have a chance to speak for themselves.