Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

James Balog: Acting Globally

PhotoMedia's 2011 Photography Person of the Year: James Balog PhotoMedia's 2011 Photography Person of the Year: James Balog
© Adam Lewinter

Over a three-decade career, James Balog has used his stunning, alarming images to educate the world about global climate change and its potentially disastrous effects if left unchecked.

James Balog strolls out to the deck of his Colorado mountain home and eases himself into a chair just in time to glimpse another glorious Rocky Mountain sunset.

"I just enjoy sitting down and chilling out and looking at the world," he says with a sigh. "I like to watch the clouds go by. I like to watch waterfalls. And I like to watch birds land on branches. Watching the sun go down over the mountains, it's just perfect."

While to outsiders the scene might appear peaceful and serene, those who are familiar with Balog know otherwise. He is, in fact, carrying the weight — and possibly the fate — of the world on his shoulders.

Although the internationally acclaimed photographer has, among many other things, borne witness to the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 along the Gulf Coast, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and the disastrous effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, all of those things pale in comparison to his latest ongoing project, which literally involves the future of the planet.

It's not surprising that Balog would initiate the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), a massive, multiyear, worldwide project on the impact of climate change on the world's glaciers. He has, after all, spent the bulk of his 33-year career as an environmental photographer, adventurer, explorer, researcher and artist.

"Art and science — those are the two modalities that I live in," says Balog, who holds a graduate degree in geomorphology, the study of the structure, origin and development of the topographical features of the earth's surface. "Art on one hand, science and knowledge on the other hand," he adds. "That's the spectrum that I've straddled all these years."

His efforts have resulted in an untold number of magazine features, gallery exhibits, speaking engagements, and appearances before government officials and congressional and U.N. panels. He has also written seven books and received numerous awards for his environmental and photographic work. He was the first photographer to be commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a full plate of stamps (on endangered wildlife in America).

"As a person who's been a professional nature photographer my whole adult life, I am firmly of the belief that photography, video and film have tremendous power to help people understand and shape the way we think about nature, and about how humans relate to nature," he says.

His devotion to that cause, and the vast body of work he has created over more than three decades, has earned Balog yet another accolade: PhotoMedia's Photography Person of the Year.

Going to extremes

Nowhere does Balog's focus on art and science manifest itself more than in the EIS, a project he initiated in late 2006 to document the impact of climate change on the world's shrinking glaciers.

His objective is daunting. "I want to bring the immediacy and reality of climate change home to the civilized world," he says. "I want to be known as somebody who has looked hard at the natural environment and has shifted our perception of it."

Balog has often told his audiences that ice is like a "canary in the global coal mine. It's the place where we can see and touch and hear and feel climate change in action."

At the same time, Balog hopes to bring the beauty of the glaciers to the world. "I also want to celebrate these places," he says. "They are incredibly beautiful. I appreciate them for their spiritual, mystical, sculptural, awe-inspiring beauty. So I want to put some of that across, too."

EIS involves scientists, engineers, educators, videographers and extreme-weather expedition professionals. The team uses some three dozen time-lapse Nikon digital cameras at 22 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. Each year, the team also goes back to take still photographs in Iceland, British Columbia, the European Alps and the Bolivian Andes to record the slow ebb of the ice. More than 800,000 photographs have been amassed to date.

Balog, who admits to once being a climate-change skeptic, says the time-lapse images, assembled into video animations that show the glaciers retreating, should convince even the most die-hard doubter that the planet is at risk.

"The images make the invisible visible," Balog says. "I never imagined that you could see big, monumental features in the landscape changing to this degree in such a short time. That is a truly transformative thing in my own mind, and I want that to be a transformative thing in the minds of others."

Despite what he calls proof-positive evidence of global warming, nonbelievers persist. "They're ill-informed. Their minds are narrow and their brain cells are blocked," he says bluntly. "I say look, what I want you to do is not respond to this in terms of your beliefs. I just want you to look empirically at the real-world evidence that we're bringing back."

Balog describes himself as a "forensic photographer" of sorts for the EIS project. "I'm bringing back evidence, witnessing things people should see," he says. "I'm asking them to keep an open mind and look at what we have documented — look at what the landscapes are telling us."

In some cases, the images captured are of icescapes that no longer exist.

Shifting gears

Balog says EIS is the most ambitious project he has ever undertaken financially and in geographic scope, technical complexity and creative challenges.

His idea of using time-lapse, video and still photography to document the effect of climate change on the glaciers took root after he completed a photo assignment on melting glaciers for National Geographic.

"In some ways it is the most important [project that I have done]," he says. "I, of course, felt quite motivated on the other projects. [But for me,] this one is directly connected to the future of the world in a profound and universal way. The air that the changing ice is connected to is the basis of life, and the basic physical and chemical characteristics of that air supply are changing."

In 2010, Balog merged the EIS into his new organization, Earth Vision Trust, where he hopes to build a home for globally conscious environmental image-making. EIS was originally envisioned to last three years; now the plan is to keep it going as an open-ended project. It was initially funded by National Geographic and now relies primarily on private donations.

No trivial matter

Balog admits that the EIS project paints a bleak picture for the future. But he counters that "I'm not in the entertainment business."

While he often tries to paint a positive picture for those wanting to pursue a photographic career, the reality is that the future is as slippery — and progress just as slow — as the glaciers he documents.

And therein lies one of Balog's pet peeves: that society in recent years has become too focused on the "vacuous, frivolous, inconsequential distractions," while ignoring the weighty issues. He has seen too many serious photography and photojournalism projects abandoned or shunted aside in favor of more casual pursuits.

"In terms of career pathways, if you're in the paparazzi business, if you're into the movies, fashion and celebrity, there's basically an endless demand for that sort of thing," he laments. "But for more serious photojournalism, the spectrum of professional possibilities has shrunk dramatically in recent years. I find it sad and tragic."

No longer can creatives — photographers, writers, editors and the like — expect to earn a decent living with their work, he says, adding that the internet has contributed to that decline.

"I fear that too much of the medium itself is squandered," he says. "Photography has tremendous potential for shifting human perception and interpretations that we bring to the world. It's a pity that so much of the medium's power is squandered on the trivial."

An early feel for the land

Balog has witnessed this decline in photojournalism over the course of his three-decade career. He started out as an environmental and adventure photographer, then shifted in the '80s to a more general-interest photojournalism approach, snaring work from magazines such as Time, Fortune and Smithsonian.

"I realized I needed to be able to shoot more than pretty landscape pictures or guys going rock climbing," says Balog, who is a self-taught photographer.

"Early on, one of the things I knew intuitively was that if you don't really believe wholeheartedly in the spirit of the subject you're shooting, it tends not to make good pictures," he says. "As a young photographer trying to establish myself and appeal to a lot of different clients and expand my creative horizons, I did a lot of different things. But what I did well was the stuff I believed in, and that was nature and the environment.

"I had a more-or-less natural, instinctive connection with the natural landscape," he explains. "It's always been easy for me to do landscape pictures … I knew how to feel it and knew how to think about it right from the beginning, somehow."

His connection to humanity and nature led to books such as "Anima," in which he paired chimpanzees with people, including actress and model Isabella Rossellini, and "Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife," which featured photographs of endangered animals in non-natural settings. A book on the polar ice survey, "Extreme Ice, Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report," was published in 2009. PBS also created a "Nova" television documentary on the project, also called "Extreme Ice," which aired the same year.

Although EIS has become almost a full-time job for Balog, assignments have spun out of it. Even so, he prefers to concentrate on personal projects, such as covering the tsunami in Southeast Asia and the oil disaster in the Gulf.

"I've gotten to the point where I generally don't do assignments," Balog says. "There aren't that many good assignments anyway. I would rather do things that I'm completely passionate about. And I want to do it the way I see it and not the way someone imagines I should do it. I'm perfectly capable of making mistakes, but I would prefer if they are my own mistakes."

It's not about the camera

When working, Balog relies on Nikon equipment, which includes D3 and D3x bodies. His favorite lens is the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S zoom. "If I were stranded on a little rock peak out on an ice sheet or washed up on a desert island and had only one lens, that would be it," he enthuses.

A Nikon shooter for 30 years, Balog praises the gear and its durability. For the EIS project, he used Nikon D200 and D300 bodies, secured in weatherproof housings. Powered by solar panels, batteries and other electronics, they are able to withstand temperatures as low as -40˚F and winds as strong as 160 mph, as well as blizzards, landslides and avalanches.

But that doesn't mean Balog isn't open to trying new things.

"I'm not a slave to any one style, and I'm not a slave to any one piece of equipment or approach via that equipment," he says. He admits, for example, to shooting most of his book "Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest" with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

"I don't think photography is about the camera," he explains. "A lot of photographers are gearheads and they have a religious, cultish thing about equipment. I think that's ridiculous. You should be flexible, you should be adaptive and not think that any one tool is the pathway to creative success or vision."

A psychic toll

Balog admits today that he never envisioned where he would be, professionally, at this stage of his life.

"This has been a wonderful magical mystery tour," he says. "You never quite know where all of these currents are going to take you. Five years ago, I never could have imagined what this thing [EIS] would become. I could never imagine the creative frontiers or the geographic frontiers it has taken us to. And that's a lot of what makes photography an interesting profession. It's full of surprises. It's full of growth. … If you push yourself, it's full of opportunities for creative development. And I do push myself. I'm always looking for something new."

However, a project such as EIS, with its dire global warming implications for the planet can take its toll. "I just find it horrible," Balog confides. "It keeps me awake at night. It gives me headaches. It makes me depressed. I have to actually — very actively sometimes — try to pull myself out of it because the weight of it presses down on me all the time."

Balog remains frustrated about the years of public inaction and political obstruction about a subject so dear to his heart.

"I'm aware of not just what's going on with the ice, but aware of what's going on with the weather patterns. I'm aware of what's going on with the plants. I'm aware of what's going on with the animals, the hydrology, the droughts, the oceans," he laments.

"The ocean is in a gigantic, slow-motion catastrophe that is unfolding right now," he warns. "With the amount of knowledge that Western civilization has, it is inexcusable that we are so indifferent to the ecosystems that give us life. Sometimes, I can hardly believe that this whole nightmare is happening in my own country. When people look back on this a hundred years from now, they will be just as horrified about our behavior as we now are about slave owners centuries ago."

Still finding magic

Despite his disappointment over the degradation of the environment, James Balog still manages to find magic in the photographic process, even after three decades.

"I actually love the process of taking pictures as much as, or more than, I ever did," he says. "It's truly magical when it goes right. It's what gets you fired up … this process of questing, of exploration, of trying to order the universe around you through the camera. It's a wonderful, mystical process that you get to engage in."

To Balog, what's more important than pressing the shutter button is the idea behind the photograph. "I'm not a cameraman for hire, per se," he says. "I'm a producer of ideas. There's a fairly profound difference. I have to initiate these things. I have to have some notion that comes to me and becomes a guiding principle that helps to pull the project along. There has to be a statement, a feeling, an impression that I want to make."

When he is shooting in the field, Balog says he feels as if he is connected to "a giant current" of energy that flows from his subjects and through his lens.

"Whether it's a tree that wants to speak, or it's a glacier in a polar region that wants to speak, or it's a chimpanzee, there's an energy that's passing out of those other entities and is going through you and is coming out in the picture," he explains. "You're putting yourself in the pathway of that sort of power. It makes me extremely humbled to realize how all of that eventually turns into a picture. It's an incredible privilege to be part of such an amazing process.

"The good pictures seem to belong to the photographer's willpower," he adds. "But, in fact, they belong to your moment in time, and it's incredibly important to remember that."

IN THE LOUPE: James Balog

Office: Boulder, Colo..

Websites: jamesbalog.com and extremeicesurvey.org.

Staff: Currently three people (can vary widely).

Family life: Wife, Suzanne, and daughters Simone, 23, and Emily, 9, both of whom, he says, already have "a pretty amazing knack for snapping photos".

Favorite equipment: Nikon cameras and lenses, especially the 24-70 f/2.8G ED AF-S zoom.

Accolades: Heinz Award, with a special focus on global change (2010); Missouri School of Journalism's Honor Medal for Distinguished Service (2010); Aspen Institute's Visual Arts & Design Award (2009); World Press Photo awards for nature and science; Leica Medal of Excellence; League Award, International League of Conservation Photographers (2009); Nature Photography Association's Outstanding Photographer of the Year (2008); Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure (2007).

Books: "Seeing Ice" (to be released in fall 2012); "Extreme Ice, Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report" (2009); "Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest" (2004); "Animal" (1999); "James Balog's Animals A to Z" (1996); "Anima" (1993); "Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife" (1990); "Wildlife Requiem" (1984).

Advice for aspiring photographers: "Develop an appreciation for other art forms, such as great films, great paintings, great architecture, great music," he says. "If all you do is study how to make pictures, what you know is how to make pictures. But if you study something else, you learn about the real bedrock of what your pictures are sitting on."

Creative philosophy: "Good creativity of any kind obviously comes out of personal commitment and passion and willpower, but it also comes out of the energy of a moment in history. … We are vehicles for energy that needs to pass through us."

P.J. Heller
Story Author: P.J. Heller

P.J. Heller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southern California.

Website: www.photoreporters.net E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it