Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Gary Braasch: A Change in the Weather

PhotoMedia's 2001 Photography Person of the Year: Gary Braasch PhotoMedia's 2001 Photography Person of the Year: Gary Braasch
© Gary Braasch

By devoting most of his career to warning the public about the consequences of global warming, Oregon-based wildlife and nature photographer Gary Braasch is trying not to change the world, but to help save it from changing too much.

One miserably cold day in late March, the evening news carried a chilling science story. In Antarctica — where apparently it wasn't quite cold enough — a 1,200-square-mile chunk of the Larsen ice shelf had shattered into 720 billion tons of crushed ice. The formerly Rhode-Island-sized ice shelf, which had taken only a month to break apart and fall into the ocean, had been frozen to Antarctica's jutting Palmer Peninsula for 12,000 years. An average temperature rise of only 4.5 degrees F during that period of time is to blame, say scientists, who worry that melting ice shelves portend disastrous consequences for our little planet.

Nature and wildlife photographer Gary Braasch is on a mission to raise awareness of this kind of global climate change and its results, such as receding glaciers, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. Three years ago, he photographed scientists studying the melting of a similarly disintegrating ice sheet during a National Science Foundation geologic research cruise to Antarctica.

Braasch's drive to make a difference in the world has led to a successful career in wildlife photography. The list of magazine credits on his résumé is long and impressive — more than 100 titles, including such heavy hitters as Smithsonian, Audubon, Discover, National Geographic, Natural History, Time, Scientific American and Life, which still publishes special editions. "I've had at least one picture published by Life every year since 1994," he says. (For more samples of his work, visit Braasch's website at braaschphotography.com

"I do well in the market when what's needed is a broader view of an endangered ecosystem, or when they're asking for a long list of animals, insects and plants," Braasch says. "I'm not interested in just making beautiful pictures. I really want to say something. Even if my photos illustrate a story that someone else wrote, I hope people will see it and appreciate nature more, and maybe become more active in protecting places."

Like many wildlife photographers, Braasch has found himself looking like lunchmeat at times. He's found himself up a tree without a tripod, at the tip of an active volcano, mired in mud on Alaska's North Slope, dodging charging alligators and sleeping outdoors, unprotected, with nothing to see but creatures whose eyes shine back in the dark.

On more than one occasion, he has seen his portfolio pass before his eyes, including the time on a Smithsonian Institution shoot when he found himself in a Venezuela jungle wrestling — literally — with anacondas. "It's no small matter to be walking around with snakes that are fully capable of constricting an adult man to death," he notes. One could even say his curious affinity for these serpents has led to a brush with immortality — one of the snakes being studied on the Venezuela shoot, Braasch proudly points out, was named after his wife, sculptor M.J. Anderson; she considers it an honor rather than an insult, he insists.

But for Braasch, the greatest danger he faces comes from something far more sinister than a snapping pair of jaws — something that threatens all types of life on Earth. Over the past century alone, global temperatures have risen by an average of 1 degree F. If unchecked, the repercussions of this warming trend will eventually affect all of humanity, he says, but the first ripples are already being felt by the world's dwindling population of wild animals.

Braasch is currently working on a photographic project called World View of Global Warming. Documenting the Antarctic ice shelves was the first installment of the project, which he hopes will make an impression on the skeptical and those not yet paying attention to the reality of climate change.

It is this work as a soldier for the environment, and for all of the endangered species on the planet, that has earned Braasch PhotoMedia's sixth annual Photography Person of the Year Award.

"There is great concern by those who study climate that there will be very rapid changes that will affect a lot of people," Braasch says. "All this could happen within just a few years. A string of huge calamities for the human race is a definite possibility."Brewing storms
Surprisingly, Braasch has no formal training in photography. In fact, he says, the only class he's ever taken was an artsy workshop where he learned how to take out-of-focus shots and scratch up the film, which doesn't relate to his current work at all.

What's the point of being a nature photographer if you're not going to protect what you're shooting?

Born in Texas and raised in Omaha, Neb., Braasch became interested in journalism in high school. After earning a master's degree in broadcast journalism from Northwestern University, he worked for United Press International in Chicago before reluctantly enlisting in the Air Force in 1968 (an experience he doesn't seem to have enjoyed much). During his stint as a desk jockey in the military, he found he had lots of free time on his hands. He developed an interest in biology and the natural sciences, and began to seriously fool around with a 35mm camera he bought from a friend.

"I was quite amazed at the pictures I was making, and my friends were too," he says. "I just had a natural talent for knowing how pictures were made, and I don't really know where it came from."

That discovery changed his life, Braasch says. When he was discharged in 1972, he moved to Oregon with plans to work as a freelance journalist with an emphasis in nature. But when he sent photos along with his stories, editors were more interested in the photos.

So he started making pictures, using his journalism background to research his work. By 1977, he landed a cover and an eight-page spread of various nature pictures in Popular Photography. His work appeared in several Audubon books focusing on wildflowers and trees, and in several large-format photo books published by Time-Life.

In May 1980, his course diverged again. He happened to be living 40 miles from Mount St. Helens when she blew her top. His pictures of the volcano's eruption and the scientific study of it made his news reputation.

There were times, however, when he thought the rolls he shot on St. Helens' blasted slopes would be his last, especially when accompanying volcanologists on a hike to the mountain's still-steaming lava dome. "The geologists thought there was no danger, but when the mountain burped and smoke came out, it was quite worrisome to me," he recalls. "That's one of the riskiest things I've done."

The eruption photos had other reverberations as well. "It made me realize I should be doing environmental photographic journalism rather than just making beautiful pictures," he says.
Newly inspired, he took an extensive set of photos of old-growth forests and sold them to the photo editor at Audubon, but the magazine sat on them for five years. By 1986, when the rescue of old-growth forests became a national hot-button environmental topic, those same pictures filled 36 pages of a single issue of Audubon. Later, he and the article's author, David Kelly, turned the material into the first book about the issue, Secrets of the Old Growth Forest, an ecological treatise on ancient Western forests. The book was published before the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species, so "the politics are out of date, but the ecology is still current," he adds.

His second book, Photographing the Patterns of Nature, which went into a second printing in 1999, covers another of his fascinations — patterns. He says it started out as a how-to book but evolved into a science book with advice for the photographer, artist or inquisitive hiker on observing patterns in nature.

Nature's patterns "just pop out to me," Braasch says. "I start looking at a pattern and I want to know more about it, what causes it, how it develops, why one animal has spots and another has stripes, why one hair is dark and another light."

Illuminated by science

For the last two decades, Braasch's specialty has been the photographic documentation of entire ecosystems, including everything from tiny plankton and insects, to large predators, to the birds in between.

Braasch considers himself a natural historian. His brand of wildlife photography, he says, isn't meant for calendars or coffee-table books. Much of his work is photographed in tandem with scientists doing research in the field and is used to illustrate articles about the scientific issues they investigate.

"There's a difference between showing an animal in its habitat versus a clean head shot for a calendar taken in a zoo or an animal park," he says. "I prefer to see animals where they live and get a sense of the landscape — sort of capturing a moment out of its life."

He does sometimes show animals being held by researchers, Braasch points out. "That's not exactly natural," he adds, "but all my photos help to illustrate a point, depending on the focus of the article."

Braasch feels an affinity and gratitude toward the researchers whose work he documents. Although he reads a lot about his subjects before he goes on an assignment, he knows where to get the real skinny.

"I couldn't do what I do without the knowledge of scientists," he says. "I always rely on them and try to get information and advice before I go out in the field. Scientists point things out that you'd never notice, and tell you what they are. They dig around in the bottom of the swamp and come up with critters, and can identify species."

Along with his usual photographic equipment — which usually includes a Nikon M90 or an 8008; lenses from 20mm to 500mm; extension tubes; a lens extender; a flash unit; and various polarized and split neutral-density filters-Braasch often carries around gear normally found in a biologist's backpack, such as plastic boxes to hold insect samples.

In some cases, the knowledge Braasch has gleaned from his scientist friends has even helped save his life. One of his scientist allies once told him that if an alligator on dry land is spooked, it will try to get to water. "They said if an alligator does threaten you, just bop it on the head with a stick or a tripod, and that usually dissuades them," he says.

Sure enough, on an assignment for Life magazine, Braasch spent two weeks shooting an alligator hole in the Florida Everglades. While photographing baby gators from three or four feet away, hiding behind a makeshift blind, he came face to jaws with an adult alligator rapidly heading his way.

"I've got a great sequence of the alligator coming right towards me," Braasch says. (Like any good nature shooter, he didn't forget to get the shot in the heat of the moment.) As his researcher friend predicted, the gator turned and swam away when it got to deep water.

Weather vanes

The genesis of Braasch's World View of Global Warming project came in the late 1990s, while he was shooting caribou migration in the Alaskan tundra. His "Eureka moment" happened, he says, when he saw what oil fields in Prudhoe Bay in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge actually looked like. On the same trip, he traveled to the North Slope of Alaska by ship with Greenpeace activists who were documenting the oil drilling.

Conversations with these and other researchers convinced him that we — the world — have a problem: The Earth is heating up, perhaps faster than it ever has since the end of the last Ice Age. His own nature convinced him he should do something about it.

Although Braasch knew data was being collected, he realized that the general public had little knowledge of global warming and its effects. Very few pictures existed to present climate change in a way people could see.

"Articles about climate change were usually illustrated by pictures of a bright sun, or a cracked lake bottom, or bad weather," he explains. "They were all generic stock pictures. Even specific stories about penguins would use generic pictures — sometimes not even of the right species. It seemed like a huge opening to me."

Braasch knew that making photos of drought damage, receding glaciers and ice caps, extreme storms, the ocean's rising level and temperature, the bleaching of coral reefs, and the ways in which the Earth's creatures are affected by these changes could awaken the public. Even better, he hoped to influence government entities that make laws and enforce policies.

In December 1998, he vowed to visit every continent and document the problems. It was a huge undertaking, and he couldn't do it alone. He needed assignments, contacts and financial support.

"The logistics are mind-boggling," Braasch admits, "and raising money is not my forte." But he has taken on large-scale projects before. "As a photographer who has followed scientists around and done a lot of natural history and science work, there was no doubt I could do this," he says.

Braasch obtained sponsorship for the World View mission from the Wiancko Family Fund and from Blue Earth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports photographic projects in the interest of environmental and humanitarian causes. Discover magazine sent him to Antarctica, and the project was off to a good start.

Since then, he's crisscrossed the globe, making photographs from 15,000 feet in the Andes, from beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and at close range. His World View photographs depict such varied subjects as:

•  tidal pools in California that are growing too warm for some of their inhabitants;

•  warblers in England migrating and nesting weeks before they should;

•  a lawn weed in Washington, D.C., blooming 39 days earlier than it did three decades ago;

•  coastlines in Florida in danger of being washed away by seas that have risen six inches in the last century;
•  receding glaciers in Montana and the Andes;

•  the search for the possibly extinct golden toad in Costa Rica;
•  shrinking caribou-calving territories in Alaska; and

•  unusual weather in Brooklyn, where one day it may be 70 degrees F and the next day brings four inches of snow.

All these events seem more real and ominous when you can see them, but they're not always obvious without accompanying articles or explanation. "Weather changes are invisible or ephemeral. There's no indication in a picture of a migrating bird that it's two weeks early," Braasch says. For that reason, his photos are carefully captioned so as to educate readers about the importance of what they see. (For more information, visit the project web site at worldviewofglobalwarming.org.)

"I hope to give people some sense that climate change is happening so they can get used to the idea and get ready for it," he says. "All I can do is illustrate the problems and give people an idea of how close we are."

Marketing: A textbook case

As he strives for his lofty environmental goals, Braasch also has to face the inevitable challenge of competing in today's tight wildlife photography market. Making your way as a freelancer — any kind of freelancer — is never easy, he says. The most important thing is to be extremely persistent in marketing yourself.

"You have to keep putting your work out there, keep calling editors, keep doing your mailing, keep picking story ideas that your photos can illustrate," he advises. "There are a lot of good photographers out there, [but] many of them are professional-quality amateurs. The difference between them and you is wielding your professionalism with editors, with proposals and self-promotion."

A fair amount of frustration is built into the system, he acknowledges. Besides having only a very small percentage of your ideas and photographs used, there's the peripatetic editor problem.
"I have to resell myself to new editors at old magazines," Braasch explains. "The whole editorial staff just changed at the Smithsonian, and Audubon [hired] a new editor within the last year. They've changed photo editors fairly often in the last five years." The upside, he adds, is that the old editors move on to other magazines, where you now have a friend.

A good part of Braasch's income comes from supplying photos for textbooks. He provides photos for natural history, biology, geology and geography textbooks, among others.

For those interested in getting into this line of work, Braasch recommends searching on the Internet for textbook publishers. The criteria for content in textbooks changes frequently, especially at the high school level, he says. In any given year, two or three publishing companies are revamping their textbooks. When they do, they need new photos — sometimes very specific ones, such as images of a particular species of animal.
"They need photos all the time," he says. "There are photographers who make more money than I do, and all they do is textbooks."

Getting the message across

Braasch hopes that his pictures, books and articles will make their way into political circles and get the attention of people with clout. On the global warming question, however, he's already thrown in the towel on President Bush. "The current administration is avoiding the issue," he says. "Maybe a giant disaster would change Bush's attitude toward the Kyoto treaty."

But in the meantime, he says, state and county governments and international organizations can make their own substantial inroads. Even in the tiny town of Nehalem on Oregon's rugged coast — where he operates his studio and lives with his wife and teenage son, Cedar — Braasch attends city council and other government meetings whenever he can, and is vocal about watersheds, dredging and forest issues. He has great respect for people who "throw themselves into the political process," he says. "It's hard work, and it's thankless, and it leads to conflict. But that's where so many decisions are made."

Today, Braasch still writes occasional articles; biodiversity is, not surprisingly, one of his great interests. He recently wrote and photographed a story for Audubon about an exhaustive inventory of all manner of life in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border.

"We probably know only about 10 percent of the species of plants and animals living on our planet," he says. A lot of those unknown species are bacteria, the foundation of life on the planet, so it's important to find and classify them, Braasch says. "It's a race against time because deforestation and climate change are wiping them out before we can look for them," he adds.

In all that he does, Braasch tries to convey an environmental message. Wildlife photographers, he feels, have a duty to do so. "Even if you're taking photos in your own garden, there are environmental events and political events that affect your ability to do what you love," he says. "It should almost be a prerequisite that a person be aware of those things and, at least on a local level, be protective of the nature that they love."

Braasch has been mildly criticized, he says, for insisting that nature photographers take a stand. He helped found the North American Nature Photographers Association, but was surprised to find that "a lot of members were totally into it for aesthetics, and had no interest at all in environmentalism," he says. "Nature photographers gain inspiration, raw material and income from natural things, almost all of which are under some kind of threat. What's the point of being a nature photographer if you're not going to protect what you're shooting?"

Braasch champions his beliefs, even when it hurts him in the wallet. He has turned down lucrative assignments for companies that he feels aren't environmentally friendly, namely those in the timber, mining, petroleum and nuclear power industries. And he makes sure his stock photos don't show up in ads for Exxon.

His problem with these industries is not their mere existence, he says, but the way they conduct business. "It's not a question of shutting them down; we need their products," he admits. "But they are unnecessarily destructive. I know some of the science, and ingenuity would allow getting these products with a much gentler touch."

Braasch and his family recently rented a house in Portland, Ore. (with a great view of Mount Hood), so that his son, Cedar, could attend school there. In the near future, when he's not in Portland or Nehalem, Braasch plans to be canvassing North America, photographing birds and insects and deciphering climate change studies.

He would like to return to the Pacific Islands, where rising sea levels threaten to inundate habitable land and coral reefs are threatened by rising ocean temperatures. He is working with E Magazine to illustrate a book of essays about global warming, and has some other book projects in mind. He wants to visit Africa, but other future assignments could find him anywhere between the North and South Poles.

Rising waters

Braasch's environmental conversations often contain dire predictions. "Our kids are going to see changes," he warns. "Florida is going to be flooded. There will be more disasters on the coastlines. The glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone in 30 to 50 years. The way we plant crops will change. This is going to happen — it is happening."

Despite this bleak outlook, Braasch still nurtures a belief that an enlightened public can find a way to halt the runaway destruction of the Earth's natural habitats. "I have great hope that things will change and that all the societies in the world will find a way to combat climate change while we can still deal with it," he says. "But I'm concerned that we'll use an industrial fix rather than one more cooperative with the natural resources of the planet.

"Natural things like glaciers and birds have no choice but to react to climate change, but we do have a choice," he adds. "We can ignore it and get caught, or we can plan for it and try to preserve the things in the world we really appreciate."


Beth Luce
Story Author: Beth Luce

Beth Luce is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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