Renewable energy researchers and innovative green business owners tend to get all the credit, but photographers may be the real heroes of the environmental movement. After all, it's one thing to read about the impacts of pollution and climate change, but — as photographers have proven time and again in historic conservation movements — when it comes to getting public attention and encouraging action, images of carbon-spewing factories and melting glaciers are what tend to truly drive the point home.
Yet while a picture can be worth a thousand words, it doesn't always give the photographer a chance to voice his or her full opinion on the subject matter he or she is striving to represent. For nature photographers, this can be an especially daunting task: how do you combine the artistic aspects of photographing the environment with educating others about the world through your work? With the future of natural conservation and management at the forefront of the public eye, I decided to bring the issue before nature photographer Frank Weston. A Colorado native with more than 25 years of consulting experience with the Environmental Protection Agency and nearly a decade's worth of professional photography expertise, Weston has a long history of close ties with the natural world. My goal was to see how this relationship has come to inform his environmental views, shedding light onto a profession that is recording our planet as it's never been seen before.
(Disclaimer: I've been informally interning with Frank throughout the latter half of 2009.)
MNN: Is a strong love or respect for the environment a necessary part of being a nature photographer?
Weston: For me, yes; for someone else, no. It's not necessary at all. It's possible to be a nature photographer and not have any regard for nature whatsoever — [a situation] where you're creating an art form and the subject matter is irrelevant. A couple of years ago, there was a photographer in Colorado Springs who took a picture in Garden of the Gods featuring a juniper tree framing Pikes Peak covered in snow. After he took the picture, he broke a couple of twigs off of the tree to keep other people from imitating the image. Someone else built a fire under Delicate Arch for their picture. The arch was scorched, and tens of thousands of dollars were spent to restore it (read the full story here) ... [Those people] are the exception, though. Most of the nature photographers I know truly do love and respect nature. That love adds to your images and comes across in them.
What has being a nature photographer taught you about Colorado’s environment and the natural world in general?
Since I grew up [in Colorado] and have been involved in environmental issues all of my professional life, I wasn't sure what nature photography has taught me at first ... but the more I thought about it, I realized that my photography has taught me some really important things about nature. Nature doesn't judge whether or not things are beautiful: they just are. Colorado's pine beetle kill is a case in point. To nature, it's just change; that's what nature is all about ... here, it's just removing an old forest to replace it with something else. To us, with our short life spans, [the deforestation] is ugly and strange; to nature, it's normal. That's one thing nature photography has taught me: not to be so judgmental.
What environmental initiatives have you supported through your photography? Do you believe your involvement with these initiatives was driven by your former conservation work with the EPA?
My photography has been used numerous times by the [Colorado] Natural Areas Program when they have to present their reports to the state legislature and convince [the state] to continue to fund the program ... hopefully, the images have helped to keep them active. Also, my images have been used quite a bit by the Nature Conservancy in a number of reports, including their rare plant reports: I have some photographs of extremely rare plants found only in Colorado.
... I don't know if I can separate [my] attitude of wanting to protect nature from my work ... Using my photography [for conservation] isn't an offshoot of my former profession — it's who I am: the reason why I became an EPA consultant in the first place and why I continue to support conservation in my photography.
As a Colorado native, how has the state changed from an environmental perspective throughout your life? How do you think things will look in the future?
I think Colorado has changed a lot. The most obvious one is the population: it's definitely increased since the 1970s. I can remember when there was no I-70, no Dillon dam, no Vail ... That was all essentially wilderness: now it's all heavily developed. There's also been a change in attitude. I hope I'm reading it wrong, but it feels like the people of Colorado collectively are less concerned about the environment now than they were in the 1970s. In that decade, the residents voted down an opportunity to host the Winter Olympics because they didn't want to see development here ... now, I don't think that would happen.
What will happen in the future? Unfortunately, I think we're going to continue to see more development ... the environment has always taken a back seat to that, as our population continues to grow. You just have to look around: development is still occurring. Despite all the efforts and talk we hear about conservation and growing green, there's very little discussion about controlling development. That's one of the biggest issues Colorado — and the entire West — is going to have to face in coming years.
What advice would you give to people interested in photographing the natural environments in their own home states?
What I would tell people who are interested in nature photography in their own state is that nature photography is a state of mind, not a state of place. A lot of people that I've talked to from the Midwest say that they can't do nature photography out there because it's so boring, it's flat, there are no dramatic landscapes, etc. I disagree with them. I know that in media and photography magazines all you see are these dramatic, iconic shots ... but nature photography is where you find it. Nature is everywhere; even in the heart of New York City, you can find nature. You have to look a little harder, but you can find it. I received feedback on my [Colorado] state parks book from people — some of whom worked for the parks — who were amazed at how beautiful [the parks] were: they'd thought of them just as playgrounds for people ... Don't have preconceived notions of what nature is and what nature photography is: it's all around you.
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