Robert Glenn Ketchum is a world-renowned photographer, conservationist and author. For 40 years his imagery and books have helped to define contemporary color photography. At the same time both he and his work have passionately and successfully addressed critical environmental issues. Dedication to the natural world, particularly within North America, has earned him numerous awards and critical acclaim including: American Photo magazine’s “100 most important people in photography,” Audubon’s 100 people who “shaped the environmental movement in the 20th Century” and the United Nation’s Outstanding Environmental Achievement Award. Ketchum has been in the company of kings and queens, princes and princesses, admirals and generals, and even a few presidents. Historians will remember Ketchum as a great artist but, more importantly, as a truly great human being who never wavered from a struggle or faltered in his convictions.
A Fortuitous Beginning Ketchum’s life and career play out like a movie with a fortuitous beginning, a momentous middle and an evolving out come. Like a set of building blocks, one securely placed upon the other, events have created a self fulfilling prophecy that has brought him closer to his clearly defined destiny. Ketchum believes the beginning of this journey originated with a “convergence of ideas that were filtering around in public consciousness and education at that particular moment in time.” A product of an all boys’ boarding and prep school with a “very rigorous high school academic background,” this disciplined and logical thinker entered UCLA in 1966, at the same time that Eliot Porter, Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, and Aldo Leopold came to the forefront of American education, and American consciousness was blossoming, arguably, like never before. A true poster child for why the Arts should be part of every curriculum, Ketchum was exposed to this new world for the first time because of UCLA’s mandatory “breadth requirements in the Arts.” “I took some studio classes, and one of those introduced me to the camera. We got along from the very minute that I picked it up; I just liked it. There’s a certain magic to it; there always has been, even about taking the picture. And so it captured me; it captured my imagination,” remembers Ketchum. He and his camera became best friends, traveling everywhere together, their identities evolving congruously within UCLA’s gigantic campus. “As circumstance would have it, I had the opportunity to hook up with and end up in the entourage of some of the era’s preeminent rock bands like the Doors, Cream and Hendrix. And so through college, I picked up date change, movie money, gas money and things like that by taking 8” x 10” black and white glossies of casual moments with various bands on stage, behind stage, in cars and in studios. It was pretty junk photography because I was a pretty bad photographer; but it kept me engaged in photography, and it got me in and out of scenes; it gave me an identity,” explains the artist.
Silently and imperceptibly, Carson, Leopold and emerging organizations like the Sierra Club were helping to mold Ketchum’s ideas and perceptions. One day, while camping in Big Sur on his way back from the Monterey Pop Festival, Ketchum wandered alone up a narrow Redwood canyon with a beautiful stream. “I had this magnificent moment in the forest where I took my first landscape pictures, and I tied a whole bunch of things together, things that Carson said in her book and things that Leopold had said about our personal ethic with regard to the land. Everything was ringing around in my head, manifesting themselves in this epiphanal moment in the Redwoods. . . . I decided that maybe there was some way, within the work, to speak out on behalf of the land or to make the work serve it. I had this view of myself as a photographer and all these things that needed to be done on behalf of the environment and ideas that the public needed to be connected with, and I could clearly see how I could play into that,” remembers Ketchum. “And when I graduated in 1970 from UCLA, a lot of those heroes of rock ’n roll, who I had admired and photographed, had killed themselves so I thought it was a good idea to get my self out of that and go somewhere else. I went up to central Idaho, where I had previously hunted and fished with my dad, figuring that I would go to work as a professional photographer.” This decision was the beginning of the artist’s second life chapter, which was marked by outstanding events and high profile working relationships.
A Momentous Middle “So I went up there like most kids do after college . . . by having those other ideas banging around inside my head, I brought them together in an interesting way because I found myself with my healthier, more athletic local friends in central Idaho, skiing in the back country, rock climbing in the summer, backpacking, starting to do things that were taking me out into wild country and introducing me to a whole other pattern of behavior. I found myself taking commercial landscape photography that was going into places like the Sierra Club wall calendars and Wilderness Book calendars. So through most of the ’70s, I was making those photo graphs and working out those ideas in my head,” Ketchum continues. By the end of the ’70s, as a result of his successful and widely recognized involvement within the academic community, Ketchum ascended to Curator of Photography at the National Park Foundation, for whom he put together an exhibit called “American Photographers in the National Parks.” Ketchum recalls: “It was also a big Viking book, and it was a huge show in big museums all over the U.S. – a huge exhibition surveying photography from the 1850s to the present. It was very well received. It explored the way the photographers and the parks had been interactive with each other in the beginning the photography helping to create the parks and later the parks helping to create the photographers. It confirmed for me that the photographers had been successful using their work in the political system for a long time in a very significant way. I was especially moved by Eliot Porter’s book, Glen Canyon: The Place No One Knew, which was the first time I had seen such an incredible body of color photography and then linked to an advocate text. Now, in that case it was a lament; and I sort of made a personal pledge that I never wanted to be involved with a lament. I wanted to be out in front of things happening – to keep them from happening so there weren’t any more laments.” This event set a “tone” for Ketchum but, more importantly, it empowered him as an individual photographer. He explains, “I wanted to take my work from the place where I was using Nature to pay my bills to the place where I was serving Nature in the belief that the bills would pay themselves.” His new philosophy of “do the work well and with good intention, and everything else will serve you” was the beginning of a new way of thinking and working, leading him to the Lila Wallace Fund and to the Hudson River. Ketchum recalls the project: “When I photographed the Hudson, I saw 400 years of American history and a metaphor for the way we treated a major American river in those 400 years of evolutionary thought. And I speculated, “If I can do it in pictures, it would be a really interesting reflection on what we had done to a river like that.’ And so, I photographed everything – the good, the bad and the ugly and everything in between.” Ketchum never thought the Fund would use his less complimentary photos because he presumed they were looking for “nice, tidy art” for the planned Hudson River book; but they surprised him by saying they were “conservation based” and his photographs were exactly what they were looking for.
Originally published in livebetter eMagazine.
Republished with full permissions.