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Miki Johnson: So tell me about the American Photo magazine American Masters issue and how you found out about it.
Robert Glenn Ketchum: I didn’t know anything about it. Russell Hart, one of the editors at American Photo, has previously written about several of my projects and has convinced the other editors that I was worth a page or so every once in a while.
But American Photo has, without being mean to them, pretty much concentrated three-quarters of the magazine on individuals who are primarily fashion and people shooters. And the Masters Series had reflected that. There’s only been four others nominated to the series in 20-years of the magazine being published: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Annie Leibovitz — all people and personality photographers. So it’s exciting to be in such a distinguished group of imagemakers, and even moreso to be included as someone who’s focused on the environment and made photos of the landscape more in the style of Adams or Porter.
Russell called me up, offered the possibility of the feature, and asked for a personal timeline of my projects, books, etc. The task was informative and breathtaking because I’d never put together such a thing for myself. It helped me see how lucky I’ve been to have been involved with so many projects that had positive effects. The conclusion of the timeline provided some serious reflection on that moment back in the ’60s in a Redwood forest on the California coast when I decided to make pictures of the landscape — then to flash all the way forward through those projects to where we are now. Wow! That’s the manifestation of dreaming your own existence, the proof it works.
MJ: Looking back at all of those results, are there any insights that jump out about how you achieved them?
RGK: One we’ve talked about previously, and I think the most significant one, was that I took this traditionally popular item, the coffee table book, and turned it into an advocacy tool. And not just by writing a more didactic text and adding difficult pictures, which I did. Also by learning how to publish it cost effectively and get it out there and use it in the media. If I’d have walked away from any of those publications after they were published, they wouldn’t have done anything. But because I embraced the whole cycle of the performance, it made them more useful.
It also created a system. So with each project the system got more refined and increasingly effective. And certainly now that’s where we are with the Bristol Bay campaign. We have powerful books, and we already have had one relative legislative success. And we’re pushing on.
Now with an acknowledgment like this for me from this magazine, it makes me an even more undeniable force, doesn’t it? You know, if Barbara Boxer already was impressed and invited me into her office before, how about now? It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. I would be foolish not to leverage this attention to create advocacy on behalf of the environment.
At the opening of the American Photo article Masters Series, Russell writes, “Robert Ketchum may be one of the least known photographers in America, but he may also be one of the most influential.” I’ve done a lot of this stuff under the radar and I’ve done it on my reputation among a small network of people. Perhaps now my reputation has a bigger window.
MJ: Tell me a little about your background as an artist and your decision to approach photography from a more activist position.
RGK: When I came into photography, I had come out of a really prep high school and into UCLA, where I was required to take art classes. At first I thought I was threatened because “art” was something I had not done much of previously. Then I became very interested in the history of art, and I got involved in the design program. The design program led me to photography.
The teachers at UCLA at that time were spectacular, at the leading edge of the ’60s avant guarde movement in photography on the West Coast. That scene had it’s own unique kind of cult and cache. It was grounded in an eclectic base that included Paul Outerbridge, William Mortenson, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and the F64 school, and all this other stuff going on which my UCLA teachers, Edmund Teske, Robert Heinecken and Robert Fichter fed upon.
I entered UCLA in 1966, and it was an exciting time to be making art. I got the opportunity to pay some of my bills by shooting rock ‘n’ roll bands, so that’s what I was doing. In college I also encountered the writings of Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson and the campus organizers of the Sierra Club.
On the way back from the Monterey Pop Festival, some friends and I stopped at a canyon in Big Sur called Limekiln Creek to camp. I got up in the next morning and after a solitary walk next to a stream in the quiet of the morning forest, I had one of those epiphanal moments. I heard the words of Aldo Leopold, suggesting that we had a moral obligation to protect our environment because it was the thing that keeps us alive. And Rachel Carson, who said, all the bad things we put out into our environment will eventually come back to us as poisons, and I thought, WOW, if I could make pictures serve those ideas, that would be a really great thing.
I didn’t jump into being an environmental photographer overnight; it took another 15 years of evolution and thought. But that was the moment when I started working towards it. And not just to make picture books, but make advocate tools. I still view photography as this fantastically adaptable medium, and even more so now that digital is upon us. Once photographic imagery is transcribed into digital information, you can print in concrete, you can embed in glass, you can print on fabric, you can weave it into looms. This is territory no one has explored much before.
If you look back at UCLA in the ’60s, it was going on then — and then postmodernism came in. And postmodernism took charge, in terms of molding the cultural mindset and conscripting the idea behind all grant giving and all exhibition coordinating. After the arrival of postmodernism, only a few of us would even touch nature and certainly not as a source of beauty.
If you look at postmodernism’s stars such as Jeff Koons, one of the most significant of the early postmodernists, his work is sculptures of Michael Jackson and pop icons, or huge sculptures of his wife and him making love to each other. Postmodernism reflected by Annie Leibowitz is about the cult of personality and in Cindy Sherman who assumes hundreds of witty guises throughout her work — it is basically all about ME. Postmodernism for me is about the cult of ME and US. And yeah, it can be very fun, and cerebral, but more importantly, it has pretty much controlled what the American public has seen in the gallery and art museums for the last 35 years.
After UCLA I got my masters from Cal Arts, which was one of the birthing places of postmodernism, so I totally get it. I don’t mean to put it down. It’s a perfectly viable language within the arts. But for me it was sterile because it was just a language within the arts.
I saw a new world coming at us with a changing environment and the promise of new media connectedness and what it meant to print and publish and do all this other stuff. And I saw the rise of the environmental movement in the early ’70s and how photography could serve it. It just seemed to me that my response as an artist should embrace serving these bigger issues in my life, and that the language and the conversation of this world was much bigger than that of the more rarefied art world.
I remember having this talk with myself, saying if you do this, the art world may ignore you. But if you succeed in the environmental community and you can actually save these lands you’re trying to save, would you trade that for all the fame? And the answer to that was, yes I would. Just make me an effective photographer that can drive real social issues and I will accept whatever it is I get out of that. And I went ahead and I did that work. And I never allowed the indifference from the postmodernist community to disrupt my own working tenor.
At the same time, I never stopped practicing photography in a more experimental way. So I have pieces that are now starting to be shown at Basel, Miami, that are 72 inches tall by 14 feet wide. They’re still based in nature, but they’re highly manipulated. I have also been doing textiles in China, hand-embroidered screens and standing screens and wall hangings based on my landscape photographs. I’ve been doing those for 30 years, and they are finally starting to get exhibition attention.
These may not be how the postmodernist world perceives important art as being made, yet if I were to look back over the last 40 years and say, what was really important? Was it that Jeff Koons did these amazing sculptures of himself having sex? Or was it putting a million acres of old-growth forest into protective status in the Tongass, or adding 60,000 acres of land to Saguaro National Monument resulting in it getting upgraded to a national park, or keeping Mitsubishi out of one of the only Gray whale birthing lagoons in the world at St. Ignacio, Baja? Do I feel that one of those two directions was more important, to me ultimately, and it should be to the public as well? Yeah, I do.
And there’s other amazing work being done by my brothers at the International League of Conservation Photographers, too. Guys like Frans Lanting, who has been knighted by his country for his conservation work, and Jim Balog, who was nominated for a McArthur genius grant this year. I think the work we’re doing (iLCP and others) is going to be held in higher regard in retrospect than it is right now. That’s why I say, I’m very flattered just to be included with these four “master” photographers who so clearly represent a different point of view than mine. Beyond that, just to have American Photo acknowledge me as a photographer and an artist of some repute may give me more traction in academic circles that haven’t seem to notice what I have been doing or hold it with much regard.
You know to me, in some ways post modernism was a dumbing down. It accepted an artists political point of view as long as it was cleverly hidden in intellectual reference, but seemed uncomfortable with putting the message undeniably in people’s faces where it might actually do some good. Exhibits that didactic might anger patrons and cost institutions contributions. Post modernism certainly gave us some outrageous shows and ones that stirred controversy but did they really do anything in the public arena besides create a fashionable buzz?
Photography is SO powerful, why not use it to its fullest power and exploit all of the ways it allows us to express ourselves. Look at Eugene Smith’s book about his wife’s cancer. Or pretty much any photographs Sebastião Salgado takes of people who are misplaced or victimized. I have never wanted to give money to beggars on the street because I’m never sure that it isn’t just for booze. But when I see Salgado’s pictures of world crisis circumstances, I have a whole new take on poverty and would like to see money given there. It’s an amazing power that his best photographs have.
In a way, therein lies the difference between the work I do and the postmodernist movement. The comparison here is the difference between Annie Liebovitz’s work and Salgado’s. They’re both taking pictures of people, but they have VERY different ideas about how those pictures will get used and what it is hoped those pictures will inspire.
That’s what I did. I had a different idea about what was important to my life, how my art might serve those issues, and how to use the work through the emerging mediums to expand the exposure of the ideas to evermore people. Postmodernism didn’t serve me in getting that done and has chosen to dismiss my efforts as journalistic, and not art. I supposed the textiles and the new digital prints are viewed as aberrations of old age.
We all do what we think we have to do.
MJ: Do you think it is a good idea for other photographers to approach publishers with the publishing model you’ve developed, one that distributes books through non-profits instead of retail distributors?
RGK: If you were to go to a smaller press, such as The Mountaineers, and you bring them a book that is even remotely interesting, then you say: I have my funding and my buyers in place. I can guarantee 3,500 of the run. At $10 each, you’re coming into the meeting with $35,000, and that puts you a long way up. You might not be covering 100% of the publisher’s costs, but you’re already coming in the door with something that looks good.
If I had an advocate-directed book, I would presume that the publisher felt his market impaired by the political point of view. I would therefore compensate coming through the door with either a network of distribution or a network of sales and distribution already in place — such as a non-profit I was working with. Then you can also explain that funding of some kind is already in place, so the book doesn’t languish on bookshelves and it doesn’t have unrealistic financial expectations.
Maybe not everybody has this access, but I know on-press people, I know editors, I know book designers, and I know presses in Hong Kong and Europe. Likely with my next book I will publish it myself with my own team. I’ll write into my grant proposal for an organization, likely the Hearsts, all those books at pre-publication cost, besides whatever goes into the market. We’ll just distribute it ourselves through the internet. Then I will probably go to the book fairs and see if we can pick up some sales and get broader distribution. But it’s not worth it to me, all that stuff that gets lost and logged into the middlemen warehouse distributors. It’s not worth the energy and it doesn’t put the books in enough of the right places.
MJ: Is it a hard sell to convince publications and publishers that these conservation issues are hot topics?
RGK: It has always been a hard sell and it’s still a hard sell. I’m constantly amazed at how people are fawning and apologetic about not having supported a project like the Tongass and they say, “We would never miss another opportunity like this again. The next time you have something going on, please come back to us.” Then the next time I come back to them, it’s like they’ve never talked to me before and I’m starting all over again. So it’s very frustrating.
Until recently my Bristol Bay work has been like sitting on a very steep greased board — I had no traction whatsoever. People were paying attention but only just barely. People like the Smithsonian Magazine and Audubon, who I offered Tongass to and they both turned me down. Then they came back to me years later when they were doing Tongass articles, big features, and said stuff like, “You were so far in front of the curve. That was the biggest mistake of our lives not taking that article when you offered it to us. Please bring us something like that again.”
So I bring them Bristol Bay. And you know what everyone said to me? Why aren’t you up in the Arctic Refuge taking pictures? And I said, first of all, I counseled Subhankar Banerjee, who is there, and I think he’s probably going to do a good job with it. It also happens that my friend Theo Allofs is there and Art Wolfe is there and I think there are enough photographers up there. Also, the Arctic Refuge has been used as a smokescreen, drawing a lot of public attention to the battle, while other places are being savaged and no one is looking. I’m bringing you a project you ought to be paying attention to, which I did when I brought you the Tongass, do you remember? And they all acted like I was out of my mind and Bristol Bay was a no-starter.
I submitted this collective story about the Bay to National Geographic three times in five years, and they told me it was a story of no interest. Then they sent somebody on their own staff up to do the story and paid me a finders fee. Men’s Journal looked at the story several times over three years and said it was a no-starter — then finally four months ago they realized it’s smoking hot now that Sarah Palin ran for office, so they sent their own guy.
It is amazing to me that virtually everybody who said, “Come back to us with any new stories,” once I was introduced to them through the Tongass, basically ignored me when I brought them Bristol Bay. You’d think at 60 I’d finally have some respect, but I don’t. This story is important. I’m glad it’s now at National Geographic. I’m glad it’s at Men’s Journal. It will put more pressure on the legislators I’m visiting and will revisit this year. If there is a way I can place a set of books in Obama’s hands, I will. But not to a legislative assistant or somebody else. It has to be me to him. I want to know that he sees it. In this kind of a lobbying effort, the personal contact carries weight. John Muir lobbied Teddy Roosevelt; Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and David Brower aggressively lobbied the Congress with their Sierra Club publications; and now I am the next generation to inherit this advocacy mantel.
The next place this special publishing model I’d developed came into play, and really the place it came into full force, was Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska. In 1998 there was no mine proposed, no oil proposed, just this huge wild area called Southwest Alaska that is larger than the state of Washington. And it’s the habitat for the richest, most productive salmon fishery in the history of the world, Bristol Bay. And I’m on the board of the Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF). I’ve been there for seven years. We’re making a big difference. Having a lot of victories. I’m working as a board member, I’m not pushing myself as a photographer, but I’m offering my advice about media.
And the retiring board director says to me, have you ever been out to Southwest Alaska? And I haven’t, so he and his friend, who’s a writer from Wyoming and also an expert fly fisherman, take me out there for a 7-day fly around. And his position as a fisherman is, this is a goldmine for fishermen and conservation, and he thinks I should bring it to ACF, the group I’m on the board of. He is leaving ACF but thinks the Bristol Bay area is going to become an issue in terms of developers wanting it. And I think it sounds like a great idea, and I’m not working on a project, and I’m about to retire from the board.
So I start writing my grants. And I write in the grant that I’ll do a book and it will be about this fishery and its protection, and in funding the grant they can guarantee that 5,000 at-cost copies will be available for the ACF to use in direct mail campaigns to bring more money in. I weave in the grassroots, the foundation strategy, my book strategy, and this advocacy work you can do with direct mail. It was the maturity of all my previous projects coming together. And we went out with that grant, and everyone we showed it to was in. We brought in several smaller family foundations and we brought in one very large foundation, the Turner Foundation. Then, when I was nearly on press with the first book, Rivers of Life, I also noticed I had this extraordinary amount of material specifically about Wood Tikchik Park, which is more than one-third of the water shed. It is the largest state park in Alaska — it’s huge at over a million and a half acres. Just one fishing lodge and everything else wild park.
I talked to one of my friends who was head of department of natural resources for the state, and he said, please do a book on this park and talk about all the inholdings that are at risk. An inholding is an amount of land that was given to a Native American tribal holder as part of his native claims stake when the lands transferred between natives and park. And every person got to extract a certain amount of acreage, I think in 60-acre squares. So they’re all patchworked through these wild lands. And the presumption was the natives would continue to treat them as they had for 3,000 years. But the reality was that parents would be saving them for their kids who would grow up, go to college, and never want to come back to the village, so the traditional values of that land would erode. The parents would look at it and think, well we can sell this to a white guy who wants to build a fishing lodge and we will become millionaires. Among the rest of us there was this feeling of, oh my god, don’t let this happen to these habitats. So with the first book already on press, I began working on a second book with another author, and we wrote the second book directed at these issues of inholdings. So one book was, don’t let this resource be developed by offshore oil and gas or on-shore anything. And the second was, don’t let this land be fragmented by inholdings. Please work with the conservancies and the tribes to see that it all goes into parkland protection.
We took those two books as a set and we did a very substantial mailing and a traveling exhibit. Talk about all these things happening blindly but at the right moment. At the time that we did the mailing, Canada announced plans for Pebble Mine, the largest open-pit gold and copper cyanide-leach mine in the history of the world right in the middle of the biggest part of the fishery. And of course the state leased it. So here’s the two books sitting there and just being mailed and the show’s just going up and they announce the proposal for the Pebble Mine. And then Bush gets Ted Stevens, the Alaska senator now indicted for felony, to pull Bristol Bay off of the no-drill oil moratorium, which it had been on for 18 years, and announced leasing through the Department of the Interior. So immediately the books had more weight.
Among many things that happened because of the momentum the mailing created was a $10 million, three-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation flowing to the conservancies in southwest Alaska to purchase and buy into the inholdings when the native villages were willing to strike deals over conservation easements. A 21,000-parcel deal was struck recently with eight or ten very significant tribal elders, which sent out shockwaves in the native community because they don’t really embrace white legal systems. So by those native elders signing on, it has a huge impact at other levels in other tribes. What they did was sell the rights to commercially develop the land. They do not give up their right to own the land. The land is put into an easement that is managed by a conservancy, and the natives can go and use the land any time they want to fish or hunt, but not for commercial development. Even if they sell it, it remains in easement. So it’s a way of putting land into wild status in perpetuity.
This project was where everything came together in its most mature form, with the Bristol Bay and Wood Tikchik books, the show, and the pre-deemed funding to buy out a portion of the run. The picture books themselves were commercially viable; Aperture sold them in the market. But I would say we got rid of just as many of them in the community by doing direct mail and target-specific sales at lectures and exhibitions. The exhibition has triggered a lot … we took it to all the major cities in Alaska. We triggered discussions between the communities and the mining representatives from Pebble Mine. We’ve had the exhibition go to Washington D.C. as a bi-partisan request from Newt Gingrich and Mark Udall.
In my opinion, the reason some of the projects were so much more successful is, first of all, I enjoy the theater of the advocate role. I’ll go to Washington and lobby directly and use personality. This is an age where cult of personality plays well. You know, James Audubon was an American sophisticate. An intellectual, a researcher. But when he went to England with his drawings of the America birds, he had this fabulous fringe leather suit made for himself and he walked around with his musket. So it’s been theater for a long time. And I’m perfectly happy to play the “outdoor adventurer” Robert Ketchum and show up at Barbara Boxer’s office, especially now that she’s head of the Environment Committee, and ask her to please consider being a co-sponsor to John Kerry’s Bristol Bay Marine Reserve Act. And of course she’s seen the book and all that.
I think if I have had an impact in the book market, it has been to find a way to make the book more useful from an advocate point of view. Perhaps that is a corruption of the coffee table tradition, but so be it, it makes for a much more useful and purposeful publication. I feel like, if these concepts were somehow a secret of mine all these years, they shouldn’t have been, and I didn’t intend it that way. I’m happy to have other photographers think about how to use it. Because a lot of them get frustrated. They get nice books published, they get nice conservation groups all lined up. But then they have a subtle subject like, say, a book on grass prairie, and it doesn’t have a national audience, and it doesn’t really get out there. So it sits and languishes on bookshelves and it gets remaindered. That won’t change anything!
Although there is always the fluke opportunity for a picture book to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, like Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Earth From Above, or Ernest Haas’s The Creation, the likelihood of that happening is one percent. The rest of us are pretty lucky if we sell 25,000 books — we’re actually pretty luck if we sell 10. And then if you narrow your market by trying to intellectualize anything, or in particular politicize anything, to take it anywhere other than just a pretty picture book about a popular theme, then you lose even more of the market. Your publisher’s not interested. Your bookstores don’t respond in the same way. Your readership gets smaller. And don’t forget that when you publish a book, it goes to the first tier of distribution, and that’s national, then the price usually doubles. Then it goes from there to the smaller distributors, and then the price increases again. Then from the smaller distributors it goes to the bookstores. If the bookstores take it, it’s maybe two copies, and it ends up spine-out unless the publishing company has paid for some kind of display. So now you’ve got this book you’ve put years of effort into, photographing, editing, publishing. Plus the cost. And it ends up spine-out in some bookstore. If you’re trying to change anything, especially change the world in any way, it’s not likely it’s going to happen at that pace.
I learned a lot about this with The Hudson River and the Highlands, my first book with Aperture. I met Aperture through the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund, which commissioned Stephen Shore, William Clift, and I to photograph the river. My images were pretty confrontational and political, so when I originally presented them to the Wallace Fund, I said, I recognize this is not what you gave me the commission for. You don’t have to use them, I just want to show you that I’m doing them. And they said, these are the ones we think are the most important, because they were working form a conservation perspective.
From there I was introduced to Aperture. It didn’t take me very long at Aperture to realize the frustration of publishing a book and having the limited exposure and sales. We still did well, we sold over 10,000, but only because it was Hudson River and New York. Michael Hoffman, the former president of Aperture said to me, “You take away part of your market by putting these politicized photographs in, but I understand the foundation is supporting it. It’s a kind of corruption of the coffee table book, so I guess it’s interesting that we’re doing it here at Aperture.” And that’s how it was viewed. My further frustration was that the book didn’t reach a wider audience than the Hudson River lovers. It didn’t reach the conservation audience I wanted, and it didn’t really comment on Regan’s take on the Clean Water Act, which was what I kind of implied in my essay.
So when we came to the table with the Tongass rainforest book, again I was working with Aperture. This time I was determined to be more strident in my political content and to look at book distribution more realistically in terms of what I expected to sell and get from a royalty. First I said, I think this minimal royalty for sales, which is all projected out over years, is a joke. How much are you going to give me, if you added it all up? And usually you’re lucky if it’s between $20,000 and $50,000. I said, how about you give me that in books at cost? I do lectures and workshops for non-profit fund raising and things like that where I will sell my books, and I agreed not to poach their bookstore sales by selling at retail. And then I would just go away, and they’d never have to pay me a royalty or anything, I just get those books free. Well Aperture was happy to do that and I was happy to get free from Aperture’s bureaucracy. In particular it allowed me to hand out books when I felt like it because they only cost a couple bucks.
Having published the Tongass book, I wanted to change the way it was distributed. So I approached foundations in the conservation community. I struck an agreement between one of the foundations and Aperture to buy books at cost (about 800) so that they could be handed out in Congress, not only to members but also their legislative assistants. And Aperture agreed. That was Aperture’s first introduction to the idea. So that happened with the Tongass book, and we got it handed out in Congress and widely distributed through information networks like Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice that needed it as a visual imaging device.
From the time we published that book in ’86, the presence was accumulative, sort of a ball going downhill, gaining momentum. And in 1990 we passed the largest timber reform bill in history of United States. The book was not the sole element that made that happen. It was all the people working on the project. But it gave them something to carry around in their hands to say, this is what it looks like, and, more importantly, this is what’s being done to it, because the clear-cuts were in the book. And the industrial log yards and people being displaced in the fishing industry were in there. So there was challenging stuff like the images I’d integrated into the Hudson book, but more stridently so, and the essay stopped beating around the bush and came out and called a spade a spade and got a lot of people in trouble. It was a real political advocacy books. It probably had a very limited market in terms of real picture book marketing. Yet it had a huge life, and went to a third addition, 50,000 copies, but mostly by handout, request mailing, website sales, and foundations networking. The group I did all this with is the Macintosh Foundation; they also helped with the distribution in Congress and they helped underwrite the traveling exhibition that showed at the National Museum of Natural History on Earth Day. They operate some boats in Southeast Alaska for recreational use and they appreciate the eco-tourism value of the land as opposed to the log-it-to-death aspect.
That opened the door to my ensuing book with the Akron Art Museum, which resulted from a commission to photograph the newly created Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. The book, Overlooked in America, went beyond the context of Ohio and examined all federal lands in North America and the way they were being mistreated. Aperture was also the publisher on that production, and their literal words were, “This book is so bitter, we can’t imagine a readership audience.” And they didn’t want to run it. So my funders said to Aperture, if somebody paid for printing costs, would Aperture help distribute any books? And Aperture said, probably just 1,000. So we ran 10,000 and distributed the rest to the environmental networks. And those books were on the front lines of battles about mining, about parks — they even got handed out in Alaska when the battle started over the mine in Bristol Bay. I’d done a completely different set of books there, but they still found Overlooked in America useful to hand out. So these books have another kind of life. They live on the shelves, but they have another life where they serve advocates. But they don’t get out if you don’t take them out into that advocate world.