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As I mentioned in my post yesterday, it was great to hear and see so many young photographers at LOOK3 who are taking ownership over the incredible change happening in the industry today. But, in the end, we were all there to scope out some great photography. Here are 10 awesome things from LOOK3 that I might otherwise have missed (they’re in no particular order, so I’m not even numbering them).
Antarctica remains the last great wilderness in the world. The continent encompasses a vast array of environments, from the lifeless high plateau surrounding the South Pole, where miles-thick ice presses down the bedrock, to ice shelves extruding into the sea and the dry valleys where snow seldom falls. The Antarctic Convergence, the boundary where cold and warm water meet, rings Antarctica hundreds of miles from land. It extends so far north that it encompasses South Georgia, where tens of thousands of King Penguins nest on beaches beneath glaciated mountains 11,000-feet tall. Elephant seals guard their harems, and albatrosses soar above the waters.
The Antarctic Peninsula is an extension of the Andes. There is no other place on earth, including Alaska and the fjords of Patagonia, where such an impressive sequence of large glaciated peaks continues unbroken for so far. As you cruise south along the peninsula’s west coast, it’s easy to imagine yourself on the Orient Express through the Himalaya.
No animals larger than micro-organisms live at the Pole, but the northern tip of the Peninsula abounds with life. Penguins and blue-eyed shags nest in the rocks where a few hardy plants have taken root. Crab-eater seals loll on flat icebergs where the top predator, the leopard seal, is less likely to attack. Minke whales patrol the bays, surfacing with an explosive exhalation. Gentoo and Adelie penguins porpoise as they approach the shore either to confuse the leopard seals, or for the sheer joy of it.
The scenery here is so grand, and the animals so numerous and spectacular, that photographers often find themselves with a common problem. How do you avoid the image that has already been taken a thousand times? Your eye is naturally pulled toward one postcard view after another. How do you endow an image with a deeper power or a sense of surprise? Here are a few tricks I use:
1. Change your perspective. Get off the ship. Unless you set off on a different route, you are limited to a single point of view (although a battery of lenses can add some flexibility). Once on shore or in a Zodiac boat, you can place an iceberg or a rack of whale ribs in the foreground, wheel around to position an animal against a good background, or crawl behind a curtain of icicles.
2. Get Closer. A close up shot usually has a better chance to be involving. In Antarctica, the rules prohibit approaching wildlife too closely. But they don’t prohibit the wildlife from approaching you. I often find if I set up in the general vicinity of penguins or seals, one of them will come to investigate, nosing right up to my lens. This isn’t for everyone, since it usually means you are sprawled in guano, and more than once a curious elephant seal pup has crawled right up on top of me.
3. Skip Dinner. It is an unfortunate coincidence that dinner is inevitably served when the light is best. You can eat later — you may never have the chance to shoot this place in this light again. Always take advantage of unique opportunities.
For more tips and hands-on instruction, join me on my next two trips to Antarctica, in November 2009 and 2010. For details, check my website, call my office at 206-332-0993, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miki Johnson: Tell me about this award and how it will work.
Daniel Beltrá: For me, the most exciting part of this award is the book. We are working with Stuart Smith, who is one of the best book designers in the world. Amongst others, he does books for Eliot Erwitt and James Nachtwey. The idea is to create a very limited edition book of only 500 copies. Prince Charles is going to offer it to prominent people, and heads of state around the world. There’s a conference in November and he’s going to be giving this book to many presidents as a personal present from him. All this is to gear up the world and get them to commit to stop tropical deforestation as a way to tackle global warming.
Of course every photographer that makes a book hopes that it will have some impact, but I’ve never seen one used at this level before. They have very clear ideas of how they want the book made: They only want it to be 70 or 80 pages; they want big pictures; and they want to reach an equilibrium between the biodiversity, the indigenous populations, the impending destruction and sustainable solutions. This is a worldwide problem so they don’t want to point any fingers or blame anyone — it’s everybody’s responsibility. Tropical deforestation creates 20% of the CO2 released, which is more than the entire transport sector in the world. If you stopped all the trains and the planes and the cars and boats in the world, you still would manage to drop the CO2 level more if you just stopped tropical deforestation, so it’s a no-brainer really. So what Prince Charles and his Rainforests Project want to do is create a huge fund where the world would put money for these countries so they don’t cut further and further.
I haven’t done a book before, so I’m excited but it’s such short notice it feels like a sprint for six months. Luckily there are a lot of very capable and talented people around me and that’s going to help a lot. Sony for example is putting so much effort in because they are launching a new line to the professional market. And they have great technology. We’re going to be doing exhibitions and they have these big weatherproof screens that can be set up outdoors to show the images.
MJ: It sounds like you are on a pretty tight schedule. Is it hard working with NGOs sometimes that don’t have realistic expectations for how long photo projects take?
DB: I basically have three to four weeks per country to go to three places: the Brazilian Amazon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia, which is probably going to be Borneo and Sumatra. The shooting list they gave me originally was too wide, so we’re going to use some of my past photography, and that will help a lot. The portfolio I presented for this award was 30 of my best photographs. Those were images I made during nine years working in the Amazon. I’m not going to get the same thing in a few weeks. My personal idea was to have good photography drive the project and not a really specific shooting list, because there’s not really enough time for that. The Amazon is the size of the continental U.S. or Europe. You could spend weeks just trying to reach a particular spot. The distances are enormous and many of the places need to be reached by plane, so it’s a challenge. But I’m confident we’re going to produce a good piece.
MJ: It must have been interesting to find yourself sitting with the Prince of Wales, showing him your photographs.
DB: The commitment Prince Charles has made to this issue is really global. When we met in London and I was showing him my photos, he really knew a lot about the issues. He was saying, oh this is palm oil in Indonesia, I’ve been working with this and I went there last year. He’s very knowledgeable and he’s very passionate about the environment. There are so many people who are so high in the world, who could sit back and have a relaxed life, so it’s very humbling to see how committed he is.
It doesn’t make much sense. My career has been a complete snowball. I started in photography in 1988. And until 2005 I didn’t participate in a single competition. But in 2005, Tom Stoddart saw the story I did on the drought in the Amazon and he said, “You need to send this to the World Press.” And I was saying, “I don’t know.” And he said, “Daniel, please trust me, send this to the World Press.” And then a week before the deadline Tom called and said, “Did you send that to the World Press?” And I said no. He said, “Daniel, send it!” So I did — and I won an award.
That really opened the world for me. I went to Amsterdam and I met all these other photographers and I thought, wow, I don’t feel any more like this crazy guy who works 90% of his time on environmental issues, because at that time conservation wasn’t such a hot topic. In 2007 I got another World Press award then last year I got the inaugural Global Vision Award from Picture of the Year International (POYi) and I’ve gotten 10 big awards in 4 years. Then, a couple years ago, I was invited to join the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). It was such an honor to be part of a group of dedicated photographers I had admired for so long. So it’s been a total rollercoaster for me.
So suddenly, you become a name in photography when a few years ago you were nobody. It doesn’t mean that much ultimately, and I don’t want it to go to my head. I want to have time to go and shoot. There are so many important stories that need to be told. But this publicity is also a great way to expose what’s happening to more people. So I am more and more open to doing exhibitions and giving talks, but it’s difficult to handle sometimes. And at the end of the day, I need to figure out how to make a better business decisions so I can hire help and have more time.
I remember until just a few years ago, when I would turn in a story to Greenpeace, who I work with a lot, I would just try to rest a little. Now it’s like I’m more busy when I come home than when I’m shooting. It’s almost a relaxation to go in the field. It’s like, no more email, no more phone, and whatever happens, I’ll deal with it when I’m back. Nobody is obliging me to do this, I am extremely lucky and can’t complain. But I want to make sure I’m maximizing the impact of my work and I also want to have a life.
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!
Let me walk you through one project we’re doing, a new frozen food product. To begin with, the designer called me and we talked about what the requirements were. This was for packaging, so she showed me the rough layout they had, the size of the package, and the area they needed for type and graphics. Then — this doesn’t always happen, but it’s good when it does — we did a test shoot. We were able to take one day with the food stylist and we tried to shoot as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just to get across the idea and see what works and what doesn’t work. What lighting or angle or props look good. There are so many combinations that have to work together. So we would work through that and then the designer would take those photos and create a couple different layouts to present to the client. And then, after long discussions, the client decided which direction they felt is best. And once that’s established we do it all over again. But this time we care much more about what it looks like. In this particular case we did two rounds of that. We did another round of shooting to establish what it was going to look like because they had a slight shift in what the prerequisites were.
On the production side, when we were actually doing the shoot, it meant coordinating, getting the product here, having freezer space, and having the right equipment to cook it. We had to figure out how best to do that. It’s sort of exploring how to get the most truthful representation of the product, trying to get the best out of it and still not lying about what the product is or looks like. We’re just trying to show it in its best light. The stylist in that particular case also had to work with the client to determine what side dishes they wanted. Do you want rice and a vegetable or a potato and a vegetable? What are the combinations? Or what garnishes can we use? What things can we put on it to make it look better? It’s a fine line; you don’t want it to look like it’s something that’s supposed to come with it.
Then there are the props. In this particular project we had to find the right plate to put it on to give it the right feel or atmosphere. If they want it to look casual, they want a certain kind of plate; if they want it to look upscale, it would be a different kind of plate. So there’s a whole process of figuring out, where do we want to position this? It’s a group effort. Ideally you want to have the actual product, the food, and the plates together under the lights and put it under the camera and see what works. You can’t really predict those things until you see them in context.
We have a lot of plates and dishes and flatware in the studio, but usually the requirements are more specific than that. Usually it has to be a certain size, a certain color, it has to have a red band on it or something. So being a prop stylist is actually a very difficult job. People say, that sounds like fun, to go shopping with other people’s money — it’s not that easy. It’s usually very specific. A client might say, once I saw this plate that was green and it had little speckles around the edge and it was about seven inches in diameter. And I don’t know where I saw it, but I really like that one, find that. Or for this particular project, the plate had to be a certain size because, if the plate’s too big, it looks like the portion you get is too small. If it’s too small, the portion looks gigantic. So you’ve got to find that middle ground. It’s very difficult finding the exact fit that everybody likes. The other thing that happens is the client says, I saw this plate over at this store; then you go to get it and they don’t stock it anymore. Occasionally we actually have to have a plate made from scratch. We went to the model maker and it turns out they do that for Pottery Barn and stores like that. They design a model and do a plate for them, so it was no big deal for them to do it for us.
Working with food, you have a relatively small window of time to work in. Ice cream, for instance, is a really small window. But usually the longer anything sits out, it’s not good. It’s best to capture it as soon as possible. That’s why on the day of the shoot, if we didn’t do a test shot ahead of time, we would figure out the camera angle, the lighting, get it all set up and then the food stylist would make it all over again and make sure it looks really good the second time. The first version is sort of stand-in food so you don’t care if it sits out there for an hour because you’re just getting the composition and the lighting where you want it. Then when everything is set you bring in the fresh food and shoot it right away.
Once we have the image we like, we bring it to post-production. The thing that I think is interesting is, if you know you have that option of retouching you can use it as a tool for shooting. If there is this technical issue or, particularly in packaging, if there is a size problem. One project we did was a limited budget and they wanted to do it as efficiently as possible. So we shot the food for the front panel of the package and then the back of the package there was another photo of that same dish but it was pulled way back to leave room for the type. So instead of trying to shoot the main shot then pull back and shoot it again with more background, we shot it for the front and made sure everything looked good on the whole plate. Then at the end of the shoot we pulled back, set up that other shot, kept the camera angle exactly the same, then in post production we cut the food off the plate in the front shot and shrunk it down to fit on the plate that was on the back. So it’s an exact copy without having to shoot it twice. Because the food wouldn’t have lasted from one shot to the next. We would have had to make everything twice.
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.