Robert Glenn Ketchum is a pioneering conservation photographer, recognized by Audubon magazine as one of 100 people “who shaped the environmental movement in the 20th century.” He tells us the stories of his conservation photography and influential work from Mexico to Alaska and more.
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Introduction to the Outdoors
When I was very young, my dad was a hunter and a fisherman and spent, a portion of his life, leaving his office and going with his friends to shoot pheasants in Nebraska or something. He didn't take me hunting, but he did take me fishing. And we did some stream fishing and I grew to love that process and started to really like being out of doors with my dad.
Half of my dad's business was based in Honolulu because he helped rebuild the fleet after he was in industrial auto parts manufacturing, and he distributed for all of the Eastern manufacturers. He distributed their parts on the West coast. When Pearl Harbor occurred and the Navy got bombed out they had to rebuild the fleet. My father opened an office in Honolulu and helped the Navy rebuild their fleet.
So he was in Hawaii oh, I dunno, six months a year doing all of that. And when I was five, I think, maybe seven. He flew my mom and me over and said, why don't you spend the summer with me. And they didn't know what to do with me. So they brought me a brownie box camera and let me wander around in the Kahala Hotel garden and take pictures of random leaves. I had no idea what I was doing.
What drove you to conservation photography?
I went to Monterey pop and spent three days in a complete daze. Coming back home, I was driving down the Big Sur coast with a friend that had gone with me and we were we're burned out. We're truly, really, truly burned out. In Monterrey, there was a place Elizabeth Taylor's son owned and we were told we could crash and camp out on the Big Sur coast there. As it turned out, that place was called Lime Kiln Creek. It's a beautiful State Park. We pulled in there in the waning Twilight and set up our camp.
When I woke up in the morning, it was just like being back in Monterey, all these, hippies beating drums and chanting and they had fires and I was so sick of it. I'm also probably still under the influence of being in Monterey for two days. I thought you know what? This place is supposed to be so great. I want to see this. So I wandered back on this forest trail towards the lime kilns. If you've been there, you know what I'm talking about, it's a beautiful old-growth forest. Second growth redwoods that are now really big and beautiful streams and waterfalls and everything else. At one point I decided to go off the trail and go down and sit by the stream and try to clear my head because I couldn't hear the campground anymore. I was finally quiet to get away from everything.
So I'm sitting by the stream and I'm literally having a conversation with whatever you want to call it. My personal God, I'm just, I'm in a daze and having this conversation.
Two questions I asked myself:
- “What are you doing? My response was, I don't really know. What am I supposed to do? And the comeback was, what do you want to do? And I said if I could be Elliot quarter, but be out in front of these incidents rather than after the fact when they've already occurred, I would do that in a heartbeat.”
- “This was really interesting because the next question was. Would you do it if you were never famous? Rock photography is about being famous. And so the question was what would you do if you were never famous and I was like, if I succeeded, I would do it as long as I succeeded.”
What I asked for that day, I got exactly that. We can believe in whatever God we want to believe in, but that was, I don't know, 1967. And I was, I don't know, a junior in college. That was the seminal moment in my life.
Advice about Conservation
I've been a conservation environmentalist, my whole life. It's frustrating. We have to be very wary of the idea of compromising, which is what Elliot Porter's book on the Glen Canyon pointed out. The compromise was the Grand Canyon gets saved, but Glen Canyon gets drowned. When I met with Elliott in his house, and I asked him about it and I said, “your book has inspired me, do you have any laments about this?” And he said, yeah, “that I couldn't do it before the project got started, and that everything I did was after the fact.” And that inspired me to be in front of issues like the Tongass Rain Forest and the Pebble Mine so that they never even got traction and we shut them out before they got started.
Links to things we talked about
In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World by Elliot Porter and Henry David Thoreau
The Place No One Knew – Glen Canyon on the Colorado
Alaska Conservation Foundation
International League of Conservation Photographers
What Robert would put on Trade Show Banner
“Get outside and have fun”
Robert's Favorite Books
Regarding the Land Robert Ketchum, and The legacy of Elliot Porter, Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
Favorite Piece of Outdoor Gear under $100
Connect with Robert
1:03 – 01:45 Intro to the Outdoors
19:34 – 20:40 Advice
55:43 – 56:26 Favorite Books