Robert Glenn Ketchum: Using Pictures to Save The World

Robert Glenn Ketchum: Using Pictures to Save The World

“The first time I saw my work in action, I took a picture from the Beacon rail yard one morning in a hard rain and it was a really blue-grey day and the fog was down on the river, and the rail yard right there was just a mess. It was full of scrap metal and old tires and just a complete mess, and I was up on a rail bridge, looking down on it and I had a pretty interesting perspective and I realized from studying the history of the Hudson Valley that this was formerly, in the 1800s, a famous ferry park which meant that people from Manhattan ferried up for the weekend and picnicked in the park and stayed at the bed and breakfasts in the town of Beacon and now it looked like an abandoned mineral dump. I took the picture and took it back and showed it to the general council and he said, ‘So why was this important?’ and I explained about how in the 1800s it had been a ferry park. After I left he went back to the Wallace Fund and asked for the money to go up and buy the park away from Metro-North, and restore it as a park to the city of Beacon as part of the program to restore the valley’s history, and within two weeks they bought the entire thing back, and I was like, ‘One picture does that?’” — @RobertGKetchum [0:43:50.0]

Listen to Robert Glenn Ketchum share his story on the 100th episode of the NOT REAL ART podcast
Textiles created by Robert Glen Ketchum using his nature photography
Textiles created by Robert Glen Ketchum using his nature photography

Today’s guest is pioneering conservation photographer, Robert Glenn Ketchum. Robert's imagery and books have helped to define contemporary color photography while at the same time addressing critical national environmental issues, having made him one of the most successful artists and activists in American history.

In today’s episode, Robert talks about the development of his career, the many adventures his work has taken him on, and the social change these projects have kickstarted.

We dive straight in hearing Robert talk about the Pebble Mine campaign he is involved in currently where he is fighting against the construction of the largest gold and cyanide leech mine in the history of the world in Southwest Alaska. From there, Robert rewinds to his days as a student at UCLA in the 60s, where he started his photography career taking snaps of the famous bands that played in his neighborhood.

On the way back from the Monterey Pop Festival, Robert camped out at Limekiln Creek to break the trip up, and in a moment of contemplation next to a quiet stream he got the idea to pivot into conservation photography. Robert’s career blew up after that event, and he tells one epic tale after another about the different campaigns he fell into, the huge names he rubbed shoulders with, and the incredible ripple effects his photographs had.

We also get to hear Robert's thoughts on some of the most vital sides of being an artist, how to secure money, and how to increase the clout of one’s projects. Wrapping up our conversation, Robert tells a few more awe-inspiring stories about how he started translating his prints into textiles after discovering the quality Chinese embroidery. Tune in for tales of adventure, discovery, and serendipity, all powered by a passion for creativity and our natural environment with Robert today.

Textiles created by Robert Glen Ketchum using his nature photography
Textiles created by Robert Glen Ketchum using his nature photography

“The faithfulness of the embroiders to my photographs was astounding, and the many textures that can be incorporated in embroidery are just off the chart, and I had several pieces that have over 1000 different died colors – the range of dye is greater than the range in the photograph.” — @RobertGKetchum [1:15:55]

Key Points From This Episode:

  • The campaign Robert is working on to protest the Pebble Mine in South West Alaska.
  • Robert’s book, Southwest Alaska, which talks about overfishing in Crystal Bay.
  • Saving San Ignacio Lagoon with Joel Reynolds from the NRDC and recruiting him for the Southwest Alaska work.
  • The multi-tiered nature of the campaigns Robert works on; drawing on multiple channels.
  • The funds necessary to launch these big campaigns which groups smaller than the NRDC wouldn’t manage.
  • The power of branding to spread public awareness about bad practices.
  • Differences in quality between wild and farmed salmon and Robert’s adventures with Alaskan locals.
  • Robert’s experiences shooting famous bands in LA in the 1960s.
  • How Robert got the idea to transition into environmental photography on the way back from Monterey Pop.
  • Moving to the East Coast to work on a project in the Hudson River Valley.
  • Photographing destructive practices in the Hudson River Valley and getting published by Aperture.
  • Passing the largest timber reform bill in the U.S’s history during the Tongass Rainforest Project.
  • Getting invited onto the board of the American Land Conservancy and helping save Limekiln Creek.
  • Robert’s ‘method’ involving simply taking pictures and falling into one project after another.
  • Using contrasting images of natural beauty and destruction in campaigns.
  • How Robert realized the power of photography after photos of his caused real changes.
  • Founding the International League of Conservation Photographers.
  • The need for artists with great ideas to secure funding and how Robert did this.
  • Events related to the publicity and funding of the Tongass Rainforest Project.
  • Some of the books that Robert has published and collections he has curated.
  • Getting invited by Robert Redford to be an artist in residence at his Sundance Institute.
  • An expedition on William E. Simon’s private yacht through the Northwest Passage.
  • How Robert convinced Bill Simon that the Tongass logging was not ethical.
  • The story of finding out about Suzhou embroidery prowess and getting photos translated into textiles.
  • How Robert is incorporating his knowledge of Chinese silk into clothing products.
  • The story behind the print Sourdough bought from Robert depicting Arctic diurnal fog.
Textiles created by Robert Glen Ketchum using his nature photography
Textiles created by Robert Glen Ketchum using his nature photography

“I’d never seen a picture book come out with a political essay, and I was fascinated with that as an idea.” — @RobertGKetchum [0:32:22.0]

“It’s great that we’ve been able to infect an entire community with this idea about – it’s not just about making pretty pictures, it’s about making pictures of value.” — @RobertGKetchum [0:47:15]

“I simply try to take where I think my pictures will have value and then infuse them in the right way.” — @RobertGKetchum [0:41:23]

Scott "Sourdough" Power

Scott “Sourdough” Power is the the creator and executive producer of NotRealArt.com. He is also the co-founder of Crewest Studio a digital media company in Los Angeles dedicated to creative culture and the $2T creative economy.