The modern history of the Grand Canyon is perhaps best embodied through the life’s work of professional photographer John Blaustein. Since his first trip down the Colorado River aboard a decked-over dory in 1970, this anthropology major from UC Berkeley has built his career taking pictures while indulging a personal passion for whitewater adventure. First under the apprenticeship Joe Monroe, a freelance photographer with credits in Life Magazine, National Geographic, Time and Fortune, Blaustein learned the craft of photography while building his skills rowing the mighty river with veteran guide Martin Litton. Combining his expertise in both disciplines, he created the images for his seminal treatise called The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey in 1977. With text by the great essayist Edward Abbey, the book, though out of print, is still known as one of the best ever written on the Grand Canyon and set Blaustein’s long career now spanning 40 years in motion.
“I never set out to do the book,” he told the Clymb “But it became the keystone of my photography. From there I kind of stumbled from one thing to the next without a master plan.”
Blaustein’s work as photographer has appeared in publications that include Outside, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian and many others. With his book as a portfolio of sorts, he was successful in securing several prominent corporate clients such as Apple Computer, AT&T, New York Life and United Airlines. But truly his greatest love has always been capturing compelling images at water level while on more than 85 trips through the Grand Canyon. It was during these early experiences while rowing the Colorado River that Blaustein feels most fortunate for having begun a passionate obsession that inspires his life to this day.
“I had a lot of good luck. What I mean by that is stumbling into the Grand Canyon when I did, meeting Martin Litton when I did, the fact that he would give me a chance,” Blaustein said. “If ever anyone was a fish out of water as boatman in the Grand Canyon it was me.”
Now at the age of 66 Blaustein makes at least one plunge down the Colorado every year. Thrilled by the prospects of discovering more of its mysteries he paddles forward with his camera through the Canyon looking for that next exciting image around the bend.
The Clymb: What can you tell us about the inspiration behind what can only described as iconic work taking photographs in one of the most spectacular national parks in the country?
Blaustein: I was there. I was captivated by the dories, by the river. I feel like I picked up my camera and I reacted to it. I just think the place is magical and the connection that I developed with the river by being a guide, rowing those wonderful little wooden boats and just opening my eyes and reacting to it is just what happened. I am not one of these photographers who writes a lot of flowery language about my pictures. A lot of people do. I don’t, maybe because I’m not articulate enough. I was lucky to be there through the 70s. I’ve done about 85 trips, plus or minus, down the river including recent ones, anywhere between 15 and 21 days. You can do the math. I spent a lot of time at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. In the early days I was a dory guide, which I did from ’70 through ’77 or ’78. In recent years I’ve rowed a baggage boat. I do that because I don’t have guide’s license. I don’t have any of the first aid certification, which I would need to row paying passengers in a dory. It’s not worth it to me to get all that do one trip a year. So I’m thrilled to do a baggage boat, a raft so I can go along on a dory trip. During those years in the ‘70s we were just down there learning to run the rapids, taking people down the river, having a great time. And oh yeah, I had my camera. I was already interested in photography. I just had the time of my life shooting whatever I wanted to on the river.
The Clymb: You might have adopted any river in North America. What was it about the Colorado that was so appealing to you?
Blaustein: I’ll give you a one-sentence answer. There’s only one Grand Canyon. As luck would have it, that’s where I ended up. I didn’t look at a map and say, “Let’s see, which national park should I go to?” When I graduated from collage with literally nothing to do for the rest of my life, I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career. I was interested in photography. But I didn’t have a clue of how to pursue that or what to do with it. And this guy named Dave Bohn, with whom I studied photography at Berkeley, introduced me to a guy 15 minutes from Berkeley, Joe Monroe who was freelance photographer. He did Life Magazine, and he knew Martin Litton through the Sierra Club. Dave said to me I’m sure he wouldn’t mind talking to you. It was through Joe Monroe that I met Martin, and Martin invited me to go down the river to wash pots and pans as a cook’s assistant in 1970.
Shortly before we left Martin called me up and asked me what I was going to do after our river trip? I said, “I have nothing to do for the rest of my life, why?” So he says he’s thinking about doing a second trip down the river and he needed a boatman and asked me to come along. I said, “Martin, you’re crazy, I’ve never been in a row boat!” So to answer your question, I didn’t pick the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon picked me.
The Clymb: You’ve been down through the Grand Canyon dozens of times in your life, but it doesn’t seem like it’s getting old to you. So now at the age of 66 in your mind is there a picture in the Grand Canyon that you haven’t taken yet?
Blaustein: Sure. It’s funny the guides that do this over and over again get asked that question a lot. I think if I weren’t rowing I would never say it’s going to be boring. I think what keeps me coming back is the challenge of the rapids, the whitewater, being at the oars, and the great relationship I have with the other guides. I don’t think anyone would ever finish photographing the Grand Canyon. I won’t ever feel that I’ve been there, done that.
Every time you go down the river at any given place, the light is always different. You’re there at a different time of day, because the pace of each trip is always slightly different. There’s always going to be certain places where I’ve seen it in board daylight, at high noon with no clouds. I’ll never say that I’m finished shooting the Grand Canyon. I would say that having spent as much time as I have there and having shot as much as I have there I can be much more selective than I was at the beginning.
I have the advantage of all my years of experience where I can anticipate certain parts of the Canyon that will look maybe better at certain times of the day and that’s when I’ll be paying more attention. But I think any photographer will tell you, it’s all about the light and that’s changing all the time. There always the opportunity that an area of the Canyon you’ve photographed 5 times before the next time the light could be all that more spectacular.
The Clymb: After all this time you probably have a pretty good read on what you need to do a trip through the Grand Canyon successfully. What are the critical pieces of equipment that are must-have items in your kit?
Blaustein: I guess number one would be a life jacket. You need fast drying swim trunks and a long-sleeved shirt to keep as much of your body covered from the sun as you can. And you need a great pair of river shoes. We started out in the 70s wearing Converse high-top All-Stars, a basketball shoe. They were a joke because you’d have to wear cotton socks or the canvas would rub holes in your feet, which were wet all day. Of course now there are Tevas and KEENS to give your feet a chance to air out a little bit. You have to protect your feet while you’re making your way through the rapids and with the new high-tech sandals; one pair of shoes is all you need.
The Clymb: What can you tell us about one of your most memorable moments in your career?
Blaustein: I certainly remember flipping a dory in Lava Falls, getting too far out in the middle and literally going over the falls and going under long enough that I thought what the F*** is going on! It’s not like my life flashed before my eyes and I thought I was drowning, but I was feeling the rocks on the bottom of the river and I was not popping up the way one hopes to. That was certainly memorable. But I can tell you, standing above some of the rapids, notably Hance, Crystal, Lava Falls, when the water level is not, I should say, advantageous, because as you know the river fluctuates, it’s impressive. You look at in it and you say “Man! Do I really have to do this?” But that’s part of the challenge. That’s part of the adrenaline rush. You get to bottom and you say, “I fooled’em again!”