John Blaustein: Renowned Grand Canyon Photographer

Joan BlausteinThe 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!”

Check out some of John’s incred­i­ble Grand Canyon pho­tog­ra­phy in our two-part fea­ture, The Gold­en Age of Guid­ing: Part One  |  Part Two