Photographers Who Changed How We Play


Pho­tog­ra­phers have always influ­enced how we per­ceive the out­doors. Pho­tog­ra­phers shaped our per­cep­tions of the land­scapes of the Amer­i­can West. In an age when trav­el was dif­fi­cult, they allowed the urban and east­ern pop­u­la­tions to see a land­scape of moun­tains and deserts that they would oth­er­wise nev­er know. Their work led to the ear­ly stages of the nation­al park move­ment in the late 1800s. In the next cen­tu­ry Ansel Adams’ artis­tic ren­di­tions of land­scapes inspired the con­cept of wilderness.

But it didn’t end there. These characters—whether or not they intended—used their lens­es to change how we inter­act with the out­doors in a more mod­ern era in some fun­da­men­tal ways.

Eliot Porter
Porter dropped out of Har­vard to become a pho­tog­ra­ph­er in the 1940s, and soon found him­self drawn to pho­tograph­ing the out­doors, first in New Eng­land. But his mas­ter­piece, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon of the Col­orado, pub­lished in 1963, is a eulo­gy for the 186 miles of Glen Canyon that had been drowned below Lake Pow­ell sev­en years ear­li­er. His images from riv­er trips before the dam showed a large­ly unfa­mil­iar pub­lic what had been lost. It also and for­ev­er cement­ed Glen Canon Dam as one of conservation’s most regret­table mis­takes, when an agree­ment was made to not fight the dam in exchange for preser­va­tion of Dinosaur Nation­al Mon­u­ment. In the process of memo­ri­al­iz­ing Glen Canyon, Porter proved how much impact pho­tog­ra­phy could have in mobi­liz­ing the public.

Robert Glenn Ketchum
While Porter eulo­gized what had been lost, Ketchum act­ed before it was too late. When indus­tri­al-scale log­ging threat­ened Alaska’s pan­han­dle in the 1980s, Ketchum used pho­tog­ra­phy to alter the debate. His bare-knuck­led pho­to­graph­ic style paired scenes of ancient for­est, clear streams, and Alaskan wildlife with images of mas­sive clearcuts on the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est. When leg­is­la­tion to reform man­age­ment of Ton­gass arose, his book of images became a major weapon. Copies of his book, The Ton­gass, Alaska’s Van­ish­ing Rain­for­est, was giv­en every mem­ber of Con­gress, and images were exhib­it­ed in the Capi­tol Rotun­da. Con­ser­va­tion­ists recall gath­er­ing around new box­es of book ship­ments like Min­ute­men receiv­ing fresh sup­plies of mus­kets and pow­der. The Ton­gass Tim­ber Reform Act became law in 1990, and Ketchum went on to co-found the Inter­na­tion­al League of Con­ser­va­tion Pho­tog­ra­phers, to inspire and help oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers use their lens­es for conservation.

Galen Row­ell
While Porter and Ketchum focused on land­scapes, Row­ell found breath­tak­ing new ways to por­tray peo­ple at play in the moun­tains. A ground­break­ing climber with roots in Yosemite’s gold­en age, he logged over 100 first ascents in the Sier­ra, Himalaya, Antarc­ti­ca and Alas­ka. When he took up pho­tog­ra­phy, he found used the porta­bil­i­ty of new 35mm cam­eras and inter­change­able lens­es to depict the sport of climb­ing, not as an observ­er from far away, but as a par­tic­i­pant cling­ing to the rock next to the subject—which is exact­ly what he was doing. Row­ell doc­u­ment­ed ath­let­ic bal­lets on Yosemite gran­ite, first ascents of Himalayan mas­sifs, and win­ter ski tra­vers­es in the Hin­du-Kush and Alas­ka. When his images were pub­lished in Sports Illus­trat­ed, the brought pop­u­lar appeal to the obscure sport of climb­ing. You can see the lega­cy of his participant’s‑eye view per­spec­tive in today’s point-of-view cam­eras and videos.

Emery & Ellsworth KolbKolb_Bros
In 1904, The Kolb broth­ers began pho­tograph­ing mule train pas­sen­gers on the Bright Angel Trail. At first, they took images on the rim, ran 4.6 miles down into the canyon to Indi­an Gar­den, where a spring pro­vid­ed the water for devel­op­ing film, and then ran back up to the rim with the fin­ished pho­tos for the tourists. Lat­er, they opened a pho­to stu­dio on the Canyons’ South Rim, where Grand Canyon Vil­lage now stands.

Kolb Photo Studio by Grand Canyon National Park [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Kolb Pho­to Stu­dio, Grand Canyon Nation­al Park [CC BY 2.0 (], Wiki­me­dia Commons

They lugged mas­sive cam­eras, ridicu­lous­ly large and cum­ber­some by today’s stan­dards, through­out the Grand Canyon. But their great­est inno­va­tion was in 1911, when they ran the Col­orado from Wyoming to Mex­i­co with a new­fan­gled inven­tion: the motion pic­ture cam­era. They took their film on speak­ing tours to cities around the West, and the mod­ern adven­ture film fes­ti­val as we know it was born.

War­ren Miller
After being dis­charged from the Navy after World War 2, War­ren Miller and Ward Bak­er lived in a trail­er pulled behind a Buick, film­ing each oth­er ski­ing in the win­ter and surf­ing in the sum­mer. To cov­er up the less-than-per­fect pho­tog­ra­phy, Miller nar­rat­ed the films with jokes. The trend continued—every year Miller would make a ski film, trav­el around ski resorts nar­rat­ing it in the evening, and shoot footage for the next film dur­ing the day. One year he stayed in 210 dif­fer­ent hotels. The dry humor and icon­o­clas­tic com­men­tary he used to cov­er up the pho­to­graph­ic sna­fus became his sig­na­ture and gen­er­at­ed a cult-like fol­low­ing. With­out intend­ing it, out­door lifestyle film­mak­ing had been born, focus­ing not just on the sport but on its’ per­son­al­i­ties and com­mu­ni­ty. The lifestyle ele­ment he cel­e­brat­ed in over 500 ski films is now an inher­ent part of out­door films of all kinds.