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.
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.
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 Kolb
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.
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.
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.