For the last three decades photographer and mountaineer James Balog has been documenting environmental issues. His most recent project, one begun seven years ago with no end in sight, focuses on what he considers to be one of the biggest issues of our time: global warming. Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, and an accompanying documentary, Chasing Ice, are both part of his Extreme Ice Survey, a photographic effort that gives what Balog is calling a “visual voice” to our changing world. Audubon caught up with Balog to discuss his passion for the planet and his craft.
Why did you start this particular project?
Having initially been a bit indifferent to the climate change story about 20 years ago, I eventually became aware that it was real because I took the time to learn of the ancient climate record that was preserved in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. I then started to cast around for how you would photograph that. After some years of research I realized that the only thing I could think of that took the story and put it into three dimensions was ice. There were situations where I really could evoke and feel the change and decay and retreat of glaciers in places like Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska.
What do you mean you could ‘feel’ it?
You could look at the shapes of these things, and you could see and translate them into your bones. I mean they were crumbling in front of your eyes. You could see stakes [indicating where the ice had been] that had been put in the ground by Norwegian glacier watchers in previous years, and you could see how the landscape was no longer occupied by the ice as it had been. This one particular glacier had a dying ice edge that to me felt like old men dying.
I think if they had the knowledge and took the time to really go slowly and contemplate, I think most people would feel that. The problem is that most people don’t. They go out with a climbing guide and put on crampons, and it’s a big adventure. They’re not dealing with the glacier as an object that’s in a state of evolution. But that’s what artists are supposed to do. We’re supposed to have our antennae up and we’re supposed to find and feel and make images of those kinds of things. That’s our job.
Why did you decide to focus on glaciers?
I went to graduate school in geomorphology, the study of landforms and how they’re made. I went into that field of study because I was fascinated by the mountains and polar regions. Subsequently as a mountaineer I’ve traveled the world—South America, Asia, Alaska, Canada, the Alps—climbing mountains. And I’ve looked at a lot of glaciers and had my feet on a lot of glaciers. For photographic assignments, intermittently, I’ve done a lot of things that involved ice and snow, so I was emotionally and psychologically engaged with these kinds of landscapes. This project became the synthesis of all the main currents of my life: my interest in the arts, my interest in mountaineering and adventure, and my interest in the science.
Do you think that even in decay there is a beauty?
It’s beautiful in an existential way. It’s beautiful just as an observer of the world to realize that you’ve been thrust into geologic-scale change, which is something that you normally think you’ll never get to see. Here you are, by your fate and your destiny, put into a position where you actually see it, and record it, and you live it and feel it. All art of any real depth and consequence has dealt with the fundamental issues of existence. Mortality, trying to understand what the hell mortality is about, has been one of the great subjects that has fueled art since the beginning of art. When you’re looking at these glaciers and you’re feeling their mortality, you’re feeling your own mortality. My own manifestation of this exploration of my own mortality is implicitly reflected in these pictures.
What do you hope people respond to your images?
I hope to seduce the viewers with beauty, bring them into your circle of enthusiasm and interest, and then as they learn what the pictures about, learn what the stories are behind the pictures, then it gives me a window through which I can deliver the other story, the factual story. I want to pull people in first and then I want them to get pulled into the climate change story second.
Why focus on environmental issues like this?
Everything I’ve done has been about the intersection of humans and nature. What’s crystalized very clearly for me is that this is one of the big, big stories of our time. That clash can permanently alter the basic physics, chemistry, and biology of the planet. To me it’s every bit as historically important and every bit as much of an opportunity for a photographer as if you were standing on the beaches at Normandy during the Allied invasion. It’s a big, pivotal turning point. It doesn’t happen in three days the way the Allied invasion did, but it’s no less monumental in terms of the arc of history.
Did you have any idea when you started your photography that environmental issues would evolve so quickly and would prove so rich?
Oh, God no. It’s a question of meaning in one’s life. Do you do things because they make you happy? Do you do things that make you rich? Do you do things that make you in good shape? Do you do things that make you pretty? Well, that’s what most people spend their time pursuing, but I think there’s something deeper than that, and that is to have meaning, and to find meaning in your life is not always what makes you happy.