Peter Essick likens a photographer's work to that of a preacher or a mystic.
"I think the artist is in the spiritual realm," Essick says. "There's all these shapes in the world, and the artist makes form out of them."
One of the world's great nature photographers, Essick lives in Stone Mountain. He was named one of the top 40 nature photographers by Outdoor Photography magazine and has been a contributor to National Geographic magazine for 25 years. In the last seven months, Essick has put out two new books of landscape and environmental photography: Our Beautiful, Fragile World and The Ansel Adams Wilderness. Essick spoke to Creative Loafing about his near-death experiences, spiritual evolution, his geometric approach to taking photos, and why he thinks photographer Ansel Adams was special.
Coal-fired power Plant, Conesville, Ohio, 2004, Peter Essick
Do you see any contradiction in traveling to faraway places to tell environmental stories?
We're all hypocrites in some way. I get in my car and drive to these places and I try to minimize my impact, but it's hard. If you're a wealthier person, you can afford a Tesla or a Chevy Volt or something like that. And then you can be sort of more pure, but for a lot of these stories I did fly to them. When I put postings on Instagram, I can almost guarantee that a couple people are like, "Hypocrite!" But then the flip side is if you're going to be a productive citizen in today's world, it's hard to be completely no-impact.
What do you think about advocacy journalism?
I don't mind being labeled an "environmentalist." A lot of my thinking changed when I became a father 14 years ago, but I try to avoid what's called advocacy journalism, which is normally working directly with an environmental group. I think what a lot of people think is that you're willing to twist the facts in order to promote your ideal. I never felt comfortable siding with a particular group. I don't think that's what a journalist should do.
But you do inevitably have to choose the facts to report. There really is no unbiased way to report a story.
I'm not saying you try to be completely objective either. [Your choices] and your own feelings, and even what I said about having a son, that sort of filters what I think about. Advocacy crosses a little farther in that line [to] where, if you see something that is wrong, you won't report it or you'll twist it.
I read that you said you continue to look to nature for answers to deeper questions. What are the deeper questions you're referring to?
I think it's more like evolution, spiritual things, how life operates on this planet.
Have you found any answers when you're out there?
Well, basically we're here for 80 years and we're just on this 4.5-billion-year-long trek, and we're this sort of segment of that. It's been hard in the past; if you go back to our grandparents they looked at nature like, "Oh, this is God's creation for us." But now we look at it differently. From a lot of information that has come out, we can go back and sort of start tracing when these different species came in, when we came in, what our place is in the whole system.
Nancy Pass, Minarets, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA, Peter Essick
Do you see that kind of evolutionary thinking conflicting with the spiritual thinking?
I think the artist is sort of in the spiritual realm. Ansel Adams had this thing — there's all these shapes in the world, and the artist makes forms out of them. That was his emotional response to it, his spiritual response. That's where the artist is in that sort of realm, or the preacher, or any kind of person. A mystic, whatever you want to call it.
I love it; the artist, the preacher, the mystic. That's a good progression.
What I think is needed is to develop our minds, to go beyond our little world. ... Some people go crazy just thinking about that, it boggles the self. You're better off to just go out with your goals every day and not worry about it.
So you find, when you go out in nature the mind kind of goes there?
Yeah, you start thinking about it in geologic terms, you start reading about it like I was up in Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies, and they talked about how there had been 30 glaciations in the last 2.5 million years. And then before that, the sediment is 22 miles deep. So, it was the ocean, and every time bacteria died a little bit of lime dropped to the bottom of the ocean. So, over one billion years, it made it 22 miles high.