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Doesn't that make you feel kind of meaningless in it all?
Well, you're a small part of it.
So, that's empowering to you rather than depressing?
No, that part is not depressing, it's the feeling that you can actually, with your camera, make some contribution as a small part and that part is meaningful.
Nuclear Waste, High level waste, Infinity Room, Idaho Nuclear Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, 2002, Peter Essick
So, you think the camera can change things, then? Even today, with the overwhelming amount of images?
Well, I fell like I have to have a sense of purpose, that [I'm] making an expression for a better world. So, whether it changes it or not is sort of beyond my ability to think.
Albian Sands Tailings Pond, near Fort McMurray, Canada, 2009, Peter Essick
What would you say makes a good photograph?
As far as an environmental photograph, say you see a lot of smoke stacks every time there is a story about greenhouse gases. I think people now tune that picture out, because it is a literal shot. I think you have to stop people. This one picture I have out in the Canadian oil sands, the tailing ponds, there is all this oil and a sort of sunset coming in behind it, and they had this little platform with a falcon that kept the ducks from landing on it. Those [kinds] of pictures to me are more interesting because they ask some questions and make people think about what is happening.
The Eyeless Child, Tran Huynh Phuong Sinh, age 4 with Fraser Syndrome, at Peace Village, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2006, Peter Essick
Your photo "Eyeless Child" features a Vietnamese child without eyes who likely got his handicap from his grandparents' exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Do you think that photo is exploitative?
I have definitely felt that. I remember I took some [pictures], and it started to feel uncomfortable. I could only photograph what I felt comfortable photographing. You do feel that way especially when you just leave. But we had gotten permission. We weren't sneaking around, we had told them what we were doing.
What is the story behind this picture, "Tracy Arm Wilderness"?
Yeah, there's a whole story with this one. I flew over it, and this was the high water glacier, and I thought, well, we gotta get out on a boat to get this. It was in March so it was pretty cold, about 17 degrees. We were going to fly back out there and land, they have those float planes. So, when we landed the next day [near the glacier], when we were getting the boat ready [to go closer] the plane started to tip down in the water. So what had happened is that the guy had forgotten to put the plug in the boat. So, he ... tried to take off but he couldn't. We hadn't gotten our dry suits on yet, so we had to jump in the water and swim to shore.
So when did you take the picture?
[About] eight hours later, finally, the flight service came back and wondered where we were. They landed and picked us up.
You were freezing for eight hours?
We were able to get the fire going, so it was kind of like a little survival [outing]. The next day they got a barge, the plane was floating there, just upside down. And two days later I came back with just that camera I had left to take the picture.
Tracy Arm Wilderness, Alaska, 1998, Peter Essick
What about the picture, what do you see when you look at this picture? What makes it work for you?
Well, this feeling of the light — I've heard several different explanations of why the blue seems like when it is down at the bottom of the glacier you get that blue color, so that is obviously what makes it. They talk about in Western civilizations, you read pictures from left to right, you come in like this, and then journalists often use this two-to-three rectangle, so if you cut a square out of it here, then you have another rectangle. And cut a square here, you have another rectangle. It's like the chambered nautilus type of thing. Your eye tends to go towards this mountain.
What was special about Ansel Adams?
In the '20s and '30s, when he started doing photography, most landscape photography was thought of as survey. They weren't really thinking of it as an art form. Ansel Adams believed that the photograph should be everything that you felt and saw about that experience. You should try to capture those emotions in a landscape picture. He called them extracts. There's this entire scene there, and it was up to the photographer to extract this portion of it that actually did everything that you saw and felt.
Cabin Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, CA, Peter Essick
How many pictures did you shoot for The Ansel Adams Wilderness?
It's probably, like, 25,000. When I was thinking about doing it, [I thought] maybe we need to [shoot] it in four by five [large format film camera], like he did. But he always used the greatest technology, so I think if he was doing it today he'd be using digital. I really believe that. And then also, he had to have a burrow to carry all of his gear, which is sort of a high impact way of going. So, with digital you could go with just a camera and basically three lenses in the top of your pack.