A Photojournalist’s Eye

From the Pacific Northwest and beyond, top nature photographer Gary Braasch takes on the planet

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“Nature is news.”
With those three words always top of mind, photojournalist Gary Braasch embarked on a career where environmental issues and conservation have remained the heart and soul of his work for more than 25 years. From threats to coral reefs in the Philippines to the endangered wetlands in Argentina and all points in between, his powerful photographs tell a compelling story about the state of the world’s most imperiled places.

Since 1999, Braasch has focused squarely on the effects of climate change. He has circled the globe photographing receding glaciers in Greenland, rising tides along various coastlines, Chinese farmers facing famine caused by drought and the countless other effects of global warming. That work appears in his latest book, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World (see sidebar).

Gary Braasch’s mission as a nature photographer began with a desire to show beautiful pictures of old-growth forests in the Northwest. Now, he says inspiring people to become more interested and active in conservation is the goal.

But before turning his lens on the entire planet, Braasch’s story started in his own backyard in the Pacific Northwest where this country’s oldest forests live. Trained as a journalist, he began taking pictures to illustrate his nature articles. After moving to Oregon, where he still lives, the stunning landscape convinced him to pick up a camera.

Beautiful nature shots marked his early work, but that changed in 1980 when Mount St. Helens erupted. He had already started exploring the scientific importance of the trees that surrounded him, but when the volcano erupted, it helped Braasch crystallize how he could marry a love of nature with his journalistic background.

“At the time I didn’t know it, but I had a talent for making a good picture, and I was reading all of these scientific reports about the trees I was photographing,” Braasch says. “With Mount St. Helens, here was natural beauty and news. That really was the turning point for me. I decided I would use my camera to illustrate natural history, science and environmental issues through pretty pictures.”

His photographs of the eruption were widely published and put him on the map as a photographer. He continued his work in the forest, but he started to take photographs that were guided by a scientific understanding of the forest.

Generally, what makes old-growth forests so ecologically special is the richness of plants and animal life found within them. Among all of the forests in the world, the Pacific Northwest is unique because of the size and old age of its trees, which are anywhere from 350 to 750 years old. Other factors include biomass accumulation and the climate, with wet, mild winters and dry, warm summers.

No other forest has an entire group of tree species that equals that of the Northwest in terms of size and age. For that reason, there’s a considerable number of species that have become rare because they depend on their now-rare habitat and wouldn’t survive in a younger forest. When Braasch came on the scene in the 1980s, the toll that heavy, unrestricted logging had taken on this ecosystem was starting to draw the ire of the scientific community and environmental groups.

The removal of these trees was problematic in several ways. It altered how the forests were structured and changed the balance between animal and plant species. Since deforestation often is associated with logging, many scientists believe it’s responsible for 17 percent of annual global carbon emissions, a level higher than emissions from transportation.

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The experience of photographing the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 changed the way he looked at photography. That event merged his love of nature with his journalistic background, and he saw an opportunity to make more of an impact. On photo assignments, he specializes in recording the essence of whole ecosystems and threats to their biodiversity, employing techniques from aerial photography to extreme close-ups to underwater shots.

“That so many genuses would have so many species that are the largest populations of any in the world or that the biomass there is more abundant than that of a tropical forest is astounding,” Braasch says. “And the timber companies were logging it down just as fast as they could, so here was the story.”

Braasch joined forces with writer David Kelly to unlock the secrets of these forests. The goal was twofold. They wanted to increase public awareness of this vast and fragile resource, and get the timber companies thinking about how to log in a more careful way. It was important to Braasch that he take pictures of what a true old-growth forest looked like compared to a second-growth forest, which is an area that has regrown after a major disruption, like fire or timber harvests. At the time, timber companies would try to quell any public uneasiness over logging using advertisements of beautifully manicured second-growth forests with lush, but noticeably smaller trees.

“The whole thing was driven by these magnificent forests,” Braasch recalls. “So I basically tried to make the most interesting pictures I could of big trees and show people the difference.”

The pair sat down with numerous scientists who explained and tied together all of the various components of how this ecosystem worked. Out of these conversations, Braasch developed a shot list. The book, which was called Secrets of the Old Growth Forest, brought about a series of firsts for the photographer. This was the first time he picked up a long 800mm lens and learned how to photograph birds. This was the first time he went up some 100 feet on a rope to shoot from inside a tree canopy—a technique he’d later use to do truly groundbreaking work on assignment covering tropical forests.

Since the book was published in 1988, significant progress has been made to protect this land, starting with the Northwest Forest Plan, which was created by the Clinton Administration in 1994. Stemming from multiple lawsuits over the federal government’s failure to manage these forests, the plan was devised to balance potential logging with protection for the spotted owl, wild salmon and hundreds of other endangered species.

In the field, Braasch carries two Nikon F100s. He began integrating digital into his workflow, using the Nikon D70 while shooting his book, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World. Braasch’s workhorse lenses are Zoom-Nikkors—the 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D ED-IF AF-S and 80-200mm ƒ/2.8D ED AF. He also uses the 60mm ƒ/2.8D AF Micro-Nikkor.

“There’s definitely less logging now, but there’s quite a bit less of the forest, too,” Braasch says. He estimates that maybe five percent of this native forest is left in the whole Northwest. “When it seems like the resource is inexhaustible, we become so wasteful because we think it’s never going to run out—of course, it does.”

An interest in or love of specific places is what expanded his reach far beyond the Pacific Northwest. Braasch’s photographs for The Conservation Land Trust have led to the protection of an endangered wetlands in Argentina. He has covered seabirds and glaciers in Antarctica, the threat of oil drilling in Alaska, the tropical forests of Peru, anacondas in Venezuela, endangered wood storks nesting in the Everglades and rare plant rescue in Hawaii. But Braasch says now issues are what drive him to photograph a particular place.

Hundreds of his photographs have been published in magazines worldwide, including National Geographic, Time, Life, The New York Times Magazine, Discover, BBC Wildlife, Smithsonian, Scientific American, Nature and more, making him one of the most published editorial nature photographers.

Braasch was awarded the Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography by the Sierra Club in 2006 and named Outstanding Nature Photographer in 2003 by the North American Nature Photography Association. He’s also a Nikon “Legend Behind the Lens,” an honor recognizing 80 photographers worldwide. In 2005, he helped establish the International League of Conservation Photographers.

“You can make beautiful nature pictures and tell an important story,” says Braasch. “The photograph is a powerful tool because it shows people what’s happening better than words do most of the time.”

To see more of Gary Braasch’s photography, visit his website at www.braaschphotography.com.

Assignment: Global Warming

SubaruGary Braasch didn’t have to go very far to see the effects of climate change. When he looks out at Mount Hood from his Portland, Oregon, home, it’s right before his eyes. By some estimates, the glacier is about 34-percent smaller now compared to the early part of the 20th century. Looking at Braasch’s photos documenting the mountain between 1984 and 2006, the difference is remarkable.

Since 1999, Braasch has turned his attention toward global warming by examining and illustrating the major effects, discussing the science and identifying changing habitats. This work has culminated in his latest book, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World (University of California Press, 2007).

A self-assigned project from the beginning, he crossed both the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, photographing from sea level to above 15,000 feet. He wrote most of the text himself and talked to about 170 scientists during the information-gathering and fact-checking stages of the project. In the book, eight top scientists contribute short essays on their areas of expertise. It’s the photographs, though, that make the most powerful statement.

For the book, Braasch went to Tuvalu, a low-lying island in the Pacific. The rising ocean levels and increasing intensity of the weather there threaten to sink the tiny nation. He took a series of photographs showing the eroding coastline, waves battering buildings and washing over roads along with shots of a normal tide. The BBC picked up the photos and put them online. For the next few days, Braasch’s website averaged 90,000 hits a day. His site usually draws 25,000 hits.

The photographs and reports have been widely shown in magazines and brochures, and at Congressional hearings and exhibitions at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., and the Field Museum in Chicago. The tremendous response also has inspired a version for children called How We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming (Dawn Publications, 2008).

“People are interested in this and they’ve started to understand what’s happening,” Braasch says. “This whole story is really about people. People are causing it and are affected by it. The pictures are important, but hopefully people start to think about the implications of those pictures, too.”