Appalachian Ridge Runner

In the quest to do more than just take pretty pictures, Jerry Greer is using his images to promote conservation in the region of the country he loves the most

Autumn sunset over Lake Jocassee, as viewed from high above on Jumping Off Rock, Jocassee Gorges, South Carolina. Canon EOS 5D, Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L

To reach the Priest Pinnacle in the Priest Wilderness of the George Washington National Forest in central Virginia, Jerry Greer starts out long before daybreak to trek two miles up the Appalachian Trail, and then, with his GPS, heads off-trail to reach a remote outcropping of massive boulders. This is his first trip to this area, so he relies on battery-operated digital technology to aid him in his quest. And although the hike is strenuous, he savors the damp spring air and the refreshing, cool breeze. The fresh aroma of the spring forest doesn’t hurt either; no digital contraption can make that happen.

Once he reaches his destination at 4,063 feet, the view unfolds before him, and Greer soaks in a vista that defines the essence of the Appalachian Mountains. While his legs carried him to his destination, the GPS ensured he would reach the precise location he desired for photographing an Appalachian spring morning. Relying on the old, but embracing the new: That’s Greer’s way of doing things.

Experiencing moments like that spring morning has cemented Greer’s renewed sense of dedication and urgency in having his photography count for something besides being just another pretty picture.

“To this day, that moment on the Priest is one that vividly sticks in my mind,” Greer remembers. “I’m so thankful for the National Wilderness Act, and the protection and preservation that it gives to such wonderful places. Without it, I can’t imagine that this view would ever grant me or others such feelings of solitude and freedom.”

Summer storm and blooming Carolina rhododendron, Hawksbill Mountain Summit, Linville Gorge Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Canon EOS 5D, Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L II

Mountains always have been a part of Greer’s existence. He lives, works and plays in the mountains. He breathes the mountain air. He photographs the mountains, and he shares his love for mountains with everyone he meets. His first book Appalachia: The Southern Highlands and his latest book The Blue Ridge: Ancient and Majestic celebrate mountains. Even the publishing company he founded in 1999, Mountain Trail Press, embodies his passion for this elevated landscape. But, most importantly, these days Greer is devoted to using his photography to help protect mountains.

With the exception of a seven-year stint residing in Colorado, the rumpled ridges and worn peaks of the southern Appalachian Mountains have remained Greer’s home and favorite place to photograph.

“I grew up in southwestern Virginia,” he explains, “within an hour of the Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky border. I realized while living out West that the lure of the Blue Ridge Mountains is strong. They kept calling me back, and I eventually couldn’t suppress the urge to return.”

During his childhood, Greer was the typical Appalachian kid, hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather whenever he could. But it wasn’t long after getting his first camera in the early 1980s that he started to feel a need to leave the gun behind and photograph nature instead. Greer did step away from his love for nature for a few years, but he quickly regained his senses.

“After some soul-searching in my early 20s, my love for nature was rekindled, and I decided to pursue nature photography as a career.”

Hoarfrost and sunstar on Round Bald, Highlands of Roan, Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests, Tennessee and North Carolina. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L II

Like his trip to the Priest Pinnacle, Greer’s photography has incorporated the technological advances in the medium. It did take time to make the transition, but he made it.

“Prior to starting my own publishing company, I was shooting 35mm film and working as a stock photographer,” he says. “With the completion of my first book, my interests were maturing and moving toward a more pure landscape orientation. I found myself studying the work of my favorite landscape photographer, David Muench. [By coincidence, Greer and Muench share the same birth date.] So, in late 1999, I switched to large-format cameras. It was the best decision with regards to the progression of my photographic vision as a landscape photographer that I could have ever made.”

But Greer’s transition in photography wasn’t complete yet. There was this little issue of digital to think about. As a book publisher, Greer quickly learned the art of doing his own prepress work, but he was plagued by the time constraints of scanning large-format sheet film.

“Feeling the need to find a way to alleviate the headache of hours of scanning and cleaning sheet film, I explored what digital capture was all about,” he says. “I was aware that the digital photography world was starting to really move forward, and this sparked my interest.”

Within months of purchasing a Canon EOS 10D and the 24mm, 45mm and 90mm TS-E lenses, Greer sold his large-format equipment and added the Canon EOS-1Ds to his digital toolbox.

“I never looked back,” he declares.

Today, Greer’s camera of choice is the Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Along with his equipment, Greer’s purpose for photographing nature has undergone a transition as well. From photographing landscapes for the sole purpose of publishing, he has moved to a more worthy mission to use his skills and images to promote mountain conservation. This transition has, as he likes to say, “matured” over the past 17 years, adding, “Since founding Mountain Trail Press, the purpose has been shooting for books and calendars, and this continues today but with a twist. The more I spend photographing the Blue Ridge and southern Appalachians, the more I saw the stress exerted on these wild places. I decided to do what I could as a photographer to become engaged in the efforts to save these lands.”

Greer soon was working with regional conservation and land trust groups, and before he knew it, he was neck-deep in a battle to save one of the last remaining privately owned tracts of wild mountain land in the southern Appalachians: the Rocky Fork Tract.

Greer remembers the challenge: “It was a fight like I had never experienced, with heavy political fighting.”

After four years of political maneuvering, the Rocky Fork Tract was purchased by The Conservation Fund with assistance from the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and ownership is being gradually transferred to the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Tennessee.

Late summer beech gap with whorled wood aster, Highlands of Roan, Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests, Tennessee and North Carolina. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L II

Greer is proud of his part in protecting another piece of our nation’s vanishing natural heritage. “I want to look back one day and actually be able to pinpoint on a map the wild lands that I helped to protect,” he says. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to know I was able to assist in protecting 10,000 acres of beautiful and undeveloped mountain land that otherwise would have become an exclusive gated community with no access to the public.”

Greer continues to use his photography not only to promote conservation of these landscapes, but to expose the destructive practices by various industries. He journey-ed to Kingston, Tennessee, in 2008 to document the coal fly ash slurry disaster that dumped 1.1 billion gallons of contaminants into the environment.

“I spent two days photographing all aspects of the disaster,” recalls Greer. “The area became a hotbed of harassment to anyone with a camera. It was almost impossible to gain access to the spill site. I did return home with some very convincing photos about this tragedy, but my trip was cut short due to the ‘Gestapo’-type tactics from the TVA and county police.”

Today, Greer is working on assignment for the National Parks Conservation Association to document the ridgelines of the Cumberland Mountains, which are threatened by mountaintop removal. Soon, he’ll begin another project to document an area under consideration for inclusion in the Cherokee National Forest Wilderness System.

While he has photographed around the country, the eastern mountain ecosystems of the Southeast and mid-Atlantic states remain his primary focus. “I feel that the Blue Ridge and the southern Appalachians, which are among the oldest mountains in the world, haven’t been given their due respect,” says Greer. “This is especially true when compared to the western mountains, like the Rockies, Cascades and Sierra Nevada Range.”

For The Blue Ridge: Ancient and Majestic book, Greer spent six years combing as much of the Blue Ridge Mountains as he could. Partnering with writer Charles Maynard, Greer was determined to produce a body of work that reveals this landscape in a new way.

“I wanted to give the Blue Ridge region the best I could offer,” he says.

Greer used both DSLRs and 4×5 transparencies for the book, and whereas his images portray the region’s natural wonders, Maynard’s eloquent prose celebrates its cultural identity and natural history. The result of their collaboration is a tribute to the timeless beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. This year, the book received the Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

When photographing, Greer’s mind-set and goals are determined entirely by what project he’s doing at the time.

Autumn forest shrouded in fog, Graveyard Fields, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. Canon EOS 5D, Canon TS-E 90mm ƒ/2.8

“It depends solely on what hat I’m wearing that day,” he says. “If I’m shooting for my calendars or books, then I’m looking for that beautiful scene or element that connects with the viewer. If I’m photographing for an environmental or conservation assignment, I look for compositions that tell the story without further explanation, and believe me, that’s easier said than done.”

Whatever hat he’s wearing as a photographer, Greer attempts to have the viewer feel the landscape, whether the moment he has captured is of a striking landscape or environmental damage.

The latest transition for Greer comes as he learns high-definition video. “I’m just starting to incorporate digital video into my photography business,” he explains. “Video capture is a totally new world for me, but I’m excited about all the possibilities it presents to further promote my photography and to serve as another avenue to showcase the beauty of the landscapes I photograph.”

The addition of digital video also has required him to learn a few more things to fully capitalize on its potential. “Digital video is a totally different world from still photography in my opinion,” says Greer. “Now you have sound to deal with, and that can be a major stumbling block to get the sound to be representative of what you’re hearing. I don’t think audio recording in-camera is up to the required standards, so I use the Zoom H4n four-channel recorder for all my audio work. I also use the Hoodman Cinema Kit Pro for fine focus detail. A great fluid head like my Manfrotto 501HDV is a necessity on the tripod as well.”

For editing his video, Greer uses the Adobe Creative Suite Production Premium version.

Greer is the first to admit that he has had a great life when it comes to doing what he loves. But he wants to do more than that; he wants to make a difference with his photography. Greer sums it up, saying, “I guess I’m just a tree hugger at heart and that will never change. Our natural world is forever embedded in my soul. It nourishes my soul, and I want to continue exciting others about it as well.”

That’s Jerry Greer, true mountain man in every sense of the words.

You can see more of Jerry Greer’s work and find information on his workshops at Jim Clark is a naturalist, writer and photographer, as well as an Outdoor Photographer contributing editor, and you can see more of his photography at