In late 1969, photographer Boyd Norton traveled from Idaho to Washington, D.C., with his story layout for Audubon magazine’s upcoming January 1970 issue. He spread the pages on the desk of Oregon Senator Bob Packwood. Norton’s photographs and words revealed the story of Hells Canyon. The deepest river-carved gorge in North America, Hells Canyon was formed by the Snake River along the border of Oregon and Idaho. Despite its spectacular scenery, wildlife and recreation opportunities, the canyon was slated to be dammed.
The Senator studied the pages in silence. Finally, he looked at Norton and said, “Holy smoke! Is this in my state?”
Senator Packwood went on to introduce a bill to the U.S. Congress to protect Hells Canyon. He floated through it on the Snake River in 1974 and remarked, “I became convinced that beyond anything I had seen in this country, let alone in the state of Oregon, this was a place to save.”
In 1975, on New Year’s Eve, Norton and others celebrated as the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area bill was signed into law. The dam was stopped and the canyon was saved.
As this instance shows, photography can play an instrumental role in conserving wild lands, and no one knows this better than Norton. At age 80, he’s a veteran in using his cameras for a cause, and he wants others to do the same. His new book, Conservation Photography Handbook: How to Save the World One Photo at a Time (Amherst Media, 2016), is an instructional guide to creating and using pictures for preserving wild lands.
“I’d like to see an army of photographers out there rabble-rousing and getting stuff done on a global scale,” says Norton. “Get active. Meet your elected officials. Show them your pictures and tell them what’s threatened.”
Norton’s love of the wild began in a patch of forest near his childhood home in densely populated southern New England. In this tiny oasis, he discovered frogs, snakes and plants. Here, there was no limit to his young imagination, but he could walk through his woods in a mere five minutes. In his 20s, fresh out of college with a physics degree, he headed west for California’s aerospace industry. Making a side trip to Yellowstone National Park, he almost drove off the road upon first seeing the stunning Teton Mountains. He never made it to California, choosing instead to settle in Idaho near the Tetons. Here was a place where he could walk through the woods for days. And so began Norton’s lifelong love affair with backpacking, rafting and photographing the beauty of his new home. When the proposal to dam Hells Canyon arose, Norton rose to its defense. The rest is history.
For those wishing to use their images for conservation, Norton recommends studying the works of great documentary photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and
Dorothea Lange. The images must tell a story. This involves photographing not just beauty, but disturbing scenes, as well.
“Photographs engage by being evocative or provocative,” notes Norton. “An image of a beautiful mountain stream evokes a good feeling, while a picture of an open-pit mine or a hillside of stumps can provoke sadness and anger. It’s important to show both the good and the ugly.”
Above all, Norton stresses the importance of partnering with organizations working to conserve wild lands. Collaborating with a network of people brings more credibility to an issue and increases the likelihood of making a difference. Sometimes it’s necessary to create an organization if none exists to work on a specific issue. Norton helped start the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in the 1960s and the more recent Serengeti Watch to preserve the Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa.
A few years ago, almost four decades after Hells Canyon was protected, Norton returned to the gorge he helped save to float the Snake River with friends. After six glorious days running rapids, watching wildlife and drifting along hillsides covered with wildflowers, Norton’s companions swept their arms upward to the towering mountains engulfing their raft. They looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you.”
Boyd Norton is a world-renowned conservation photographer, author and environmental activist, and was the recipient of the Sierra Club’s 2015 Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. You can see more of Boyd’s photography at boydnorton.com. Amy Gulick is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Her book, “Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest,” is an Independent Publisher Book Award winner. Learn more about her work at amygulick.com.