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What’s In A Landscape?

Considering the natural history of the places we photograph

When we look at a landscape what do we see? Maybe a desert, mountain range or coast. Perhaps we see features—plants, animals or icebergs. But what don’t we see? Most of us view a landscape in its present form without knowing how it was created. Hike a u-shaped valley on the upper west coast of North America and imagine the ice sheet, up to two miles thick, that covered nearly half the continent during the last Ice Age. Dig your toes into the sand on a coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean and envision the volcano, long since eroded, where the turquoise lagoon now sparkles. Or walk the bustling streets of downtown Manhattan and picture the towering mountain range that once stood several hundred million years ago where skyscrapers now soar.

Things like fire, earth, air and water together with climate are constantly at work sculpting landscapes. In the above examples, the changes happen over such long periods of time that we can’t see the transformations during a human lifespan. But in other instances, we can see how something like a wildfire or volcanic eruption can quickly alter a landscape. In addition, the inhabitants of a landscape play a role in shaping where they live. Large herbivores like elephants contribute to the formation of savannas in Africa by uprooting and eating small trees and shrubs. Predators like wolves keep browsing deer and elk on the move, resulting in more vegetated landscapes. And humans throughout the ages have shaped their environments by clearing land for agriculture or development, damming rivers and warming the Earth’s temperature through greenhouse gas emissions.

When I set out to photograph landscapes, I make a point to understand that what I see before me is not static but the sum of dynamic processes—geological, biological, cultural and others. This helps inform my photographic and thought processes leading to the final images. Two examples are illustrated here.


Lava flowing into the ocean, Kilauea Volcano, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.

The island of Hawai’i is the youngest and largest of the volcanic chain of Hawaiian Islands. It’s a place where you can stand on land created tens of millions of years ago or yesterday. And if you’re lucky, you can see new land being created by the molten lava flowing from Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. I arrived well before dawn to watch the fiery glow of oozing lava against the dark sky. Making its way to the sea, the lava dripped into the waves, hissed with steam, cooled and hardened. It was like witnessing the beginnings of Earth, and made me wonder what our planet will look like in another hundred million years.


Glacial Pools, South Sawyer Glacier, Tongass National Forest, Alaska.

Alaska is home to an estimated 100,000 glaciers, 600 or so of which are named. A glacier forms where more snow falls than melts over time, compacts into ice, and becomes thick enough to begin to move. The enormous weight of moving ice slowly carves and polishes the surrounding bedrock over time. But when people view a glacier, they usually see just the terminus, or face, a tiny fraction of what lies behind. To get a different perspective, I flew in a small plane over South Sawyer Glacier in the panhandle of the state. Flying above and beyond the terminus, I looked down onto an otherworldly landscape, one of shimmering blue lakes among frozen jagged peaks. The landscape of the glacier itself mirrored the alpine lakes and mountains often revealed in the paths of many retreating glaciers.

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.