Environmental Conservation

The world needs more nature photographers with environmental and natural history backgrounds

Morning Mist over Yosemite Valley, shot with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L USM, 1⁄10 sec. at ƒ/16, ISO 100

I’m a photographer and an environmentalist. The passion for each developed within me when I was in college at the University of Colorado in the 1970s. I was browsing the CU catalog and found courses such as Dynamics of Mountain Ecosystems, Environmental Physics, Politics of Natural Resources and Plant Ecology! When finding that I could take these courses while receiving an Environmental Conservation degree, I quickly switched out of my pursuit of a Political Science degree.

Soon after graduation, I moved to Yosemite for a job with the National Park Service. Since that time way back in 1977, I’ve been exploring the park. As my Yosemite portfolio developed, I dreamed of publishing a book of my photographs, a dream that came true in 1994 with Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness, coauthored with environmental writer Tim Palmer. Besides featuring my images, Tim delivers an impassioned plea for preserving Yosemite as a natural treasure and protecting the park from development and overuse. The book was greatly satisfying since it combines to show my artistic efforts to capture the essence of Yosemite, with thought-provoking text regarding the conservation issues the parks faced then, and still face today.

The reason I mention this personal history is that I want to encourage younger readers with ambitions of becoming nature photographers. The world needs more photographers with strong environmental and natural history backgrounds. Although I never held an environment-related job, my education has greatly enriched my understanding of nature. I wish I could say otherwise; I’m not much of an activist, preferring a somewhat reclusive life here in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Yosemite. Still, I feel that my education informs the impact of my images and that my art has had an impact of people’s appreciation of, and desire to protect, the natural world.

I also want to tell a story about a friend and fellow photographer. Fifteen years ago, I received a letter from John Weller, who wanted to work for and learn from me. He had recently graduated with a degree in Environmental Economics from Stanford and taken a job in the field, but felt unsatisfied. Although I couldn’t pay him much, and he was excessively overqualified for the job, we met and I hired him. We worked together successfully for two years and became fast friends in the process.

John returned to his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, and soon launched an extensive exploration of Great Sand Dunes National Park, culminating in a masterful book of writing and photography, Great Sand Dunes National Park: Between Light and Shadow.

Impassioned by his experiences on the dunes and armed with a new understanding about the necessity of conservation, John was primed to embark on what would turn out to be a decade-long project in defense of one of the last great places on earth. His journey to the Ross Sea in Antarctica started in 2004 when he read an obscure scientific paper, which presented evidence of a truly shocking state of affairs. It asserts that the Ross Sea was likely the last remaining large intact marine ecosystem on Earth. It also presents evidence that a new fishery in the Ross Sea is threatening to destabilize this last intact place. John called the scientist who had written the paper, and together they started The Last Ocean Project, intended to promote conservation of the Ross Sea.

John employed all his skills, working full time on the project as fundraiser, organizer, designer, writer, photographer and, eventually, filmmaker. Working as a SeaWeb Fellow, he helped catalyze an international movement to protect the Ross Sea. He worked closely with scientists, policy makers and conservation organizations, recruited New Zealand filmmaker Peter Young to make a film, conceived, organized and funded a key scientific conference, and raised over $1 million to support the effort. In 2006, he made his first trip to Antarctica. After four trips to the Ross Sea, including three months of diving under the ice as a guest of the United States Antarctic Program, John compiled a library of Ross Sea photographs that has been published in dozens of magazines used by conservation organizations to publicize the Ross Sea all over the world and showcased at the National Museum of Wildlife Art and the 2009, 2011 and upcoming 2013 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. He was awarded a prestigious Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation in 2009.

The culmination of his efforts is a new book, The Last Ocean: Antarctica’s Ross Sea Project: Saving the Most Pristine Ecosystem on Earth (Rizzoli, 2013), which will be available in October. See www.johnbweller.com, www.rizzoliusa.com or Amazon.com for details.

John’s philosophy of photography is a direct derivative of his philosophy of conservation. He says, “The Ross Sea story is not just about a fish, or the incredible organisms that live at the edge of the world. This is our own story—the story of our struggle to become sustainable. And despite the overwhelming challenges we must face, I believe that we can unite our efforts, and write the next chapter of this story together. Really, it’s our only choice, because the truth is, that in the face of exponentially increasing pressure on our world resources, we all comprise a single community, and only in its balance can we find peace.”

In July and October of this year, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources—with delegates from 25 nations—will discuss a proposal for a Ross Sea Marine Protected Area.

There are many other examples of environmental photographers doing highly artistic imagery and great work to protect our Earth—Robert Glenn Ketchum, James Balog, Frans Lanting, Jack Dykinga, Jim Brandenburg and Art Wolfe, to name a few. Ansel Adams was a mentor in that regard for many photographers concerned with preserving wild lands and creatures. Organizations such as the North American Nature Photography Association, International League of Conservation Photographers and Blue Earth Alliance are providing funding and forums for project-minded photographers wishing to make a difference in the world.

My focus has been, and still is, on creating images that reflect the magic, mystery and spirituality I see in nature, whether in my backyard garden or the epic cliffs of Yosemite Valley. At the core of developing a sense of environmental responsibility is for artists to communicate their deepest feelings about nature, and in doing so, encourage others to act with respect and love for the natural beauty that surrounds us. There are many ways to make a powerful impact with your images. Which path will you take? Will you make a difference?

To learn about William Neill‘s one-on-one Yosemite workshops, ebooks and iTunes app, see his latest images and learn about his online courses with BetterPhoto.com, visit www.williamneill.com.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.