Why Wilderness is Important to Me as an Artist

April 22, 2020
Fall colors along Noatak River, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve

In his book, The Singing Wilderness, Sigurd Olson said: Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.

My first exposure to designated wilderness came from working two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. So, if I am going to say anything about how wilderness is important to me as an artist, I have to start with a quote from Sigurd Olson. Author, conservationist and staunch advocate for the wilderness, he was one of the people key in setting aside the Boundary Waters as protected wilderness. It was there among the granite, lakes, spruce, and moose that I first learned of Sigurd Olson and read his words. I learned of his tireless advocacy, and I learned from others how he influenced their own perception of wilderness.

What Sigurd Olson had to say in that excerpt from The Singing Wilderness touches on the many challenges of being a photographer in the wilderness, and the many advantages and benefits of doing it.

In the modern digital age of photography, it is almost impossible it seems to go out in the field without “unnecessary gadgets.” Whenever I am on the road system, I will go out with two digital camera bodies, a medium format film camera body, five to six lenses, an assortment of filters, a flash, two tripods, and an assortment of spare batteries, flash cards, and other accessories. But those are just the things, the gadgets. As Sigurd Olson noted, there are also thoughts and objectives that bog us down. Along with the gadgetry of the digital age comes an ever-increasing pressure to produce, and, unfortunately, too often produce what everyone else is producing. Walk into any professional photo gallery on the Las Vegas strip, for example, and you will see some of the same subjects being displayed among numerous photographers. National photography magazines repeatedly publish images of iconic locations that have been photographed again and again. It is a pressure to produce, and to conform.

How does wilderness help me to avoid these traps that Sigurd warned us about? Well, Galen Rowell showed us what wonders can be captured using a simple film body and a pair of lenses – often without a tripod at all because he was capturing the image while ascending some sheer granite rock face. Wilderness by its very inaccessibility forces us to plan an expedition with minimal gear. I could not take on a backcountry trip all of the things that I load into my car. So travel into the wilderness forces me to make choices about gear – taking only one body and two lenses and a very light tripod. Having such minimal gear then forces me to be more creative in my choice of composition. It makes me think more, spend more time, and contemplate the world around me with fewer options.

Practically speaking, when going into the wilderness, you also have to prepare for spending more time in the field. It is hard to do a two or three-day backcountry wilderness trip in Alaska. When I was the Artist-in-Residence in Badlands National Park, I could park at a trailhead, put on my backpack, and go for a three-day trip through a wilderness area, and then be back on the road again. Not so much in. And that extra time we must spend by necessity out in the land allows more time to be creative. When so much of our road-accessible public lands are designed around the pullout and viewpoint, where images can be captured rather easily in a short period of time, wilderness requires us to slow down, allows more opportunity to notice the world around us. It gives us the chance to spend an entire day just sitting on an outcrop and watch the caribou go by, or allows us the luxury of base camping for a week to explore a valley.

With my Artist-in-Residence experience in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I gained my first exposure to the Arctic. Having lived in Alaska for eight years at that point, I had never been as far north as Fairbanks. My artist residency took me to creative places I had never experienced before and started me on a stronger creative path than I had been on previously. As a result of that residency, I have developed the ability to focus on a project and develop a true sense of style. It also helped me to realize how wilderness is not just a landscape, but the people who venture into it: the backcountry traveler, the guide, the subsistence hunter, and trapper. The story of the land includes their stories as well.

While having that time to be creative is a luxury, it is also a privilege. “How often we speak of the great silences of the wilderness and of the importance of preserving them and the wonder and peace to be found there,” Sigurd Olson said. Yet, so many people will never have the opportunity to experience a wilderness area in Alaska. They may not have the time, the financial resources, or the physical ability. Understanding that enhances and magnifies the importance of being a wilderness artist. We play a key role in reminding people why such areas are protected, of letting people know that lands of such beauty even exist. We give them a chance to experience at least some aspect of the intrinsic value of wilderness, which is important because, as Olson also noted, “[Wild places] will always be there and their beauty may not change, but should their silence be broken, they will never be the same.”

So as many photographers continue to chase the iconic locations that all of their peers are capturing, wilderness allows me to fulfill my own creative vision and continue to develop an intimate relationship with my subjects. And hopefully, through sharing my work, others can develop a sense of that intimacy as well.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota, Spring, artist-in-residence, landscapes, national park