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July 15, 1952 |
Danville, Pennsylvania, U.S.
James Balog (pronounced BAY-log; born July 15, 1952) is an American photographer whose work revolves around the relationship between humans and nature. Since the early 1980s Balog has re-defined environmental photography, whether his subject is endangered animals, North America’s old-growth forests, or polar ice. His work aims to combine insights from art and science to produce innovative, dynamic and sometimes shocking interpretations of our changing world.
Balog’s best-known project explores the impact of climate change on the world’s glaciers. In 2007 he initiated the Extreme Ice Survey, the most wide-ranging ground-based photographic glacier study ever conducted. National Geographic magazine showcased Balog's ice work in June 2007 and June 2010, and the project is featured in the 2009 NOVA documentary Extreme Ice as well as the feature-length film Chasing Ice, which premiered at the Sundance film festival in Utah on January 23, 2012. Balog’s book Ice: Portraits of the World’s Vanishing Glaciers (Rizzoli, 2012) summarizes the work of the Extreme Ice Survey through 2012.
Balog has received many awards for his work, including a 2010 Heinz Award, the Aspen Institute's Visual Arts & Design Award, the Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure, the Leica Medal of Excellence, and the International League of Conservation Photographers League Award. He was the North American Nature Photography Association's Outstanding Photographer of the Year in 2008 and PhotoMedia’s Person of the Year for 2011. In 1996 he became the first photographer ever commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to create a full set of stamps. He is the author of seven books, including Extreme Ice Now: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report (2009), Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest (2004), and Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife (1990), hailed as a conceptual breakthrough in nature photography.
Balog is a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a Sustainability Ambassador for The North Face. He lives in the foothills of the Rockies above Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, Suzanne, and daughters Simone and Emily.
Balog was born in Danville, Pennsylvania. His interest in nature and fascination with wild places originated in his early childhood in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. While working on his undergraduate degree in communications at Boston College, Balog became an avid adventurer. He made frequent trips to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the wilderness rivers of Maine, and would later graduate to larger climbing expeditions in the Alps and Himalayas, along with first ascents in Alaska.
As his outdoor adventures evolved, Balog increasingly felt a need to document his experiences. He began carrying a camera on his trips and teaching himself photography along the way. While working on a master’s degree in geomorphology at the University of Colorado, he honed his photography skills during frequent climbing trips.
In order to pursue a more direct, hands-on connection with the natural world, he decided to switch from the numbers-driven world of science to a life in nature photojournalism. He began with a series of documentary photography assignments for magazines such as Mariah (the predecessor to Outside), Smithsonian and National Geographic, work he continues today. Later, he moved into self-directed projects, many of which would ultimately lead to large-format photography books.
Balog’s work has appeared in National Geographic, The New Yorker, Life, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Audubon, Outside and numerous trade publications such as American Photo, Professional Photographer and Photo District News. He was a contributing editor to National Geographic Adventure. Assignments and personal projects have included documenting the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the 2004 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, Hurricane Katrina’s collision with the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster.
A major enterprise of Balog’s in recent years has been the Extreme Ice Survey. Since 2007, the project has used time-lapse photography, conventional photography and video to illustrate the effects of global warming on the earth’s glacial ice. Working with a team of scientists, videographers and extreme-weather expedition professionals, Balog and the EIS team installed as many as 43 time-lapse camera systems at a time at 18 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, the Nepalese Himalaya by Mount Everest, and the Rocky Mountains of the U.S. The cameras shoot year-round, every half hour of daylight. The Extreme Ice Survey team then assembles the images into video animations that demonstrate the dramatic retreat of the glaciers. Collected images are used for scientific evidence and as part of a global outreach campaign aimed at educating the public about the effects of global warming.
Style and inspiration
Balog’s work has primarily evolved as a combination of art, science and environmental documentary. Today, he views his imagery as exploring the “contact zone” between man and nature. David Holbrooke’s 2006 documentary film A Redwood Grows in Brooklyn explores his thoughts about art, nature and perception.
“I’ve basically devoted my career to looking at the relationship between humans and nature,” said Balog in an interview with Photo District News. “I want to do what I can to shift human understanding of who we are and what we are and how we should relate to all the rest of what’s on this planet. I want to crack through the veneer of the illusions that surround us and see inside reality more purely than you normally get to see. That’s the real witchcraft and voodoo of this artistic process we’re in. I hope that the work helps people to think and see differently—and ultimately, we can only hope, behave differently.”
Balog views photography as a form of visual evidence that carries tremendous potential for influencing people’s perception of the world around them. “I’ve believed for a long time that photographers are like the antennae of civilization,” he said in a Professional Photographer magazine article. “We are an integral part of the sensing mechanism of the human animal. We are out there feeling in the darkness, trying to see what’s around us and reveal what hasn’t been revealed before. Not all photographers work that way, but to me that’s one of the central elements of photography. I would like to think that passionate, involved photographers would be looking at the world and trying their hardest to speak about the important things that are going on today.”
Among his many artistic influences Balog counts Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, Edward Weston, Robert Adams, Eliot Porter, Eugene Smith and Cornell Capa. Outside of photography, he draws inspiration from the entire range of arts, including music, literature, painting, filmmaking, sculpture and architecture.
Balog’s artistic style varies between very clean, simple representations of his subjects and more impressionistic interpretations that illustrate his unconscious feelings about a scene. He tends to alter his treatments and techniques based on emotional responses to a subject and the circumstances surrounding his shooting.
Early in his career, Balog concentrated on man’s direct impact on nature, producing among other things a series on nuclear missile silos in the agrarian landscapes of the American West. In his first book project, Wildlife Requiem, Balog examined the phenomenon of people killing animals for sport. Published in 1984, Wildlife Requiem shocked the photography establishment with its brutally graphic images.
“In a lot of my work I’m trying to make a commentary about humans encroaching on nature through their presence,” Balog told Photo District News. “But I’m not so naïve as to think that my own presence is not an impact on the animals and plants and landscapes that I happen to enter. What I can do as a photographer, hopefully, is to help everybody else see their impact in a way that maybe they hadn’t before.”
Extreme Ice Survey. The Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) tells the story of a planet in flux. With innovative methodology that combines time-lapse imagery with cutting-edge science, EIS is the world's most extensive ground-based photographic glacier study to date. Nearly a million time-lapse frames reveal the extraordinary retreat of glaciers and ice sheets due to climate change, providing scientists with vital insights on glacier dynamics. As of January 2012, 27 cameras are shooting at 18 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, the Nepalese Himalaya by Mount Everest, and the Rocky Mountains of the U.S.; previously, as many as 43 cameras have been in the field at once. The cameras shoot year-round, every half hour of daylight. EIS supplements the time-lapse record by occasionally repeating shots at fixed locations in Iceland, Bolivia, the Canadian province of British Columbia and the French and Swiss Alps.
A feature-length film, PBS documentary, National Geographic book, National Public Radio and numerous magazines and newspapers have featured the EIS team. In addition, EIS spreads the word of climate change and shrinking glaciers through public talks, a touring exhibition and displays in public venues, including Denver International Airport. EIS has appeared before Congress and in multimedia presentations at science and policy conferences around the world.
ANIMA series. Seeking to challenge humankind’s ancient cultural perception about its place in the world, Balog paired chimpanzees with a diverse range of humans and photographed a series of provocative portraits. The conceptual artwork draws on insights from a variety of fields, including visual arts, environmental philosophy and Jungian psychology. ANIMA asks readers to imagine a healthier, more integrated relationship between humans and nature.
Holga series. Starting in 1997 and continuing intermittently through the present day, Balog has continued a series of photographs made with a Holga camera. Holgas are inexpensive, medium-format 120 film toy cameras that are made in China and appreciated for a low-fidelity aesthetic. Balog enjoys working with the imperfections in the exposures, such as vignetting and blur, and makes it part of the finished “look.” makes them part of the pieces. He actually wants the camera to produce little defects that will inspire new creative revelations.
Survivors series. Balog endeavored to change people’s perception of endangered wildlife by altering the context in which the animals were viewed. To accomplish this, he shunned the obvious approach of capturing his subjects in nature with a telephoto lens and instead photographed the animals in non-natural settings, often against white backdrops, to emphasize their vulnerability.
Techno Sapiens series. Balog explored the concept of Homo sapiens becoming increasingly dependent on technology in his series “Techno Sapiens”. The portfolio includes images that range from techno-fashion portraits to photographs depicting people's techno-habitats. Balog used a variety of techniques to create images that illustrate the changing features of human nature, as well as humankind's increasing detachment from the natural world. The duality of the pictures, a tension between beauty and horror, mimics the ambivalence most people feel for technology.
Tree series. For the Tree series, Balog wanted to photograph some of world’s tallest trees in their full grandeur, but he realized that his subjects were far too large to capture in a single frame. He devised a multi-frame approach of photographing the trees from the top down. The method was inspired by some of the lunar landing pictures from the NASA missions during the 1960s. Balog climbed each tree, and then meticulously photographed it in sections as he rappelled downward. Later, he created digital mosaics by stitching the images together using computer imaging software. Some images required up to four days of shooting, plus as many as six weeks of computer work to assemble the final composition. The tree images eventually became a 2004 book, Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest.
- Photography Person of the Year, PhotoMedia magazine, 2011
- Heinz Award with a special focus on global change, 2010
- Fine Outreach For Science GigaPan Fellow, Carnegie Mellon University, 2010
- Missouri School of Journalism's Honor Medal for Distinguished Service, 2010
- First-ever recipient of the International League of Conservation Photographers Award, 2009
- Aspen Institute’s Visual Arts & Design Award, 2009
- NANPA Outstanding Photographer of the Year, 2008
- Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure, 2007
- First Prize, Science & Technology Photography, World Press Photo Contest, 1996
- Leica Medal of Excellence for Photographic Books, 1990
- First Prize, Nature Photography, World Press Photo Contest, 1986
As director of the Extreme Ice Survey, Balog has presented its multimedia story to policymakers around the globe.
- April 2010, presentation to top policymakers in the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change
- January 2010, spoke for the third time before members of the U.S. Congress through the SEEC or “Green Coalition”
- Winter Olympics 2010, important part of Samsung’s campaign as a major sponsor of the Vancouver Olympic Games, featuring an exhibition, international magazine ads and various public multimedia presentations
- December 2009, made seven presentations at the COP-15 United Nations Climate Change Congress in Copenhagen at the request of NASA and WWF
- September 2009, TED Talk, Extreme Ice Survey
- Other 2009–2011 audiences include the National Security Agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the California Academy of Sciences, the National Geographic Society, Earth Day on the Washington Mall (NASA pavilion), Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Rady School of Management (San Diego), the Field Museum (Chicago), the University of Missouri, Weber State University, Ogden, Utah; Syracuse University, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center (Juneau, AK), Apple, Samsung and Qualcomm executives, scientists at the International Polar Year conference (Oslo), NASA/Goddard, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
- Wildlife Requiem (International Center of Photography, New York, 1984) ISBN 0-933642-06-7
- Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1990) ISBN 0-8109-3908-8
- Anima (Arts Alternative Press, Boulder, Colo., 1993) ISBN 0-9636266-0-4
- James Balog’s Animals A to Z (Chronicle, San Francisco, 1996) ISBN 978-0-8118-1339-6
- Animal (Graphis, New York, 1999) ISBN 978-1-888001-80-8
- Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest (Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 2004) ISBN 978-1-4027-2818-1
- Extreme Ice Now: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate: A Progress Report (National Geographic Books, Washington DC, 2009) ISBN 978-1-4262-0401-2
- Ice: Portraits of the World's Vanishing Glaciers (Rizzoli, 2012) ISBN 978-0847838868
- Extreme Ice Survey
- Nature photography
- Wildlife photography
- Global warming
- Climate change
- Conservation photography
- Shulgold, Marc (April 11, 2008). "Evidence from photo project tells a chilling story". Rocky Mountain News.
- Appenzeller, Tim (June 2007). "The Big Thaw". National Geographic.
- Jenkins, Mark (June 2010). "Melt Zone". National Geographic.
- Kennedy, Lisa (January 24, 2012). "Sundance: Colorado Represents". Denver Post.
- Artmosphere (September 28, 2010). "Boulder photographer James Balog wins 2010 Heinz Award". Denver Post.
- Heller, P.J. (October 21, 2011). "Acting Globally". PhotoMedia.
- Foerstner, Abigail (June 20, 1986). ""Wildlife Requiem" Captures Nature's Brutal Dichotomy". Chicago Tribune.
- Genzlinger, Neil (8 November 2012). "Documenting the Melt, and We Are the Cause". New York Times. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
- Extreme Ice Survey
- James Balog Photography
- National Geographic
- National Geographic Adventure Extreme Ice Survey Gallery
- Photo District News Masters Series