Restore Default

my story
Nature Photographer Joseph Holmes

Joseph Holmes, B.S., Conservation of Natural Resources, ‘73, has been photographing wild landscapes, mainly in color, for 36 years. A native of Berkeley, Holmes has spent his career “schlepping all over creation” with a 34-pound view camera outfit. He mastered several traditional, chemical printmaking processes, but today says that “mature color photography without computers is simply impossible. The old problems that kept color from working right have been solved.”

A friend of mine in high school showed me a copy of Gentle Wilderness: The Sierra Nevada. I had never noticed that photographs could be more than just pictures of stuff, but this book proved that they can be works of art. And it happened to be about a thing that had become sacred to me without my having realized it: the Sierra Nevada.

I knew when I saw that book at 16 that photography suited my own particular abilities. I knew that photography could be important and contribute to something that I needed to do, which was to help us figure out how to preserve the planet against our own onslaught.

I sometimes teach photography because I enjoy it and because it took me a long time to figure out how it works. For instance, almost everyone who makes black and white images with film underexposes their negatives substantially. And it takes them years to figure it out, but you can explain it to them in five minutes and save them a lot of time and a lot of wasted pictures. Color management is the part of digital imaging that’s the most confusing and complicated. It took me longer to learn it well than it took me to get my undergraduate degree, but I can explain it to somebody a whole lot quicker than that.

The first thing that makes my work unique is the way I see compositions. The more clarity there is in someone’s vision and craft as an artist, the more recognizable their work tends to be. For instance, Van Gogh’s paintings are really superb, and they all look like he made them. Composition is the most important thing that all of my favorite photographers do. It’s the most fundamental. The craft of the rendering is also vital, and takes the most time. The choice of subject matter is big too.

I like to think that there really is just one environmental issue. I call it “excessive human presence”—meaning the sum of all that we have done to change the planet and have already committed to doing in the future. If you think of that as the one problem, then you can stop saying, “It’s greed—No, it’s the Americans consuming too much coal and oil—No, it’s the Bangladeshis being too numerous ...” or whichever of the many angles you prefer to take on it. People can just argue endlessly and pointlessly about the details when really it is just one big problem, with one root—our own success as a species. I call it our ascension toward infinite knowledge—and it’s a double-edged sword. We give ourselves power with our technology, but we fail to restrain ourselves in a commensurate way. Many of the processes by which we live are inherently unsustainable at any level.

One day in 1982 I walked into the National Archives in Washington, D.C., because I happened to come out of the wrong Metro station. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have walked two blocks out of my way to go there, because what are you going to see but a bunch of old documents, right? But then if you stop and read them it’s another matter—because it turns out they’re really good. The preamble to the Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

How can you secure the blessings of liberty for yourself and your posterity if you use them all up now? It’s nonsense. It’s unconstitutional for us to destroy our natural resources by failing to live sustainably. I believe that in that preamble’s simple wisdom lies the best hope for the future.

When I was 16 I thought, how could I possibly have a career as wonderful as John Lennon’s? How could I say things that were important and hope to have a tremendous impact on a huge number of people? I couldn’t choose music—I knew I’d do better as a photographer. But it was the same kind of undertaking. To do something that was mine, that I could really believe in, that people would love and that I would love, and that needed to be done.

My undergraduate studies filled in a lot of space that I needed to have filled in. I was pretty certain I would spend my life making photographs, but I wanted to become properly educated before I did that. I think a standard education ought to be a lot more like what I got from the Conservation of Natural Resources major. Everyone should have to take at least an introductory class on the environment and humanity’s relationships with it. Even if they’re going to business school. Especially if they’re going to business school.

John Szarkowski wrote a forward to one of Ansel Adams’ books, and he quoted Fred Astaire in the movie Funny Face, playing a fashion photographer. Audrey Hepburn’s character asked him, “Why do you photograph beautiful women?” and he said, “Madam, you’d be amazed at how small the demand is for pictures of trees.”

Well, I’ve made my living largely by selling pictures of trees. But I consider myself equal parts photographer and omnologist. I coined the term omnologist many years ago: one who studies everything. I think Cal ought to have an actual department of omnology. For me, CNR was just that.

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-As interviewed by Cyril Manning


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