The Artist as Activist

To my readers: I apologize for the raging quiet that has permeated this blog for a number of months. Booming business, my father’s failing health, and a plethora of other commitments and obligations fight for my time and this blog suffers for it. I hope to be be able to increase my posting frequency in the coming months.

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Sheep Mountain Wilderness and Proposed Wilderness Additions. Photo © Michael E. Gordon

Say Hello! to the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument! Photo ©2010 Michael E. Gordon

My being and spirituality has always been directly tied to nature and wildlands. I was born in Los Angeles (a distinctly different city nearly 50 years ago) and first experienced and fell in love with the local San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and Sierra Nevada mountains as a very young boy. While many of the memories of those early experiences are no longer with me, the experiences themselves have indelibly shaped and defined the person I was to become. I studied the obligatory classics of my preferred genre: John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner. If it was not my experiences that would shape me, the words of these writers certainly would have. Their books became my bibles, and the only thing I cared about (and still care about) was spending as much time as possible in wild nature: In my happy place, away from people, away from civilization (or “syphilization” as Abbey called it). I distinctly recall my mother back then telling this teenager that he had no business complaining about anything if he wasn’t willing to vote or put his money where his mouth was. It was she who was responsible for creating the activist I was to become. I was registered to vote by the age of eighteen and by my early twenties had a fat three-ring binder containing hundreds of copies of letters written to and replies received from Presidents, Senators, and Congresspersons about all the issues that concerned me and our planet.

In the decades since, I have walked, hiked, and climbed thousands of miles in California. I have summitted hundreds of its mountains (including many of the state’s highest); have been a volunteer patrol ranger on the San Bernardino National Forest (for which I received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2008); have served on the Board of Directors for the San Gorgonio Wilderness Association; and am currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy. Since 2007 my photographs have been instrumental in the campaigns of The Wilderness Society, Campaign for America’s WildernessNational Parks Conservation Association, Pew Charitable Trusts, among others. Throughout my life I have fought for the preservation of wildlands and for doing what is right for the land. The latter is a position which Aldo Leopold argued for nearly 75 years ago. His ideas were brilliant and before their time yet few listened. 75 years later, wildlands have shrunk right along with our glaciers and much of our country is on the brink of ecological collapse.

In his piece on Politicizing Art, my good friend and workshop partner Guy Tal writes about disassociating his own political convictions from his photographic work and explains why he chooses not to be a public activist. Many artists choose a stance similar to his. Using my own photographs and art for activism and conservation seemed to me necessary and mandatory from the start. I have always believed that the most honorable purpose for my photographs would be their use in conservation and I desired following the footsteps of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, and the Sierra Club tradition of using photographs and coffee table books to advance legislation and protection for wildlands.

In 2010, under contract of The Wilderness Society, I began photographing what at that time were termed “Solar Energy Zones” on the California desert. I was only then beginning to understand the possible and forever damage that could occur on my beloved Mojave Desert. My heart was crushed as I photographed vast swaths of desert wildlands that were impossible to envision covered in thousands of solar panels, 500-foot tall thermal power towers, and eagle-killing wind turbines. I have since committed to photographing all threatened California desert wildlands, and am proud that my photographs have been used to help kill at least three proposed ill-sited development zones (Pisgah, Iron Mountain, Palen).

In recent months, I have attended numerous public and private stakeholder meetings opposing utility-scale renewable energy developments on undisturbed California desert. I always have large prints in tow. While it’s easy to dispute confusing language and policies (such as with the recently-released 8,000 page Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan), the right photographs are able to clearly and powerfully demonstrate exactly what is at stake. Last week, I was invited by the Sierra Club and National Parks Conservation Association to lobby the Los Angeles City Council against entering a power purchase agreement from the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project. I had two 60″ panoramic prints in tow and their impact was undeniably felt. A few weeks prior I was invited to a private meeting with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to discuss the Silurian Valley solar proposal. Again, I had large and small prints in tow (both landscape and wildlife) and their impact was undeniable.

In 2010, under contract of The Wilderness Society and the San Gabriel Mountains Forever campaign, I created a catalog of images to help advance the then-proposed National Monument designation for the San Gabriel Mountains. I am very happy to report that President Obama is screwing up traffic in Los Angeles today (October 10, 2014) to announce our newest National Monument!

Should artists avoid politicizing their art? Should photography and politics never be mixed? My personal life, spirituality, and profession are all intermixed and dependent upon nature and wildlands. I will not peacefully and passively accept the development and destruction of my beloved lands any more than I’ll permit an act of violence against a loved one.  If not me, what other artist will stand up and fight? If the power of beautiful photography can convince others of the need for protection and conservation of our vital wildlands, I want to be on the front line and I want those photographs to be mine.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on FacebookGoogle+, and  Twitter.

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9 thoughts on “The Artist as Activist

  1. Michael, I know you’ve kept yourself connected with the landscape through your camera lenses and climbing trips but had no idea of your reverence for the land and “wilderness”. It’s heartening to hear a fellow climber who’s even heard of Aldo Leopold. Don’t know another who has read him until now. Or any of those others you cited. I’m sure you’ve read Cadillac Desert and Encounters with the Archdruid? BTW, I was wondering if you and your friend Guy are perhaps reacting the news of the US Forest Service idea to charge for photography?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/09/24/u-s-forest-service-wants-to-charge-1500-to-take-photos-on-federal-wild-lands/

  2. Hi Charles: THANKS for reading my essay! I like John McPhee’s writing but have yet to read Encounters with the Archdruid.

    As to the forest service proposal, I’ll treat it the same way as I did “Adventure Passes” 😉 I have submitted my comments, but neither Guy nor I are doing anything more proactive. It’s unconstitutional and will not likely stand.

  3. You have done much, Michael. You deserve a thank you, from all of us who enjoy the wild places your photographs have helped protect. You know where I stand on whether or not to employ art for environmental causes. Art, and specifically photography, can make a difference, indeed, without it many of the campaigns for national parks and other natural causes would have had little impact. As you may know, Galen Rowell claimed that the first photograph of Earth from Space impacted the global psyche to such a degree that it was one of the main instigators of the modern environmental movement. There were many instigators, but images are perhaps the most powerful, immediate and memorable. Those who discount the highly documented good that photographs have done, are practicing selective amnesia. Art is one of our highest achievements, but what is art without wild places to explore, trees for shade, air to breathe and water to drink? Art can save us, indeed, it may be one of only a few things that ever truly have.

  4. I’ve been sharing your blog with a few like-minded conservationists Michael. Good food for thought. Thank you for taking time to share those powerful words. (And of course your photos).

  5. Pingback: PhotoNetCast #88 - The Ultimate Filter Show | PhotoNetCast - Photography podcast

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