David Bayles is a photographer, conservationist, workshop leader, and the co-author of Art and Fear, one of the best-selling books on the process of creating art. Jim Kasson Interviewed David in Carmel Valley, CA,
JK: Let’s start with a bio.
DB: I grew up in Colorado and Texas. I went to University of Colorado, and studied Sociology and Philosophy, then on to graduate school at UCLA in Sociology. I was unhappy with graduate school and began making photographs.
JK: As a hobby?
DB: As an obsessed hobby. I have an inner voice, or the voice of one of my parents, telling me that I’m supposed to do creative and important things. Writing a book is important. Making art is important. It’s a sense of who you are. I was brought up to think if you don’t make an important contribution, you are betraying who you are.
JK: How’d you learn the craft of photography?
DB: I went to the local drugstore, which was also the camera store, in Boulder, Colorado, and I told the guy I wanted to learn how to make good photographs. He suggested that I get Ansel Adams’ books. This was 1967, and—this will be hard to believe—Ansel wasn’t very well known. It wasn’t easy to find copies of the basic photo series, even though they’d been out for years at that point. I taught myself the Zone System out of Ansel’s books.
JK: Making your way though the considerable obscurity in the early books.
DB: I may be the only person who successfully taught himself the authentic Zone System unaided out of those wonderfully charming, but poorly organized books. The current generation of books is quite a bit different. The early ones were rough, but I loved them. I was using a Leica IIIf that I had bought for $35. I read a passage in one of the books: “For negatives of normal size (3 1/4 x 4 1/4 and larger)…” and I thought, “Uh-Oh, I’m using a subnormal negative.” I graduated to large format right away—not knowing what I was doing of course but that didn’t stop me from thinking I was pretty hot stuff. I wrote a note to Ansel and asked him if he would look at my portfolio. I knew not one photographer at that point. He wrote me a note and said to send my portfolio ahead, and to come to the house on Yankee Point on a certain Wednesday.
JK: At that point, had you seen good photographs?
DB: Yes, but only by a week or two.
JK: You became serious about photography before you’d seen a high-quality, expressive print?
DB: I thought I’d seen good photographs, but I’d only seen the ones in books. I went to look something up at the rare books room at the UCLA library. As I walked down the hall to the library desk, I saw photographs on the wall. I slowed down to look at them, and the world of photography changed for me in that second. It was UCLA’s collection of early Edward Weston silver and platinum prints.
JK: So you’d prepared this portfolio before you’d seen good prints. Oops.
DB: Right. I went to Ansel Adams’ house. Jim Taylor poured each of us a glass of whisky strong enough to stop a bullet. We watched the sunset, looking for the green flash. Then Ansel opened my portfolio and picked it apart gently and precisely. I asked him if I should go to graduate school in photography. He said, “No, you should take some workshops.” I started taking workshops, but I ignored his advice about graduate school; I went to the University of Oregon. It was a waste of time. So I learned photography entirely on my own up to the point I met Ansel, and entirely in the workshop system after then.
JK: Mostly Ansel’s workshops?
DB: All kinds. I had the good fortune of taking or (mostly) assisting at workshops with Clarence John Laughlin, Frederick Sommer, and Eikoh Hosoe, Wynn Bullock, Imogen Cunningham, Jack Welpott, Ernst Haas, Arnold Neumann, Judy Dater, Les Krims, Morley Baer, and many others—that’s a third of the list. I worked with Brett Weston a lot, and learned a great deal. That’s the good news. The bad news is that I had to unlearn just about everything later. I developed excellent technical skills, but it took me a long time to learn that none of the photographs that I was seeing in workshops gave me what I needed out of a photograph.
JK: How’d you meet Ted Orland?
DB: Ted and I met in 1970 at an Ansel Adams workshop, and we’ve cooperated on projects from then to now. He’s my intellectual fellow traveler, coworker, and good friend. It’s very special to have a 30-year working relationship with anybody.
JK: Tell me about one of the projects.
DB: In 1975, we decided that what was missing was a venue for artists to share work with each other. It was a fairly small photographic world at that point and people were widely scattered. We started a community of the mind, rather than a community of place, called the Image Continuum Journal. We’d get 10 artists to each produce 100 copies of an original piece. We’d put them together with some writing, and prepare 100 portfolios. Each artist got back 10; they could do whatever they wanted with them. Ted and I spent days and days in Morley Baer’s darkroom at Garrapata putting together the early Image Continuum Journals. It was one of the most interesting projects I’ve even been involved with. This was before computers. One of the physical jobs was to put together the Journals on the dry mount press. Ted and I dry mounted 1000 images.
JK: Did that just happen once?
DB: I think there were six editions. Ted edited the first two. Sally Mann edited the third, I edited the fourth. I can’t remember who did the fifth and the sixth. They came out probably twice a year, so it extended for a three- or four-year period.
JK: And then there’s the book.
DB: Co-writing a book is a big deal. It’s a real challenge to do a project of that scale.
JK: Especially a book like Art and Fear, about issues that are hard to state clearly and harder still to successfully deal with.
DB: When we wrote Art and Fear we never explicitly negotiated anything. It was an intuitive unarticulated approach from start to finish. We never agreed on a working method. We just did it; we passed the fragments back and forth until it was done.
JK: OK, back to the bio. Now you’re out of graduate school. How did you make a living?
DB: Doing commercial photography. In the mid-80s, I quit making commercial photographs. I’ve been working for one conservation organization ever since. I’m Executive Director of the Pacific Rivers Council. I work on aquatic conservation: endangered aquatic species, rivers and watersheds and the species that depend on them, river and stream systems.
JK: How did you come to the decision that you wanted to work in conservation?
DB: I was drafted. I was teaching landscape photography on whitewater river trips. The people involved with the rivers community thought that I could help them with the political issues that were bubbling up and they asked me to get involved. I was drawn into a wild and scenic rivers campaign in Oregon, and I fell in love with doing conservation. It fit me to a T. It puts together politics, science, law and the relationship with the landscape that I care about so much.
JK: Give people a sense of what your day is like. What does it mean to work in conservation?
DB: We have relatively good environmental laws in this country, but they’re not applied very well, and they don’t keep up with the latest science. What I try to do as a conservationist is take what’s known in the scientific community and try to get it applied on the ground.
JK: First you have to find out what the science is.
DB: I work with aquatic scientists on a daily basis. And now and then we lock a bunch of aquatic scientists in a room and we don’t let them out until they tell us what kind of conservation policy we should be pursuing. We package that, and then we meet with somebody like Senator Mark Hatfield, and say, “Senator, if you want to leave a legacy on the great salmon streams of the Pacific Northwest, here’s how you should conserve them.”
JK: Do you get out into the wild?
DB: Nowhere near as much as I did before I started doing conservation. Conservation occurs in offices in Washington D.C., in state capitals, and in lawyers’ offices.
JK: So this is not helping your photography.
DB: I have to protect my photographic life from my conservation life or I wouldn’t have a photographic life.
JK: How’d you come to your present position on landscape photography?
DB: I grew up as a landscape photographer under the influence of Brett Weston and Ansel Adams. I spent a lot of time with Brett and some time with Ansel. That kind of photography gradually became un-nourishing to me and remains so to this day. The reason is pretty simple. That whole tradition of photography is not well connected to the ecological processes of the land. It’s not well-informed ecologically. The West Coast landscape tradition is a visual arts tradition. It’s not a tradition that’s deeply involved with the way natural systems work as ecosystems. Despite the fact that Ansel and his influence on the Sierra Club have had a profound effect on the world through the use of a photograph as a conservation device, it’s not a well-informed approach. So I withdrew. I withdrew from exhibiting, for several years from making landscape photographs at all, and now, 20 years later I’m back with my first gesture of what I think a landscape photograph ought to be about.
JK: Tell me about your new book.
DB: The book is called Notes on a Shared Landscape: Making Sense of the American West. It’s about making sense of the West—our West, so to speak. Euro-Americans came west and we fell in love with the landscape. We’re still in love with the landscape, but the relationship hasn’t turned out well. The question I’m trying to answer with this book is, “Why did perfectly good people bungle a love affair with the landscape that they loved?”
JK: How did you get the idea for the book?
DB: I was on a photographic outing with some friends in the spring of 1995. Driving back from Bandolier National Monument to Denver, I realized that I needed to write this book, and that it needed to be about the issues that it’s about. I started writing the book that day.
JK: So this is a ten-year project.
DB: Art and Fear took about eight years. Apparently it takes me about a decade to get anything done.
JK: And the photographs?
DB: The photographs were not made for the book—they were made for themselves. The photographs are a lot less self-conscious than the writing. I think that’s in the nature of photography. You can’t just write intuitively. Writing is a different kind of process than photography. You can mindlessly photograph, and I mean that in a good way, but you can’t mindlessly write—or I can’t.
JK: The structure of the book is unusual.
DB: There are 31 freestanding sections or “notes” that range from the intensely personal to the analytical to the sociological. Some are relatively formal, taking an intellectual look at what kind of people we are. The pictures are inseparable from the words. The text and the words provide a cumulative context; they are aligned and address the same issues, but the words don’t explain the pictures and the pictures don’t illustrate the words.
JK: Tell me about the design of the book.
DB: What I like in music, in poetry, and in painting is a long unbroken lyrical line. I told the designer what was really important to me was not how the book looked but how it felt. I don’t know how he did it, but that’s what he managed to achieve in the book. There’s a sinuous rhythm that goes from page to page. There are remarks in the margins, the pictures are different sizes. Some are bled, some are not; the rhythm comes in large part by no two pages looking alike.
JK: What are some of the issues that you deal with?
DB: Here’s one. The National Parks are one of the great conservation success stories in the world. The National Forests are something of a disaster. How could the same people create a National Parks system that’s the envy of the world and a National Forest system that is both ecologically compromised and politically contentious? How did we get it so right on the one hand and so wrong on the other?
JK: Why, indeed?
DB: Because the National Parks system and the National Forest system represent two different sets of assumptions about what kind of people we are and about the quality of our relationship to the natural world. In the Park Service the assumption is that nature is fragile and that we are the kind of people that need to be controlled or we’ll do bad things to nature. The rule in the national parks is that our acquisitive instincts and the power of the marketplace are kept out, except for the concessions. The National Forest system—Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service—assumes a different sense of what we are. The assumption on those lands is that we are capable of managing both ourselves and the natural world. In this paradigm we don’t need outright regulations, because we can control the world and ourselves with good management. We are skillful enough managers that we can balance the power of the marketplace and the needs of natural systems.
JK: Who are the supposedly good managers: the government personnel or the people who they let use the land?
DB: That’s exactly the right question. The answer is that every bit of management on the National Forests is a negotiated compromise: nature gets a piece of the action, the loggers and grazers get a piece of the action, the recreational user gets a piece, and the background assumption is that we’re good enough managers that we can decide how much nature can be dinged and still come back. It hasn’t proven to work very well. Public tax dollars support both the National Park system and the National Forest system. In the National Park system the public gets a pretty good return and in the National Forest system private industry gets a good return.
JK: The economic issues of the West, while important, are not one of your main points, are they?
DB: No. The more important issue is that we haven’t made peace with the western landscape that we love, and probably can’t. One of the reasons is that it takes more than a generation or two to develop a real understanding of the natural world that we live in, and we change the landscape faster than that—faster than we develop an ability to understand it. My grandmother couldn’t tell me about the way my world worked because the world had changed so much between her lifetime and mine. The world she was talking about to me didn’t exist for me. And it will be true for me and my grandchildren. There is not an intergenerational understanding of the landscape, and without that, we will never make peace with it. We are not accumulating cultural knowledge of our own landscape even though we truly care about it. We’re left with a West where each one of us has to discover the landscape for ourselves.
JK: Is there any hope?
DB: The trends are shockingly negative. For example, the belief that the marketplace will solve everything is in the ascendancy, despite the fact that the National Parks teach us exactly the opposite: There’s now this gigantic anti-regulatory mood in our society. The National Park system demonstrates to me that regulation works beautifully, if you regulate the right things in the right ways.
JK: What photographers do you consider to be doing the same kind of work as you? Robert Adams? Frank Gohlke?
DB: Those are obvious answers, and you could add Peter Goin and Eric Paddock. I don’t feel that I’m part of that tradition. I hid under a rock for 20 years and made photographs and did writing and then came up from under the rock. If you think about Robert Adams and Peter Goin, or even Richard Misrach, they are taking a non-romantic look at the landscape, and their magnificent work makes the West Coast f/64 tradition look romantic by comparison. But to the degree that landscape pictures make claims about nature, the thing that’s interesting to me is we think we know nature when we see it, and we don’t. Both types of work make claims about nature, but those claims are tenuous, because our true intimacy with the natural world is so limited and our seeing so poorly informed. The parts of the landscape that I know best, where I’ve really paid attention to how they look and why they look the way they look—I’m thinking particularly of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park—I was not seeing much of the human imprint on the land, even though it’s obvious to me now. It took me 20 years to realize my own blind spots in looking at the Lamar Valley, and I was paying careful attention. If it took me 20 years to be able to tease out some of the human effects on the natural landscape, then my ability to sort pictures into the romantic f/64 picture on the one hand versus the hard-headed Robert Adams picture on the other hand is naïve and illusory in significant ways. We Western European Americans frequently cannot see the mark of our own hand on the land even when we’re looking right at it in either sort of picture.
JK: Can you give an example of that?
DB: When we look at a grove of trees, we usually do not notice whether there are young trees successfully regenerating underneath the older trees. We don’t know what the landscape is going to look like in another generation. Is there going to be a grove of trees there? I was walking on Mount Madonna in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not very far from here. I gradually realized that the woods that I was looking at that day had never looked that way in the history of the world, and would never look that way again. I was looking at a moment in time with no antecedent and no succedent. We logged all the big trees 100 years ago. There are no gigantic trees on Mount Madonna. Instead there are fairy circles of trees that sprouted up around where the big trees were. And the fairy circles are a one-time phenomenon that only happens after the big trees are removed. So this moment of time, when forests are composed of fairy-rings will not persist and will not recur.
JK: And another?
DB: The Lamar Valley is the place where wolves were reintroduced to the West. It’s probably the second-wildest part of Yellowstone, and Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world, and therefore one of the longest-protected landscapes on earth. Since the wolves have been reintroduced, the cottonwoods have started to reestablish themselves on the valley floor for the first time since the 1920s. During the time that the wolves were gone, not one single cottonwood survived on the valley floor in the Lamar Valley. The reason is that the elk didn’t have to worry about being attacked by wolves when they were on the valley floor and they had the leisure to eat every young cottonwood that sprouted. Since the wolves have been reintroduced, a few cottonwood sprouts have survived: they are the cottonwood groves of the future. There’s a photograph in the book that deals with this issue. It’s a photograph where every single element in the image is shaped by the eating habits of local animals. There’s a mature cottonwood in the Lamar Valley that’s been sculpted into a topiary by elk grazing, in a meadow that’s been mowed by bison, with a trunk that’s been gnawed out by beaver because the beaver are starving in this valley because there are no immature cottonwoods. This is a landscape where every element in the picture is shaped by the animals.
JK: And the animal behavior is shaped by us.
DB: Yes. Is that nature?
JK: Well, we’re nature.
DB: Yes, but we’re both apart from nature and a part of nature. And it’s hard to see the mark of our own hand on the landscape.
JK: But it’s wrong to think of the landscape as static except for human effects, isn’t it? Many aspects of nature are chaotic: the weather, animal populations…
DB: Yes. It turns out that growth comes in pulses. And those pulses set the stage for the landscape for hundreds of years to come. The landscape isn’t static. But the arc that it’s on is unpredictable because of the relationship between us and the land. We live in a world where we have made our relationship with nature inherently unpredictable. That has implications for conservation.
JK: The economy has a huge element of unpredictability to it, yet we manage interest rates and other governmental decisions that influence the economy, and do it reasonably well. Is that a good model for how we should manage the National Forest system?
DB: Another way of asking that question is, “What would the National Forest system look like if Alan Greenspan were managing it?” I think that it would be more hands-off and more careful. Greenspan looks at the big picture, he collects a lot of data, and he moves very cautiously. We don’t do any of those things with the forest service now.
JK: Your book addresses sweeping questions. They’re important questions, and they’re questions that more than a handful of people are interested in. Are you prepared to have this book sell a lot more copies than you expect?
DB: No. This book is a labor of love. Art and Fear was a labor of love.
JK: And it sold a lot of copies.
DB: Yes. Completely against my predications. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the lifetime sales of Art and Fear when we were first printing it. I estimated 10,000 copies for the lifetime of the book. We’ve sold 175,000 copies so far, and it’s still selling well.
JK: You live some distance from a large photographic community. Are you artistically lonely?
DB: I’m a member of two once-a-month art salons. One of them has been going for seven or eight years. We get together for a potluck dinner. We clear away the dishes and the members share what they’re working on. Membership of the group has not changed for six or seven years, and nobody ever misses a meeting. It’s the most nurturing thing I do. Every word of my new book has been read aloud to the group, and the feedback has been important in the shaping of the text. It’s an artificially constructed community of artists but artificial community is better than no community. We have to construct communities of artists because they don’t naturally exist in our culture.
JK: Your photographs gain impact because of the context in which they are viewed, a context that is provided by the rest of the book, and a context that is different from the one that generally accompanies traditional landscape photography.
DB: There’s a set of generally unarticulated assumptions behind most photographs. Those assumptions include what a photograph ought to look like, appropriate subject matter, the relationship between the photographer and the subject matter, the relationship between the viewer and the subject matter, the balance between the visual, the emotional, the intellectual, and the conceptual. I think it would be an interesting intellectual exercise to try to list the assumptions behind any well established photographic tradition—the modern practice of f/64-style West Coast photography for example. One tradition spawns another, someone breaks off, and so on. We ought to do a conceptual map of who’s visually connected with whom. It would force you to come to grips with the kind of issues that we’re talking about.
JK: You are not drawn to the iconic photographic sites.
DB: Well, yes I am, but I don’t go there to make photographs. There’s a paragraph in my book about looking for Ansel’s tripod holes. D.J. Bassett and I looked for the exact site of the incredibly romantic and powerful photograph of the thunderstorm over the Snake River in the Tetons. There’s a paved pullout where that picture was taken, and there was a paved pullout when Ansel took the picture. When D.J. and I went on this expedition to find Ansel’s tripod holes, we found them so fast and so easily that our expedition was a joke. We found them at 55 miles an hour. I concluded that one of the functions of great landscape photographs is to confirm what we already think we know and agree on as a society so thoroughly that the road to it is already paved. It’s not the artist that leads us to this conclusion; the artist confirms, celebrates, or distills out the essence of the vision that we already have.