Find a Trail

Photography: Ian Shive Interview

What strikes me about photographer Ian Shive’s book, The National Parks: Our American Landscape, is the way he exquisitely captures both the minutia and the monumental aspects of the natural world. His eye-level shot of a tarantula speaks to me as evocatively as his distant view of a smoky Montana mountain range.

Here at the Sierra Club we were fans of Shive’s work before his national parks book was published this past fall. (Check out this slide show of Tejon Ranch he made for us.)

I jumped at the opportunity for an interview and a chance to dig into his story – and his methods. -- Tioga Jenny

Ian Shive
Photographer Ian Shive

Tell us about your earliest connection to wild places.

I grew up in a very rural part of New Jersey, the Garden State, with farms, fields, and wildlife-management areas nearby. As far back as I can remember, my parents took me to parks. They were always appreciative of nature, but not hard-core hikers and campers; we never camped.

How did you get interested in photography?

My dad’s a photographer, mainly in architecture and rock and roll. He gave me my first camera when I went to college. A pivotal moment for me came when I moved to Montana for a film program. I went to Yellowstone and it was different from anything I’d ever seen. I wanted to show my friends in New Jersey the way the light comes through the mountains, so it started as a way of sharing that. But I realized that my photos were horrible! So I started to teach myself photography, and I think it was subconscious, but I wanted it to be an accurate representation of what I was feeling, not just seeing.

That was late 1996. It was always in the background of my life, never front and center, not the way it is today. I worked for a studio for ten years. The last six years it has moved from hobby to obsession, with the last four years being really intense.

How do you explore the places you shoot?

I might experience them as a mountaineer, like when I climbed Mt. McKinley, but I enjoy them the best as a backpacker. I like hitting the trail, going deep into the woods far from the typical places people see. That’s the way a great majority of the [national parks] book was photographed. My goal is that in sharing these places in the book, it inspires people to go out there.

Spider -- photo courtesy Ian Shive

You photograph both vast landscapes and intensely close-up subjects. What is your approach to each type?

I don’t just look out – I look down, and I pay attention to small details. For me a landscape is about balance and symmetry. I pay attention to the horizon line. There’s just something about it that strikes me, and I can’t say exactly what it is…the combination of light and experience and symmetry. I pay attention to all four corners and work my way in from there. I make sure nothing is blocking the right-hand corner of the frame. Many a photograph is ruined by not looking in the far corners, paying attention only to the middle of the frame. It’s also about telling stories – you might see something geologically significant in the center, with a river nearby, and a storm coming, something happening on the beach. I try to convey a very full sense of the place. It’s just a matter of paying attention.

For close-ups, I dig deep into the scene and change perspective. So many times I’ve seen people photographing wildlife or plants, and they’re shooting down with the camera. But eye level could be a beautiful photograph! Changing the angle of perspective gives you a new view of something you’ve already seen before. Get closer to the shot! Go deeper into the frame. Don’t be afraid to omit things. I think of it as the reverse of painting – I subtract things. I include only the elements required for what I want to get across.

How did the book come about?

I was doing lots of assignments for National Parks magazine. My first big assignment was two and a half years ago. A year later I realized I had created an archive of parks photographs with places no one had ever seen. It was in no way comprehensive, however. Most were in the West, a few in the East, so I continued to fill places in.

I wanted to do a book for the centennial of the National Park system in 2016. I sent emails to contacts and asked about getting support. I figured it would take five years to complete. No one wrote back! But my email had been passed around, worked its way out to California, and landed with my now-publisher. They felt the time for a park book was now. So we put it together in four months. I took two really long road trips, traveling 7,500 miles in 20 days and hitting 17 national parks. That was almost one a day, sometimes two in the same day.

For instance, I’d been to Yellowstone, but had never photographed Old Faithful. In the 224-page book, only six images are of highly recognized places – but I had to go shoot all six! Old Faithful was hard – I spent seven hours there and I liked it a lot, but there are so many buildings near it. I didn’t want unnatural glows coming off it. I ended up using a sunset shot. It kind of depresses me how these places are so built up and commercialized.

Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy Ian Shive

What’s it like when you’re away from that, off in the far reaches of a national park?

I’ve spent a lot of time alone in the parks. There’s something that happens after your seventh day in nature, where you start to hear things, understand things better – about the weather that’s coming, what animals are doing…Wilderness has become a part of me in a way it never has before. It hasn’t changed me, but augmented who I am. It’s not like I went in thinking one thing and was different when I came out. I went in eager to see what would be there for me, and I think it just makes me better, like I understand things better.

The environmental movement is so fear-based now, and people lack connection to even what they’re trying to save. My connection became so strong [during this project], and after spending so much time there, I felt a responsibility to give back something I was borrowing from, through my photography.

Do you have a favorite place to shoot?

No, not a favorite place. I like different places at different times of year. Three parks have sentimental value – Yellowstone from my college days, and the Grand Canyon was the first big trip I ever took out West with parents, at age 14. The Channel Islands in California are right now – that’s evolving. I like the marine sanctuary aspect. You do sunrise on the island, spend the day shooting underwater, then photograph at sunset. There are no roads and no power, at least on Santa Cruz Island.

Which is your favorite photograph in the book?

The one of White Sands National Park in New Mexico. It’s a two-page spread. It was just a combination of a lot of things happening in a place they don’t often happen. It rained, and white dunes turn beige when they’re wet. Then it started to dry, and the tops of the dunes dried first, and some shading was happening. I compressed it by using a 400-meter lens to make it more 2-dimentsional. It’s the first time I understood what Georgia O’Keefe was trying to do. She’s one of my favorite painters. When I photographed that, I thought, “I kind of get it, a little glimpse of what she saw out there.” I’ve been accused of Photoshopping that photo because people say it’s not natural. But it is.

Coast, by Ian Shive
Coast. Photo courtesy Ian Shive

Did you learn something from this project that you didn’t know going into it?
Mostly from all the interviews I’ve done! I’ve never analyzed myself so much, and that’s where the learning has happened. I changed my process photographically, for instance, but became more acutely aware of this only as I talked about it. I shoot more now during the day. I used to only shoot sunsets and at night. Now I’ve found ways to also shoot during the day and maximize my time in parks. I keep wanting to do more, go deeper with the parks. And I’ve gotten into underwater photography.

What do you hope people will feel after reading and looking at your book?

I have this idea – conservation without borders – that this is a lifestyle, not something we fence in. By creating parks, we put aside land to be pristine for future generations. But we created islands rather than full corridors and healthy ecosystems. So many parks are all built up around their borders. The goal here is to share my perspective and, I hope, get people to go out and reconnect with parks in general.

It’s a conservation book, but it doesn’t need words all over it. I read a figure somewhere that by 2050, 40% of the world’s population will live in an urban area. How many are connecting with nature? I hope this book will inspire people to go out there.

>> Leave a comment about this interview in our On Track blog.

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