American Images

Tikchik Mountain, 1999 – Robert Ketchum

Robert Ketchum

The World’s Greatest Environmental Photographer.

Has Nature Found Her Own Photojournalist?

John Fraim


The grand images and symbols of our environment or nature have motivated, impressed and given me passion in life more than anything else. Some of the images have been experienced first-hand. And, for this reason, perhaps they are no longer “images” anymore?

A few come immediately to mind without much effort because they float close to the surface of consciousness. The fast rise of Mt. San Jacinto above Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. The upper desert of Joshua Tree and Thousand Palms and places beyond into the outer Mojave Desert. The barren landscape of the Borrego Springs desert area west of the Salton Sea. Yosemite in the Fall when the trees have all exploded in color, along the trail up to the back of Half Dome. The Desert Springs Trail with my sons Alex and Chris.

And there are the images of nature I have seen or read about but not experienced first-hand. The writings and musing of Emerson, John Muir and some of the early explorers of the American desert like Van Dyke come to mind. Writings about the sacredness of nature.

Sunspots Across Tundra Hills, 1999 – Robert Ketchum

As America turned from a pioneering to a colonizing nation, and settled nation images of culture came to replace the original images of nature for an increasing number of Americans, photos, paintings and novels began to capture the images of American nature for those to see who had never experienced it first-hand.  All of this led to perhaps the first American genre of fiction. The Leatherstocking type tales of the early days of Americans, confronting the newness of the wilderness.

Evolution of American culture demonstrated a textbook confrontation with nature and movement away from it within such a short period of time that this deserves study by a group of professionals (that don’t exist today) that might be called something like Environmental Psychologists. They might examine an American’s relationship to the history of the nation in an attempt to understand their feeling about America.

The original huge confrontation with the wilderness of North America and the movement away from this wilderness holds much of the true, yet untold, American history. It is a story that will most likely never be told in American school systems yet it has so much to do with the original psyche of the first Americans and the original psyche of the idea of America. The undeniable fact of American history is this quick, brutal confrontation with a wilderness after a cultured life in Europe. And then, the turning away from this nature with the creation of a new culture. The nature part of American experience became swallowed by the cultural experience of Americans, the grandest builders of the images and products of culture in the history of the world. The creators of the entertainment and advertising industries and the propaganda and public relations industries. The creator of the leading media that dominates the world. The nation that introduced the idea of branded of products to the modern world.

Storm Sunset, Bristol Bay, 1998 (Robert Ketchum)

So, it isn’t surprising that America has drifted so far away from this image of nature within her original psyche. It was something experienced by millions of current American ancestors and hard to dismiss as something that doesn’t play some part in a current citizen’s view of this nation. There are of course those few related to the original settlers of the nation. Many more, the ancestors of refugees in some form to the new nation. And then, the ancestors of the ancestors and so on. All related in some way to that original confrontation with nature of the original American settlors, ancestors of a number of living Americans.

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As that original experience of nature for the first American settlers moved to the background of American history and thought, a culture grew in the original forests and wildernesses that paved over the experience and images of nature. The nation as a whole pretty much forgot about its the early experience in confronting nature first hand. Especially after the “civilization” of living in the European culture of the time.

Fortunately, there were painters who remembered the original images of America and attempted to portray these images in their paintings. Certainly, the Hudson School is one of these as well as the early American landscape painters. There were also photographers like Ansel Adams with his photos of Yosemite that kept nature images alive for me. And, for many others I am sure.

Fall Frost At The River’s Edge, 1999 (Robert Ketchum)

The greatest modern chronicler of nature’s images (for all of us encased within the wall of culture) is Robert Ketchum. He is the natural descendant of Ansel Adams but a descendant who has learned so much and applied this to his art. There are many great nature photographers today but few who attempts to have their images makes powerful statements about the American environment to all who will look at the images Bob provides.

I first met Bob when we were both students at Webb School in Claremont, California in the late (psychedelic) 60s. The Doorssounded all over campus in those years and also in the live events some Webb students were able to make into the nearby Sunset Strip and hear Morrison live with the Doors at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. At this time, Both Bob and I were in a surf band at Webb that practiced in the storage room above the old gym after dinner a few nights a week. None of us had great visions of it going anywhere. We just liked to get together and play music. I remember that Bob’s official Webb uniform was surfing shorts and a surfing t-shirt as I can’t remember ever seeing him in any other dress.

It’s Getting Better All The Time, 2013 (Robert Ketchum)

So many photographers are mesmerized by the current shiny images of popular culture. These images seem to put so many in a type of trance where nothing or no world exists beyond these images of the moment. Robert’s images go far beyond the moment and reach back into the history of the early images of America. In a similar way that Alfred Bierstadt discovered America in his paintings, Ketchum discovers America in his photographs. Robert’s images are images that are meant to be much more than pretty background photos of nature on someone’s wall.

They are images that exist in a type of collective memory of the America once encountered but mostly forgotten. Perhaps more than anything else, they offer the grandest and most powerful images of nature in our current culture which has travelled so far from nature.


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