Part III: Steve Kossack On The Environment

Gates of the Valley (c) Steve Kossak

About The Image: One of the first transition images from film to digital. Shot on 35 mm Velvia and scanned to digital. It was the result of getting out of the sleeping bag at 5 AM in February in Yosemite and standing in the Merced River at dawn. With gray overcast I turned my back to the scene in preparation to pack it in and saw this wonderful red glow in the water at my feet. A quick turnabout, a horizontal and vertical version made and the light was gone in just over a minute!

JM: Do you consider yourself an environmental activist?
SK: This part has great interest for me. I do consider myself an environmental activist. As I've stated before, I came to photography rather late in life and I came for the implicit reason of photographing landscapes. In many ways I see the earth as fine art. I have begun to understand photographically how it was formed and shaped and how fortunate we are to be able to view these treasures of nature. In most countries around the world these places are set aside for royalty and the affluent. So far, we have been able to struggle to hold on to our right to see, use and even photograph. It's a privilege to have experienced and shoot where I have. I do not take the opportunity lightly and I think of myself as extremely grateful and fortunate.

Years ago, I considered everyone doing landscape and nature photography to be environmentally aware and involved. It was a given. Not so any longer. My experience is that with the advent of digital and the growing wealth of and influence of North America, it has brought more diverse and different people into the field.

JM: "... digital... it has brought more diverse and different people into the field." This is a value statement. How do you feel that this proliferation has affected the environment? Why?
SK: 9 out of 10 digital photographers today tell the same story. It usually is something like, I did photography for years and quit and now with the advent of digital I'm back and enjoying it more than ever. Digital is simply a huge revolution in photography. So much more can be done much more easily by so many more! In my world of workshops it's changed everything. I realized a long time ago, when I found myself as the only film shooter on the workshop, that I wanted and needed to be there also. Without digital I'm quite sure I would not be doing what I'm doing today. The number of people that have entered or returned to photography bring the diversity, but again, I still feel that the more people that experience our fast depleting wilderness, the better our chances to present our point of view.

As photographers we have the power to do a lot of things with images. One of them is to show the environment as beautiful and fragile. Another is to show it as easy and everywhere. I think there are a lot more of the latter now. That is to say that the remote locations we see are confused with the "road shooter images" and gives birth to the thought that these places are common and need not be protected. I use to see all great landscape fine art as a promotion for preservation. I'm not sure others do today. I still believe that some good happens when people witness nature, through photographs or personally. If good information is attached to images, we all benefit.

JM: What are the most significant environmental problems that you see coming?
SK: I think that the issue always comes down to habitat. Or more directly the lack of it. We simply are running out of space for what is needed by all the planets creatures. The bottom line for me is I don't think we can support what we have now, let alone what is in the future. The warning signs became apparent long ago and they, for the most part have been overlooked or blatantly ignored. I think at our own peril.

JM: You talk about habitat and the warning signs that we 'cannot support what we have now.' What realistic things can be done to address these issues?
SK: Wilderness must be protected. It's fairly simple in concept. Roads bring people and people bring all the things that lead to the unstoppable construction and destruction. The laws that protected roadless areas are now being turned over to the states by our federal government. This is a not so concealed attempt to open what we have left to profiteers. What we do have left will now quickly disappear. It's too complex in detail to go into here but I strongly endorse and support the National Resources Defense Council for information and related issues if there is interest.

JM: What is it that you hope to achieve in your work?
SK: It is always the hope that my images of these beautiful, and to me, sacred places will bring to anyone that sees them the feeling of importance and protection. I do understand that these places, for many different reasons, are being over used and are suffering as a consequence. However, I see this as a double edged sword. I have come to embrace the thought that we benefit from anyone and everyone that sees these places and it can only help if they do. I also understand that the only way that it has worked for us is if we as a people collectively, as our government, see the need and then act on that need. I don't think it is a stretch to say that our current situation is as far removed from this thought as possible. I see the planet under attack from a lot of different sides and think that the answer, as always is in our judicial system. Laws that protect from those that would and will abuse.

I contribute both time and funds where possible. I have been a member and continue to support most of the environmental organizations. Since John Muir and Ansel Adams were two of the guiding lights on my journey, the Sierra Club was a natural for me, both on a local, regional and national level. My photographs are always offered to any and all that might find benefit from their use. Personally, I find this is currently a dark and difficult time. The gains of the last 30 years are being wiped away. Our voices are needed now more than ever. The camera is one of the most powerful tools ever invented by man. It's important to remember that this tool gives us all voice. Bad things happen while good people stand silent!

From Hunt's Mesa (c) Steve Kossak

About The Image: A location from Monument Valley that took years of planning. A area that is hard to reach and required a camping trip in the rain along with a rope ladder climb, this image was made in light that only lasted about 5 minutes. A stunning X-Pan image, this one is also on my wall.

JM: When you talk about gains of the last 30 years being wiped away, is this a political statement or a practical one?
SK: I have trouble separating the two. We've made many gains if only to enlighten and educate. In order to solve a problem you must first know you have one. I think it's impossible to address anything when you run up against the intellect that says we don't have or need to. The job now as I see it, is to maintain a way of life for those on this planet while the human population is growing at an unmanageable rate. This presents both political and practical problems. A change in lifestyle and dedication of money and recourses must occur. Unless there is a major shift in the way we see our environment and our role in it along with the will to do what is needed, I don't see solutions. I wish I felt better about the prospects.

Thanks again to Steve for having taken the time to perform this interview. If you are interested in learning more about Steve Kossack, you can visit his home page at

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