Immersion in the Landscape

By Tom Blagden in conversation with Ken Olson
From the Spring 2016 Friends of Acadia Journal

Friends of Acadia’s former president Ken Olson and photographer-at-large Tom Blagden have collaborated on two books: First Light (2003), published in partnership with FOA, and Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration (2016). Also an FOA partnership, this stunning collection of 150 photographs features essays by Olson and six other FOA and Acadia luminaries. Before the book’s release, the two discussed Blagden’s inspiration, his methods, and his great love for Acadia.

Northern Parula, Wonderland, Acadia NP. Mount Desert Island, ME

Ken: Tom, why did you decide, and when did you decide, to do a book after First Light?

Tom: First Light was such a dream come true—for me to do a book like that on a place that I had spent so much of my life. Doing a book’s kind of like giving birth, only then you have to put it out for adoption. I had that feeling. I had the postpartum blues, so I just told myself right away: I’m going to commit to keep working.

Really, the inspiration there—never at that point anticipating another book in the foreseeable future—was simply the relationship with Friends of Acadia, where, because of that and Friends’ interest in my work, it assigned a value to the photographs that inspired me to keep going.

Ken: A lot has happened in the time between the two books photographically. You moved from a print photographer, one who used dark room services and plain, old color film, I guess, to digital. Is that right?

Tom: Yes, the new book is entirely digital. The old book was entirely film.

Ken: How’s the transition been for you, and what do you think it’s done for your images and your editorial selections?

Tom: Well, I’d like to think that the end product is just as good or that there’s no discernible difference, but, clearly, the process is greatly different. I went into digital photography somewhat begrudgingly, because film, to me, had a purity that was about the moment; you either got it or you didn’t. It was very demanding, not much latitude; whereas, with digital, photography has become more about the process than the content itself. I think that’s diminished the experience somewhat.

Ken: The experience of the photographer, but not necessarily the viewer?

Tom: Right. All that said, working in digital photography is probably more fun than ever and more fun than film. Again, it puts less emphasis on the experience and impeccable execution and more on “get the shot” and then transition into post-processing.

Ken: Was it harder to edit, given the larger selection that you had to deal with by virtue of how easily you could photograph, with impunity, anything you wanted?

Tom: Yes—editing film, again, you either had it or you didn’t. With film, there’d be stacks of images, like a deck of cards, and you’d just start dealing. Some hands were worth gambling on. With digital, there’s sort of always this feeling of: Is it fully realized? Or is there something else I should do or be paying attention to? Because of all the post-processing, it’s very tedious.

Sunrise at Cobble Beach near Otter Cliffs, Acadia NP, Mt. Desert Island, Maine

Ken: What would you like readers of this book to come away with?

Tom: I think it’s really about sense of place and the degree to which that sense of place both belongs to us and we belong to it. I’ve always thought that photography is the most direct connection with nature that we can have, other than being immersed in it physically and mentally.

For me, the photography can offer this vicarious experience that has the potential of re-connecting people with the natural landscape in a way that can be very profound and hopefully reveal aspects of the wild that aren’t normally within our grasp.

Ken: First of all, you’ve got a work, an oeuvre of substance, and you’ve photographed various locations and animals and everything really, around the United States and probably around the world. Dare you name Acadia as your favorite subject, or would you venture that way?

Tom: Oh, it’s right up there. My career has been a little different than most colleagues, because I just decided to just work in areas that I love and that are part of my life, one of them being Acadia and the other being my home state of South Carolina, and Costa Rica, where I spent 20 years, going down there and working. I’ve really built my career around those three places.

It’s so important that good photography reflects that kind of deep involvement with the landscape. Time is the greatest asset of all, because, given enough time, the landscape reveals itself. In one sense, I feel so lucky to produce a book on one of the most photographed places in the country. It’s a top-ten national park; everybody has photographed in Acadia.

But I think what different for me was making the commitment to photograph it over such a long period of time. It was not a calculated decision; it was an emotional one because I love the place, and it gets a hold of you.

Ken: What do you think about the argument that some people make that a beautiful book, such as “Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration,” contributes to people crowding into the place?

Tom: You can argue that it does, but the reality, in sheer numbers—what’s Acadia now, roughly 2.5 million visitors?

Ken: 2.8 million last year, 2015.

Tom: A book that has only published 6,000 copies really gets into a very minimal number of hands. So I think the overall impact is negligible. And yet, given the philanthropic history of Acadia, the extent to which the park was literally founded and is now carried by a relatively small number of people who deeply care about it, I think the book can have a huge impact, given that it’s directed to the right places.

Ken: I concur on that completely. As you said, the sense of place and connecting people with the land is a strong stewardship message that improves and clarifies peoples’ relationship to a park and, if anything, makes them stronger stewards of it and more sensitive to the issues that a place like Acadia faces.

Tom: Exactly. A book like this has great potential of assigning value to a place, to a subject. That’s what I would hope this book would serve to do here.

Moss & spruce tree, Seal Harbor, Mt. Desert Island, Maine

Ken: Do you, as you mentally review the book, have a couple of favorites that you’d very briefly describe?

Tom: It’s funny—I hadn’t really thought about that so much, and it more relates to the experience and aspects that are not apparent in the image. Certainly, what I write about in the book are those photographs that represent encounters with peregrine falcons. It’s more the images that symbolize the encounters with the complexity of life, where you have that contrast of the monumental and the ephemeral, like the running of the alewives up the streams with ospreys diving on them, seals attacking underwater, eagles swooping in and stealing the fish from the ospreys, etc. It’s those dynamic moments that just have such a profound impact.

Ken: What about early influences on your becoming a professional photographer and influences on your art?

Tom: I think, surely, early on I dedicated myself more out of innocence than anything. But even when I was in college, I had this idea of using photography for conservation, because that was always my bent. And I was able to realize that with my first couple of jobs, working with Atlantic salmon in Canada and then the National Audubon Society.

That kind of set the course. But I realized to be truly effective I had to just go off on my own and do these long-term projects, but always in consort with a conservation organization and non-profit.

Ken: Who, among the great photographers, do you look to as a beacon—who helped you develop your art?

Tom: I think, certainly going back, there’s that formative period. For me, it was in my mid to late 20s. It was photographers like Philip Hyde, who was a committed Western conservation photographer, and certainly Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter. They all made a huge influence on me. But I got to know Philip Hyde personally and went on two photographic trips with him in my 20s, so that raised the bar and set my course. I was inspired by him.

Ken: In this case, there are seven essays in the new book. What is your hope for what they will do as counterpoint or complement to the photography?

Tom: What these essays have fulfilled is just adding a myriad of dimensions that aren’t apparent or evident in the photographs. The beauty of this group of writers is that everybody has a personal relationship with Acadia, which is what I most wanted in who contributed. Because it’s so personal, they approach it from very different perspectives, from the art and painting that helped establish Acadia itself, to the role of philanthropy, what that was like to grow up in the middle of one of the most prominent families in the history of the park.

Ken: Give us some sense of what you look for to compose a photographic image.

Tom: The starting point is total immersion in the landscape. I think that at a very fundamental level nature opens up all our senses, simply by being, simply by looking, being curious. That’s so much more important than whatever knowledge or baggage we bring into nature with us.

And in that sense, it’s a solitary pursuit most of the time, because only then can you be totally on that sensory level, with heightened awareness of everything around you.

Ken: What if aspiring photographers who wish to marry conservation and art were to ask you questions about craft, pedestrian things like: What times of day do you shoot and why? And how do you frame a particular shot differently from how another photographer might frame the same scene?

Breaking wave on Sand Beach, Great Head, Acadia NP. Mount Desert Island, ME

Tom: That’s a tough one to be specific on, because it’s so unique to the moment. I’m usually just paying attention to light and relationships. We tend to see the world and even the natural world in terms of objects. But, after decades of this, I seem to look at it more in terms of context, and that’s what interests me the most, even with wildlife. It’s very much about the context that it’s in. So, again, I’m looking at these relationships and these relationships that are unique to the moment, either defined by light, by color…

Ken: What are your most fruitful photographic periods in a given day?

Tom: Oh, gosh. It depends on the weather and the location and the angle of the light. Everybody talks about sunrise and sunset and, yeah, they’re magical times. But one of my favorite days to work is a wet, overcast day, because I can be productive all day long. The tones are rich—

Ken: What is going on, in terms of the landscape, that is photographically desirable on a wet, soggy day like that—the mystery of Acadia?

Tom: Well, it limits the total range so that you don’t have harsh highlights and often too many deep shadows. So it can render very pure, true colors and textures. I pay a lot of attention to textures and patterns, and those often come across better on an overcast, especially wet day.

Ken: What do you think is the longest time you’ve ever waited to get a shot you wanted?

Tom: Well, that’s wildlife. Wildlife really taxes my patience. I’ve waited sometimes four or five hours. I have an eagle shot in the book of a mature eagle in flight. I waited, I think, three and a half hours just staring at a branch, hoping he’s land on it, which he did, and then I got him flying away. That’s the shot in the book. I’ve got like a hundred shots of him sitting on the branch, and then I think two of him flying. But, of course, that’s the shot I wanted.

Ken: Have you ever, on the wildlife side of your activities, ended up disturbing wildlife? Have they gone away and come back and gotten used to you? What’s it like dealing with animals?

Tom: Well, ethically, it’s always a challenge, with wildlife especially, to not put too much pressure on them. And so I tend to go very slowly, keep my distance, work in closer, in as sensitive way as I can. Just simply by watching the animal or the bird, I can usually tell if they’re stressed.

A good example—again, I write about it in the book—is photographing loons. I’ll start way back in my kayak until they resume feeding, and then I’ll paddle closer in little increments. And lo and behold, after half an hour to an hour, they’re usually popping up all around the kayak, almost ignoring me. That’s what you hope for.

Ken: I like that you have entered the term “ethics” into the conversation. Let me ask you also about any influences on you as a conservationist and artist that are non-photographic, in other words, not Ansel Adams, not Philip Hyde, not Eliot Porter. But is there a canon that you’ve read—plain old literature—that has inspired you or somehow informed your work?

Tom: I think if I had to pick one book it’s David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo. He traces the whole history of natural selection and evolution and the theories around it. Certainly, Edward Abbey is a good read. I tend to read about areas I go to. Like I love the Grand Canyon. There’s a wonderful book called The Emerald Mile. One of its main themes is the contrast of wilderness and development, the Grand Canyon being bookended by two huge dams. This contradiction of national achievements, one being the preservation of the canyon, but the other, two of the greatest dams in North America. It’s certainly relevant to what Acadia faces, too, I think, just with its own popularity and crowds and management challenges.

TOM BLAGDEN JR. is a professional nature photographer and author of First Light: Acadia National Park and Maine’s Mount Desert Island, which won a 2003 National Outdoor Book Award for Design and Artistic Merit and was an Award Finalist in ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year competition. KEN OLSON retired in 2006 after a decade-plus as president and CEO of Friends of Acadia.

A shorter version of this interview was printed in the Spring 2016 Friends of Acadia Journal. All photographs by Tom Blagden Jr., reprinted from Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration. An exhibit of photographs from the book will be shown at Blum Gallery at College of the Atlantic, July 11–August 26, with an opening reception on July 14.

Creating Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration

Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration
photographs by Tom Blagden, Jr., essays by Christopher Camuto, Christopher Crosman, Dayton Duncan, David Rockefeller Jr., David MacDonald, Sheridan Steele, and W. Kent Olson. Published in partnership by Friends of Acadia and Rizzoli New York.

“Nature photographer Tom Blagden and his fellow contributors have created this fitting tribute [to Acadia]—full of photography and stories that only firsthand custodians of the natural  wonderland could provide in such lavish and loving detail.” — Metrosource