Interview: Ian Shive, Conservation Photographer
Photos: 1) Ian Shive at work; 2) Sequoia National Park; 3) Yellowstone National Park
Interview by Tony Sheppard
Originally published in Capitol Weekly
Ian Shive, the photographer behind the new pictorial book "The National Parks: Our American Landscape" recently spent a day in Sacramento, visiting a management class in the Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration program at Sac State. I asked him a few questions about his work and the value of parks in our lives:
Photography as a living is new to you – before it was more like a cell phone plan: Unlimited nights and weekends.
Very true [laughs].
What were you doing before and how did you get into this?
I was working as a publicist for Columbia Pictures, marketing mainstream films. I worked on at least 60 films for them. I worked on the “Spiderman” franchise. We broke some new ground. It was a time when grassroots marketing really became a critical part of that type of film. Photography for me was kind of a passion but never to the point where it is today. It was something that I enjoyed, it was something that gave me a creative outlet in an environment that was creative marketing, but not the same as creating something from scratch. As I entered into the world and made my photographs visible for people in the professional community I got a lot of response and that encouraged me to then do more of that and get more of a response and see how far I could take it.
In the world of photography, which could take you anywhere, why the National Parks?
They were the obvious place to go when I was a corporate, drone. I was looking for a much better word. They’re the obvious place to go because you know you don’t have the time to explore the entire coast of California and sure it’s beautiful but you have to go down to every beach and I had Saturday and Sunday. So the obvious choices were to go to Sequoia and to Yosemite, the places where you knew you could go into and you would at least have some great options in a very short period of time.
The other thing I have to say is that National Parks are crown jewels of what we have in wilderness. They are the best, they are the true icons of American culture. Also knowing that they’re so vast that the roads only cover a small part of it that there would still be room for exploration as well, that there would be a theme I could develop on.
You’ve described the National Parks essentially as islands of conservation in, presumably, oceans of disregard. What do you mean by that and how do we change our mindset?
Well, we have borders. National Parks have borders. They end, they have communities that build up around them, they have laws that only protect things up to that line. A good example is the Channel Islands in California. The marine sanctuary itself is just this little square and if you go on the edge of that square you can fish. What you see is boatloads on the edge fishing, right where the line ends.
Wildlife doesn’t understand what that means. How do you manage that, how do you effectively manage something when it’s the size of a tennis court? And that’s a sanctuary? For what?
And that’s always been a confusing thing to me and so I try and push an agenda that you can’t fence certain things in and they don’t work well if you do. I think a lot of biology and a lot of studies have proven that effective environment management has come in corridors.
You’ve called yourself a conservation photographer, rather than a nature photographer – how do you make that distinction?
Very simple. I feel the nature photographer does exactly what I do in the sense of photographing a beautiful landscape or wildlife or something like that. A conservation photographer takes those images and becomes an advocate for whatever they’re photographing. It’s advocacy that makes the difference – not just shooting something but working to protect it. The longer you spend in a place like Yosemite or anywhere wilderness…you realize that you’ve been borrowing from it: Maybe it’s solitude, maybe it’s a portfolio of images, maybe it’s “Grizzly Automotive” – you’re always borrowing from it but you’re never giving back.
When I was photographing in Henry Coe and a lot of other [California] State Parks, I had no idea that this issue would be happening – underfunding or cutting or closing them completely.
So what do you tell Californians now, who are watching this portfolio of extraordinary places at risk of neglect and underfunding?
We’ve got to fight it. We’ve got to find a way to fund it, find a way to fight it, and find a way to preserve it. I think the State parks are no less important than our National Parks. They’re not just about environment, they’re about culture, they affect people. The National Parks contribute $10 billion a year to their local economies. I believe State Parks have a major contribution in a similar way. I think the public needs to become stewards of these places and make sure they’re run properly. If we all contribute as a community because they’re for the community, then I think we’ll actually find some solutions that work and we can continue having these places.