Robert Glenn Ketchum (b. 1947), CVNRA #705, 1988, Dye destruction print (Cibachrome), From the Ohio/Federal Lands project, Gift of Sue and Griff Hopkins, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, P2001.8

This image came as quite a shock. I think of Robert Glenn Ketchum‘s work as New England fall colours, Hawaiian mists and Pacific Northwest greenery. Even when depicting a toxic river (below) Ketchum’s photographs have the ability to look bucolic and undisturbed (which is Ketchum’s clever conceit of ‘Overlooked in America: The Success and Failure of Federal Land Management’).

CVNRA #705 (above) is relatively early in Ketchum’s career and exists in contrast to all I presume and expect of his work. The photograph is part of Ketchum’s Ohio/Federal Lands project.


In recent weeks, we have been presented with plenty of visual prompts for guilt and shame – here, Oil reaches the shores of Louisiana.

My attraction to CVNRA #705 has made it clear I expect doom and gloom. If the subject of photograph is catastrophic then it must be a politically worthwhile photograph, right?

Furthermore, when viewing destruction, the more literal the description, the better the image slots into my pessimistic view of man’s negligent environmental stewardship.

I just guess, people shortcut to images as means to prove a point, but images are usually props. Yet, it makes sense why people, press and politicos rely so readily on images; because images can be easily used for any number of (simplified) narratives*.

In most cases, images are all we have and in all cases images are inadequate.

The world is much larger than a single view, yet still, I value the contributions of conservation photographers and wouldn’t want a visual world without them. I just need to deal with my own preference for disaster.

Robert Glenn Ketchum (b. 1947), CVNRA, #125 (a toxic waterfall in a national recreation area), 1986, from the project “Overlooked in America: The Success and Failure of Federal Land Management,” dye destruction print, gift of Advocacy Arts Foundation, ©1986 Robert Glenn Ketchum, P1996.22.3

* I don’t want to suggest that the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico is a simple matter made something it isn’t, but narratives may be. There are no positives. It is a straightforward disaster of huge proportion.