A Nikon Legend Behind the Lens, Lexar Elite Photographer, recipient of the John Muir Conservation Award, Research Associate with the Endangered Species Recovery Program, published in over 130 magazines worldwide, author of 23 books and lecturing across the country to thousands upon thousands of photographers barely covers the work and goals of wildlife photographer Moose Peterson. One of the original Nikon shooters to receive the D1 in 1999, Moose embraced this new technology becoming the only wildlife photographer in the world to shoot strictly digital in the early years. A beta site for all the major hardware and software manufacturers, Moose continues his main goal of photographing the life history of North America’s endangered wildlife and wild places using the latest tools. A creative innovator of new techniques both behind the camera and the computer is the driving force behind his photography and goals
John Paul Caponigro Paint the broad strokes of your photographic history.
Moose Peterson I grew up in a family of shutterbuggers with a legacy started by my grandfather (the same grandfather who took my family in 1900 to where I currently live in the Sierras). His kodachromes, which I still have, were the mark in his approach of sharing family life through photography. The one difference in my family of shutterbuggers was their photography depicted not day to day life, but the life as a Peterson, which was and still is an outdoor world life. There’s no doubt in my mind that the great appreciation I have for our wild heritage started with a grandfather who died not long after my first birthday. I came through his photography.
I was just five when my cousin (the inventor of GPS) put his newest Nikon Ftn with a 200f4 into my hands and had me look at the Union 76 glowing ball way out across the valley. I can still see that glowing ball in my mind’s eye and for whatever reason, that lighted the photographic passion in me. I’ve thought about that moment that is so etched in my memory trying to figure out why a glowing orange circle in the night sky so caught my imagination and to this day, I don’t have an answer.
The first camera as a kid was a simple Kodak Hawkeye I bought using blue chip stamps. That was a big day, going to the store and redeeming those stamps for a camera (which I still have). The fascination for that camera didn’t last long; it turned to my dad’s Argus C1, which he shot with. It had been with him in war and for family, so it had a romance about it. Around 10 or 11, my father and I donned our backpacks and started backpacking through the coastal mountains and the Sierra. At age 11 we climbed Mt Whitney coming in from the western route. The camera was with us all the time and photographing the wonders of the sierra back then is what often got me up the trail.
High school came and so did my first SLR, a Minolta SRT202 and a 200mm lens. At the same time came high school photography with a cranky character for a teacher. Being a kid, I often thought his lessons silly, the constant criticism depressing. Now, being older and a bit wiser, I realize that much of the foundation of my photography today was laid by that very wise and passionate photographer who was my high school photo teacher. Under his tutelage back than I won every contest and event I entered, lots of medals and trophies lined my shelves. Along with the accolades, I was hooked for life!
It was than I was recruited by Brooks to come to school, which seemed like a natural step. This was a decision not supported by my family, not many prospects for an “artist” to make a living. I was 18 though, such considerations weren’t part of the thought process so off I went. I went wanting to be a “wildlife” photographer but such a goal wasn’t part of the Brooks curriculum, so I went the way of the illustration department. And while I enjoyed learning about advertising photography, especially how to use elements in photography like color to manipulate vision, it wasn’t the direction I wanted for my photography. During this same time I bought a copy of a book on Antarctica by Eliott Porter. The obvious beautiful photography isn’t what struck me about the book. Rather, it was the message of the photography, to grab heartstrings about our environment, that got my mind to spinning. Before graduating, I left Brooks and went to work building a camera store and my wildlife photography.
It’s at the camera store I met a great Nikon rep who then introduced me to a regional manager at Nikon. It was this association that took me to the next level of my photography. At this time, I was a volunteer for the US Forest Service doing nest / territory surveying for the Least Bell’s Vireo, at that point in time a species of special concern and proposed for listing as an endangered species. My deal with the Forest Service was they supplied the vehicle, gas and access and in return, I surveyed in the morning and had the afternoon for my photography. So after working 8-9hrs days, I was off all spring in the afternoons and weekend to look for LBV. I have this 6th sense, I can find nests anywhere so this was a pretty cool “job.”
It was my third season when my first article, ever, was published and it was on the LBV and it was published the same month it was listed as endangered. It would seem the life had a purpose for me and this was the first just road sign that caught me attention and gave me the direction that photography still takes me today.
JPC What have been the most inspiring moments in that arc?
MP The same month the Least Bell’s Vireo was listed and endangered, my article about them was published. There’s a loop hole in the ESA that kind of gives folks a grace period to “destroy” habitat after listing in the guise of ignorance. There were two older gentlemen who went for a walk every morning. On their walk, they past this little patch of riparian habitat where they heard in the spring this very unique song and say this very non-descript, gray, drab bird who made the call. The walk this morning would change lives. When the one gentleman went to the home of his friend for the walk he had new knowledge. He had read my article on the LBV and told his friend the little bird they had enjoyed for years was the LBV and was endangered. They were excited to go by “their” forest to see their newly named friend. When they arrived to their forest a bulldozer was knocking it down. As fast as they could walk, they turned around and went back home, called the US Fish & Wildlife Service, who put a stop to the destruction. A few days later the USFWS called me and told me the story. The gal on the phone said my photography saved the species from extinction. That’s my inspiration everyday!
JPC We do this because when we do it we feel more alive. What thrills you about your subject? What thrills you about your medium? What thrills you about your process?
MP There is nothing, nothing like making eye-to-eye contact with a critter! Even better is when, after that contact, I’m accepted as just part of its environment and life goes on. It’s then that answers to question, all biological in nature come to life. Those discoveries make me feel very alive. In that process I have a camera, which captured those moments (though I’ve missed more than I’ve captured because I am so blown away by what I’m seeing, I forget to push the button). When I do make the image and it successfully communicates the wonders, which I see, and they come alive in the viewer of my photography then I know this is what I meant to do with my life.
JPC How has your life been changed by photography?
MP I can’t draw, can’t sing, can’t write and at times can’t tell a good story. Photography is the only outlet I’ve found that truly communicates the wonders I am so fortunate to witness. Photography has given me the opportunity to not only communicate these wonders but also affect others by the same wonders. At the same time, photography has permitted me to have a family and live a lifestyle that is environmentally driven. Living high in the Sierra mountains in a town of only 5000 and financially survive and thrive is a gift of photography that we are thankful for everyday!
JPC Do you feel your photography has been an effective agent for positive change in other people’s lives? Do you feel your photography has been an effective agent for positive change in your subject’s lives?
MP We are very fortunate that we have been able to reach many in our thirty years and touch them with our photography. Even more fortunate that my unique teaching style has touched some so much they have picked up the camera and followed the same pursuits as we have in wildlife photography and been successful. There is no way in our lifetime we can see or photograph all that needs to be photographed in our world, which is why we started teaching. Those who have picked up the challenge we inspired in them and continued where we couldn’t have helped species in peril. Nothing puts the shine on a day like when an email or book arrives from one of our past students showing how their photography is making a difference. We have a lot of shiny days!
JPC There’s a strong tradition of advocacy within the art of photography. Who are the artists, which are the projects, and what are the uses of photography that have inspired you most?
MP Eliot Porter’s Antarctica book and Tupper Ansel Blake’s books on California both greatly influenced my own direction with my photography.
JPC Who are the photographers working today that you find particularly inspiring and/or effective?
MP This is a hard question because I take aspects of a number of photographers and apply them as I push my own photography. Vincent Versace opened the door to finishing a photograph in Photoshop. Joe McNally and his dramatic use of flash, Dave Black and his use of strong color, John Paul Caponigro for stretching the imagination using technical expertise in romancing the eye and to some extent my own son who in his just growing as a photographer looks at subjects with unpolluted eyes. And finally my students who in their own mistakes inspire me to search for new solutions for my own photography.
JPC What would you suggest to other photographers to increase the effectiveness of their advocacy efforts?
MP This is a very common question with no easy answer. I recommend starting in your own backyard and than with success, either stick with their own backyard or than branch out. Making a difference in the world with your photography is the greatest addiction known to man, so I always warn those that once you taste success you crave it more and more. It’s in satisfying that addiction that frustration, growth and success come.
JPC How would you assess the effectiveness of the environmental movement to date and particularly of organizations dedicated to advancing these concerns?
MP Personally I have a lot of personal conflict with many of the “movements” and our political leaders. It’s not a cut and dry, black or white, save or not save question. For all of us to survive, man and mother nature, a compromises must be reached, one that comes from education and enlightenment. The last two presidential elections, neither side has had the environment on their radar scope. The current “global warming” scare is not environmental awareness but just button pushing. Until the public embraces our wild heritage, which is my mission, I don’t think we can be effective. We landed on this continent only a couple of centuries ago with the goal of conquering the wilderness. That attitude is still prevalent. Not until this attitude is changed can we be successful. And too few are taking on this challenge.
JPC Which organizations do you particularly respect and why?
MP All too few, I’m sad to say. TNC is probably the one that has made a huge difference. Ducks unlimited is another.
JPC Are there ways you feel media can improve its efforts to inform and play a more conscientious role in public dialog?
MP I’m not into blank environmentalism and we know that negative is the one way not to effect action in a population. Let’s take global warming, climate change as an example. My wife & I for the last 30yrs have battled to save very small pieces of California, habitat that endangered species is all they have left to call home. Species evolve (which is a very fascinating study in itself) to depend on very particular habitats. Often, these habitats are very specialized. How does global warming effect the Carson Wandering Skipper, a small butterfly north of Reno NV? This butterfly depends on a highly specialized geographic, topography, climatic locale. The change in the climate and it’s gone. All these species now confined by our activities to very specific locales with nowhere will disappear with global warming because where they call home now will be gone. Global warming doesn’t effect just snow living creatures, it effects all, and those in the deserts will feel the effect more dramatically since their habitat is already on the brink of blinking out. Who in the public understand this? Just look at the sales of The Whale and the Super Computer if you want to see how few are learning about this problem.
JPC What recommendations do you have for the average citizen to start taking a more active role with respect to these issues?
MP Open your mind, open your heart, and learn for yourself the issues in your own backyard. If everyone gets involved in their own backyard, we can change the world!
JPC When it comes to engaging in advocacy, is the role of the journalist and the artist different? Are the images they make also different? (How and why?) Which role do you play (If both, how do you decide to shift in and out of those two modes? How do you communicate that shift to your viewers?)
MP I would hope that each one of us tackles this problem in our own unique way. Each of us learns about and responds to the same problem differently. It takes lots of individuals (and I most definitely fit this description) seeing the same problem and expressing it and its solutions in different voices to reach everyone. The more voices involved, the more that are reached. When it comes to my own voice, it’s purely romantic. What makes me laugh so often is, no one ever sees me as romantic until they see one of my deededoos (what our oldest son called my photographic music shows when he was two).
JPC Tell me about the very large project you’ve been engaged in for years now.
MP Our travels and experiences translates into having one of the largest collection of images of threatened and endangered critters on the planet. While we’re very proud of our own efforts that have made this possible, we’re sadden to think that six species can only be seen in our files. That’s because they are now extinct.
Our longest one is with the San Joaquin Kit Fox, now in progress for 20yrs. It’s a very personal project in which we seen great losses and some progress. Right now, it’s in a progress mode which is truly heart warming for me. But that last 30yrs of working with California’s threatened and endangered critters to me is “a project.” We were there when the last wild condor was pulled in and the first released from captivity. We’ve been the last to see a dozen species before they went totally extinct. We’ve shared in the rediscovery of an extinct species and a week afterwards, our photograph of it was published a 110 times worldwide. Life has been very good to us, photography has made it so but it’s our subjects, the critters who permit me into their world that make it all happen.
Sharon & I were products of families that SAW California up close,
personal and all the time. As we grew older, we saw many of the places
we called vacation turn into homes and industry and many of the critters
there, just disappearing. It was while we started our first “project”
with the Least Bell’s Vireo that it just clicked for the both of us,
that we could use our photography to make a difference. It was working
with the San Joaquin Kit Fox that it all gelled, our purpose for being a
photographer and a reason for all of our struggles. Here we are nearly
thirty years later and we’re still doing the same thing. This year, the
big project will be Greater Sage Grouse and Alaskan Marmot. One is being
lost to the oil industry and the other the 1st/2nd to be documented as
going because of warming of their environment.
What most don’t understand about our projects, we don’t get paid to do
them, we pay to do them. Literally. The assignment is one we assign
ourselves, fund and carry out ourselves. It’s why we teach DLWS, PSW,
have a photopack line, to fund all these projects that we feel so deeply
about. We put our money where are hearts are.
JPC You’re a highly respected educator. How has authoring books and audio/video content and conducting seminars and workshops affected your work?
How have your students influenced your approach to photography or your personal vision?
MP Very early on it was obvious we couldn’t go this task alone, of saving our natural world through our photography. We needed to enlist the help of other photographers. While some won’t see it this way, I fight for photographers nearly as much as I fight for the critters. My sharing of what I’ve learned is a desire for other photographers to get out and make a difference sooner, faster and better than I by taking what I’ve learned and moving forward and not having to waste time reinventing the wheel. Finding solutions to problems comes from what my students want to learn as my own desire to improve my photography. In some aspects, they are as much a driving force to my learning as my own needs.
JPC When I think of Moose Peterson I think of sublimely grand vistas dramatically populated with wildlife. Within the field of wildlife photography, how would you describe what singular about your vision?
MP I’m a romantic and in my mind, I see those same vistas populated with critters as it once was before we came around. So I’m not an eyeball photographer, I want my critters to be the subject in the photograph and at the same time, the world in which they live needs to be the subject. I use every trick in the book to make the eye see the subject no matter how physically small they might be in the frame but at the same time, lead the eye around the frame so the whole story about the world the subject lives is told. It’s quite a dance and a challenge that I’ve always enjoyed.
JPC Even when cinematic music doesn’t accompany your images I hear it when I look at them? How has the field of moving pictures influenced your work in still pictures?
MP Oh man, did I watch movies growing up. It’s probably where visual romance first took seed in me. I still treasure watching the classic black and white movies for their lighting and how they use it to grab the eye and tell the story. Today I watch more for how they perceive how the public wants to be visually communicated with and than I use those thoughts in my own photography.
JPC In many circles of journalism, there is a growing concern that the still image is waning as the moving picture becomes more ubiquitous. Do you share this concern? What do you think is gained and what is lost in the transition from stasis to motion?
MP It concerns me because it’s just a greater extension of how the majority don’t want to read. There is nothing finer than sitting down in front of a fire or under a pine tree reading a book. In this busy world, taking time to read is becoming a lost art so comes moving pictures. Heck, look how folks want to learn now, by watching a DVD, not reading and doing. So in that regards, it worries me especially since to be successful in some business aspects, we will have to produce some videos. But as a visual communicator of my environment, I will always stay a still photographer. A picture is still worth a thousand words, or ten minutes of video!
JPC What’s over your next horizon?
MP Improving my own photography, coming up with more time to be behind the camera and grabbing the hearts of those still in the dark as to our wild heritage.