Carll Goodpasture’s Photographic Environmentalism

One might ask the question, how does a scientist find his way to photography? For Carll Goodpasture, the connection between entomology and photography isn’t that far-fetched. Though his photographic path began with explorations of identity, memory, people and place, his career has come to focus on environmentalism. Currently living and working in Norway, Carll shares with us his reflections on the meaning in his photographs and his art’s dedication to advocating for nature consciousness.

One might ask the question, how does a scientist find his way to photography?  For Carll Goodpasture, the connection between entomology and photography isn’t that far-fetched. Though his photographic path began with explorations of identity, memory, people and place, his career has come to focus on environmentalism. Currently living and working in Norway, Carll shares with us his reflections on the meaning in his photographs and his art’s dedication to advocating for nature consciousness.

Carll Goodpasture
End of Verdens Ende

You say: “I think my work really has to do with the unconscious and with perception.” Can you specify how your photography progressed over the years into themes?

That’s a question going beyond just my photography. Let’s separate the ideas of awareness, progression, and the subject matter a photographer chooses to work with. First to the question of perception or “seeing” in photography….

I’ve always been fascinated by photographs – trying to figure out what a photograph is and what it means. An artist, it is said, can never stop paying attention. This is especially true in photography – “looking and seeing” in response to the world of our immediate surroundings (we’ll call this perception). When we look at a photograph, the question most interesting is why was that picture taken and what does it signify, symbolize, or represent, rather than what’s in the picture and is it a good composition. In other words, I’ve been exploring the idea of “conscious camerawork” in order to enrich my experience and enjoyment in life. That is to say, I just love to do it.  Now, after a lifetime of practice, a perceptual critic asks, how has my work progressed into themes. Perhaps the answer lies at two levels; the material and the spiritual aspects of the work. While the life-long subject/object of my photography is nature, landscape, and people, the meaning and significance of my work has progressed dramatically. In this respect, photography is a holistic activity that can be life changing.

Now let’s ask what it means to progress in photography…

“Making photography an essential part of my life then has helped my progression.”

Ansel Adams once said that after he learned to master the craft he then began repeating himself. This is a question near the heart of what is art today; is it enough if it’s new? My view is that we grow and change because we are alive. But to make life change a part of the doing of art, we’ll have to go deeper than the practice of craft. Making photography an essential part of my life then has helped my progression. To be simplistic, my photography has progressed from using the camera as a scientific tool to record things such as the identify of an insect to using the camera as an imagining tool to express, let’s say, my feelings about how the climate is changing. To me, that’s progress; from documenting an objective reality to creating another reality via perception. Looking at what photographs might represent beyond their literal content, there’s a whole lot of intuitive stuff going on in this picture. I consider my photography to be intimately involved in my progression (or evolution) as a human being and thus a kind (or at least an opportunity for) psychological passage (for example in photographing my divorce just imagine what I learned about life).

Carll Goodpasture
Ula’s Orange Light

To recognize that a progression from theme to theme can be an aspect of photographic artistry may require some awareness that photography can be an approach to the art of living which, to my mind, means developing consciousness and cultivating self-development. To represent this idea I have tried to present a series of portfolios on my website to suggest a life story of changing perspectives within themes of nature and landscape photography. As you can see, I started out taking pictures of insects and have progressed to photographing in response to my experience of things that do not exist in front of the camera such as a Solstice event or a change in the climate.

Carll Goodpasture
Revisiting Norwegian Shore

How has living in Norway influenced the subjects you chose to photograph?

“…To find the essence of what seems like familiar place, I am forced to use my imagination to an extreme.”

First of all you have to realize that Norway is a different place. You can drive all the way from LA to New York and see the same kind of gas station and fast food joint as you find here but you can’t go one hundred miles without running into a breathtaking and beautiful Fjord here in Norway. Another fact of life is the extreme seasonal change in the light. Still another is the ocean always close at hand. And most of the countryside is sparsely settled. Since its seventh wonder and nature paradise, there’s a lot for me to see. But there is a more important reason that my photography is mostly seeking wilderness: because I miss home and find it lonely. Lonely because the culture is unfamiliar and I feel nostalgic because the wildness of the landscape reminds me of my childhood. Both ideas are crazy I suppose yet emotionally compelling. Of course I could learn the language and the coast is not a bit like California, but moving to a new country is an extreme in culture shock, at least in older age. So to find the essence of what seems like familiar place, I am forced to use my imagination to an extreme. To address the question in another way, I’d say that fear, longing, and unfamiliarity are forcing me to connect between the rational and irrational sides of self and in this there’s new photography. For example, I never thought I’d take up pinhole photography until I realized that “crappy camera aesthetic” might metaphor my new place and circumstance.

Carll Goodpasture
A Country Boy’s

In 1980-81, you travelled around the U.S. asking people to take their own portraits. What was your inspiration for ‘Diana Self-Portraits’?

I was intrigued by the idea of conceptual art and inspired by the learning and teaching environment of a unique organization – the Creative Art Studio in Fargo, North Dakota. I was then on sabbatical leave from science employment, working as an Artist in the Schools, and immersed up to my ears in photography. I was reading Susan Sontag’s latest book ‘On Photography’ and dismayed by her opinion that photographing people was a violation because it portrayed them as they do not see themselves. Here was extraordinary karma: the coincidence of encountering new ideas in a new environment with resources and motivation to go full speed ahead into unknown territory. Reading Sontag I thought, if photography is evil and exploitive, then I don’t want to do it. So I decided to investigate how people feel about what a camera does. Self-portrait methodology seemed like a natural progression – to use photography as autobiography and self-encounter. The idea was to combine psychological and visual perception of the appearance of a person in the encounter of a stranger.

Carll Goodpasture
Raining Cats and Dogs

How did ‘Diana Self-Portraits’ affect your photographic mentality?

Indeed, as it turned out, having the courage to take my work in a new direction was a transformative experience. It is a long way from traditional to conceptual photography. I had worked for a decade to develop impeccable technical skills and had assumed the viewpoint of the traditional documentary approach to the medium as “straight photography”. This was also a heady time in the history of photography with Santag’s book appearing in 1977, Roland Barthe’s ‘Camera Lucida’ in 1980, and conceptual art at its nadir. Paying attention to art and culture, to attempt a conceptual photo project was appealing. At first I did not use film in the camera – the “art” was solely the idea of encounter, which according to Sontag theory would be enhanced by the camera. Yet the first time I put film in the camera and saw the first picture, I was dumfounded by the beauty of the image: the picture was better than the idea! So much for conceptual art. And yet, perhaps as a sign of times present, my photography is becoming more and more “conceptual” in other ways.

Carll Goodpasture
Summer Solstice

Projects like ‘Imagining Place’ and ‘A Long Time to See’ attempt to capture ideas and memories connected to the land. How do you approach photographing your personal memories of place versus the memories of a people?

“To portray a people’s memory, use their words; to convey a personal memory, use your words.”

Wow! That’s a complicated question. Perhaps we’re back to the idea of object verses subject in photography. This is also at the core of the contemporary in photography today. How can we photograph ideas and memories?  If a picture includes a person in a landscape, you might say that a connection to the land has been captured or that the objects included in the picture represent an idea such as connection to the land. Capturing the idea of a memory connected to the land seems more complex. Perhaps the person in the landscape could be looking at a photograph thus to represent this idea. Barthes seems to say that a photograph IS a memory, but to get that picture you have to read and understand the concept of ‘Camera Lucida.’ In other words it seems that the object depicted may not capture the subject as a photographer might intend. Capturing the idea of a personal memory verses the memories of a people connected to the land would be even more complex; impossibly so, it seems to me, at least with straight photography.

Carll Goodpasture
Spring Equinox

My approach to capturing ideas connected to a place has been to go the traditional route: combining words with pictures.  Conceptual photography tends to use objects alone to convey its ideas so it asks much more from the viewer of a work. It is also more ambiguous.  While I am very attached to the use of visual ambiguity in my camera work, I try to convey clear meaning and impart significance to the outcome of my projects. While I make heavy use of sign, symbol, and metaphor in my images, the subject of my work is usually not photography but an idea either about the natural world itself (first order of complexity) or about my feelings for and memories of a place (second order of complexity). The best way to explain the subject in a photo-work is, I think, to use poetry. Poetry, even more than music, seems the closest medium to photography. I also use the stories that people tell about their experience of a place. So the answer to the question is: I use poetic story (which includes the titles of the photographs) along with pictures to capture the idea of memory connected to the land. To portray a people’s memory, use their words; to convey a personal memory, use your words.

Carll Goodpasture
Une Femme, 2004

How has your connection to the environment via photography evolved over the years?

In sum I have become much more involved at all levels of my work. Like others of my generation, I began with passive interest and limited awareness about environmental issues but all that’s changing. One mode of explanation is to say that awareness of the human predicament is growing rapidly, consciousness is rising, and a sense of urgency is entering all aspects of society.

I started out as a scientist using technical photography as an intimate part of my profession. Thus both photography and biology have been lifelong interests while doing art and advocating for the environment are add-ons, so to speak. Although the relationship between art and science is a story bound up in all of this, I have learned that as we grow and if we remain passionate the character of our work in whatever genre will evolve because we are growing and so is knowledge. Biology is at the root of environmental science and art is, or should be, essential to communication and to interrelationship as human beings. I now work full time as an artist making my work available to the professionals communicating environmental concern. My goal as artist is to create a kind of penetrating insight and understanding of nature which I believe only a biologist working as an artist can interpret.

Carll Goodpasture
Vanishing Pollinator

You’ve also documented ecological issues such as the project ‘Vanishing Pollinators,’ with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. How did the project come about?

Simplistically, it started with a phone call. For several years I’d been photographing flowers and insects to build an extensive document of pollination using color slide film. By 1998 I’d accumulated a portfolio of very large, extremely beautiful IRIS digital prints on watercolor paper via the new ink jet technology developed at Nash Editions in California. With this work in hand I telephoned the Director to suggest an exhibition. To my astonishment he said, “Well, I’m in my office next week so let me see the work”.  So I flew to Washington DC and when I laid the prints out on the table, everybody gasped. Way back then gorgeous color image work on fine art paper was unheard of. This was a new way to visualize a subject of vital interest to The Smithsonian so if I could raise the money, they would organize a centennial exhibition around the theme of Vanishing Pollinators. To make the story short, it took a year of very hard work but I wrote grants and got the funding. The show then traveled through the States for several years.

What tricks did you develop in order to photograph such a minute world, like that of bees?

Macro photography is basically a matter of specialized equipment and very thorough knowledge of the natural history of a particular life form. My interest, or specialty, is photographing small active creatures in their natural environment with the dual goal of creating an informative picture that is aesthetically pleasing. In other words, nature photography is its own little world. So yes, as you say, it’s tricky business (for specific information, there’s a “how to do it” explanation on my web page).

Macro photography of small and active creatures was a very hard slog before TTL flash and macro lenses. I began to photo insects in 1968 just after I came home from Viet Nam. I was fortunate enough to land a job at The Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History where Charlie Hogue, technical consultant for ‘The Hellstrom Chronicle,’ was the Curator of Entomology. Charlie and I worked together to invent and build equipment to capture and film small active insects. This was really pioneering stuff both technically and aesthetically. By about the 1980’s dedicated macro equipment was available so that in the early 90’s when I turned my photography to documenting insect and flower interactions, I had close focus macro lenses and auto exposure flash units to stop the action.  You ask about “tricks”; beyond the camera’s set-up, the bugs must cooperate. I plant a garden for the insects so that they will come to me. Raise caterpillars on their food plants so when they emerge from the pupal stage, perfect docile adult insects are available for in studio set-ups. And my favorite: leave the windows open in the summer to let insects into the house. The window frames will then become a natural habitarium for spiders and their prey, allowing one to shoot the bugs from the comfort of inside the home.

Carll Goodpasture
Painted Lilys

You recently participated in the environmental movement ‘350’- can you explain the movement and your involvement?

Here’s a nice example of connection to the environment via my photography… One of my ongoing photo projects is picturing my compost heap every few days. I was initially inspired by the idea of compost is a metaphor of climate change. My idea to accumulate as many image-day photographs as parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the infamous climate gas “tipping point”, seemed like an excellent concept for an environmentally engaged contemporary art project. And so it turned out to dovetail fortuitously with the brilliant advocacy work at 350.org, which is a leading grass roots campaign to raise climate change awareness. The idea at 350.org is that this is the most important number on the planet and everyone should know about it. The goal is “soft advocacy” in a political context just like my work to use photography in an art context to raise what I call “nature consciousness”. My involvement in the movement recently flared to a climax, staging an exhibit of 350 compost photographs and inviting the public to create a photo-op for the 350.org folks to use to promote their agenda. The gig was successful in that the gallery shot symbolizes “get the climate change picture”. The photo, appended here, was shown in Times Square on along with thousands of others participating in a recent United Nations Climate Day event.

Does it sound crazy? Well, it may be but the pictures of my compost are unexpectedly delicious.

Carll Goodpasture
350 Picture of Compost

Interview by LG

Link to Carll Goodpasture’s photographer website