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Robert Glenn Ketchum

Robert Glenn Ketchum

American, born 1947

Robert Glenn Ketchum enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1966 to study pre-law but during his sophomore year he switched his major to design, a course of study that led to his interest in photography. It was a heady time at UCLA, with Robert Heinecken directing the program and bringing in a changing roster of teachers interested in challenging the boundaries of photography. Though Ketchum’s images are fairly traditional and representational in comparison with his teachers, his work with them and a senior report he wrote on the photographer Paul Caponigro impressed upon him a very open definition of the medium. Ketchum earned a bachelor of arts in design from UCLA and then attended Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara for a year. In 1972, he entered the graduate program at the vanguard California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, graduating with a master’s in fine art in 1974.

As an avid surfer and skier, Ketchum was naturally attracted to the outdoors as subject matter. But in keeping with his education in conceptual art, his landscape work is less about the appearance of the external world and more about how we perceive it. Ketchum was well aware of his predecessors Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, openly acknowledging them as instrumental in forming his own sense of purpose and style. Porter’s first book, In Wildness strongly influenced Ketchum to pursue color photography as well as environmental activism and after he met Porter in the 1980s, he promised himself that he would dedicate his life and photography to environmental work. By the1980s, Ketchum was one of the country’s leading environmental artists.

Photographing in color was still a radical choice when Ketchum started his career, but he stayed with it. Using a dye-bleach process known as Cibachrome, Ketchum paired up with the master printer Michael Wilder and pushed color saturation toward artifice in his work, exploring the emotional qualities of color as Porter had. Despite these esthetic inroads, Ketchum wanted his work to be more specifically focused on environmental issues. A turning point came in 1982 when Barnabas McHenry of the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund commissioned Ketchum – as well as the photographers William Clift and Stephen Shore – to photograph along the Hudson River, with the intention of using the resulting pictures to advocate for better care of the waterway and its environs. In this project, Ketchum felt compelled to show all of what he saw, the natural beauty as well as the man-made blight. His work from this series was published in 1985 by Aperture as The Hudson River and the Highlands: The Photographs of Robert Glenn Ketchum.

His next series took him to Alaska, where he photographed extensively in the Tongass rainforest in the southeast, in response to a pending timber reform act proposed by Congressman Morris Udall to protect the region. After an initial visit, Ketchum and his work returned to Alaska for an extended stay to interview people living in the region and to get some aerial views, expanding the portrait of the region. A book of this work was published by Aperture in 1987, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, and Ketchum mailed copies to members of Congress to alert them to the uniqueness of this ecosystem. Within three years, Congress passed the Tongass Reform Bill. In 1989, Ketchum was honored with the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award.

The artist has continued his career, notably spending more time in Alaska and working collaboratively with textile artists in China to realize some of his images as complex embroideries. He continues his active environmental activism and uses electronic media to spread his message.