Tom Blagden, a nature and conservation photographer based Connecticut, will receive NANPA’s Environmental Impact Award during the 2021 Nature Photography Virtual Summit, April 29-30. He will also be a keynote speaker at the Summit. The award is in recognition of his 2019 book, The Grand Canyon: Unseen Beauty — Running the Colorado River. Blagden’s work has previously focused on Maine, Costa Rica, and South Carolina. His photographs have appeared in Smithsonian, Audubon, Outdoor Photographer, Nature Conservancy, and Sierra magazines. He is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, has been a NANPA member since its founding, and became a NANPA Fellow in 2009.
In his Grand Canyon book, Blagden examines the greatest threats to this landmark, from developments in and near the Canyon to climate change and invasive species. His objective was to visually celebrate the beauty, mystery, and wonder of the Grand Canyon while exposing its vulnerability to outside dangers.
Grand Canyon book goals
“My hope with this project,” he says, “was to convey the Grand Canyon from within, on the river itself. Most folks know it from the rim above, without being enveloped in its depths by the earth itself. Boating the Colorado River through the Canyon is a visceral experience that connects people to place in a powerfully emotional way. My goal was to capture some of that feeling in images and further inspire the protection and stewardship of the Canyon. The biggest surprise was the opportunity to partner with Rizzoli Publishers, the Grand Canyon Conservancy, and Grand Canyon Expeditions to produce the book.”
Over the years he’s been a photographer much has changed, bringing new challenges and opportunities. “Unquestionably the most challenging obstacle was the transition to digital. I was established in my career and totally in the groove with film. My reputation was based on getting quality shots within the constraints of working with film. Plus, I didn’t and still don’t like spending time on the computer. I’m not technically oriented and the learning curve and early qualitative challenges of digital were brutal. I came very close to giving up photography.”
Still, he not only persevered through that digital transition and all the business trials and tribulations that hit the industry as the economic models of nature photography shifted dramatically but he also remains an optimist. “The very reasons that have made nature photography so difficult as a business have also created huge opportunities for many more people to become directly engaged in nature and conservation photography. Digital photography has empowered everyone, potentially, to be a competent photographer and connect in a more insightful way with nature. This allows people to assign a higher value to nature and conservation, not only through their work, but also their personal experiences.
Looking forward, Blagden sees continuing disruption but also new possibilities. “I would imagine that we will see the distribution and publishing of images become more and more electronic and multi-media. I don’t shoot video, but video will become part of most digital media, including electronic book publishing. A photographer’s identity will continue to be created more by social media than by publishing. In that sense, I’m definitely a dinosaur and admittedly self-defeating, having zero social media outreach.
“I have, for the most part, retired from the big, long-term book projects (not that I couldn’t be tempted) and am volunteering shorter-term, in-depth photo coverage of local, non-profit conservation areas. Part of this effort derived from the constraints of dealing with COVID-19. I have to admit to loving the freedom to photograph when & where I want, all within the immediate area of my home or short, elective trips.”
Enjoying that freedom is not new to Blagden. It’s one of the ways he’s recharged his creative batteries. “My wife, Lynn, and I bought remote land in Costa Rica in 1980 and built a primitive bungalow on the Pacific shore where we went seasonally for 20 years. We loved living so close to nature and periodically dropping out from the rest of life. Photography was not the priority, and I pursued only what was visually exciting to me. As a result, it was an invaluable experience that helped hone my photographic skills and creative sense of self, resulting in much published magazine work.”
In reflecting on his career, he says “I’ve been a member of NANPA since its inception. Back then we all photographed in a bubble of isolation, except for interactions with publishers. Nature photography was ,and still is, a predominantly solo pursuit. NANPA opened the door by pulling us together to develop friendships and inspire each other. After decades of NANPA Summits and events, I know dozens of photographers with whom I can compare notes, successes, failures, get technical help, and more. NANPA’s gatherings and collective body provide a treasure trove of photography knowledge and experience. With it came myriad important contacts in the business. By meeting others and seeing their work through NANPA I gained a much better perspective on my own abilities and aspirations.”
About the award
NANPA’s Environmental Impact Award “honors a photographic project undertaken by an individual or a team that addresses an important and urgent regional or global environmental problem,” showing the dangers faced by species or ecosystems as well as suggesting solutions. Especially important is a project’s ability to raise public awareness and stimulate conversations about and further study of the issue.