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Boyd Norton: Nuclear Scientist to Nature Photographer

By February 14, 2022No Comments
Photo of Boyd Norton, photographer, with camera in hand facing the viewer. In the background is a jungle or forest scene that includes a gorilla family.
Boyd Norton and friends.

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

It’s not often that you get to hear from a nature photographer who also destroyed a nuclear reactor, but that’s Boyd Norton, a keynote speaker at NANPA’s 2022 Nature Photography Virtual Summit 2022 Nature Photography Virtual Summit and the recipient of NANPA’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement in Nature Photography Award.

Norton’s a conservation and wilderness photographer and environmental activist whose work has taken him around the world. He’s the author and/or photographer of 17 books and received the Sierra Club’s 2015 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography. A founder and Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Norton took a long, winding, and interesting road to get here, giving him a unique viewpoint and a lot to say.

He did what???

Norton trained as a nuclear scientist and earned a degree in physics from Michigan Tech. He got a job as a research physicist for the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission in Idaho Falls, Idaho, at the National Reactor Testing Station. While there in 1962, he was studying reactor safety, over a period of months devising increasingly stressful tests on four reactors they operated remotely. It was “pretty damn exciting work” as he described it in a 2011 video. One day, he sat at the controls while they pulled out all the stops and blew the core apart in one of the reactors. (Not to worry, it was the culmination of more than 50 increasingly stressful tests, using a fresh core in a contained explosion with no fission products built up. Nothing remotely like what happened at Fukushima or Chernobyl.) It’s an experience that probably no other nature photographer has in their CV and is certainly not your typical career path to nature photography.

Elephant siblings greeting, part of a family group, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. as of 2013 Tanzania is losing 70 elephants a day to poaching. © Boyd Norton
Elephant siblings greeting, part of a family group, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. As of 2013 Tanzania was losing 70 elephants a day to poaching. © Boyd Norton

Scientist to photographer

So, how did he get from nuclear science to conservation and wilderness photography? One reason he took the job in Idaho was its proximity to Grand Teton, which he loved. While in Idaho, he started photographing places that moved and excited him. He came across a series of Sierra Club “Exhibit Format” coffee-table books started by Dave Brower and got excited about photography and the power a single photo could have to impact people. Norton’s own photographs proved critical in efforts to create Hell’s Canyon National Recreational Area, Jedediah Smith Wilderness (near Grand Teton) and Sawtooth National Wilderness.

In 1969 the Wilderness Society offered him a job in Denver and he left nuclear physics behind. By his own admission, he was “a little bit too radical” for them and left after 18 months to start freelancing. He got a contract to do a book for the Sierra Club, then another for a book on the Tetons. Norton had done a lot of hiking, backpacking, and climbing in the Tetons, so that was right up his alley.

In the 1960s, he reminds us, most photographic books, magazine and advertising work was done with medium or large format cameras. He used Hasselblads, “superb cameras with great optics. You could get great resolution on prints and on the printed page.” But they were also big, heavy, and bulky, as were tripods, and camping and hiking gear. And you had to carry dozens, sometimes hundreds, of rolls of film out in the field.

Documenting America

When the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1971, Bill Ruckelshaus, the first director, started a photography project called Documerica. The idea was to record changes to the environment across the country—pollution, urban decay, unregulated development. It was inspired by and modeled after the 1930s era Farm Security Administration program that photographed America and Americans during the Great Depression. “The idea was to create an archive so people could look back decades later and see what had changed and what hadn’t.” Norton was given a number of assignments over five or so years and contributed about 1,000 photos. “More than my share of belching smokestacks and dumping stuff into rivers,” he says. “It wasn’t called conservation photography back then, but that’s what it was.” His photos and the entire 80,000 Documerica library are now in the National Archives.

It was during the Documerica project that Norton switched to a 35mm camera. Over time he shot Nikon, Leica, and Canon cameras. They were “easier to lug around, and easier to store and access the photos, slides, and negatives.”

Alaska

In 1976, Readers Digest Press wanted to publish a book on Alaska, to tie into discussions on the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, then before Congress. The act, passed and signed into law in 1980, was the largest increase in protected lands, setting aside more than 150 million acres. The act more than doubled the size of the National Park System and added wilderness areas and wildlife reserves across the state.

Norton was asked to work on the book and, among other adventures, did a 13-day backpacking trip across the Brooks Range, carrying more than 80 pounds of gear, including three 35mm bodies, assorted lenses, a tripod, hundreds of rolls of film, and camping gear. The book, Alaska Wilderness Frontier, came out in 1977 and was sent to every senator and congressman. Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus wrote the introduction. Norton testified at one of the regional congressional hearings held in Denver. “I even put on a suit and tie,” he said.

Photo of two wildebeest charging each other, heads down, horns pointed at each other. They're fighting on a grassy plain. Behind them, the sky is blue with some pink clouds.Wildebbest fighting, rutting, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. © Boyd Norton
Wildebbest fighting, rutting, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. © Boyd Norton

Looking back and looking forward

In the early 1990s, he helped lobby Russia to make Lake Baikal in Siberia a World Heritage Site and, in 2010, lobbied against building a highway through Serengeti National Park, cofounding Serengeti Watch and publishing a book, Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning, based on his photos across decades of visits to Africa. Norton has also published a conservation photography handbook that’s “selling reasonably well.”

These days, he’s not doing much travel. Instead, he’s working on archiving he more than 350,000 transparencies. Working with his wife, Barbara, they’re selecting the ones most worth preserving, then scanning and archiving them. He’s finished a memoir of his adventures and is looking for a publisher.

Nature photography, he feels, “can continue contributing to public awareness of the problems we face. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, almost no one was looking at or talking about climate change. One role we can take is to keep hammering away on what’s happening in nature. Documenting the effects of climate change.” People like James Balog (who documented the decline of glaciers in his 2012 film, Chasing Ice) are doing a great service in getting people to sit up and realize something is happening. Through photos and videos, folks “see with their own eyes what’s going on and that this stuff is real.”

Boyd Norton brings a lifetime of travel, conservation, photography and unusual experiences to his keynote at the 2022 Nature Photography Virtual Summit. You won’t want to miss it!