Amy Gulick is a professional photographer and writer from Washington State. While her work has appeared in Outdoor Photographer, Audubon, Nature’s Best Photography, National Wildlife, Sierra, and National Parks, she is widely known for her tireless efforts as a conservation photographer.
Her work has received numerous honors including the prestigious Daniel Housberg Wilderness Image Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. She is also the recipient of a Philip Hyde Grant Award for her work in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska, and a Mission Award, both presented by the North American Nature Photography Association.
Her book Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest is a 2011 Nautilus Book Award winner and a 2010 Independent Publisher Book Award winner. We have been hoping to feature Amy for some time and finally caught up with her.
Please tell us how you got started as a professional nature photographer.
As a kid, I was fascinated with both nature and storytelling. Before I could read or write, I would draw pictures to illustrate my stories. This is how humans have always communicated – telling stories around the fire, illustrating them with pictographs and petroglyphs, and passing them down through countless generations. So I was just doing what comes naturally to people worldwide. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my dad put a Kodak pocket camera in my hands, and once I figured out what it could do, it became my tool of choice for illustrating my stories.
My fascination with photography continued into high school, where I shot assignments for the school newspaper. I went to college and earned an MBA degree, but was still very much involved with photography as the production manager of a university organization. After graduating, I went to work in the financial industry, but continued shooting as a hobby and traveling whenever I could. While I found the financial industry a bit dull, I gained some critical business skills that have served me well throughout my photography career. In my late 20s, I met my future husband, moved from Chicago to Seattle, and had an opportunity to pursue a new career. I worked in the commercial film industry for several years doing everything from production to set design to wardrobe – valuable skills that taught me how to conceptualize, plan, and shoot a story from start to finish. All the while, I was doing freelance writing and photography for various publications. I published my first story in 1993 about scuba diving in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. From then on, I was hooked. So I always say that photography was just a hobby that got out of control.
You live in Washington State, but your work takes you far and wide. Please tell us about some of your adventures.
Early on, I did stories about anything to do with the outdoors – recreation, wildlife, natural history, travel, etc. The more time I spent in nature, the more I felt the awesome power of wild places and the positive energy I derived from them. I also began to see the threats to incredible places, species, and cultures. I knew the power of words and images to influence people, and so I began to focus my work on helping people understand why nature matters to humanity.
Much of my work has focused on Alaska, particularly the Tongass National Forest and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, two extraordinary places threatened by the global demands for things like energy, minerals, and timber. The question in the Arctic Refuge, and really all of the Arctic, is do we sacrifice one of the planet’s last great wildernesses to extract finite fossil fuels so we can continue for a short time an unsustainable way of life? In the Tongass, which contains one-third of the world’s rare old-growth coastal temperate rain forests, the issue is do we continue to carve up this still intact ecosystem to the point where it no longer functions for the benefit of both people and wildlife? Since the dawn of time, man has always looked to nature to provide basic survival needs. But since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve looked to nature as a place to take from without really understanding the consequences of large-scale resource extraction, and without understanding how we benefit from intact ecosystems. So my stories and photos of these two places help people understand the larger issues and what’s at stake for all of us.
For my book Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest, my goal was to show people what an intact ecosystem looks like and why it’s important. To do this, I chose to focus on the remarkable connection between salmon and trees in the Tongass. This part of the world boasts one of the highest densities of both brown and black bears due in part to an abundance of wild salmon. Bears catch great quantities of salmon and spread the carcasses throughout the forest. Over time, the nutrients from the salmon decompose into the soil and the trees absorb this rich fish fertilizer through their roots. Scientists have actually traced a marine nitrogen in trees near salmon streams that links directly back to salmon. So I spent a lot of time with my camera watching salmon fight their way upstream to spawn, and all of the life they support – bears, eagles, ravens, sea lions, orcas, and of course, people. There aren’t roads in this part of the world that connect one place to another, so I traveled by any means possible – foot, canoe, kayak, ferry, skiff, and seaplane.
In the Arctic Refuge, there are no roads or developments and my adventures included rafting wild rivers, hiking through tundra carpeted in wildflowers, watching thousands of migrating caribou, gingerly tiptoeing around ground-nesting birds, spotting wolves, bears, muskox, and lynx, and experiencing 24 hours of daylight.
Other adventures include scuba diving in Alaska and British Columbia as well as many equatorial locations. I also enjoy backpacking – getting off the beaten trail and into wild places surviving only on what I’m carrying on my back. There’s something very liberating about muscle-powered travel. You’re forced to deal with nature up close and personal and on her terms. It’s humbling, and that’s a good thing.
Do you visit some locations strictly for the stock image opportunities or are your destinations part of a new photography project?
I’ve never really been a stock shooter, and I got going in photography when the stock industry was starting to consolidate, so it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to pursue stock as a significant business opportunity. Because I write as well, I tend to be more project-oriented, focusing on telling stories through both words and images. In general, I’m always looking for interesting stories that will connect people with nature.
How do you decide on a project that you will dedicate yourself to while maybe understanding the financial rewards may be far off?
For me, it’s all about passion and an urgency to influence people to view nature as a place that supports all life on Earth, including us. That said, I can’t live on passion alone. For my Salmon in the Trees project, I definitely had the passion to tell the story of this incredible place, but I knew the project was going to be a huge undertaking requiring several years and a lot of funding. So before I made my first picture, I approached a funder, a publisher, and a conservation organization working on the Tongass issue. I asked them if they thought a book and other visual communications tools would help with the efforts to preserve the ecological integrity of the Tongass ecosystem. The funder kickstarted the project, the publisher agreed to publish my book, and the conservation organization was thrilled to have visual tools to assist with their work. Since those initial meetings, I have published my book, and created a traveling exhibit, lecture series, a web site, and YouTube video. I have secured funding from eight foundations, and I’m currently partnering with six conservation organizations as well as the U.S. Forest Service to tell the story of the Tongass. I could never have done all of this without building a community of support with like-minded partners. Financially, the rewards eventually came, but more importantly, Salmon in the Trees is helping to change our relationship with the Tongass, which is shaping how the place will be managed for both human and wild communities going forward.
Is there any moment you feel defined your career and success?
Through my earlier work with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, from 2001-2006, when the pressure to open the refuge to energy development was so intense, I traveled throughout the country with an indigenous Gwich’in elder, Sarah James, whose entire way of life for her people would be changed forever if we allow energy development in her homeland. Sarah and I gave joint presentations to anyone who would listen, and so many people listened! Since most people will never go to the Arctic, they wanted to see what it looked like, what lived there, and how it would be affected by potential energy development. During that contentious time, repeated attempts to open the refuge to oil drilling were proposed in Congress, and none of them succeeded. I’m convinced that in part, all of the visuals and stories being shown and told throughout the country by many different people played a crucial role. With Sarah, I experienced firsthand just how powerful images and stories told face-to-face can be. It affirmed my desire to continue using my work in this way.
Shortly thereafter, I was selected as a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Coming together with many of my heroes and mentors to use our work to advance conservation all over the world was a powerful moment. Being a part of this passionate organization motivated me to do more than I ever thought I was capable of doing. I started my Salmon in the Trees project one year after the league was founded.
What about a magic moment? Is there any event that happened while out shooting the resulted in a top selling image, or a narrow escape, or something you will never forget.
I think every day in nature reveals magic moments, and some are more memorable than others. One of the most memorable and jaw-dropping experiences for me was scuba diving with two humpback whales in the Revillagigedo Islands of Mexico. They appeared out of nowhere and spent 20 minutes doing figure-eights and barrel rolls among our group of three divers. It was probably the best 20 minutes of my life.
Another moment that stands out was photographing salmon in the height of spawning season in Alaska. There were a lot of bears around, which meant I spent more time looking out for bears than I did photographing salmon. After a while, there were no bears in sight and I could finally focus on the salmon. With my face pressed against the camera and focusing on salmon through the viewfinder, for a reason I can’t explain because I didn’t hear or see anything, I looked up and there was a bear very close to me. While I was startled, I knew I had to remain calm. I looked at the bear and discovered it was doing the same thing I was – focusing intently on salmon. I’ve always viewed myself as an observer of nature, but at that moment standing virtually shoulder to shoulder with a bear, both of us focusing on salmon, I actually felt like I was a part of nature, and that we’re all a part of nature every day.
Marketing and self promotion is critical to any business and especially photographers. With conservation photography being a niche specialty, does your approach to running a business differ, like you also sell stock and prints and run workshops?
As a conservation photographer, I think I probably run my business much differently than most nature photographers. Instead of looking for the next sale, I’m generally looking for the next story and ways to secure funding to make it happen. That said, the images and stories won’t accomplish much for conservation if they don’t have an audience, so I’m always looking for media outlets as well as speaking opportunities. With conservation issues, the key is to identify the person or people with the power and influence to achieve outcomes, and then find ways for your work to reach and influence them. For the Tongass issue, the audience is certain Congressional Senators and Representatives, as well as Alaska state government officials, and leaders within the U.S. Forest Service. I don’t judge my success on the number of books I sell, but rather whose hands the book ends up in. In order for this to happen, partnerships are key. I personally may not be able to give a book to the President of the United States, but others can, and they have.
You have been widely published. Do you do all your marketing and stock sales yourself?
Virtually everything I have ever published I have marketed myself. For what I do, it’s really the best way because you’re developing lasting relationships with editors and communications directors working for the long haul to achieve conservation outcomes.
With your successful career, you certainly are asked by others, how to succeed in the business of nature photography. What advice would you have for them, especially in crowded markets and uncertain times?
Advice that I received along the way that I took to heart and has served me well: differentiate yourself. Don’t shoot the same subjects as everyone else, and don’t chase the same stories as everyone else. You must stand out. And I personally believe that photographs are no longer enough – you need content to go with them that tell interesting stories. Hone your writing skills so you can at least write strong captions. Team up with a writer and pitch stories together. Take business classes, particularly marketing, to learn how to target your work to appropriate markets. Keep up with technology and use it to your advantage – social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are excellent ways to build a community of support for your work, and allow you to be your own publicist promoting your work.
Can we look at some of your most successful images and have you describe them and why you feel they are successful?
Photo CO0608: Fall and Winter
Most people don’t believe this is real, and I say to them that they need to get outside more! I was in Aspen, Colorado mid-September, a perfect time to photograph the golden leaves of aspen trees. I arrived at dusk and could see that the leaves were indeed golden. I went to sleep that night eager to get an early start the next morning. I awoke to 6 inches of fresh snow! My heart sank to my feet as I assumed the leaves would be damp and droopy or covered in snow. But when life throws you a curve ball, catch it and run. For a brief period, the dry snow fell off the aspen leaves, but remained on the conifer needles, creating a gorgeous contrast between fall and winter.
Photo HI0301: Sea of Lava
The best time to photograph lava is at dawn and dusk when there’s enough available light to illuminate the background/foreground, but dark enough to show the glow of lava. The crowds show up at dusk, so one day I awoke before 3am for a dawn lava show at Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii. The sea was calm, and only a few other quiet souls were present. I used a slow shutter speed to blur the water and the lava.
Photo Redwood: Tree Hugger
An effective use of scale with the person next to the giant redwood tree in Prairie Creek State Park, California always evokes a “WOW!” response from viewers. Often, I am photographing alone, so if I want to include a person in the frame, the only one available is me. I use my timer function and speedy legs to ensure I’m in the frame.
Photo PBear16: Big Face
There are many, many photographs of polar bears, so it’s tough to differentiate your images from others. People love this image because it imparts the power and size of the animal, as well as a bit of personality. The frozen nose drip and the bits of snow on its face also reveals its authenticity as an image made in the wild in Churchill, Canada.
Photo RV0401: Humpback Whale
There are many, many photographs of whales made underwater, but it’s rare to see photos from an angle beneath the whale looking up toward the surface. This is because most whale photos are made by photographers using snorkel gear and not scuba gear as the exhaust bubbles created by scuba gear tends to spook the animals. This was one of those lucky instances where not only did whales show up unexpectedly in Mexico’s Revillagigedo Islands, but they weren’t bothered by my scuba bubbles, allowing me to photograph from below and capture the gorgeous sunlight streaming in from above.
Photo TRP07030_024: Feeding Frenzy
For my book Salmon in the Trees, I needed to show the sheer abundance of salmon in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and how crucial they are to the bears of the region, helping them gain the necessary weight they need to survive hibernation. While it’s easy to see thousands of salmon in streams, it’s not easy to depict a bear with more than one fish. This particular bear was clearly the dominant bear in the area and didn’t move from this advantageous fishing spot for hours.
Photo TRP07067_025: Out on a Limb
This image, made in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, reduces grown men to pools of drool.
Photo TRP07151_021: Glacial Cave
Glaciers are usually photographed from above, so this image of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska is ”otherworldly.” It’s a rare day when the sun shines in this part of the world, but shine it did, illuminating the dense layers of ice and air bubbles within. This is another instance where I wanted to include a person and I was the only one available.
Photo TRP08021_010: Dall’s Porpoise
Frederick Sound in Southeast Alaska is a place where currents collide creating a smorgasbord for marine mammals. It’s also a place where the sun rarely shines and the waters can be rough. This particular day was sunny and flat calm, creating beautiful cloud reflections in the still waters as Dall’s porpoises surfed our bow wake.
Photo WA0202: Old-Growth Forest
I first saw these trees covered in lichen in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington on a clear day. The contrast in the forest created by the sun was too harsh. I knew that an overcast day would be better, but I also knew that heavy fog would be ideal because it creates a soft “painterly” look. Most viewers think this image is a painting and not a photograph.
Please tell our readers where they can learn more about you and what you are up to.
Salmon in the Trees: www.salmoninthetrees.org
Salmon in the Trees on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Salmon-in-the-Trees/357806552363
If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment.