Shooting the Crown

By Beacon Staff

Through the lens of his camera, Steven Gnam has captured the kind of fleeting, untamed moments that might otherwise elude the human eye, disappearing like a puff of vapor in a sprawling chunk of country called the Crown of the Continent – the ecologically diverse landscape spanning the U.S.-Canada border between Missoula and Banff, Alberta.

In his new book, “The Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” Gnam not only preserves the wild, ephemeral beauty of those moments, but through them attaches value to the region, defending its role and depicting why it’s critical to pay attention, lest we fritter away the landscape that defines us.

Meant to promote stewardship, “The Wildest Rockies” showcases images that span the boundaries of Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park, tracking along the spine of the Rocky Mountains as the Whitefish native reanimates a landscape brimming with life.

The book shows off the region’s suite of critters and peak-studded panoramas, but Gnam’s perspective goes deeper than the scenic wildlife portraiture of a coffee-table book – it serves to remind us why the Crown of the Continent is so special.

A launch party for “Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies” is scheduled for Friday, May 9, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish. For details, check wildestrockies.org or call (206) 223-6303. The Beacon caught up with Gnam in advance of the book’s release.

Flathead Beacon: You’ve captured images of napping grizzly bears, prowling mountain lions, colossal white bark pines and receding glaciers, often from obscure, hard-to-access vantage points that few people will experience except through your lens. And yet, the very presence of those people will have an effect on this place we call the “Crown of the Continent.” As an outdoor adventurer and a conservationist, how do you hope to move your audience in such a way that reciprocates the landscape and wildlife you portray?

Steven Gnam: Most people who visit the Crown – and residents too – want to see a grizzly bear. But how many people who see a bear are thinking, ‘How can we co-exist with bears? What challenges are facing grizzlies in this region? How can we link up grizzly habitat?’ How many people are making money off the presence of grizzlies, but aren’t doing anything to ensure grizzlies have what they need to survive? This is where I hope “The Wildest Rockies” will foster connections for people. I see my role as bringing the voice of the landscape and wildlife to people in a way that spurs these conversations. The land and animals have a powerful effect on us if we can just hear them.

There is a great history of conservation in the Crown, which is why there is so much beauty and wildlife intact here – from the formation of the Sun River Game Preserve, to the first tribally designated wilderness in the Missions, to the Montana Legacy Project. We are also surrounded by a history of exploitation – like the vermiculite mine in Libby, the fluoride contamination from the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls and the Superfund site on the Whitefish River. From the perspective of a conservationist, considering humanity’s capacity to severely alter and destroy the natural world, I’d like to move people from being consumers of resources and beauty of the natural work to becoming stewards of it.

Beacon: Much of your work embodies a conservation ethic or mission. With this book, rather than showcasing a gallery of trophy photos, you seem to be telling a story about a pristine place, a changing place. What is it about the Crown of the Continent that engages you so, and what kind of story are you telling through your work?

Gnam: One of the major themes of the book is to celebrate the Crown’s wildness. The Crown stands out as a mix of a Serengeti-like animal community placed atop some of the most beautiful mountain topography in the country. There are few places left in the world where you have modern culture living alongside a vibrant community of wildlife and inspiring landscapes. The Crown is a sanctuary. Humans need wilderness – the wild, unaltered aspects of nature for clean water, solace and life.

That being said, this place is fragile too. It wouldn’t take much to alter the region and degrade the quality we have here. If you have an oil spill on the Middle Fork and make the river a Superfund site, it would forever degrade the ecological community and hurt the local human communities, too, especially the businesses that depend on tourism, fishing and wildlife watching. I accept that I have a responsibility to take care of this place and believe other residents and visitors share this same responsibility. The Crown is the headwaters to some of the continent’s major river systems. Anyone living at the headwaters of any watershed owes it to everyone downstream to keep the water clean. I also believe we should take care of the Crown for the sake of the life forms that live here: wolverines, tailed frogs, bull trout, and harlequins, to name a few. It’s clear that the land and animals contribute immensely to our local economies and provide the impetus for tourism, but I think we have an ethical responsibility to protect them, even if it costs us along the way. It would be nice to see the businesses that thrive off tourism giving back to the resources they owe their livelihoods to.

Beacon: Your images tell very vivid stories on their own, without effusive explanatory captions. Still, you must have a trove of behind-the-shutter stories from your adventures. Could you share one or two that were memorable?

Gnam: There are many ordinary moments, sometimes hundreds of hours of fieldwork, before I see what I’m looking for and then get to make a photograph. Photographing a mountain lion deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness was a pretty awesome experience. A friend and I were halfway into a weeklong trek through the Bob. We were eating dinner on a knoll when I heard deer hooves moving fast on rock. I got up, grabbed my camera, and ran to the sound. Suddenly a mule deer buck came running past us, its ears back, listening to something behind it. A mountain lion appeared behind it, gliding through the stand of trees. When it stepped into an opening I snapped a few shots. Then it vanished.

Later that night, I peered out of the tent to see the Northern Lights. I went back to the knoll to take some photos. Between long exposures I’d whirl around and scan the trees with my headlamp for glowing eyes. The only eyes I saw were those of the buck who had taken shelter from the lion by staying close to us all evening.

Beacon: For the book, you collaborated with local conservationists and writers Doug Chadwick and Michael Jamison. Could you describe the impetus for the book and the collaborative process involved with these other stakeholders?

Gnam: I’m really thankful to work with both Doug and Michael. Our aim in making this project wasn’t to make a book, but to put together this collection of images and essays with the message of celebrating and protecting the Crown into a medium we could share – a book made the most sense. My mother was a librarian so it’s possible her love of books and all the time I spent with stacks of books in the Whitefish library also influenced me a bit too.

A lot of people have done books on this region or parts of this region. The majority of these books have the message that this is a beautiful place – end of story. Rather than make another pretty picture book full of calendar photos, we wanted to have this book highlight why this is an amazing place, explaining the ecological diversity and the history of conservation that shaped what we see today. We also wanted the project to benefit the land and the people who continue the ongoing work of caretaking the Crown and its resources. Partnering with local conservation groups was the logical next step. From the onset of this project we sought input from conservation groups to create a tool to help them share what it is about this place that is so worth protecting. Collaboration makes sense here too – efforts like the Montana Legacy Project have led to some of the largest private-to-public land deals in U.S. history. It’s in that same spirit we want these photos and words to foster change.

Beacon: Describe your personal connection to the Crown of the Continent – your roots, your family’s roots – and the spell it’s cast over you.

Gnam: I imagine most people have a special bond with their childhood home. I was fortunate to have parents who let me explore, and really encouraged it, so my earliest memories are of fishing, hunting and berry picking trips around the Crown.

Beacon: You travel through the mountains and prairies by ski, crampon, foot and bike, engaging with the landscape physically as well as with your camera. How important is that tangible relationship with your environment, and how does it influence your passion for your work?

Gnam: I definitely make more satisfying images when I’m immersed in the landscape. I’d rather be running or swimming or climbing around in a beautiful scene than just looking at it. I think artistically this passion comes across in the photos – I’m not trying to shoot a static landscape, I’m out moving around in it, so there’s a different kind of energy, different angles, and different compositions that make an image much more interesting artistically. This involvement in making photos also helps me as a journalist to create visual stories that change perspectives.

As an artist and journalist I also feel the need to create something new. I’m not interested in recreating other peoples’ work or taking common photographs. The world is full of pretty photos and we don’t need more. But we do need art, and we do need stories. We need to see things in a new way, to have powerful encounters with nature. Real art helps us do this, whether it’s music, painting, or photography. I know when I’m having these encounters that there is a good chance this will get translated into the photograph. Often for me, those powerful emotional experiences don’t happen on the beaten paths, they sometimes happen at the edge of exhaustion, at the close of a long day in the mountains. They don’t happen often. I’ll go days, even weeks, not taking a photo if things aren’t coming together or I’m not inspired. But even if I’m not making images I’m still out breathing deep, enjoying the moments I get outside.

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