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  • by Lara Wheeler

GARTH LENZ: Through Beauty and Devastation

Garth Lenz is committed to raising the profile of emerging environmental issues through conservation photography. Despite the challenges of photographing previously undocumented locations of ecological significance, Lenz aims to expose the effects of climate change to educate and empower his viewers to take action.

Much of Lenz’s motivation for pursuing conservation photography stems from his upbringing in North Vancouver, British Columbia. With a view to the man-made landmarks of Vancouver proper out his bedroom window, Lenz could also see the old-growth forest of Mosquito Creek at the foot of his backyard. While he considers himself a city kid, Lenz says nature was central to his earliest experiences. It was his initial desire to record his experiences and the scenes he saw as a result of early passions for climbing, the mountains, and the wilderness that led to his foray into photography. Though his appreciation for the natural environment and his passion for photography were strong, Lenz would pursue photography only as a hobby over the next few years.

Like the great conservation photographer Ansel Adams, Lenz’s other love was the piano. He pursued post-secondary studies in music at the University of Western Ontario before returning to British Columbia, where he assumed a teaching position at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Lenz said it was his return home in 1989 that re-ignited his interest in photography and his concern for the environment: “On Canada Day weekend, I visited the Carmanah Valley and was completely overwhelmed by the beauty of that forest and the devastation I passed through on the journey to get there.” The images that Lenz produced on his visit to the valley were collected in his first published work, although he continued to teach at the conservatory until 1992, when he finally decided to put his career in music on permanent hiatus and devote himself entirely to photography. Witnessing the declining state of the old-growth temperate rainforests cemented both Lenz’s conservation and photographic passions. Lenz says, “When I initially became interested in photography, it was just prior to the environment really becoming an ‘issue’ ... The Great Lakes were an issue, and acid rain was an issue, but there really was very little awareness about the value of, or threat to, issues like old-growth forests or the kind of environment that I readily had access to.” His return to the West Coast and his glimpse into the plight of the old-growth forests afforded Lenz a rare opportunity to photograph and draw attention to a landscape — the coastal temperate rainforest — otherwise largely undocumented by other photographers.

Lenz has received much attention and praise for being at the forefront of breaking environmental issues. When he photographed the Carmanah Valley, his images were among the first to document that coastal temperate rainforest. Lenz was also one of the first photographers to photograph the boreal forests: “When I started to photograph boreal forests, conservation groups and photographers were all flocking to the Great Bear Rainforest. The boreal wasn’t even on the radar.” Though getting ahead of the curve on emerging issues is important to Lenz, he chooses his locations based on how critical an environmental issue is, and whether or not it has been extensively photographed.

Lenz recognizes the ability of his photographs to produce an emotional reaction and inspire action. After he began giving presentations on environmental issues, he observed firsthand the transformative effects his images had on viewers in seeing both the beauty and the threats to the environment. As a parent and a conservation photographer, Lenz feels a sense of responsibility for safeguarding the planet for his children and endeavours to show the world that we are all affected by climate change. Lenz believes people have begun to perceive environmental issues as core human rights issues and hopes his work will continue this momentum to motivate social and political change.

Through his work with leading non-governmental organizations, as well as mainstream media, Lenz’s images have been used in major campaigns that have led to conservation efforts and the creation of protected areas across Canada, Chile, and the United States. “They have played a role in shaping more progressive guidelines and legislation on forestry issues,” says Lenz, who also believes his images have had a personal impact on viewers across North and South America, Europe, and Asia, where he has given presentations. For Lenz, knowing that his work has helped shift perceptions and enact real change have been the greatest benefits.

While not always financially rewarding, Lenz says he is compensated by the wonderful experiences and fascinating people he meets along the way and by the feeling that he is making a positive contribution. Lenz believes conservation photography can be a rewarding career, despite its many challenges: “It is a wonderful and rewarding life, but it is a very tough way to make a living.” He advises budding conservation photographers to be prepared to work hard and get by without a lot. While on assignment, Lenz is often faced with forces of nature that threaten to ruin a shoot and cause him personal harm. From torrential downpours, hurricanes, and plane engine failure, to hypothermia and near amputation, Lenz has learned to expect the unexpected in conservation photography: “At the end of the day, nobody cares, and magazines can’t publish excuses. You just suck it up and keep working, keep shooting, no matter what. It makes life interesting.”

Although each assignment comes with its unique challenges, Lenz takes care to prepare as much as possible. Lenz thoroughly researches his subject matter before setting off on assignment, considering the logistics, weather, and lighting conditions that will maximize his potential for success. He talks to people who know the region, studies maps, and reads books and articles on the issues. “I have contingency plans and ‘what ifs’ for every conceivable eventuality I can envision,” says Lenz. “When things go wrong, I want to be prepared.” Though his plans may sometimes fall by the wayside, Lenz says you have to be prepared to make the best of whatever situation gets thrown at you. When on location, Lenz will choose a shooting location based on the composition and lighting conditions that help him tell the best possible story: “I spend a lot of time, whether on the ground or in the air, finding and lining up the right juxtaposition of foreground and background elements to try and make a certain point.”

Though his images are a creative response to the subject matter he encounters, Lenz aims to tell an honest, visual narrative in each photograph, believing that his images must reflect reality. Lenz does not employ special effects while shooting, and instead prefers to work around lighting and weather conditions to achieve a desired outcome.

Lenz’s project documenting the expansive impacts of the Alberta Tar Sands, has been shown in Los Angeles at the G2 Gallery and took top honours in Social’s international photography competition. The exhibit, titled Boreal Future: Our Last Great Forest and the Threat of the Tar Sands shows stunning images of the Canadian Boreal Forest (which, at 1.3 billion acres, are one of the world’s largest intact ecosystems) and the threat of the Tar Sands to the forest’s future. Lenz has been photographing the Boreal Forest since 1992. As a result of his award-winning exhibition, Lenz has realized both personal and professional success after many demanding years in the field. It is easy to understand why he is one of only 60 photographers in the world to be named a fellow of the prestigious International League of Conservation Photographers.

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