Nov 062011
Authors: Elisabeth Willner

Photographer James Balog has dedicated most of his adult life to the art of photography, receiving recognition and awards over the past several decades.

It was his work with one seemingly mundane thing, however, that has received his most recent acclaim – his work with ice.

It began in 2005, when the New Yorker asked him to do an assignment on climate change. He’d already been considering the topic, and his years of experience as an adventure photographer and mountaineer pointed towards a way to do it.

“I’d been thinking about it for about 10 years,” Balog said. “The only thing you could photograph was ice.”

Tonight at 5 p.m. in the Behavioral Science auditorium, Balog will show the resulting work, now-famous photographs of white and gray landscapes cut by neon blue melt water, as part of his first presentation as CSU’s Monfort professor-in-residence.

Balog, who has done assignments for National Geographic, Outside and Smithsonian magazines among others, will spend the next three days at CSU.

His visit is funded by a grant from the Monfort Excellence Fund, in addition to support from the Department of Atmospheric Science, the School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES) and the College of Liberal Arts.

Over the course of his stay, he will answer questions in science and art classes, lead the weekly atmospheric science colloquium and give two presentations on Monday and Tuesday in the Behavioral Sciences building.

“This guy is a top-of-the-world sort of artist and adventurer, and I’m very excited that he’s going to be here,” said John Calderazzo, a professor in the English department who applied to bring Balog to campus. “Climate change is really hard to visualize. He’s showing some of the results of that, which are not always visible to us in landlocked Colorado.”

Calderazzo and his wife, Dr. SueEllen Campbell, head a program called Changing Climates @ CSU, which brings together diverse faculty to teach about climate change.

They’ve wanted to bring Balog to CSU for a long time, because of his work on the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), the project which grew out of his 2005 New Yorker assignment.

For the project, Balog and a team of researches have stationed time-lapse cameras around the world to document glacial recession.

Videos and photos from the project have been featured by National Geographic, the PBS show “NOVA,” and more locally, currently play in loops on monitors at the Denver International Airport.

Associate professor Thomas Birner, who organizes the atmospheric science colloquium where Balog will present this week, sees the impact of Balog’s work as similar to that of the first satellite photographs of earth which allowed scientists to monitor weather elements from space.

“In some sense what he does is a little bit like that,” Birner said. “He goes to these really remote places where most people will never get a chance to go, and gives a view into those and how they’re changing over time.”

Balog, who has worked on topics including endangered species, the gulf oil spill and old growth forests, earned hismaster’s degree in geomorphology from the University of Colorado-Boulder, but trained himself to be a photographer.

“I was ill-suited for quantitative science,” Balog said about the decision. “I didn’t want to be measuring things and making charts. I wanted to experience nature instead of computer models.”

Using what he learned from books, Balog experimented with filming on climbing and ski trips, then started doing assignments for magazines. During most of his early work, he worked hard for little pay, he said.

While other photographers took pictures to show pristine wilderness, Balog documented, at first unintentionally, the ways humans were impacting it.

Eleanor Moseman, an assistant professor whose art history class will host Balog next week, said his work with EIS shows how art can deliver a message.

“Politicians use rhetoric. Artists can use creative approaches to get people to think about topics that are not on their radar otherwise,” said Moseman, who first saw Balog’s work at DIA and decided to include it as an example in her course.

“What artists can achieve is more subtle than what politicians can achieve,” she said.

Collegian writer Elisabeth Willner can be reached at

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