Peter Essick Profile
Meet Photographer Peter Essick
Another very interesting photographer that I was asked by Outdoor Photographer to interview is National Geographic shooter Peter Essick
is what can only be called a "photographer's photographer.
has circled the globe countless times on assignment and is one of the few photographers that has been given the honor of photographing an entire issue of the magazine from cover to cover.
As you'll see in the story that follows, there is very little that Peter
won't do to get a photograph--and sometimes what he
has to go through for that single photograph seems more like an endurance test than the mere persuit of a photograph!
I had a great time interviewing Peter
was very forthcoming about all that is involved in his
"normal" life as a National Geo photographer.
I think you'll find Peter to be a fascinating person and his story should dispell any daydreams most of us have about running away with a camera and joining the Geographic!
You can read Peter's own notes on his
gobal warming assignment on the National Geographic
also sells prints of his
work on the web at Ray of Light Photographs.
Here's my story about Peter--enjoy!
shooter Peter Essick
is no exception to the tradition; in fact, he
is probably the very definition of that type of photojournalistic obsession.
In shooting more than 20 feature stories for the magazine, Essick
has had to endure some epic journeys to get the shot and bring it back home.
Take, for example, his
picture of a scientist counting a roost of Adelies penguins on Torgersen Island in Antarctica.
To get the shot Essick hired a private 50-foot yacht to sail him (sail-as in hoist that mainsail) through the notoriously turbulent Drake Passage from Ushuaia, Argentina on the southernmost tip of South America to Palmer Station in Antarctica.
The trip took seven days (in each direction) and much of that time was spent in 20-foot seas and 70 mph winds and, says Essick
, it was even less pleasant than it sounds: "You can't really go up on deck when it's like that so you spend your time down in the hold.
There were five of us onboard and it was kind of stuffy in there; we had to really work to not get seasick."
didn't know it at the time, but seasickness was among the least of his
"It wasn't until after the trip that the skipper, a Swiss guy named Eric Barde, confessed that during the height of the storm he
felt he'd reached the limits of the boat's capabilities," says Essick
had to take down all the sails and we were really at the mercy of the seas."
Once in Antarctica Essick
had less than a week to shoot his
photos and get back on the boat for the return sail.
"I had never been there before, it's a difficult place to go for one shot.
who has an almost poetic gift for understatement.
"You can't fly there because there is no air strip.
Most of the researchers who man the research station go in by icebreaker in November and stay through March-a time frame that Essick's fast-lane shooting itinerary didn't allow him to follow.
Ironically, says Essick
, at one time there was enough sea ice in the region to prevent getting into Palmer Station without an icebreaker leading the way-even during the brief Antarctic summer--but because of global warming, the sea ice no longer extends to that area.
"That's one of those global warming things," he
"Years ago you couldn't even sail there."
The Antarctica shot was just one of dozens he
shot for three separate essays that ran in the September 2004 special issue of National Geographic
devoted to global warming ("Global Warning: Bulletins from a Warmer World").
Each of the three essays was devoted to one aspect of global warming: "Geosigns" looked at physical changes like rising seas and melting glaciers, "EcoSigns" dealt with the effects on flora an fauna (like the penguins) and "TimeSigns" explored the scientific research into climate change.
In total his
essays ran more than 60 pages in the magazine-a hefty spread even by Geographic
The story was the brainchild of Geographic environmental editor Dennis Dimick, who Essick says directed the entire project.
"A lot of people don't even believe in global warming," says Essick
"So it was important up front to say that we're assuming that there is climate change and that we're going to go by scientific voices, rather than follow the pseudo-science people that are trying to debunk it."
When it came to choosing specific subjects and locations, Essick
got a basic outline of the concept but did much of the research and found many of his
A lot of leads were found by reading scientific journals-a bit of intellectual curiosity the Atlanta-based shooter says he
picked up at a young age from his
father, a high school science teacher.
"My criteria was that I would try and find scientists that had published a peer-review paper that detailed their research on a specific topic," he
"Then I would contact them and see if they were doing any field work and if there was anything that I could photograph."
All told he
spent more than six months on the road during a nine-month period shooting an average of eight weeks on each of the three essays.
"It was like doing three stories at once," he
says, "but I shot them at the same time and was doing pictures for each of the three on the same trips.
In addition Essick
, who travels without an assistant, says he
carries a lot of backup gear-chargers, batteries, screwdrivers: "You have to fix your own stuff when you're working like this."
Each of his
hard shell Pelican bags, he
says, average about 70 pounds.
"I carry as much as I can put on one of those smart carts in the airport and still push it myself," he
"It would be nice to be specialized and just do one thing, you could go a lot lighter, but with a story like this you have to go heavier on gear."
typically shot about 400 rolls of film on each of the three essays-which worked out to about 10 rolls of slide film a day.
For the round-the-world portion of the assignment he
could carry about 300 rolls of film in one rolling carry-on suitcase.
The film itself was packed in Op/Tech lead bags-which he
says tricks security personnel into hand inspecting.
"I used to always ask for a hand check but that got to be very difficult, especially after 9-11" he
"Now they say they can't see anything and so they take it out and hand inspect it anyway."
And although he
says some photographers at the Geographic
are starting to convert to digital, he
still works exclusively with film on assignment.
One of the downsides of shooting film, he
says, is that often he
doesn't see processed film for weeks, even months, after he's
"On this assignment I worked for several months without seeing a single shot," he
"I did about four fifths of the story without ever seeing a picture.
That is hard to do.
You really have to rely on your past experience and your knowledge not only so you know that your camera is working, but you have to know that you've got the shots."
The most fascinating aspect of the long assignment, says Essick
, was getting to work with the many scientists who are studying global warming around the world.
Particularly interesting were the paleoclimatologists who study things like ice cores and stalagmites to see what the climate was like in the distant past and what it might be like in the not-too-distant future.
"For me these people are almost like detectives, they look deep into the past and they can see how fast the changes have happened-which is pretty fast," says Essick