State of the Planet

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Capturing the North Cascades

GlacierHub writer Elza Bouhassira spoke with landscape photographer Stephen Matera about a series of photographs he created on the North Cascades mountains in Washington State. The range is home to breathtaking mountains, glaciers, and lakes. His images give viewers a glimpse into what this remote, rugged world is like.

Landscape: Aerial view of the North Cascades in summer, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington. Courtesy of Stephen Matera

GlacierHub: Why did you choose to photograph the North Cascades?
Stephen Matera: I grew up on the East Coast and I moved to Seattle right out of college, back in 1992, and the North Cascades were the first real mountains I ever explored in my life. I was drawn to mountains and that’s kind of why I moved out to Washington. So they’re like my home mountain range, I guess you might say.

GH: Many of the images look like they were taken from above—are they from planes or drones?
SM: All the ones in that North Cascades gallery are from a plane.

GH: Why did you decide to shoot from a plane?
SM: Well, some of those were shot before drones were even a thing. And some of it’s in the winter—the area is completely inaccessible in winter—but finally, it’s all a national park and you’re not allowed to fly drones in national parks.

GH: Do you think there are any particular advantages or disadvantages to shooting from an aerial perspective?
SM: It’s fantastic. In a plane you’re flying and obviously constantly moving. And so there’s a lot of coordination between me and the pilot about where I want him to go—things move quickly. It allows me to say “We’ll take a pass and we’ll set up this shot. Oh, okay. I like that,” but I can tell him, “Look, let’s do that again, but maybe, you know, 100 or 200 feet lower.” And so I can, compared to being on the ground, dial in exactly where I want to be and arrange my composition a lot more easily. On the ground, you’re kind of limited to how high you can be on the ground. You might be able to adjust your height by six or 10 feet, if you’re lucky, whereas on the plane you can adjust an infinite number of ways.

Aerial view of the North Cascades in winter
Landscape: Aerial view of the North Cascades in winter, North Cascades National Park, Washington, United States. Courtesy of Stephen Matera

GH: Why do you emphasize low light, high horizon lines, and low clouds in many of the images?
SM: I think it’s partly just my style of shooting. The photos are of the mountain so I don’t really see a reason to include much sky other than to—this is backwards sounding—but to ground an image. If I shoot a photo from the ground of the scene, typically I will have something in the lower foreground to literally ground the image and to give it a sense of place. But with an aerial shot, that’s all reversed. So the sky is the grounding of the image. I include just enough for reference, unless the sky is very dramatic or there’s another reason to include more sky. I generally don’t put a lot in.

GH: Do these images tie in with your broader portfolio or mission as a photographer? Do they fit in with a personal style you’ve developed?
SM: When I first started doing photography it was really just out of passion. I just thought, “Wow, I’d love to fly over the North Cascades.” And then at some point I thought it’d be neat to be able to do a North Cascades aerial photo book. I did a bunch of flights with that in mind and then kind of got sidetracked and never followed up on it. Now the images are either licensed through stock or other ways.

Aerial view of El Dorado Peak in winter
Landscape: Aerial view of El Dorado Peak in winter, North Cascades National Park, Washington, United States. Courtesy of Stephen Matera

GH: Do you have any thoughts on the market for mountain photographs? Specifically, is there any kind of image that seems to get more attention than others?
SM: There’s nothing that really stands out about one image or another that has more of a market. The winter stuff is a little more limited in terms of who might want to use it. One of the winter shots was used by the North Cascades National Park in their brochure. National parks have their little pamphlet or brochure that they hand out when you go through the exchange. And one of the images from this shoot is the banner image at the top of the pamphlet and that’s a winter shot.

GH: What do you think the role of a photographer is today in the context of climate change?
SM: I think there were photographers traditionally who have helped to raise awareness about all sorts of environmental issues. I’m kind of a generalist in terms of my landscape photography. I use my social media accounts more to help raise awareness about environmental issues and climate change. I think that social media really helps empower photographers to get the word out even more so. It’s obviously a personal choice—I advocate for environmental awareness, having a less of an environmental footprint when you travel, and things like that.

Aerial view of the North Cascades in summer
Landscape: Aerial view of the North Cascades in summer, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington. Courtesy of Stephen Matera

GH: When shooting this series, did you consider glaciers specifically?
SM: That wasn’t my goal when I set out to do this, but I do have a goal of getting out and shooting some more aerial photos of the North Cascades. It would have to be something that would specifically focus on glaciers, because you have to repeat specific shots at the same time of year under similar conditions to show changes. For example, you can’t shoot that in the winter, everything’s covered so you can’t tell what’s what. But that’s a project I would love to do. I’ve been pretty vocal about trying to move away from commercial photography and more into conservation. I’m still trying to figure that all out. But the North Cascades and the glaciers there are definitely being impacted by climate change. It’s a project on my mind for the future, for sure.

GH: Is there anything else that stands out to you about this series of photographs?
SM: The thing about the North Cascades is that they are something special. Outside of the Northwest, people may be aware of the Cascade Mountains, very vaguely, but the North Cascades are lesser known. They’re colloquially known as the American Alps and they’re rugged. They’re dramatic, they’re glaciated, and in the lower 48 there’s not much else like them. Part of the reason I think they’re lesser known is because there’s really only one road that crosses the range and outside of that road, it’s mostly designated wilderness area. So it’s very hard to access. For example, there’s an area called the Picket Range, it literally takes a couple of days with fording rivers, bushwhacking, route-finding and literally thousands of feet of elevation gain just to get into the Picket Range. And then if you want to really explore, then it seems like a whole ‘nother level. I want people to be aware that this place exists and how beautiful it is.

Aerial view of the North Cascades in summer
Landscape: Aerial view of the North Cascades in summer, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Washington. Courtesy of Stephen Matera

To see more of Stephen Matera’s work you can find him on Instagram @stephen_matera.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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