by WenOut Staff
Steven Gnam – A Photographer’s Tale
Steven Gnam, a professional photographer and videographer, moved to Wenatchee in November 2014 because of his wife’s work at Northwest Justice Project. His magazine work, videos, and his book Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies all inspire viewers to leave town and start wandering wild places. Gnam’s outdoor sports include trail and mountain running, backcountry skiing, climbing, and swimming. A love of wild places and a desire to keep exploring fuel his activities. What brought a talented shooter whose work has been used by such groups as Patagonia, National Geographic, Backpacker Magazine, Outside Magazine, National Parks Conservation, and Runners World to Wenatchee? How has the fit worked out? What are the highs and lows of this place? We had the pleasure of speaking with Gnam and popping him such random questions.
When did you move to Wenatchee and of the many outdoor towns out there, how did you end up choosing this one?
My wife and I moved to Wenatchee because of her work at Northwest Justice Project. It is a place where we can combine her legal work on behalf of women farmworker’s and our need to live near wild places with trails and lots of sunshine.
Where else have you lived? Compare and contrast some of the other places you have lived with this one.
I grew up in Whitefish, Montana and then went to college in Missoula. After that I moved out to Seattle for a few years and moved back to Whitefish for another year before landing here in Wenatchee.
Whitefish, Missoula, and Wenatchee are all great places to live if you need daily access to the outdoors, which I do. Seattle is close to a lot of different kinds of ecosystems including Puget Sound, Olympics, Cascades, volcanoes and the islands, but in reality you have a couple hours’ drive (plus traffic) to get outside. To cope with this some of the parks in Seattle became a refuge for me when I didn’t own a car and biked everywhere. I appreciate that you can get into the high desert or the Cascades in very little time from Wenatchee.
What are your main outdoor sports and how does Central Washington stack up to other places in regards to the pursuit of those sports?
My outdoor sports include most anything that let me explore outside — trail and mountain running, backcountry skiing, bouldering, climbing, and swimming. Over the last few years I’ve been gravitating towards activities that use less gear, like running and bouldering.
I have been pleasantly surprised by how much access there is around here. The rock is also way better than what I’m used to in Montana. It’s encouraging to see groups like the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust protecting the foothills which would be developed into subdivisions in a flash if it weren’t for such an organization.
As locals wanting to recreate right on the edge of town, we will need to stay organized and engaged to ensure open space is preserved. As a friend observed, “Development is a one way street. I’ve seen hundreds of acres of farm fields turned into residential developments, but I’ve never seen an acre of residential turn into farm land.”
After 6 months here what have been the highs and lows of the area?
Highs: Access to trails and year round running. Nearby access to really great mountains in the North Cascades. Good friends, family, and neighbors. It’s the dry side! My clothes will not mold and actually dry when hung on a drying rack in the house.
Lows: Low, really low, snow year. We live near Mission Ridge and I thought I’d get out skiing more right from our back door than I did this winter. Maybe I’ll get tired of the blue bird days? Doubt it!
What drives your photography — the sense of the aesthetic, ability to pursue activities you love, desire to help others appreciate wild places, the big money (ha!)…?
Definitely not the money! I never know when I’ll get paid next. As someone who is fortunate to have good health and to get outside more than most, I get to see many things that others don’t. Photography is simply a way to share those experiences, to bridge between the viewer and the subject. When I was young it was encounters with wild animals that led me to photography so I could share this with my family. Now, photography is a mixture of photojournalism and art for me. I grew up painting and drawing. I was surrounded by friends who were artists that inspired, and still today continue to inspire me. I love the way that photography changes the way I see things. Sometimes I’ll run or climb up something to see what the view is like and other times I’ll sit for hours in one place waiting for the light or for a situation to develop.
I’m selective with the projects I choose and the groups I work for. I don’t want my work to cause more harm to the earth or to people. Rather, I’d like my work to expose environmental or social injustices and inspire others to get involved. Beauty and wildness are also common themes in my work –they give solace to our complicated lives.
What kind of projects are you working on in the months ahead – do any of them focus on this area?
I’ve been working on a multi-year wildlife project in the West, which does involve the Cascades, but I’m waiting to reveal what that is and may be working on it for a few more years…
I have a few ultra-running projects coming up this year that I’m really excited about. One is in Idaho, the other in Montana. I’ve been training like crazy the past couple years so I can document the process in a way that hasn’t been done before and still enjoy these trips. Again, it’s a little early for me to share exactly what these trips are, but if you check in on the links at the end of this article you’ll see how they develop in the coming months.
I don’t have any projects lined up in the Cascades which is great. I’m looking forward to not working so much when I’m home and getting to spend some big days out in the mountains with my wife and friends this summer. There are so many places in the Cascades I’d like to explore, so it would be nice to have time to do that when I’m back home. I almost always bring a camera even when I’m not working, as it’s a meditative process that heightens my awareness and enjoyment of a place or experience–so I’ll still be snapping photos around here.
Of the many places you have explored thus far for your photography and videography, which places have impacted you the most and why?
By far, my childhood backyard the Crown of the Continent, the land from Missoula to Banff with Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park at the center. It’s a landscape that is so diverse and so full of wildlife, even with human communities nestled in the valleys. It’s the kind of place that reminds you of what life on the continent was like before people altered the landscape and wiped out many species. I’d like to see that landscape remain vibrant for generations to come. I spent the last four years working on the book The Crown of the Continent: Wildest Rockies to support conservation of the region (you can get more info at www.wildestrockies.org). The place also inspires me to work on behalf of other lands that need restoration to help return them to an ecologically healthy state.
What about your better half, what are her interests? What does she think of the area?
My wife, Aly, has a passion for justice. Growing up in Wenatchee exposed her to the worker side of the food industry and the challenges farmworkers face. I’m excited for her to return to her hometown and pursue a dream to work with Latina farmworkers.
Aly always surprises me when we have full days in the mountains with her endurance and tenacity. My work demands that I train and be out multiple days a week. She often has to squeeze in runs or yoga around her work as an attorney. Somehow she always makes it seem like it’s her full time job too–very inspiring. She likes running and yoga (at iLa) and the Wenatchee sunshine.
Epic journeys – what do you consider your most epic adventure to date and why? How did that journey/adventure shape you?
A few years ago a friend and I took a week to traverse the North and South Picket Range. We bushwhacked, climbed peaks, crossed glaciers and got “picketed.” It was one of the most remote and rugged mountain ranges I’ve been in and qualifies as an epic for the Lower 48. The summer we did the trip was one of the hottest on record in the North Cascades and consequently the snow and glaciers were melted out more than usual. There were places where rock fall was so frequent we had to abandon the route and detour to safer terrain. Glaciers had more crevasses exposed and some parts of the route that should have been steep snow climbs were either exposed glacial ice or completely melted out, leaving a muddy, chossy slope to climb with no way to place protection. In one of those situations we finally found our rappel anchor fifteen feet above us where the snow line would have been on a normal year. On the rappel, which was also in the dark, heavy rock fall severed our rope so we were left with a partial rope for the rest of the trip. That experience taught me to improvise on the go and to keep a cool head in stressful situations.
What camera system and lenses do you prefer? Lots of your trips rely on keeping your total photo kit light and keeping the camera very accessible so how do you handle this? Do you use a lighter camera for things like ultras?
I use Nikon cameras and lenses. Because I mix fast-paced sports and wildlife photography I use their top end models for speed, weather sealing, and durability. A lot of times when I’m running I keep the camera in my hand so I’m ready to shoot. If I’m out all day or the trail is really technical and I need my hands, I’ll put the camera in my running vest and just pull it out when I see an opportunity. While climbing I keep the camera in my pack until things look good, then I’ll clip it to my harness or sling it over my chest so it’s out and I can shift it to the front or back depending on the climbing. I’m learning to anticipate moments before they happen rather than being caught off guard and left to just reacting. That really helps me to not always need the camera out and to be more productive when I do pull it out.
I’m beginning to experiment with lighter camera systems as the technology in smaller compact bodies will work for many of my needs. Many publications are using photos from compact cameras since the quality is high enough. Patagonia has used iPhone photos in their catalogs and National Geographic published their first cover with an iPhone photo this year. Now everyone can be (or is) a photographer with a small camera or even a phone. As a professional, it can be intimidating knowing how flooded clients are with photos, but I think overall it’s really good that everyone has access to this art-form and it encourages me to seek my own unique vision to bring to others.
For wildlife photography I used to carry my heavy telephoto lens in a front back so I would be ready at any moment, but found there were very few times it was worth the extra few seconds I got compared to having it on my pack. Also after many week-long backcountry trips carrying a heavy lens in a front pack, I was getting neck problems.
What websites highlight some of your past and present work?
For Gnam, the outdoors is not just about the motion of climbing, trail running, or backcountry skiing, it’s also about the quiet and contemplation of thinking like a fish.
This article was first posted on 05/26/2015.