The Story Is in the Ice Balog travels the world and photographs the great outdoors.

“Q

uickly—this light won’t last forever.” 

James Balog, BC ’74, called for a rope, tied it to himself, put on a life jacket, took off his boots, waded into the frigid waters of the Jökulsárlón glacial lake in southeast Iceland, and began his work. He snapped some photos of the ice blocks along the shore and waded deeper, bracing himself with each step to keep himself steady. Icy wave after icy wave plowed into his back, but his camera kept clicking.

Balog had spent two years photographing melting glaciers as a photojournalist—including for gigs with National Geographic and The New Yorker. These projects led him to found the Extreme Ice Survey, a large project that utilizes time-lapse photography to visually document and publicize the effects of climate change on some of the world’s many glaciers.

But the small scene on the cold beach piqued his photographic instincts, and the camera crew for his 2012 documentary Chasing Ice looked on as Balog captured it.

“There’s this limitless universe of forms out there that is just surreal, otherworldly, sculptural, architectural, insanely, ridiculously beautiful,” he narrates as he paces the beach in the film’s opening. “That’s when I thought, ‘OK, the story is in the ice, somehow.’”

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people who knew Balog in his younger days likely wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he now spends most of his time in the outdoors. Anyone who knew the young Balog in his hometown of Danville, Pa., likely also knew he had a hard time keeping himself indoors.

Balog was able to find himself in the vast wilderness even from a young age, which sparked in him, he believes, a long-time fascination with the outdoors.

“It goes all the way back to when I was a little boy, my early memories,” he said. “I loved wandering around the forest, I loved the smell of campfires and wood smoke, I loved to climb trees and sit in the treetops in the wind, I loved to just be camping and be out there and enjoy the outdoors. … There’s a direct line between that and what I do now.”

The transition from the sprawling outdoors of Montour County to Boston College—a campus in an odd limbo between suburban and urban—was jarring for Balog, but he was able to find his footing before long, declaring a communication and secondary education double major.

Fueled by his long-standing desire to be outdoors, he wanted to push himself to look beyond Newton. He fulfilled his cravings for the outdoors by taking up rock-climbing, going on excursions to nearby mountains in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and more. 

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It was on these trips that Balog was able to acquaint himself with a camera. He took an introductory filmmaking class his sophomore year at BC and instantly became hooked. One of his first projects allowed him to film his expedition—using Super 8 film—to the top of Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, located a measly 62 miles northwest of Boston.

“It was something that I could do that deepened my passion and connection to nature,” Balog said.

His two majors might not directly connect to his current career, but Balog still found immense value in the Jesuit, holistic aspects of the BC education and overall experience.

“A tremendous influence then, that I still feel now, is learning critical thinking,” Balog said. “Being able to think outside the box, being able to look past the cultural norms and clichés, and to seek more thoughtful, intellectual inquiry. And that’s really the fuel that BC gave me.”

He found this not only in the oft-dreaded core requirements, but also in his unlikely friendship with a certain faculty member.

Rev. Joseph Appleyard, S.J., BC ’53 and STM ’58, served as the chair of the English department while Balog was at BC. He had heard through a colleague that the young student was a bit more complicated than he had appeared.

“I always called him ‘Jim,’ and I still do,” Appleyard recalled with a smile. “But it seems to have become ‘James’ at some point. … I mean, he looked like most people did in those days. You know, kind of shaggy, dressed in a variety of clothes.”

But Appleyard learned in his conversations with Balog that he was a rock climber and decided to give the activity a try himself. A tall task for someone to take on in his 40s, Appleyard admitted with a sly grin, he found the treks he embarked on with Balog grueling but rewarding.

“[Balog] was the kind of person who you know to trust instinctively, because he knew exactly what he was doing,” he said. “He was very safe and thoughtful about things like that.”

The two would talk for hours in the car, on the hike, and atop the slopes they undertook. On one of the pair’s first hiking trips, Appleyard found himself trailing his companion for the majority of the excursion, due to simple lack of experience. But Balog kept close, encouraging Appleyard along with each step.

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When they found themselves at the top of Cannon Mountain on that Saturday, one of the many peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that Balog and Appleyard took on, it was already dark. And by the time they had cabled down to the ground, hitched a ride to their car, and grabbed a bite to eat, it was 11:30 p.m. Appleyard then realized he needed someone to say midnight mass back at BC.

“I phoned a Jesuit and said ‘Look, I got delayed climbing a mountain,’” he said. “So I needed someone to say the midnight mass … So that worked, except the guy that I talked to had a bit of a hearing problem, and he went over and announced at mass that unfortunately Fr. Appleyard has been seriously injured while climbing in the White Mountains.”

After Balog left BC and began to pursue his career as a nature photographer, the two still kept in touch. Appleyard, now in retirement at the Campion Center in Weston, Mass., a community that hosts retired Jesuits, keeps a framed photo that Balog gifted him in his room—a collection of small shacks sit adorned by some trees and assorted brush in the foreground, laid against a collection of imposing mountains in the background.

“He has a real knack for being able to see what is beautiful in a scene,” Appleyard said of the photo.

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alog graduated from BC and quickly moved out west to attend graduate school in Colorado, where he would come to reside for the rest of his life. At the University of Colorado to study geomorphology, Balog found himself more interested in documenting his ever-more-often excursions into nature than he did in the number crunching and data that came with his studies. He even took up the odd job as a carpenter to help finance his climbing trips. 

Taking a camera to document his adventures each time, Balog began to submit stories to magazines and journals. Eventually, the idea came to him that he could continue this journey to document his excursions as a career.

He made the switch from science to photojournalism and embarked on assignments for numerous magazines and publications, including trips to photograph the impact of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 and other avalanches and natural disasters. By the early ’80s, Balog was finally using his love of nature to propel him forward in his career, but he still could not rest on his laurels.

“I started as a typical nature photographer,” he said. “I wanted to use the camera to celebrate the relationship between humans and nature. And that was a perfect motivation to get myself started. But as my understanding of the art form deepened, I realized that a lot of people have been using the camera over time to celebrate the relationship between humans and nature. There’s nothing terribly imaginative about that.

“In parallel with the beauty, there was a whole other story, a gigantic story that was happening, which was people impacting nature. Very few people were using the camera to talk about that.”

He realized that examining this complex relationship would lead to what he called a tremendous opportunity for artistic and intellectual inquiry. 

Balog kept up his work for major publications, including National Geographic, but embarked on a series of self-directed projects to capture the impact of humans on nature, many of which culminated in a series of photo books. His 1984 collection Wildlife Requiem examines the hunting of animals for sport in sometimes gruesome ways: One picture, as described by a Chicago Tribune article at the time, depicts a young boy displaying the organs of a downed elk.

“So where does this leave the modern hunter who no longer hunts out of necessity?” the 1986 article asks. “Balog offers no pat answers there either. He neither condemns nor glorifies. But the viewer may have a hard time remaining neutral.”

Balog’s thirst to capture a story through peculiar lenses has been a constant throughout his career, leading him to always look for new ways to capture the complexities of the outside world. This desire lent itself to Balog when he set up as many as 43 time-lapse cameras to capture glaciers in the United States, Iceland, Canada, and atop Everest for the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), according to Chasing Ice

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Balog had been to the regions before he kickstarted the ongoing project—his shots of disappearing glaciers had been the subject of a 2007 cover story of National Geographic titled “The Big Thaw: Ice on the Run, Seas on the Rise”—but he was taken aback by the sheer scale of the imminent impact of climate change on the ice he was photographing. 

“I never imagined that you could see features this big disappearing in such a short period of time,” Balog says in the documentary. “But when I did, when I saw that, I realized, ‘my god, there’s a powerful piece of history that’s unfolding in these pictures and I have to go back to those same spots.’”

Many of the cameras that Balog and his team had set up remain in their original spots, still taking photos to continue to provide a clear representation of the effect of climate change on ice and sea levels in the span of a human life—the project began just a dozen years ago, but it has tracked substantial change in glaciers and sparked scientific, political, and social dialogue. 

“I had absolutely no concept of how much social impact that it could have,” Balog said. “I saw, ‘Well, okay there could be a really big revelation here,’ but in fact I really didn’t know what the glaciers would do if the cameras could record it effectively, nor what the culture would think about it.”

In addition to the EIS, Balog continues his work through his Earth Vision Institute, which he says keeps him chasing the same visions he nurtured in the ’80s: He is constantly looking to find new and exciting ways to frame the subjects of his photography. One particular subject he says he is grappling with is finding how to wrap his creative arms around photographing the extraction of oil from the earth—he finds photographing rigs, refineries, and the like to be a bit hackneyed.

“You just make the same finger-wagging, eco, greeny criticism of industry,” Balog said. “The issue is much more complex than that. And trying to turn that into pictures that are complex and new is really difficult.”

Still, he continues to challenge himself to find something more imaginative than what is plainly obvious and to constantly remain self-critical. By doing this, he always finds himself evolving, to the point where he believes his career is now totally unrecognizable from where he started. 

Building on each of his life and career experiences—from nurturing a love of nature as a child to applying his critical inquiry skills he learned at BC to taking on a massive project to unearth the implications of man-made climate change—Balog won’t stop pushing himself to grow. 

“These things are truly an evolutionary process,” he said. “You can’t map it out, you can’t plan it, you can’t try and say, if I do ‘A,’ ‘B’ will happen and if I do ‘B,’ ‘C’ will happen … and then everything will be nice and neat and exactly how I want. All you can do is take a step. It may turn out that the first step is the wrong step, but it’s a step. And then you take another step after that, and by following your instincts, you find a license that works for you.”

Photo Courtesy of James Balog

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