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James Balog's photos chronicle climate change - "The Takeout"

Nature photographer Jim Balog on "The Takeout"
Nature photographer Jim Balog on "The Takeout" — 10/22/2021 47:10

Nature photographer James Balog has a message for climate change skeptics: Earth is changing and humans are responsible. His new book, "The Human Element: A Time Capsule from the Anthropocene," chronicles in pictures evidence of our changing world.   

"This is actually what some living human being with two eyes facing forward was able to see going on in his world.," Balog told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett for this week's "Takeout" podcast. "I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm bringing back that visual evidence and saying, 'Here, you know, this is the reality.'"

Listen to this episode on ART19

Below are a sample of Balog's photos. His quotes are edited lightly for clarity.  

Keystone Power Plant and Farm, Shelocta, Pennsylvania, USA, 2017. All smokestacks seen in this chapter are burning coal. Page 100 from "The Human Element" by James Balog. Rizzoli International, New York, 2021. James Balog

"It's this seemingly bucolic landscape. It happens to be in Western Pennsylvania. It's a beautiful farm with the smokestacks of a coal fired power plant behind. We refer to it as our Norman Rockwell shot because it looks so contented. But in fact, that picture encapsulates the Anthropocene in a sense...A key part of the Anthropocene is about agricultural modification of the Earth's landscape, which goes back at least 10,000 years in the human record. And then, of course, the modification of the air and the climate and everything that's happened subsequent to fossil-fuel burning is encapsulated in those smokestacks. So Norman Rockwell from Pennsylvania redone in whatever year that was 2017, I think, that's the Anthropocene right in front of our noses. Even though it looks pretty and it looks tranquil, there's a lot to feed on in that picture." 

Flame Front #6 near Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, Canada, June 22, 2015. Experimental prescribed research burn. Page 278 from "The Human Element" by James Balog. Rizzoli International, New York, 2021. James Balog

"When you're standing in front of that stuff, the rage that's in those flames, it just kind of stirs your innermost being. I mean, it's like in your spinal cord and in the animal...There's a noise, there's a roar, there's a crackle. And you can just feel this incredible intensity as the flames just go and consume everything....It's scary in a way and it's incredibly beautiful because you realize this metamorphic is doing something that metamorphic processes have always had to do on the surface of his earth.  Things are always changing and fire – this combustion process of chemistry is something that's taking material from state A to state B. Nature has to do its own kind of metamorphosis. But when humans take coal and convert that ancient sun energy that's embedded in coal into stuff that we dump in the sky, that's the wrong sort of metamorphing." 

Giant Sequoia, "Stagg," Camp Nelson, California, USA, December 28, 2001. Page 245 from "The Human Element" by James Balog. Rizzoli International, New York, 2021. James Balog

"It's a famous giant sequoia in the Sierra Nevada, and it's the fifth largest living organism in the world. And so I want it to come from burning trees to a dynamic living tree that's at least a couple thousand years old. The diameter of the base of the trunk is 28 feet or so in diameter. It's 260 feet tall, more or less. And I shot that picture in 2001 and had to invent some techniques along with my tree rigging crew out in California about how I could get that picture so that I could see the character of the tree in a way that the human eye had never seen it before. You know, when you're out in those forests, you're always looking up at a tapering column of wood going into the sky. And I thought, that's boring. We've seen all that already. And I, after several years of experiments, we figured out how to put me on a rope up in the sky and slide down on the rope through the forest and be able to witness the character and personality of this tree through this direct vision and then reassemble that vision in this gigantic computer mosaic of 451 frames." 

500- to 700-year-old ice calved from Breidermerkursjokull, polished by the action of glacier, river and seawater, on the way to raising global sea level, seen on the beach at the mouth of the stream draining the Jökulsárlón Lake, Iceland, February 7, 2008. Page 374 from "The Human Element" by James Balog. Rizzoli International, New York, 2021. James Balog

"This is of an iceberg on the shores of Iceland, where a piece of - it's not a very big iceberg as icebergs go - you know, it's maybe twice the height of you and I was sitting here at the table. And it's broken off a glacier along with millions of other pieces of ice as that glacier is receding. And it's flowing out into the ocean. So, what you're seeing on the left side of the frame is the incoming waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the ice is sitting there waiting to be eaten away by the ocean. And you know, I used to think of sea level rise - this thing we talk about as a consequence of climate change, eating away at the glaciers... I used to think of that as a relatively abstract process and when you see this ice going into the ocean, you realize that even if the chunk of ice is only that big or if it's this big, sea level rise is a real live thing happening piece by piece by piece as this frozen water in the glaciers and ice sheets is converted into liquid water in the ocean. So this picture is the manifestation of that living ongoing process." 

Vanessa and Trey, Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA, September 24, 2016 Page 435 from "The Human Element" by James Balog. Rizzoli International, New York, 2021. James Balog

"In the case of this picture, with Vanessa and Trey in the water, this was a series of pictures that was showing children and their parents in the water to say, 'Hey, the sea levels that these kids are going to live in, you know, 40, 50, 60, 80 years hence, are very, very different than the sea levels that we're seeing right now.' So we did we spent three days shooting these kinds of images, and in one frame there was this magical moment where Young Trey was on the back of his mother, Vanessa. The light was in the right place. I was in the right place. And this really powerful, surreal picture somehow came together." 

For more of Major's conversation with Balog, download "The Takeout" podcast on Art19, iTunesSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).    

Producers: Arden Farhi, Jamie Benson, Jacob Rosen, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson
CBSN Production: Eric Soussanin and Julia Boccagno 
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