With her new series, Water, Aspen photographer Tamara Susa conveys the beauty of our valley and the urgency of climate change.
Tamara Susa’s photographed mountains in the valley in black and white. Her rationale: Black and white is timeless, a fitting format to convey the issue of climate change. Photography by Tamara Susa
For Tamara Susa (tamarasusa.com), water is not only an essential part of life but also her muse. The renowned Aspen photographer has created a new series that addresses the issue of climate change in the Roaring Fork Valley. Aptly named Water, the series is at once luminous and haunting, a reminder of all we have—and stand to lose. Here, Susa discusses her work on this groundbreaking project.
What prompted you to take on this beautiful project?
I wanted to do more with my photography than simply take photos of pretty landscapes. I want to seduce the audience with the beauty of our environment, but also remind them of the urgency of protecting this place we all love so much. There’s this general perception that the impact of climate change isn’t an immediate concern. I wanted to bring this topic closer to home and specifically focus on the importance of the snowpack in order to fight wildfires.
A triptych from Susa’s project called Disturbance: the starkness of the Milky Way Galaxy, billowing smoke from the Grizzly Creek fire (as seen from Snowmass) and an apocalyptic sun visible through smoke coming from the fires burning throughout the summer of 2020 Photography by Tamara Susa
Why did you choose water as your subject to convey your message about climate?
Water, in all of its phases, is the most basic physical source of life, and it’s obviously critical to the world’s ecosystems. In Colorado, we don’t get much precipitation in the summer, so we depend on the snowpack to feed the rivers, keep soils moist and protect against wildfires. As much as 75% of water in the West comes from snowmelt. Snow stores water high in the mountains until it’s needed later in the year. As the world warms, less snow impacts our year-round lives in Colorado. Our culture thinks of water as a commodity, but that might not be the case if the climate change continues unabated—it won’t be around.
How long have you lived in Aspen, and what environmental changes have you seen?
I moved to Aspen in 2012. I haven’t lived here long enough to see the climate change, but the winters were already well on their way to being shorter than they were 50 years ago. Since I’ve lived here, we’ve had many Decembers without much natural snow. The Lake Christine and Grizzly Creek fires burned in our vicinity. Most summers, we’ve had fire restrictions and, at times, even water restrictions. Climate change will only make matters worse.
Why did you choose black-and-white photography to showcase your work?
Black-and-white photographs are timeless, which I found fitting when conveying the issue of climate change. The lack of color eliminates distraction and makes us look at nature in a different way. We have some of the most photographed and iconic locations in the country in our backyard. I wanted to step away from cliched photographs and create work that’s a personal expression. I used long exposures to represent the passage of time and lack of implemented solutions to the climate-change crisis.
A stand of evergreens is blanketed in the valley’s most precious commodity: snow. Photography by Tamara Susa
When looking over what you’d shot for the project, what most surprised you?
I was more surprised by the information I came across while researching the project, rather than the visual part of it. It’s astonishing that people don’t think we’re directly contributing to climate change. At the same time, 84% of wildfires in recent years were started by humans, and three of the largest wildfires in Colorado history burned in 2020. During the second half of this century, fires are expected to burn as much as three times larger than in the first half. With less snowmelt, fighting forest fires will be more difficult.
What do you hope our readers will take away from these images?
Climate change is still an abstract concept to many people. By telling a local story, I hope to bring the issue closer to those who enjoy winters in our mountains—snow isn’t merely wonderful for winter recreational purposes but also is a crucial water supply for our lives, year-round, in Colorado. As the ski seasons become shorter, low water levels will make rafting almost nonexistent. Mountain-biking trails will turn into dust, forests will turn gray, and wildlife will disappear from the landscape. Climate change threatens many of the things that draw us to the Rocky Mountains.
The frozen Ruedi Reservoir Photography by Tamara Susa
Other important elements of this series?
This project is a continuation of the work I did in collaboration with Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (aspennature.org). In a project called Disturbance, I addressed the topic of wildfires by merging scenes of beauty and destruction as if they were a part of one continuous landscape, showing how everything in nature is connected. Presented as triptychs, these imaginary landscapes depict our unsustainable relationship with the natural world. The center’s team has been a great help to me when researching my project, and I encourage everyone to get more familiar with what its team is doing for our community.
Where can readers see these images up close?
This is an ongoing project, and I don’t have any exhibits planned as of yet. If interested, viewers can check out my website (tamarasusa.com) or Instagram (@tamarasusaphoto) for updates.
Photography by: Courtesy of Tamara Susa