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Pole to Pole

An interview with nature photographer Ira Meyer.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Photo by Ira Meyer

“Antarctica, in particular, is nature at its purist,” says Ira Meyer (pictured above). He captures the beauty, majesty and stillness of this frozen world in “Iceberg and Mountains Reflected, Dorian Bay, Antarctica”.

 

xnard resident Ira Meyer has spent decades exploring the vast beauty of the world and its people through a lens. After a transformative trip through the wilds of Alaska, he embraced photography as both an art form and a career, traveling the globe in search of inspiration, awe and grace. The searing colors of Southeast Asia, the verdant forests of Yosemite and the austere yet alluring hills of the Middle East have all been captured by Meyer’s perceptive eye. His current passion is the icy splendor and fragility of the Arctic and Antarctica. Meyer spoke to Ventana Monthly about his beginnings, his travels and his obsession with Earth’s polar opposites.

Are you from California originally?
I was born and reared in the Bronx, New York. I spent nearly 20 years in Colorado, Great Britain, Texas, Arkansas and Florida before settling in California at the beginning of 1988.

When did you get into photography?
Once an avid bicyclist, I got hit by a passing car while on an 80-mile training ride with some friends. Broken ribs and scapula, as well as a ruptured spleen, required hospitalization and surgery. Then the owner of a small landscaping and lawn maintenance business, I was out of work for three months.  But I regained my health and strength, completing the 172-mile Cross-Florida bicycle ride less than a year later at a best-ever pace of over 20 mph.

Then living in north central Florida, May brought on summer. Five consecutive days of 90+ degree temperatures with 90 percent humidity left me realizing it wasn’t going to get any cooler until the end of September . . . and that I’d had my fill of this work and climate. So I put my business up for sale, and was lucky to manage to sell it within about six weeks.

Having just turned 40, I found myself not owning a business or home, nor involved in a relationship for the first time in quite a few years. I thought: When does someone have this kind of freedom?  So I bought a used van in which to drive to Alaska. Knowing I was going to drive up some scenic roads and hike some gorgeous trails on a 6,000-mile journey transecting the continent, I purchased my first-ever camera: a $180 Fuji point-and-shoot.

What first brought you to Oxnard, and why have you chosen to make this your home?
I lived in Malibu for the first decade I was in SoCal, leaving when it ceased to be affordable. At the time, I knew the Agoura/Thousand Oaks area much better than Oxnard/Ventura. But life in proximity to the coast suits me much better.

Your first big road trip post-landscaping was Alaska. Why?
When people asked me “Why Alaska,” my answer was simple: Everyone I knew who had been there was either waiting to go back . . . or still there.

What made you fall in love with photography?
When focused and clear, I revel in the exquisite intricacy of the world we live in. Looking through the viewfinder of my camera often facilitates this perception. As my mind becomes quiet, I respond to a feeling that stems from within me. This seems a part of, and in tune with, that which surrounds me.

What were some of your earliest gigs?
I began honing my skills by stealing away to the Sierra for long weekends whenever it was possible, then took a four-month journey to India, Nepal and Southeast Asia. I started producing note cards, which I sold at a number of local shops. I decided to get a booth at the Malibu Arts Festival. My work was well-received and led to more art shows, which have now provided the bulk of my livelihood for over a quarter-century.

Was there a point that you made the jump to the big leagues?
I’ll let you know if I ever get to them. 

But you did land a cover for National Geographic in 2008. What brought you to its attention?
A photo-rep I knew years ago called me one day saying she’d been contacted by NG to submit images for an atlas they were publishing, and wondered if I might have some photos of areas for which she had no coverage. Of the 20 of my images she submitted, four were used. Several years later, NG started doing a section in their magazine called “Visions of Earth.” I had just been to Antarctica, and thought I might have some suitable images. So I called NG’s offices in Washington, D.C. I think the fact that my work had been used in the atlas opened the door to my speaking with one of their photo editors, whom I would then send photos to each time I came back from the polar regions.

Tell us a little about that cover shot.
Svalbard is an archipelago surrounded by the Barents, Norwegian and Greenland Seas, as well as the Arctic Ocean, nearly halfway between the north of Norway and the North Pole. I was on a ship circumnavigating its largest island, Spitsbergen, when a mother polar bear and cub on a small ice floe were spotted in Olgastretet (the Olga Strait). As a staff member, I had a radio. So I immediately heard of the spotting, and dashed to the port bow with my camera. The captain deftly maneuvered the ship to within about 150 yards of the bears, which we spent 10 minutes observing. I took around 75 photographs . . . of which the third was the only one where they both were looking towards my camera.

You’ve photographed Southeast Asia, India, Argentina, the Yukon — all very different and distinct regions of the world. What about each did you find most inspiring?
I’ve been to India four times, finding it fascinating. . . . It is incredibly rich culturally and socially. Its sights, sounds, tastes, smells and colors seem to “attack” all of one’s senses simultaneously. Thai and Laotian people are such simple, sweet, lovely souls. Their Buddhist culture/upbringing, in which equanimity is highly regarded, creates a completely different atmosphere than what we might be accustomed to. . . . [In Vietname] everyone thought I was Soviet. Though I have always thought of myself more as a citizen of the Earth than any of its countries, I felt compelled to let them know I was American. Their response generally left me somewhat overwhelmed. It was as if I was the ghost of a dear old friend come back to life.

Your work over the last decade has been the Arctic and Antarctica. What about these environments inspires you?
While traveling in Patagonia in 1991, I made my way to Punta Arenas, Chile, then to the port from which ships left for Antarctica. This was a destination I’d never considered traveling before. But I thought: I’ll never be this close again. So I went down to the docks to see if I could find a ship going that way, and was incredibly fortunate to find one heading down to pack up a scientific base that was taking some passengers. $880 got me to the ice continent. 

Early the first morning, I was on deck and said to someone, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, are we, Toto?” The beauty was otherworldly. To say the least, I was gobsmacked.

I’ve long loved the early mornings when everyone else is asleep, as there has always seemed to be less static on the radio waves (of life) then. It is always like that in the polar regions. Antarctica, in particular, is nature at its absolute purest. The air is delicious to breathe. And there is a stillness that penetrates to the tips of one’s toes. Though I cannot document this, it seems to be transformative.

Are you trying to capture or document something in particular?
I believe the planet will be healthier if we keep places like the polar regions pristine. As so few people have ever traveled to them, they most likely view them as vast wastelands of ice. I feel extremely fortunate to have spent the amount of time I have there, and privileged to be able to bring back glimpses of their splendor, so that others might have a greater sense of their beauty and importance.

How is documenting the polar environments different?
Though the underlying feeling of the Arctic and Antarctic is quite similar to me, they are vastly different. I love the Arctic. Antarctica, however, has captured a bit of my soul. I’ve taken thousands of photographs, yet at best only capture snippets. I have written and talked about it at great length, but have as yet found no words to describe just how “ginormous” it is . . . and how it humbles me.

Some years ago, we had a former Canadian astronaut as one of our guests onboard. A short while later I received an email from him, in which he said that returning home from Antarctica wasn’t at all dissimilar to returning to Earth from space.

Are there are other places that call to you?
I’ve dreamt of the wilds of Africa since I was a boy, but haven’t been there yet. But as I said to a friend a short while ago: There’s no place that I haven’t been that I want to go to more than I want to go back to Antarctica. 

Ira Meyer will show and sell his work at Art in the Park held May 26-27 at Libbey Park, 205 East Ojai Avenue, Ojai, and also at the Fourth of July Street Fair in Downtown Ventura. For more information, visit www.irameyer.com.

Ira Meyer.

A polar bear and her cub, seemingly stranded on an ice floe in the Olga Strait near Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. This poignant depiction of the fragility of life in the Arctic landed on the cover of the Turkish version of National Geographic’s Climate Change Special Edition of 2008.

The land and wildlife on or near Antarctica and the Southern Ocean (“Fur Seal and King Penguins,”) have occupied Meyer for the last decade.

“Pixie of an Old Woman,” Vietnam.

“Monarch Cluster #5,” California's Central Coast.

“Jaisalmeri Jeune Fille,” India.

05-01-2018

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