VaCA professor Steve Johnson is a man consumed by love for all manner of frogs, salamanders, toads, and newts. In his colloquium talk on Tuesday afternoon, Johnson spoke on his 2012-2013 sabbatical spent in southern Oregon, getting on his belly in the mud to photograph the inhabitants of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. This 86,774-acre monument is renowned for being one of the most biologically diverse regions in the United States.
“To be able to care, to be able to empathize, is the beginning of conservation,” said Johnson. Instead of clinically photographing specimens from above, Johnson prefers to get up close and personal, like taking portraits of the Southern Alligator Lizards and Pacific Chorus Frogs he finds. These beautiful portraits force you to look into the eyes of an animal and perhaps recognize a sentience that is often missed.
Johnson collaborated with Anna Maria Johnson, his wife, who is a writer and visual artist. The two lived with their children at the Oregon Extension in Lincoln County, working with local wildlands advocates, the webzine “Hot- house,” and their own blog (cascadesiskiyou.org) among other projects.
During the colloquium Johnson shared amusing stories of wildlife encounters. One day, while hiking through the snow near his house, he heard a low grunt, and peered around to find a Roosevelt elk. On Thanksgiving, his family was shadowed under the wingspan of a Great Gray Owl swooping overhead – the largest owl in North America.
One macro shot showed a tadpole being terrorized by a pincher-bearing invertebrate, and Johnson confessed to the audience that he saved the tadpole after photographing it.
“I think frogs need all the help they can get!” he said.
First-year Robert Weaver said, “[The colloquium] was a good example of how photography can be used to create a difference and an impact.”
A crowning moment of the year was Johnson’s discovery of a rare Oregon Spotted Frog after wading through a marsh for hours. The frog, endemic to the Pacific Northwest, was thought to have gone extinct after 1971, until one was discovered in 2003. Since then, its population has remained so low that some monument staff who have worked there for years have never seen one. Johnson said that when he heard how unlikely it would be for him to see one, “of course I needed to find one!”
“Some of you know about my obsession with amphibians,” Johnson added.
Other notable frogs were T-Rex and Old Blind Darby, bullfrogs that Johnson named after seeing them regularly. Bullfrogs were introduced to the West as a game species, prized for their leg meat, and have since adapted to the region.
Last fall’s Conservation Photography class was one result of Johnson’s sabbatical. With field studio techniques learned in the class, almnus Han Park took such stunning photographs of turtles, butterflies, and crayfish that they have been featured on the Internet wildlife database “Meet Your Neighbors.”
After the presentation, one audience member expressed his concern for the Shenandoah mountains. In regards to conserving them, he said to Johnson, “keep your feet to the fire is my charge to you!”
Courtesy of The WeatherVane, March 2, 2014. Photos by Steven D. Johnson.