Jerry Greer has made a name for himself showing the most spectacularly awe-inspiring side of nature. But for the past several years his focus has been fixed on showing a dark side of human nature. The side that turns crystal-clear mountain streams chocolate-brown. The side that turns lush primeval mountaintops into barren moonscapes.
“If I had my way, I’d be doing this full time,” Greer said. The “this” in question is using his considerable photographic skills to document assaults on the environment.
Greer dates his metamorphosis from landscape photographer to environmental crusader to a July 2006 trek into Unicoi County’s Rocky Fork. “I can still remember the expression on Dave’s (Ramsey) face as he looked at the turbid waters of what was listed as one of Tennessee’s wild blue-ribbon trout streams,” Greer wrote in the preface to his award-winning 2009 book, “The Blue Ridge, Ancient and Majestic.”
The sight of the murky water and the cause — heavy logging at the headwaters — made Greer’s blood boil and set him on a new life path. “It was one of the most distressing things I have ever witnessed in such a pristine location, outside of mountaintop removal coal mining,” he said. “I’m not against sustainable logging, but that was not what they were doing at the headwaters of Rocky Fork on Blockstand Creek.”
Greer documented the logging’s impact and urged the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to investigate. Today, the stream runs clear and the land once slated for development as an ultra-exclusive gated enclave is in the protective arms of the U.S. Forestry Service and the Conservation Fund. Dave Ramsey, who introduced Greer to Rocky Fork, was named Field & Stream magazine’s 2011 Conservation Hero of the Year for his efforts to protect the 10,000-acre wilderness area in Unicoi and Greene counties.
“This hands-on introduction to how nature photography can help acknowledge the need for and to enforce environmental regulation led me to realize part two of my photography career.”
Greer 1.0 can be seen in his annual Blue Ridge Mountains calendars; the 2012 is the 10th anniversary edition. His book “The Blue Ridge” — subtitled “A Celebration of the World’s Oldest Mountains” — is nearly 200 pages of stunning photographs and vibrant essays by minister-storyteller-author Charles W. Maynard of Jonesborough.
Greer spent nearly seven years on the book because “I had wanted this book to be a defining body of work for me as a natural history photographer,” Greer wrote. “I wanted to give the Blue Ridge region the very best I could.”
“The Blue Ridge” was publish by Mountain Trail Press, which Greer founded in 1999. The publishing arm of Greer’s modest empire is part of the Green Press Initiative, which works with newspaper and book publishers to mitigate environmental impacts of everything from making paper and ink to distributing to getting the end-product to consumers.
Greer has embraced the digital age of photography — he has the equipment and vernacular to prove it — but he remains a purist, railing against “photographers” who digitally manipulate images of nature.
“They create a false sense of nature,” Greer said. “The natural world is under stress and they create a sense that everything is OK. They have no qualms about using five, six, seven, even 10 images to make one. They call it ‘painting with light.’ Well, ‘painting with light’ is crap. In their minds, they’re artists and have no problem creating a lie.”
He still shoots “pretty” for calendars, but Greer’s motive for capturing breathtaking landscapes has evolved. “I want people to feel good about the natural world so maybe they’ll get out and see it for themselves, and see what’s at stake.”
In Greer’s career reboot, it’s not just the motives that have changed, so has his arsenal. Greer 2.0 is equipped with latest high-definition digital video and audio gear locked and loaded to chronicle environmental abuse documentary style. “The only way to convince people that we have a problem is to show it to them, show them what mountaintop removal is. Video is a totally new world for me, but I’m excited about all the possibilities it presents.”
Greer’s work is used by environmental groups for lobbying and fundraising and as evidence in regulatory hearings and in court cases. His client list includes stalwarts of environmentalism such as the Conservation Fund, the Pew Charitable Fund, the Lyndhurst Foundation, Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“The more I spend photographing the Blue Ridge and southern Appalachians, the more I see the stress exerted on these wild places,” Greer said in an interview in Outdoor Photographer magazine. “I decided to do what I could as a photographer to become engaged in the efforts to save these lands.”