Behind the scenes with National Geographic photographer Michael Melford
Text by Emily Mount, photos by Michael Melford.
Michael Melford popped open the door of the Piper Super Cub and looked out on an epic wonderland of snow, ice, and vertical rock. He and pilot Paul Claus were idling at some 10,000 feet on a flattish slope deep in the heart of the St. Elias Mountains. Suffering a few misgivings, he jumped out, plunging knee-deep into powdery snow. With a roar, Claus taxied downhill and dropped off the edge of the slope. Then all was silent.
Melford was on assignment with National Geographic, photographing Treasures of Alaska, a guidebook. “I had read about Paul as the cowboy pilot of Alaska, one of the best in the state, so I trusted him,” Melford says. “I had to.” When Melford had asked for an air-to-air photo shoot with two planes, Claus replied, “We don’t need air-to-air, we can do ground-to-air.” Ground-to-air? Melford had wondered as he climbed into the plane. Now, with only his camera and tripod for company, he understood.
A moment later, the crimson plane whined back up and flew in a graceful arc in front of Mount St. Elias. One amazing shot followed another as Claus soared back and forth. “It wasn’t until I was back on terra firma that it hit me I would still be up there if he hadn’t come back to pick me up,” Melford remarks. “Thank God he came back!”
Michael Melford is one of those photographers every amateur hopes to become, a success story where hard work leads to dream assignments and publications. Before his National Geographic book assignment in 2000, he had shot for dozens of magazines, from Time and Newsweek to GEO and Smithsonian. He’d photographed Gorbachev at the White House, movie stars like Jennifer Gray and Patrick Swayze from Dirty Dancing, musicians like David Bowie. His portfolio showed versatility, from architecture and gardens to travel and wildlife. When given the opportunity to shoot a guidebook of any state, he chose Alaska. Over the next 25 years, he visited the state 36 times to shoot and teach for National Geographic.
Melford was born in 1950 and raised in the small New York town of Hastings-on-Hudson. As a child, he caught bluegills and tadpoles, skied, hiked, and camped. He attended Syracuse University, where he discovered photography. As a quiet introvert, he used his camera as a communication tool, a way to express his vision of the world.
Melford interviewed for the Syracuse school of journalism, where a professor asked about his objectivity. “My reply was that I didn’t think anyone could be objective, that we all saw life through our own eyes,” recalls Melford. “What I saw was beauty everywhere and I didn’t want to be objective. I wanted people to see what I saw, to share the love, the beauty that I saw all around us. I wanted to inspire people to care.” The journalism school declined his application.
In 1973, Melford graduated with a photography degree and moved to New York City to hit it big. It lasted two weeks. “I didn’t want to start by working for the Daily News,” Melford says. “I loved nature. I didn’t want to live in the city.” He drifted out West, spending time in Colorado and California before finding himself in upstate New York, swinging a hammer and roofing on a commune. One foggy autumn morning, he photographed a particularly lovely tree. When the film came back, he was struck by the beauty he had captured. Not everyone agreed. During a commune meditation session, “people started bringing up the idea that I was wasting time and money by taking pictures,” Melford says. “I’m looking at this slide, and I’m hearing this sh*t, and I’m like, ‘Ok, I’m out of here. I have to go to New York. I have to start at the bottom and do this.’”
Back in New York City, he found a job as a photo assistant. This time, he was committed to doing whatever it took to make it. He shot book covers and published spreads in Garden, Natural History, Travel + Leisure, Fortune and others. “As long as I didn’t insult people (a very hard thing for me not to do),” Melford chuckles, “the work just kept rolling in.” Then came his big break: LIFE magazine. Being a LIFE photographer opened all the doors.
One of those doors was with National Geographic Kids magazine, where Melford shot a few stories, then got a desperate call from Geographic’s books division. “Someone had shot a New England book and the pictures sucked,” Melford recalls. “So, I saved them. After that, they said I could do anything I wanted.” He chose the Alaska guidebook.
Armed with 300 rolls of film and a jam-packed three-month itinerary, Melford was ready for anything, as long as it happened on schedule. He showed his calendar to Tom Walker and Nan Elliot, the two writers on his book. Walker recalls, “It was sorta like: Day 1—Photograph bears at Pack Creek; Day 2—Photograph wolves at Mendenhall; Day 3—Photograph Sasquatch. We thought him clueless because of a schedule that had no sense of weather delays, the vagaries of Alaska travel or the unwillingness of wildlife to cooperate on a human schedule.”
In Elliot’s introduction to the book, she referred to him as Peter Pan on speed. “He was darting about the state with minutes to spare,” she says. A couple months later, when Elliot told Melford they’d called him clueless, “He laughed and laughed and ever after adopted the moniker ‘Clueless.’ He has signed emails and texts as ‘Clueless’ for the past 20 years now.”
Arriving Memorial Day 2000, Melford headed to Denali, ready to photograph spring. But the park was closed, still covered in snow. Clueless! He drove on to Fairbanks, shooting an outrageous sunset that seemed to last forever. The radio announcer reported sunrise was in 20 minutes. “That was my, ‘Where am I? Oh, I’m in Alaska!’” Melford laughs. “I didn’t get a hotel, I just stayed up all night and photographed sunrise.”
When he visited Round Island to photograph walruses, Melford was told, “The permit is for a week but pack for a month,” because the weather is so bad. “I said, ‘But I’ve only got two days!’ and they laughed at me and said, ‘Well, be my guest.’” Two sunny days later, Clueless was off the island, all according to schedule.
In Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Melford photographed climbers on Root Glacier. While they climbed out of a crevasse, he inched closer to cut the foreground out of his composition. Just a little closer. Click. Closer…closer. “It was one of those times where you’re so excited and into your photography you lose track of everything else,” Melford says. “At some point, I looked down and realized one false move, and I would go down into that crevasse never to be seen again.” Temporarily petrified, he finally managed to back up, digging his crampons into the ice as he retreated to safety.
Whether finding a different angle on bears in Katmai National Park, stumbling across a fishing derby with the world-record halibut, or visiting the bar in Chicken where they shoot women’s panties out of a cannon, Melford kept thinking, Only in Alaska! “It’s a different country,” he muses. “It’s all by itself. When you’ve got the shot, you can step back from the camera, take it in and go, ‘I can’t believe I’m here! What did I do to deserve this?’”
“Michael loved the wilderness here,” says Elliot. “Although he had photographed all over the world, he never got jaded to see any animal in the wild. ‘It is always a gift,’ he would say, with uncharacteristic seriousness.”
Every day was intense, completely focused on the task at hand. “When I’m on assignment, I hardly talk to people,” Melford states. “There’s no relaxing, no socializing. I’d get hungry and be like, ‘I didn’t come here to eat. I came to photograph.’ I generally don’t tell people what I’m doing. I’m stealthful.”
Melford’s hard-won images garnished the pages of Treasures of Alaska, showcasing the grandeur and wildness of the Great Land. “Michael’s pictures are just effortlessly beautiful,” says fellow National Geographic photographer Bob Krist. “He always seems to be in the right place at the right time in the right conditions…and that is no accident. He has a special feel for what is going on in nature. He’s simpatico and his photographs reflect that. Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses,” Krist jokes. “He’s a known curmudgeon, and many people think that his love of photographing trees derives simply from the fact that they are some of the few subjects who won’t talk back to him and are actually slower than he is. But even if that is the case, he does a great job with them, even if they do outshine him in their conversational skills!”
From the books division, Melford moved on to National Geographic Traveler. He shot 37 stories for Traveler before getting a call from National Geographic magazine. Desperate to find a last-minute photographer for a story on Acadia National Park, they asked Melford’s editor at Traveler for the name of their best landscape photographer. “He recommended me and that was it,” says Melford. “At the end when I showed the pictures, the managing editor stood up and asked me again what my name was. He said, ‘You will be hearing from us again very soon.’”
Melford knew the magazine was doing a series on national parks, he recounts. “So I said, ‘I propose every national park!’ And they were like, ‘Hang on buddy, you can propose one or two at a time!’” He shot Glacier National Park, then Death Valley. Soon he was their national parks guy. During his National Geographic career, he photographed 18 stories for the magazine.
Of all his assignments, Melford is most proud of his 2010 feature on the Pebble Mine controversy, where his images introduced Bristol Bay to the world. His first evening in Ekuk, he photographed a family pulling 18,000 pounds of sockeye from the mouth of the Nushagak River. “I’d never seen so many salmon,” Melford says. “In the middle of the frenzy, Ina Bouker picks up this fish, kisses it and says, ‘I love these fish!’ Thank God the light was perfect, the composition was perfect, the content was there. I couldn’t say, ‘Would you kiss that fish for about 20 minutes?’ Click, one frame, that’s it, it was a moment.” That moment has taken on a life of its own, promoting the effort to stop the mine.
Melford connected with Rick Halford, former president of the Alaska Senate and prominent opponent of Pebble Mine. In his own plane, Halford flew Melford to the proposed mine site and around the region. “The area seemed to be shut down due to weather, but Rick kept flying toward some dark clouds,” Melford recalls. “Being a pilot myself, I know the dangers of pushing the limits, but Rick was undeterred and headed straight for a hole in the clouds. He scared the bejesus out of me.” On the other side, they flew over one spectacular vista after another. “How often do you see a Republican joined together with a Democrat for a cause?” he asks. “I guess I was willing to die for the cause, because when he went into that hole, I thought we weren’t going to come out again!”
Today, Melford lives in Minnesota with his wife. This year he begins to wind down into retirement, but he doesn’t plan to put his feet up. He closely follows the Pebble Mine controversy and gives lectures on Bristol Bay. When a “mini-Pebble” happened in his community and a developer destroyed a forest with nesting herons, Melford ran for local office and won. He still cherishes time alone with nature and can often be found standing in a river with fly rod in hand, listening to the water and meditating. His photographs have touched literally millions of people, but he remains self-deprecating, modest, and ready to laugh, especially at himself.
Emily Mount met Michael Melford in 2013 aboard a Lindblad Expeditions ship in Alaska. She was working as the photography instructor, he the National Geographic photographer. Their instant friendship was fueled by a mutual love of not only photography but also swing dancing, which they enjoy at every opportunity.