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Point, Shoot, and Know When to Run
Nature Photography, the Carsten Peter Way. Plus: Photography tips for volcanoes, caves, and glaciers. By David Roberts


Photo: Volcano in Indonesia
WISH YOU WERE HERE: Peter poses for a self-portrait in front of an erupting Semeru in Indonesia.

If lava bombs start falling out of the sky above you, don't drop your camera and run. "Running is the most stupid thing you can do," says Carsten Peter, 46, and he should know. During the past three decades, the German photographer has gotten far closer to more active volcanoes, repeatedly, than anyone in his right mind. And in the process, he's shot what may be the most dramatic pictures ever taken of molten magma in action.

So, what do you do when big chunks of 2,000-degree (1,093-degree Celsius) lava start falling out of the sky? According to Peter, the problem with running is that it amounts to submitting to a random fusillade of lava bombs. "Normally they are shot quite high in the air," he says matter-of-factly. "They take a while to come down. So you watch them. If you see a bomb falling toward you, step aside. It will impact into the earth right beside you." A wan smile passes over the photographer's lips. "Of course, if the bomb comes out at a flat angle, it can bump in front of you and split into many different pieces. That can be quite dangerous. There is never a security package with a volcano."

On the other hand, if it's a tornado that is headed straight for you, the smartest thing to do is run—or even better, jump back into your car and take off. Such was the advice tendered rather urgently by Peter's colleagues in the arcane discipline of tornado chasing on June 24, 2003, to which Peter begrudgingly agreed. On assignment for National Geographic, Peter had spent the better part of three successive spring seasons crisscrossing the Midwest and Great Plains in a vain search for a real live tornado. Finally, on his last day in the field, a bona fide half-mile-wide (.8-kilometer-wide) twister materialized near Manchester, South Dakota. Peter was mesmerized.

"The funny thing is," he recalls, "the tornado made a loop and came right back at us. I was outside the car, shooting. I was looking through a wide-angle lens, so the tornado looked quite far away. The guys in the car were screaming at me: 'Carsten, Carsten, we have to get out!' Yeah, I thought, maybe another image, then maybe another image. When they cried so loud I couldn't ignore them, I jumped into the car and we sped out like hell." Not, however, before Peter had captured pictures of a tornado from closer to its fatal spout than any other photographer before him, a feat that garnered Peter the 2004 World Press Photo first prize—one of photojournalism's most prestigious awards.

Those with dangerous jobs or hazardous hobbies like to believe that they can control the risks. In the face of sudden unexpected danger, though, most react in the normal human way—with adrenaline-fueled anxiety, a headlong haste to escape, and a determination not to repeat the experience.

Peter, one comes to see, is of a different ilk. If there is a common thread to the kinds of assignments he seeks out, it is his own fascination with and surrender to nature at her most chaotic and unpredictable. In the face of an exploding volcano or a town-leveling tornado, Peter reacts not with anxiety but with an eerie, sanguine calm. He moves in closer, not away. "I'm most interested in the unknown," he says. And only in those moments of surrender can Peter witness—and bring back to the rest of us in vivid, close-up images—some of the last places on Earth to be explored, as well as some of the most violent and, until now, unknowable of natural phenomena.

Follow photographer Carsten Peter who boldly goes where few humans dare to go in the May 2005 issue of Adventure.

How Carsten Peter Gets the Shot

Volcanoes
To get close enough to capture the full fury of a volcano without his camera disintegrating, Peter studies the wind currents within a caldera and positions himself in a well-ventilated spot. The concern, he says, isn't the lava so much as the poisonous chlorine and sulfur gases that rise from the volcano's vent. They corrode the skin and lungs and wreak havoc on photographic equipment. Peter doesn't have a rule of thumb about how close is too close when it comes to magma. "Sometimes I can walk over active lava," he says. "Other times 1,000 feet (305 meters) is too dangerous."

Caves
Formed by eons of running water, limestone caves are damp—a hazard to equipment but hardly a deterrent for Peter. "Of course you can use a waterproof camera," he says, "but I prefer my normal equipment." Rather than fuss with housings and cameras that he's not accustomed to, and risk mistakes, Peter has developed a sixth sense for when his gear is kaput. In general, he says, electronic displays go first, but audible cues are equally telling—waterlogged cameras, for instance, tend to make funny noises.

Glaciers
You'd think that glaciers would be Peter's most predictable subjects. Wrong. They are "alive"—melting and changing each year. Peter, normally a minimalist, overpacks for glacier trips. He brings along dry suits and inflatable rafts in the event that he encounters a new glacial river or lake. "They are the chameleons of caves," says Peter.

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Photograph by Carsten Peter


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, May 2005

The World's Best Hikes: Author Peter Potterfield's top trail picks
Point, Shoot, and Know When to Run: NG photographer Carsten Peter's incredible life
Pelton's World: A modern-day Easy Rider lays down the rules of the road
"Life's an Adventure" Reader Photo Album: See readers' photos and submit your own


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May 2005



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