WGHS Hall of Famer: Joseph Sohm’s Lens Captures The Best Of America

All Photos: Joe Sohm photos from his work in early February along the Great River Road near Alton, Illinois, for his compendium of Images of America covering all 50 U.S. States.

By Don Corrigan

Sometimes a photographer points the camera lens on a subject and creates a great profile. Sometimes the camera lens turns 180 degrees and creates a great profile – of the pro behind the camera.

Such has been the case for professional photographer and videographer Joseph Sohm, a 1966 Webster Groves High School graduate, who was inducted onto the school’s prestigious Wall of Fame.

Sohm has been profiled by CBS MarketWatch, PBS NewsHour, Esquire magazine, USA Today, the San Francisco Examiner and more. Sohm has received this “earned media” because of literally hundreds of thousands of images he has produced in a five-decades career.

Photographer and videographer Sohm has had his work appear in National Geographic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and Vogue.

His images of U.S. Presidents have appeared – everywhere. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also have drawn on Sohm’s iconic images to celebrate the American spirit during their White House years.

If you want to talk about U.S. Presidents, Sohm will start with Teddy Roosevelt. That’s because of T.R.’s keen interest in protecting natural landscapes and establishing national parks.

Sohm’s favorite park is Yosemite known for its granite towers, deep valleys and the tranquility of the High Sierra. Yosemite is where T.R. met with the legendary John Muir and was converted to become a conservationist president.

“John Muir outlined to Teddy ‘why’ we need to save our natural heritage,” said Sohm. “Since then, many U.S. Presidents added onto this heritage, including President Clinton, whom I worked for during the 1992 campaign and for his inaugural.

“What makes America unique is our belief in democracy,” said Sohm. “But what also makes us unique is our heritage of creating these national parks. We must preserve this natural heritage and our democracy.”

On The Road: Charles Kuralt

Sohm has high praise for presidents who cherished our national heritage. Another of Sohm’s heroes is CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, who came to his school for the documentary, “16 in Webster Groves” in 1966.

Kuralt’s famous documentary and his journalistic lifestyle inspired Sohm. He, too, wanted to travel all over America in an RV just like Kuralt. Sohm’s mission was to film, photograph and document the best of America.

In the early years of his career, he shot “stills” in all 50 states. His favorite scenery was, and still is, in the West. “Stunning, classic, cowboy country,” as he refers to the amazing sites from southwest Colorado to California.

“When I was shooting those stills, it was: all about: What will show this gorgeous site in 1/8th of a second?” Sohm recalled. “And now, it’s more like: What will take the viewer on a journey in 8-14 seconds, with images taken over 40 minutes or an hour of shooting?

“The new technology and the medium of time lapse is just so wonderful and complicated,” said Sohm. “You have to figure out how a beautiful scene will translate with moving clouds, moving sunset, reflections and anything that moves.”

Despite the new technology, its intricacies and complications, Sohm is in the midst of revisiting all 50 states in his RV and with all new Sony equipment. He is reshooting landscapes in Panoramic, 35mm stills, as well as with advanced video and drone work.

“America is a special place – and I’ve learned that from being behind the lens,” said Sohm. “We all benefit by keeping it special by voting wisely, by cleaning up our environment, by taking care of our great parks.

“We all need to play our part,” said Sohm “I believe my part is doing what I’ve been doing – capturing the American spirit on film and telling the American story with my camera.

A Race For Survival

Sohm was in the St. Louis region recently taking photos of winter scenes of wildlife along the Great River Road. He also took pictures of belching smoke stacks and the abandoned, rusted hulks of heavy industry.

When Sohm isn’t traveling the country in his RV, he’s dodging wildfires in his home state of California. He sees man-made climate change as the culprit. He’s on a mission to spread the message that it must be addressed.

“I’ve been evacuated three times, twice by the same fire as we had a vacation house 70 miles away and both our houses were evacuated,” said Sohm. “The Thomas Fire, almost ‘jumped’ a hill and our home -– my life’s work barely escaped being destroyed.

“Growing up in Missouri, I never thought of wildfires, but then again, I was more ‘tornado-centric’ back then, as most Missourians are,” said Sohm. “I certainly remember the dark green grass color in the sky as a precursor to a twister.”

Climate Change effects are a key component of Sohm’s visual presentations. He has captured images of green energy generation, such as solar, wind and geothermal.

He also has pictures of “pollution of all kinds,” from industry smoke stacks, to brown fields, to contaminated rivers discolored by toxic dumping. He views the carbon contaminants, which are heating up the atmosphere with resulting destructive weather events, as the “front-burner” concern.

“Climate change is simply the defining issue of the 21st century, even more than the COVID pandemic,” said Sohm. “It will affect everything.

“We will get it down – we will be forced to reckon with what is happening. But will that happen in time?” asked Sohm. ”Quite simply: The race is on for the survival of the Earth as we know it.”

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