Lake Michigan, the immense body of fresh water whose shimmering beauty convinced Northwestern’s founders that this was the place to build the University, has been under threat since the early 20th century. Northwestern researchers, students and alumni are discovering solutions for water quality issues and climate change challenges in the Great Lakes region.
Understandably, Josh Anon wondered if he was wasting his time.
The photographer had taken three weeks off from his full-time gig, caught a once-a-week flight from San Francisco to the Falkland Islands, then traveled nearly 900 miles by ship over two days to reach South Georgia Island, a 100-mile-long spit of land in the South Atlantic that “for a few months of the year has the densest concentration of wildlife on the planet,” Anon says. Fur seals, elephant seals, king penguins and more go there to breed.
On this morning in 2015, a break in the weather promised a glimpse of sunrise. So Anon woke at 2:30 a.m., put on a GoreTex heavy jacket, waterproof pants and Arctic muck boots, and hauled his cameras and gear to the sandy shoreline of St. Andrew’s Bay. The stage was set — but where were the penguins?
“They just weren’t showing up. I’m thinking, ‘Am I wasting a morning? Should I move somewhere else?’” recalls Anon ’03. “And then it was like somebody called central casting and said, ‘Hey, send in the penguins. Yeah, just send them all. Keep them coming.’ And for maybe an hour or two I had March of the Penguins right in front of me. ... It was just an utterly spectacular morning.”
Anon has had his share of awe-inspiring encounters — with penguins, polar bears, walruses and more. Raised in Erie, Pa., in a family of photographers — “we always had a fridge full of film in our garage” — he got his first camera at age 4, bought his first digital SLR camera with savings from his campus job at Northwestern, and has been photographing wildlife and landscapes for more than two decades, co-authoring eight photography books with his mother, Ellen, along the way.
Driven to capture rare and unexpected images of fragile landscapes, he started traveling to remote places — Iceland, Norway, the Falkland Islands. In 2014 he ended up in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the high Arctic, “and the polar virus bit me. … I really got into chasing polar bears,” he says. “I love the scenery in the Arctic. Every time of year it’s completely different. In the winter it’s white on white with gorgeous light all the time. In the summer there’s [a huge amount] of wildlife.”
When the pandemic halted travel, Anon looked for opportunities closer to home. He went storm chasing with friends and ventured to Yellowstone National Park in the winter, which “made me miss polar bears.” In Los Angeles, where he’s lived for six years, he shot star trails — images that capture the arcs of light that the stars paint across the sky as the Earth turns — above iconic landmarks.
Anon had discovered a way to manipulate digital photography to capture star trails in urban environments, where light pollution often obscures the stars. “It’s a [huge] amount of work,” he says, “but suddenly I was motivated to photograph all these landscapes that a million people are shooting every day — because I can do something totally different [and provide] a perspective that nobody has seen before.”
Anon also became interested in abstract expressionism, especially color field painting, a style of art characterized by large swaths of solid color. To achieve similar results with photography, “I started going into the ocean around sunset, using ... different combinations of lenses and [camera] settings,” he says. “I got some neat color field minimalist surf photographs — while periodically going for washing machine rides in the waves.”
Ironically, when travel resumed after the pandemic, Anon celebrated with a weeklong trip to a remote cabin in an isolated part of northwest Iceland to photograph arctic foxes. And this January he is headed to the steppes of Mongolia to shoot the elusive Pallas’s cat, which has rarely been photographed in its natural habitat. The species is considered near-threatened due to habitat degradation. That’s exactly why Anon is seeking them out.
In his two decades as a landscape photographer, Anon has witnessed real and dramatic effects of climate change. When he visited Svalbard in April 2023 for the first time four years, the high temperatures were above freezing. That’s unusually warm for Svalbard, where the normal high for that time of year is around 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
The nearby town Longyearbyen, Norway, traditionally doesn’t get much snow because it’s often just too cold, Anon says. (Most heavy snowfalls occur at or above 15 degrees Fahrenheit.) Avalanches used to be rare. But in the past 10 years, average temperatures have risen dramatically and the town has experienced several major avalanches. The town has had to put up retaining walls in response, says Anon, and relocate buildings as melting permafrost makes the ground unstable.
“These places are suffering more from climate change than anywhere else,” he says. “I appreciate that I’m able to bring back images and share those experiences while those environments still exist.”
Change has come to the world of photography too. With digital cameras, smartphones and now generative artificial intelligence, Anon says it’s getting harder to create artistic images that have value.
In high school, he sold one-time usage of an image for $5,000. Now he sometimes gets just a nickel per image usage. “I made a choice years ago that I didn’t want to be a professional photographer,” Anon says, “because I saw the way the market was going.’”
Fortunately, he’s found a career path that has allowed him to work at the intersection of art and technology. And his photographic skills have consistently helped him level up professionally.
While studying computer science at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, Anon “[looked for] opportunities to create that cross-disciplinary connection,” he says. He took computer animation classes in radio/television/film and joined the Speech Team. After graduating, Anon worked at Pixar, initially on the software side — but thanks to his photography experience, he later joined the camera department on the production side and worked on The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up and Toy Story 3.
Now, Anon works at Roblox, a 3D social platform with more than 70 million daily users that features user-created virtual worlds. As a product lead for the engine team, he oversees the groups that build the core systems — commonly called game engines. “The engine is the heart of the platform,” Anon explains. “It handles everything from running the code our creators write to creating the visuals you see on the screen.”
McCormick’s engineering design curriculum, he says, gave him an early edge in his career, he says. “That exposure to ‘whole-brain thinking’ influences the way that I look at a lot of projects now.”
In all his work, Anon ultimately wants to create art that makes people pause. “If you want to [develop] a [distinctive] voice, you have to push yourself as an artist,” he says. “I’m always driven by the question, ‘How do I bring something unique to this visual conversation?’”
Sean Hargadon is editor-in-chief of Northwestern Magazine.