Boyd Norton’s Journey from Physicist to Photographer

Boyd Norton. Credit: Barbara Norton

In the early 1960s, Boyd Norton, newly minted physicist, set out for California with an eye toward a job in the aerospace industry.

He never quite made it.

During a stopover in Wyoming, Norton fell in love with the mountainous West. He ended up taking a job at the federal government’s Nuclear Reactor Testing Station in Idaho, and he worked there for nearly a decade.

However, when the fun of his day job wore off, Norton decided to turn his hobby into a career. Norton has traveled the globe for high-profile outlets such as National Geographic, Audubon, and Outside magazines. He’s published 17 books, most recently a how-to for aspiring conservation photographers, and his work has hung in the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution.

He’s also become a prominent conservation activist, co-founding the advocacy group Serengeti Watch to help protect the wildlands of east Africa, which he calls a second home.

A giraffe in Serengeti National Park. | Boyd Norton

“Photography is a tool,” said Norton, now 82. “I enjoy it greatly. I think it’s a great way to express yourself creatively. But it’s also a tool. I’ve photographed on assignment for magazines things like dead elephants with their tusks and face cut off, dead rhinos with their horns cut off — sometimes you have to shock people to make them realize what’s going on in the world and what we need to do to stop this kind of thing.”

Norton grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and was drawn to science at an early age. By the time he was 10, he had built “a fully stocked chemical laboratory in our basement.” But after high school, his cash-strapped parents couldn’t send him to college right away — so he took a job at a metallurgical laboratory in neighboring Massachusetts. The laboratory was working on fuel elements for the U.S. Navy’s then-infant nuclear submarine program.

“I got my first security clearance, up to top secret, when I was 18 years old,” he said. “I got to handle all these exotic elements, including enriched uranium and a whole bunch of other stuff that was a big chunk of the periodic table.” After a year, he landed a scholarship to what was then called the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, now Michigan Technological University.

It was after college in 1960 that he and his wife set out for California with an eye toward Norton finding work with one of the companies in the state’s burgeoning aircraft, space and defense plants. But on the way, they took a detour to see Yellowstone National Park, in the northwest corner of Wyoming — and in the process, discovered the picturesque valley of Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons.

He’d already put in a resume at the reactor testing site, which was about 60 miles west of the Tetons. So he dropped by to ask while he was in the neighborhood — and got the job.

An adult orangutan in a cage in Malaysian Borneo. | Boyd Norton

It was an exciting time in Idaho Falls. The age of commercial nuclear energy was dawning, and Norton’s work was focused on the safety of those reactors. The station, now the Idaho National Laboratory, housed dozens of test reactors.

His boss was Warren Nyer, a Manhattan Project veteran who had helped Enrico Fermi produce the world’s first fission chain reaction. And in 1962, Norton got to blow up a reactor. In a test similar to the events that triggered the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, he and his team triggered a runaway reaction and power surge that destroyed the core.

“We were pushing the outside of the envelope of reactor safety studies and learning a lot,” he said. But within a few years, budget cuts and a shift away from that work dimmed the fun. And, in the meantime, he’d become interested in photography and conservation issues, including efforts to stop a series of dams on the Snake River in Idaho.

“Back in the early 1960s, Dave Brower at the Sierra Club started publishing these magnificent books — the forerunners of the coffee table books, full of beautiful reproductions of Ansel Adams, Elliot Porter and all these other photographers,” he said. “They were all about wilderness and wild places and our need to preserve those places. I saw those books, and it was a real eye-opener for me. All of a sudden, I realized photographs are a very powerful form of communication.”

By the late ‘60s, Norton started looking into making his hobby a vocation. In 1969, the Wilderness Society’s Denver office offered him a job, and he quit the laboratory. He’s spent the decades since documenting wildlands and wildlife around the world, from the rugged Rockies to the orangutans of Borneo. But he’s most passionate about Africa, particularly the Serengeti ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania.

Elephants in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. | Boyd Norton

It’s home to zebras and giraffes, lions and elephants and rhinos. But those populations are being squeezed by hunting, development and climate change.

“Elephant populations have plummeted incredibly over the past decade because of ivory poaching,” Norton said “In the 1980s, lion populations across Africa were numbered at somewhere around 200,000. Today, the best estimate … is less than 20,000 now. It’s this kind of thing that keeps me going.”

In 2010, in response to Tanzanian plans to build a highway through the region, Norton co-founded the nonprofit Serengeti Watch to help preserve those lands. The organization funds education programs and teaches people how to protect the environment.

“There are a lot of people who will never, ever get to experience Serengeti,” he said. “But even if we don’t get there, there’s the thought that these places really ought to be protected for their own sake as well.”