Ian van Coller got his first camera at 13. He now balances teaching at MSU with ambitious personal projects that have been featured throughout the country.
Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era, van Coller’s role as a photographer was influenced by the experience. Upon graduating from high school, he had the option of either spending two years in the military or getting an education. After completing a photography program in South Africa, he was called to the infantry. He would have been patrolling townships, which van Coller described as effectively fighting against his own country. This idea didn’t set well with van Coller or his liberal family. His mother is American, which gave him dual citizenship and the opportunity to come to the U.S.
After completing his undergraduate studies at Arizona State University, van Coller spent time as a professional printer before pursuing his graduate studies at the University of New Mexico. He convinced his wife to move to Montana and was hired as an adjunct professor at MSU. He has since been hired as a tenure track professor. Van Coller teaches several classes, including one where students create their own hand-bound landscape books. “It brings together what I’m most interested in: landscape, environment and the making of books,” van Coller said.
Van Coller’s latest personal projects have focused on climate change. He recently received a grant from MSU to spend two weeks in August climbing Kilimanjaro with a glacier scientist. Van Coller will be taking photographs of the glaciers as well as the cooks and guides at Kilimanjaro.
With a drive to create something new and significant through his photographs, van Coller makes large photo books that are 40 inches wide when open. He plans to make a book from his trip to Kilimanjaro larger than anything he has done before. Creating these large books is expensive and challenging. Due to this, very few copies are created. For van Coller, there is a serious purpose behind this. “Few people get to experience the book, but also I think fewer people get to experience the landscape in that way. So, maybe in a small way you get to experience that largeness of the landscape in the physical scale of the photograph.”
Previous projects have focused on taking portraits of people and van Coller has now transitioned to a focus on landscape. “I’m obsessed with landscape, I love to be in the mountains. I like people’s stories,” van Coller said.
One of van Coller’s goals is to create a record of the natural things being lost because of climate change. He sees the next two decades as critical: either something will be done about climate change or there will be major consequences. This is a reason behind his focus on glaciers, “I mean the books to be memorials to what we’re losing.”
He is also currently working on “Lundi,” a collaborative artist book focused on the decline of the Atlantic puffin due the effects of climate change on the birds’ food source.
Van Coller recently finished a collaborative project called “The Last Glacier.” He spent several summers hiking into the backcountry of Glacier National Park to document its glaciers, which are receding and predicted to disappear in the near future.
Not creating something meaningful with his photographs has never been an option for van Coller. He discovered that he didn’t want to be a commercial photographer in school and has since gravitated towards the opposite, “It’s an obsession. To be an artist, you need to make art. You can’t really do anything else.”