In 2010, when photographer Josh Hydeman plunged into his first cave, he wasn’t looking to capture perfect photos. He was searching for sounds. A sonic artist at the time, he’d graduated from art school in Boston and moved to Portland, Oregon, where he made a habit of carrying recording equipment into the wild places of the Pacific Northwest to collect acoustic samples of canyons, creeks and waterfalls. But in that first cavern—a relatively well-known lava tube under the flanks of Mt. St. Helens—he found alien scenes that yearned to be photographed. A few months later, Hydeman sold his audio equipment, swapping it for his first tent, a climbing harness, camera, lenses and a life underground. “I became obsessed,” he says. “I never looked back.
For Hydeman, whose images have caught the attention of museum curators and major magazines, beauty and adventure are part of the appeal. He relishes the ascents of volcanoes under an 80-pound pack, the rappels into caverns glittering with ice. But he’s also a documentarian who has forged relationships with researchers studying the subterranean effects of climate change.
In just five years, Hydeman has watched underground ice floes dwindle. He’s seen glacial caverns shrink, their pillars crumbling, their roofs collapsing. In fractions of seconds and bursts of light, his photos re-freeze this terrain, illuminating landscapes that would otherwise go unseen in the long darkness beneath our feet.
“This is probably my most-viewed photo. It’s simple, but it’s also so alien. In a lot of these photographs, it’s important to me that the figure is anonymous—just a human—so the viewer pays attention to nature and how small we are in relation.”
“The hole in the ceiling, or moulin, is where that ice column was in the previous photo. So the glacier caves are melting fast. Really fast. And they’re really active in the summer. Coming out of the entrance you need a spotter because rocks are falling. We’d run as fast as we could with helmets on. You’re pretty much always looking up. I was filming the hole in the ceiling—there was a rainbow coming out of it—then a rock the size of a car came down.”
“It’s really loud. There’s constantly water coming down. It’s challenging for the camera equipment. My flashes look like someone ran them over, and I just got four new ones in the mail because six of them broke in the last year. You need stuff that works, so that you’re not in the middle of shooting and everybody’s getting cold and a flash fails. You can’t mess around.”
“This image really shows you the scale. It’s a large chamber that is a home to swallows. So it’s filled with huge echoes from the birds flying around. It’s an adventure just to enter it. You’re hiking down a steep cliff and then it just terminates, and someone’s like, ‘Yup, this is where we go down.’ You don’t see the whole cave until you’re fifty feet down the rope. You expect it to open up, but it’s still amazing.”
“This is a rift cave. It’s part of a 60-mile long crack in the ground. There’s a series of rappels to gain access to this area. The first is maybe 120 feet, no ice. On the second one you realize that everything is ice. I’ve seen photos from the past and there was a lot more ice. It’s not just climate change—the ice does change seasonally—but I think the seasonal effect here is marginal, because it’s nearly 300 feet below the surface.”
“Ice caves are a big obsession of mine, and it’s not only the beauty. There’s a sense of urgency among scientists to collect data from these bodies of ice, and for me, there’s a sense of urgency to photograph them before they melt. Since the ice is changing, no one else will be able to take the same image again. It’s a record of what we had.”
“A lot of cave photographers light everything up perfectly. But that way, there’s no contrast or depth. The photo doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a cave. So I spend a lot of effort setting up flashes off the camera, in unique places, so there’s still some darkness. To me that’s more realistic. Is it documentation? Is it art? My work probably lies in between.”
“This cave is five lava tubes stacked on top of each other, and this is the bottom level. When you enter the cave you’re on the second level. You can go up or down in certain places by climbing the rock, or throwing a rope over a nub and then climbing it.”
“It’s such a pain to get to some of these places. It’s ridiculous: crawling, climbing, or stooping with all this camera gear on muddy rocks. But it’s so rewarding when you actually get a good image, partly because of the challenges.”
“These are lava drip stalagmites. They’re formed during the cooling process, when heat is trapped in a lava tube and the ceiling starts to melt. A lot of them are hollow and they’re very fragile. If you bump them with your foot they would fall over, and they’re not going to grow back. In other lava tubes in the West, if there’s one or two of these formations they’ll be completely taped off. So it’s crazy that there are hundreds in this photo. The location is still a big secret.”