Nathan: Let’s begin with the obvious question: what led Sandra Herber to first pick up a camera and pursue an active interest in continually growing as a photographer? If I recall correctly, your earliest interests began with film photography. When did you switch to digital—and what are your thoughts about the differences?
Sandra: First of all, Nathan, let me thank you for this opportunity. I have always loved reading the interviews you do with photographers; I so like hearing your interviewee’s thoughts on photography, how they make photographs, and I have, on a number of occasions, been introduced to new and wonderfully inspiring photographers through your interviews. I’m deeply honoured that you would want to ask me questions about myself and my photography. So, thank you.
When I was 12 years old, I signed up for a photography class at school and my mother gave me my first camera: a Pentax Spotmatic. The camera had been given to her by her father, who was quite an accomplished photographer. I completely threw myself into photography– the way I do with everything I find interesting (I’ll talk about this later in terms of photography projects)– eventually convincing my parents to let me set up a darkroom in our basement, where I developed and printed black and white images. Of course, I wish the follow-up to this story was that I continued working in the darkroom and grew and flourished as a photographer from that start, but to be honest with you, I wasn’t very good. I learned the basics of making a good exposure and how a camera worked, how to develop black and white film and print images, but not much more than that. My teacher at school was not particularly supportive of my photography (my images were pretty uninspired, so I don’t blame him). I continued to shoot, develop and print on my own for a few years, but without mentorship or guidance I never really developed into a skilled photographer. When I was 15, we moved to Toronto and that was the end of my darkroom and my years of working on my own prints. That being said, I have always owned an SLR. When I was a teacher, I lived in Malaysia for three years and I visited some amazing and amazingly remote places like eastern Burma, just months after it was opened up to foreigners, and the highlands and the Asmat regions of New Guinea, to name just two. I always brought my camera, but I had no sense of being “a photographer”. It was just a way of documenting my adventures. I got a bit more serious about photography in 2002 when I took my first workshop– a trip to Ethiopia with Chris Rainier. I would say that since then I’ve taken photography quite seriously, switching from travel/people (mostly tribal people) photography to landscape photography around the time I switched from film to digital in 2007.
To be honest, I don’t miss the days of film. I don’t miss the toxic chemicals of the darkroom, test strips, or the long hours fiddling to get a good print. I know I have grown significantly as a photographer with digital. I remember I used to keep a shot log when I shot film, recording my settings for each image. Digital made that all so much easier and I can analyze what went right or wrong with a shot immediately. For me, this allowed me to grow much more quickly than when I was as a film photographer. I’m happy I had the base and grounding of shooting on film, but I don’t think I would ever go back.
Nathan: The majority of your photography focuses on the locations you have traveled to— so much so there are not very many images from the Toronto area where you work as a librarian. With the exception of some wintry landscapes, why do you not photograph the Toronto area more often?
Sandra: That’s a good question, Nathan. I think there are two reasons. The first is that photography has always been connected with travel for me. The first time I knew I wanted to become a better photographer was when I was teaching in Malaysia and travelling all over Southeast Asia. I went to progressively more remote places– and I wanted to photograph them and photograph them well. Adventure and travel and photography are inextricably linked for me. The second reason is we don’t have landscape which appeals to me around Toronto, so the main photographic subject close to home would be architecture (or street photography, but I’m not a street photographer). I tried, years ago, to create a series photographing Brutalist architecture in Toronto (we have a lot!). I thought it would be a fun challenge to try and make beautiful a kind of architecture that most people do not find beautiful. I eventually gave up. I think now that I might not have had the skills at that time to achieve what I wanted, but it also might be that Brutalist architecture is… well… brutal and a bit difficult to photograph. I know from my own photographic journey that interests and foci change, but right now I’m more interested in landscape photography, often with a man-made (usually abandoned) element in it. I’m interested in working on projects which document a place or phenomenon over multiple visits. Perhaps there will come a time when I’m drawn to photograph in and around Toronto – it certainly would be cheaper than travelling!
Nathan: I would love to hear your thoughts about travel and photography. When you think about where you would like to travel next, what are some of the reasons and / or sources of inspiration for the places you choose to visit? Do you, at least in some way, think of yourself as ‘travel photographer?’ If you could not travel for an extended period of time, would you stop working on your photography until you could travel again? In other words, have travel and photography become inextricably bound for you?
Sandra: I have, for the past five or six years, been working on a number of photo projects that involve travel, but eventually those projects run their course and I have to search for others. Right now I’m most excited photographing in winter (including continuing to work on my series on ice fishing huts) and in polar regions. Photography has taken me to many incredible places and on many wonderful adventures and I have no doubt that it will do so again in the future, I’m just not sure exactly where that will be beyond my next trip in February.
Your second question is interesting – if I could not travel for an extended period of time, would I stop working on my photography? My first instinct is to answer ‘yes’, but I know that there will come a time when I won’t be able to travel or not want to travel in the way I do now. I dread that time, but I think that I will find something to photograph– even if it’s in a studio. I have had many passions in my life; I tend to dive in and immerse myself in things– but one constant, one thing that’s been in my life since I was 12, is photography. So, somehow, I’ll keep photographing. I mean to continue doing this kind of, as you call it, ‘travel photography’, though, until I can’t anymore.
One particular benefit of travelling for photography is that I can immerse myself. When I think of trying to photograph at home– when we get a good snowstorm or some fog over Lake Ontario – there are always the obligations and distractions of normal life that get in the way. When I’m travelling for photography, that is my sole focus: I eat, breathe, sleep photography. I’ve been known to forget to eat if the conditions are great and I often push myself to do things I’d never do at home. Though these trips are often challenging with downright miserable conditions sometimes, I’m never more ‘in the moment’ than when I’m on the road, photographing. Nothing matters more than being out in the best conditions and getting the image. It’s a very intense experience, but one that is more exciting and electric than anything else in my life.
I sometimes wish the kind of photography I liked to do was more ‘fun’ or at least more easy. I see friends of mine photographing in Venice, sipping cocktails in the evening or photographing on safari and staying at beautiful game lodges. I have done both, but it seems that in my life now, I’m drawn to places that are less visited or that may not get the attention of more classically beautiful places. Take my recent trip to Manitoba/North Dakota. I wanted to photograph minimalist snow images. The Prairies/Great Plains are a minimalist heaven, but there wasn’t much snow when I was there. Hokkaido in Japan gets five metres of snow in the winter and getting minimalist images there is easy; I know, I was there in February, 2019. Why didn’t I just go back to Hokkaido, I kept asking myself? The answer is partly that I like exploring places that fewer photographers go. The Canadian Prairies are an often-overlooked place, compared to the Rockies or the Canadian coasts. I think the Prairies have a subtle beauty that you have to be attuned to, to notice. The other part of the answer is that I like a challenge – or, rather, I’m a Type II Fun person. Do you know what Type II Fun is? A friend of mine explained this to me a few years ago and it really seemed to fit with the kind of trips I do. Type I Fun is the sort of fun most people understand– a perfect day at the beach, a lovely party, a trip to Paris. Type II Fun is actually miserable while you’re doing it– long days, challenging conditions, bitter cold or blazing heat, difficult obstacles to overcome and it’s only in retrospect that you realize ‘hey, that was fun’. Type II Fun describes most of my photography trips. Now, Type III Fun is when it wasn’t fun while it happened and it isn’t even fun when you look back at it. I’ve had a couple of trips like that! Sometimes I think– such as when I was on this recent trip to Manitoba and North Dakota– why isn’t this trip more fun? but then I realize, “oh, it’s Type II Fun. Again”. That’s just my type of fun.
Nathan: Has being a librarian contributed to your desire to travel? I am, of course, thinking of the wealth of resources available to you!
Sandra: I’m not sure about that, but I think being a librarian with a Masters in History has influenced the way I travel and photograph. I first got interested in photographing grain elevators on the Canadian Prairies when I saw Marc Koegel’s images. He has been shooting out there for at least 10 years and has produced some wonderfully dramatic long exposure black and white work that really intrigued me. I was motivated to go to the Prairies in 2013 after seeing Marc’s images and because I was doing a lot of long exposure work then and I wanted to photograph those fabulous wide-open skies. I planned a trip, but I couldn’t go without finding out more about those grain elevators – what they are, what their history is and what role they played in the lives of farmers on the Prairies. That’s when being a librarian came in handy, when I was able to order, through our Interlibrary Loan system, some very obscure books on the history of the Prairies from other universities and colleges. I took the same tack with my photography of Mayan ruins in Mexico – reading everything I could get my hands on including old, out-of-print books from the 19th century I could only access through Interlibrary Loan. Photographing these old or abandoned sites is so much more meaningful to me when I know the history of these places. That knowledge, that immersion into the study of something, not only gives the project more meaning for me, but it gives me the chance to enter into a community. I have friends in Mexico who are deeply passionate and very knowledgeable about these ruins and visit them regularly. The same is true about lovers of old grain elevators I’ve connected with out west. Even when I go storm chasing, I read everything I can about it, and for a few weeks I can enter into that wonderfully obsessive sub-culture of storm chasers and speak to them somewhat knowledgeably (or, at least, listen somewhat knowledgeably) about their passion. I maintain ties to all these communities and the people in them, photographers or not, and that has been one of the great joys of this kind of photography. I have a huge respect for people who are passionate, and these photographic projects allow me to connect with those people and become a part of that world for a few weeks or a few years.
Nathan: I have been asked on occasion why I do not identify as a professional photographer. Other than the obvious response that I make my living as an English teacher at a community college in San Francisco, I choose to identify as an amateur because it is not my intention to ever work on the kinds of money-making projects that professional photographers tend to make a living doing. At the same time, I can emphatically say that photography is so much more than a hobby to me. I am guessing that you feel photography is much more than a hobby as well. What are your thoughts about balancing a career as a librarian and your avid interests in photography? Would you ever give up your career to pursue photography full time?
Sandra: I completely agree with you Nathan. I don’t identify as a professional photographer for all the reasons that you don’t. I often joke, though, that most of my free time and just about all of disposable income is devoted to photography, so it’s much more than a light-hearted hobby for me. Once every two or three years, I will take a trip that doesn’t involve photography: that’s how infrequent it is for me to travel without my camera or without photography as the main goal of a trip.
I am very lucky that it is quite easy to balance my career with photography because of where I am working. I can’t really travel in September/October or January to mid-February because those are the busiest times for librarians at a college library, but I have an incredibly generous number of vacation days that I can take whenever I want the rest of the year. I’m honestly embarrassed to say how many.
I can’t say that I’ve ever thought of giving up my career. I love what I do, and except for some small restrictions, I can travel for photography almost as much as I’d like. The other reason I wouldn’t think of becoming a professional photographer is that right now I shoot whatever I want and I produce images that please me, even if they may not please anyone else. That seems perfect to me. I don’t need to shoot to satisfy a client or a gallery owner or a patron. I never have to please anyone else but myself.
Nathan: I would like to hear about your specific thoughts, fond memories, and challenges about visiting and photographing the following locations. And, for the benefit of our readers, I would be very grateful if you would select at least one image for each of these locations and share your memories of capturing it.
For those who don’t know, Newfoundland is an island in the easternmost part of Canada.
I have been to Newfoundland twice, once in 2015 and again in 2018. The first time I went for a library conference (and some travelling/photography), but the second trip was primarily to photograph icebergs. Icebergs arrive off Newfoundland’s coast (the area known as Iceberg Alley) in the early summer. Most have come all the way from Greenland, a journey which has taken two or three years. To give myself the best chance to see and photograph them, I have targeted two areas, with the intention of staying in each for multiple days. I had two variables– the arrival of an iceberg and the cloud cover. Icebergs in the sun just look white, but when the skies are overcast you can see blues and greens in the ice, so that’s what I was hoping for: photogenic icebergs in overcast conditions. I didn’t have any luck in the first two places I targeted: Twillingate/Fogo Island (though I did produce a small series of images of the artists’ studios on Fogo designed by Todd Saunders). I’d been in Newfoundland for seven days and had yet to photograph an iceberg. I’m sure all landscape photographers go through the same thing: you plan a trip; you pay your money to be there; you go out in all weathers (it snowed the first day I arrived – June 3 – and it was chilly and damp the whole time I was there) for long days (in June in Newfoundland the sun rises at 5am and sets at 9pm); you do everything you can to get the images you are hoping for; and many times you just strike out. It can be so disappointing, and I know that I often question why I’m even out doing something like this when most of my friends are enjoying relaxing vacations in Paris or on the beaches in the Caribbean. Even now, I’m not sure of the answer to that question, except that there is something so exciting in the chase and there is a compulsion to try and get good images in these less-photographed places. Anyway, I digress. I headed to my second location, St. Anthony on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, where, indeed, I found icebergs and got two great outings by tour boat in overcast conditions. It seemed the eleven-day trip had all been worth it for those four hours, but the best was yet to come. I’ve told this story a few times online, so I hope you don’t mind if I retell it here.
As I was driving up to St. Anthony, I spotted a beautiful iceberg far out in the Straits between Newfoundland and Labrador. Five days later, I knew would have to drive back past that same spot to leave Newfoundland. The day I left it was pouring with rain, but as I drew closer to Green Island Harbour I could see the iceberg through the rain – it was still there and, wonderfully, it was closer to shore. I drove around town, looking for someone, anyone, who might be able to take me out to see that iceberg, but in the pouring rain, there was no one around. I eventually stopped at the post office, where the postmistress (Joyce, as I found out) was on the phone. I said, “I’ll let you finish your conversation,” but she said to just go ahead. I said, “This might be a silly question, but is there anyone you know who would be willing to take me out to the iceberg?”. She laughed and said into the phone, “Do you want to take this lady out to see the iceberg?” and the guy at the other end said yes. He turned out to be Roland, a retired fisherman, and sure enough, in no time flat we were in his small open boat, speeding towards the iceberg, with me clutching onto my hood in the wind and rain.
After the visit, Roland invited me back to his house for hot cocoa and we chatted for over an hour about his life and the life of his town. I love those kinds of conversations where I get a brief insight into a life so different from my own. Then the phone rang. “Look out the window,” said Joyce, the postmistress, and sure enough, when we looked, the iceberg had collapsed. How incredible that I was there at just that moment and found someone kind and generous enough to take me out to see that beauty. The snow that fell in Greenland to form that iceberg fell between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago. The iceberg calved from a glacier in Greenland two or three years before it arrived in Newfoundland and it began its journey with 10,000 to 15,000 other icebergs, only a few hundred of which make it all the way. Then it sat in the Straits for nearly a week. It collapsed just an hour after I saw it. [See the full series of Newfoundland images –> here]
In December 2014, I took my first trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. I had decided to go after hearing stories from a friend about the ruins of 19th-century haciendas and old, half-abandoned churches damaged in the Caste War (1847–1901). After giving me a list of books to read in order to understand and find these sites, he put me in touch with a local photographer in Mérida called Baltasar (Balta) Castro Cocom. Balta and I became friends online. Even though I was planning to spend the bulk of my time visiting the haciendas and churches, Balta offered to take me to see some remote Mayan ruins over a weekend. I was stunned by what he showed me. Though I did photograph some haciendas and even produced a small photo series on Caste War churches, it was those ancient Mayan ruins that fascinated me. And though I did visit Uxmal, Sayil, Labna, and other famous, publicly-accessible sites, it was the smaller, off-the-beaten-track ruins, some deep in the jungle, almost completely covered in vegetation that captured my heart and my imagination.
Photographing the ruins, on the other hand, was not easy. There are few open spaces, and the ruins are jumbled and sometimes covered in dense vegetation, so access and compositions are often difficult, but even more difficult was the light. We were often at sites near midday with harsh, contrasty, dappled light shining through the jungle canopy. After struggling for a little while at our first site, the amazing Xkichmook, I tried an infrared (IR) filter. I have an old Singh Ray IR filter that is like a piece of welding glass—it gives the equivalent of about 16 stops of filtration—so I didn’t use it that often, but I always carried it with me. Not only did the infrared deal pretty well with the lighting conditions, it created a dreamy, otherworldly look that perfectly reflected the wonder and awe I felt seeing these ruins hidden away in the jungle. I was so taken with the few (not really very good) IR images I shot on that trip that I decided to convert a camera to IR and plan a return trip, which happened in March 2016. This time Balta and I travelled together for a week through the Puuc region (south of Mérida) and even farther south to Calakmul, near the Guatemalan border. I did a third trip to continue working on the infrared series in 2018, so I have now created quite a substantial series of images in infrared of these lesser-known, not publicly-accessible ruins.
Infrared was unquestionably the right choice for this series: it was able to handle the harsh, contrasty light and, more importantly, it created that ethereal, magical feeling I wanted for these images. There is another reason I think it was appropriate. These structures were built between 800 and 1,300 years ago and every living thing—plants, animals, people—have come and gone, lived and died over that time, but the ruins remain there, (semi-)permanent and enduring. The IR perfectly expresses that story by creating a solidity in the tones in the ruins and a light, airy, evanescent feeling to all the living things—trees, vines, overgrowth—that surround them.
The adventure behind this image is one of my favourites from Mexico. My friend Balta found a local man (Samuel) in the tiny town of 20 de Noviembre to take us into the jungle to the ruin called Rio Bec. Rio Bec is a Mayan architectural style and the foremost example of the style is the site of Xpuhil, a publicly-accessible site near Calakmul. The original examples of the Rio Bec style, however, discovered (or rather re-discovered) by Theobert Maler in the late 19th century, are Rio Bec A and Rio Bec B, but neither is publicly (nor easily) accessible. Balta negotiated a deal to get Samuel (on his motorcycle) to lead us on a borrowed quad 16 kilometres into the jungle on some pretty rough roads (sometimes just paths) to the ruins. Balta drove the quad and I hung for dear life on the back. The ruins are huge – the towers are over 50 feet tall – but they are hemmed in by the jungle, so it is hard to step back to capture them and give a sense of the place. As well, as often happens in Mexico, the sun was bright and harsh. Shooting in infrared, straight into the sun for this shot actually produced what I thought was a compelling image of the how overgrown Rio Bec B is, but still how amazingly grand it is, even in its decaying state. [See the full series of Mayan and Yucatan ruins –> here]
Sometimes a project comes together almost effortlessly.
I’d been to Manitoba to photograph grain elevators in the summer of 2017, but had never been there in winter. In 2018 an old friend from graduate school who lives in Winnipeg invited me to use his cabin on Lake Winnipeg over Christmas. He said, “Not a lot of people outside the Prairies really appreciate them, but I can see you love it out here. If you want to use the cabin, feel free”. It was a lovely offer and I thought about just having a quiet holiday there, relaxing and reading, but I couldn’t stop myself from checking to see if there was anything in the area that I might like to photograph. That’s when I came across pictures of ice fishing huts on the lake in winter. I shot my first series of ice fishing huts in just three half-days on that first trip. It felt so much more effortless than any other series I’d ever shot. The huts were so varied and so compelling that I decided I’d do a typology – showing the huts in almost the exact same composition within the frame, with the same amount of negative space and little distraction from a busy sky (I was actually very lucky to get three overcast days, as it is often cold and clear in Manitoba in December). I returned to Lake Winnipeg to continue working on the series in December, 2019. Unquestionably, the ice fishing hut series has been the most successful I’ve ever put together – from the enthusiastic response to the first series (2018) from people on social media to a fantastic result in the Prix de la Photographie, Paris. So, sometimes, it seems, a series just comes together simply and painlessly. But not often, at least in my experience.
I walked (according to my FitBit) 5 kilometres one morning photographing the ice fishing huts in the Gimli harbour. It was pure photographic joy to visit all the wonderfully unique, colourful and fun huts that sit in the harbour. I have a few favourites, but this one – Ice Fishing Hut III, Man Cave – is definitely in the running as my absolute favourite. Someone had a great time converting this travel trailer to a fishing hut packed with personality. [See the full series of award winning images of Manitoba fishing huts –> here].
Nathan: Where else are you eventually planning to travel to? Any “dream” locations that you have yet to visit and photograph?
Sandra: My next destination is Antarctica. This isn’t even a bucket-list trip, Nathan, this is beyond bucket list for me. I often have a list of “would like to go” places in my head but Antarctica was never on that list, being so remote and so expensive, but I decided last year that I would throw caution to the wind (and some retirement savings to the wind, as well) and book a trip. Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by exploration of the polar regions and have a whole shelf of my bookcase dedicated to my books on polar exploration. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I would get there, but I will be going in mid-February. [editor’s note: Sandra made the journey to Antarctica in February of 2020; you can read about in her blogs–> here]
Nathan: Both long exposure and infrared photography have become increasingly ubiquitous, to the point that, in my humble opinion, such images have saturated the world. Being the unavoidable naïve fool that I am, I speak about both of them as parlor tricks, as illusions that we use to create a mood that may or may not have been there when we composed the initial image. I do not think parlor tricks are inherently cheap or bad, but they certainly can be— and when the trick is performed by “everyone,” it loses some of its luster. Why do you choose to use these techniques for your image making? What do you feel they bring to your unique images?
Sandra: What an interesting and challenging question, Nathan. Yes, long exposure and infrared photography have become ubiquitous and, yes, sometimes they are used without any thought as to whether they will improve an image. When I first shot long exposure, it seemed like magic to me (it still does, to some extent) and the same is true of infrared. I am getting better at knowing how infrared images will come out, and where it will be most effective, but there are still sometimes pleasant surprises when things come out better than I expect. I look at those as a gift. Part of why I use these techniques is still the magic and serendipitous successes I get with them. But having shot both for a number of years now, I use them more sparingly and for specific purposes.
I think that both infrared and long exposure are simply tools that a photographer can use. You come to a scene and you look into your toolkit and think, ‘What is the best way to capture this scene to best express my feelings/thoughts/mood when encountering it?’ When you use only one tool and use that tool all the time, there is a sameness to images. I’m as big a fan as the next person of a long exposure image of sticks in the water, but if that is what you are photographing all the time, your images will all look like other people’s images who also do that all the time. Long exposure, minimalist water scenes, compelling as we might find them, all begin to look alike. I used to be obsessed with long exposure and would shoot with filters any time I got the chance, but I don’t do long exposure as often anymore. I realize that this is just the natural evolution of me as a photographer, an evolution in my tastes, my aesthetic and what I want to show in my images. I’ve come to realize that long exposure is just one tool I can use to express what I want to express as a photographer.
Your infrared tree images were amongst the first infrared images I ever saw and I remember asking you about converting a camera when I came back from my first trip to Mexico. Those images still inspire me. I would be interested in hearing more of your take on this question, Nathan. You still use infrared and long exposure in your images. How do you feel about using them?
Nathan: I use both often even though I feel they can easily be parlor tricks, little flashes of the old “sleight of hand.” However, even though I feel this, I have come to think very little when I work on images, be it taking the photograph with the camera or later processing them. In fact, whenever I do start to think about such things, I intentionally stop; therefore, any thoughts I have about these processes—especially how they relate to whatever it is I am doing— only come to light after I have finished doing whatever I have been doing. I guess what I am saying is: I nowadays only reflect on whatever it is I do— after it has been done, so I do not know how much of anything I do is really grounded in a specific choice or reason.
I have no scientific, objective way to describe what often happens tonally to imagery as a result of a long exposure image, but there is a significant richness and contrast that becomes more readily available as a result of leaving that shutter open for many seconds, minutes, etc.. I suppose I could settle down and find specific explanations to these mysteries, but, in doing so, I would rob myself of the pleasure of those mysteries. I confess that I enjoy long exposure photography because it seems to always remain mysterious. The same is applicable to infrared. I really do not care for the IR images that fully capitalize on the fantasy shimmering whites of trees. However, I am fascinated by the whites if they are deeply contrasted with darks. Contrast, yes, contrast … it really is about contrast. I do not think about contrasts while I do the work— but whatever it is I do and however I am doing it, the work seems to more often than not come out with deep contrasts. It is, apparently, ingrained in my processes.
When you look at long exposure images, you tend to see the heavy influences of Michael Kenna and Michael Levin in landscape images and, for architecture, Joel Tjintjelaar and Julia Anna Gospodarou— each of whom is profoundly talented and came up with a signature style. Many, many, many photographers emulate those styles—and many, quite frankly, copy it outright. I do not say this to criticize; instead, I say it because it is a simple fact that has significantly led to the ubiquity of long exposures and a kind of sameness that repeats and repeats and repeats before repeating again and again. I will openly say that Kenna is one of my favorite photographers. I discovered his work after I had already begun to teach myself how to take a long exposure. However— from the outset, I have avoided emulating him. I do not think my imagery is particularly unique or even especially great, but I do think it is a reflection of me and not a copy of what I like about the work I see from others.
I have noticed that I tend to employ the long exposure process whenever I photograph the sea and infrared whenever I photograph trees. I suppose the reasons are obvious: much movement in the sea and sky and static objects equals great opportunity for the benefits of long exposure; potentially dramatic skies and windy conditions cry out for the drama of an IR— and the movements of the leaves and branches and grasses often rule out the long exposure. But, again, these are observations made in hindsight as I respond to the question. I do not think about this when I do the actual work.
How much thought or planning do you put into your work while taking an image and later processing it?
Sandra: That’s a very interesting answer from you, Nathan. It’s fascinating to me that you actually stop yourself from thinking about what you’re doing as you’re photographing.
I, on the other hand, am classic over-thinker, so I put a lot of thought into how I want to take a picture and then how I want to process it. Going storm chasing in 2017 and 2018 was an interesting challenge to my usual process. Very often you only have a few minutes at any one location before you have to move and when you’re shooting infrared, regular images and time-lapse, as I was doing, there was a lot to think about. I made many mistakes early on and had to remind myself, sometimes out loud, to slow down, think, then act. If I end up doing more storm photography, I wonder whether I could become more instinctual. That fast work, compared to the slow, contemplative process of long exposure, really would lend itself to developing instinct and maybe, like you, I could stop myself from thinking as I photograph. Well, maybe. : )
Nathan: Here is a potentially controversial question: what are your thoughts on the changing climate and its effect on the landscapes that you have photographed and hope to someday photograph? When you photographed the icebergs in Greenland, how cognizant were you about the fact that you were photographing something that might well have melted away in the next thirty to forty years? I guess the deeper question I am asking is: will the landscape photography of the past hundred years or so soon be a record of how radically the landscapes of the world have changed?
Sandra: As you know part of the joy of a photography trip or project for me is the research I do before I go. I love learning about a new part of the world or a new time (to me) in history. I read a number of books about Greenland before I went, having never been to the Arctic before. While I, of course, know about climate change and know that the polar regions are being affected more than other areas of the world, reading this substantial amount of material about the effects of climate change on Greenland was deeply sobering, even downright depressing. It was doubly so when I got there, meeting people whose lives are already being affected by climate change. Weather is not the same as climate, I know, but I certainly noticed how warm it was in July when I was there and this past year was a significant one for ice melt. If you go to Greenland Ice Sheet Today, you can see the extent of the 2019 melt. The issue of melting is compounded by a feedback loop that happens: the more ice that melts the ‘darker’ the ice gets (from debris, dust etc.), attracting more sunlight and heat. The warmer it gets, the more it melts. So, as John Gertner says in Ice at the End of the World, “the more Greenland melts, the more Greenland melts”. This is what scares me the most. We can makes efforts to reduce our carbon emissions, efforts to remove the carbon from the atmosphere, but once that feedback loop kicks in, it may be too late to save many places, the polar regions being first among them.
A single trip to Greenland may have made me more aware of what is happening, but the larger issue of documenting the changes through photography is one that intrigues me. I am considering a longer-lasting and much larger project to document these changes in multiple polar (Antarctic and Arctic) locations. This idea is in its infancy – I will have to see how my trip to Antarctica goes in February – but it is deeply compelling one to me. I’m not sure what my style of photography could bring to the discussion, but I am thinking about it.
Nathan: What are your thoughts about sharing your work on social media?
Sandra: I have enjoyed sharing my images on social media. I started out on Flickr in 2009, but got a bit more serious about sharing images in 2011. I’ve been on Facebook about the same amount of time, but on Instagram only since 2017. I have never been on 500px. For me, sharing online is not so much about honest feedback or critique– there are other/better places to get that sort of feedback– but about connecting with other photographers and being inspired by them. I know that Flickr has been abandoned by many serious photographers, but I am still there, mostly because of the wonderful photographers I have met and the great interactions I’ve had there. Some of my earliest inspiration when I switched to digital photography came from Flickr. I consider many of the photographers I interact with on social media to be close friends now– and I have met a few and actually shot with them in real life. To me, that is amazing and truly the best side of social media– the ability to connect people with shared interests across disparate geographies.
Obviously, though, there is a less positive side to social media– the constant search for ‘likes’ or ‘favs’ or comments and the flood of images that pass by you every day, few of which you can give your undivided attention, the worry that you’re not doing anything unique or different and the time it takes to be a good citizen of the online world– looking at and commenting on images which stand out. Overall, though, I think that I have benefited from the connection to and inspiration from other photographers on social media.
You are a very good digital citizen, Nathan – not only with the support you give other photographers online but the huge amount of work you do in putting together these interviews. That is a lot of work for you. How do you feel about social media?
Nathan: Like you, I found much of my early inspiration from photographers on Flickr. In fact, the first long exposure image I saw (and knew was a long exposure image) was on Flickr back in 2008. It left me somewhat spellbound, so spellbound I could not imagine that I could ever master the alchemy needed to take such an image. This was long before I realized there is nothing that is all that difficult about digital photography. In 2012 I wandered over to Google+, which really opened up the social world of social media, and I found myself surrounded by many, many wonderful photographers who wanted to share, talk, grow, etc.. It was really quite wonderful while it lasted. Facebook remains the closest thing to it but has never come even close to the genuine comradery of that Google+ community. My favorite online place to share and see photos is Art Limited. The quality of work there is quite amazing. I mostly go there to look at the work of others. Instagram is the oddest. It always feels odd to take a large image with good contrast, tone, and detail and squeeze it down to nearly the size of a postage stamp.
However, social media has, is, and will likely always be a mixed bag of genuine social interaction and thoughtful sharing; inevitably meaningless opportunities for self-promotion; platforms for people to say naïve and spiteful things that used to be spoken aloud by only the rudest, drunkest people in bars; political rants often with misinformation attached; and a seemingly endless stream of ads targeted from the information gathered about you from the very sites you are using / visiting. I sometime have to laugh out loud when I set afloat one of my little simple images of a tree or a rock in the raging and often polluted streams of a site like Facebook. What chance does it have to be seen before being drowned by the endless flow of trivia, news, angry rants, cries for blessings, images of what people are eating, etc.? One should probably ask why one bothers to do it? I make my living teaching which means I could never afford any formal therapy to explore why.
All of that said—social media does offer an unimportant, unknown person like me to share his work with a lot of people— and I find it hard to conclude anything negative about that. In the end, I try to approach social media in the same way I do my work: to not think about it and to simply do it. I am forever grateful to have met photographers like you, Stephen Cairns, Brian Day, Steve Landeros, Grant Murray, Athena Carey, John Kosmopoulos, Pierre Pellegrini, Kevin Kwok, Hengki Koentjero, Maria Kaimaki, and too many others to mention. The work that each of you has produced brings me great happiness. I find it very easy to do the work necessary to arrange and post these interviews on this site because the energy to do so comes from my enthusiasm for the work of those whose work I admire.
Sandra: I have heard a lot about that lovely period of sharing that happened on Google+ and I’m sorry to have missed it.
I agree that it is an overwhelmingly positive thing that social media allows us unimportant, unknown photographers to share our work with so many people. In all the analysis, the criticism and the lauding of social media, that simple and positive fact still remains.
Nathan: What are your thoughts about entering photography competitions?
Sandra: I have entered photography competitions for the last few years. I say ‘have’ because I am thinking of not entering any awards this year (2020) except for the Sony World Photography Awards.
I started by entering my first series of infrared Mayan ruins images in Px3 in 2016. When I photograph, I am always thinking of creating a series and I had held off entering any contests before 2016 because I didn’t think I had a strong enough series to show. I have done well in competitions such as Px3, IPA and the Epson Pano awards, so you might think that I shouldn’t be one to criticize them, but the sheer number of contests out there, the recent controversies in contests such as IPOTY and Monochrome Photography and the huge numbers of Honorable Mention awards in numerous competitions have put many photographers off them. These reasons, among others, are why I am thinking of limiting my entrances in competitions in 2020 just to the Sony World Photography Awards– a huge international contest with no entry fees and a very small group of winners of very high calibre. Since their rules are meant to ensure that images are from the previous calendar year, and you can only enter one series or one single image, Sony encourages me to evaluate my year and just submit my best series. I like that process. Contests do get your work out in the world and give you some (though how real?) valuation of that work, but I would never want to shoot with a contest in mind. I never want that to be the driving force behind my trips, or the series I shoot, so that is another reason that I am thinking of limiting my participation in these contests.
I know that you have entered contests yourself Nathan, but if I’m not mistaken, I think you may have stopped. I wonder if you asked me this question because you might be reconsidering this approach– or is that just me projecting? What is your view on photo contests?
Nathan: I have not stopped entering competitions. I have stopped saying anything about the results. As I march closer and closer to my mid-Fifties, I feel I have amassed all the necessary evidence to prove that (a) I am not very important in the larger picture of the universe and (b) there is absolutely nothing sad about that. Who, after all, really is that important? I am guilty of promoting, occasionally, any gallery showing I might get or any book that might come out, but, otherwise, who really needs to know what I am up to as I wander in the halls of my evolution as an image maker?
Why then enter the competitions at all? Once again, I cannot afford therapy, nor do I wish to really explore my ego in that way; instead, I would rather work on trying to let go of my ego as much as I possibly can and shift my focus towards doing the work. I am, after more than a decade of experimentation, confident that I am not a terrible photographer. Anything beyond that I really have to leave up to the opinions of those that encounter my images. Being a master of anything is not important to me. I am, however, unavoidably drawn to picture making and engaging nature.
I am very fond of the Spider Black and White awards. They are very meager with their honorable mentions, so if I earn one or something better, I feel it is more meaningful. I also like Dodho Magazine’s Black and White Photographer of the Year contest. Many of the other contests, as you say, offer so, so many honorable mentions that it feels like you are paying to be mentioned memorably. I find it hard to find any meaning in that. When I asked the great landscape photographer Guy Tal this same question, he gave an answer that I heartily agree with. He first asked the following– why “would I submit [an image] to the whims and taste of judges I don’t know, using whatever arbitrary criteria that may or may not be relevant to me”– and then answered: whether “some random person likes or dislikes my work does not factor into how or why I practice it.”
I also realize that I have never been and never will be the “Discovery of the Year” or the “Photographer of the Year.” In fact, even if I was awarded such a distinction, that would not mean that I am actually either one of those. It would just mean that someone said I was. Every time the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition advertises with their question of “are you the landscape photographer of the year,” I know, to my core, that I am not! That said— I hope anyone who might be reading this realizes I am in no way diminishing the value for the winners. Achievements are achievements. I am just forever suspicious of its value in the way that I see things.
My favorite competition is a local one: The Marin County Fair. Marin County is just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. I grew up in San Francisco and lived there for 44 years, but ten years ago I moved across the bridge to northern Marin because I could no longer afford the rent in San Francisco even though I work in the city. Marin has kept much of its natural areas intact and thus offers me a lot of opportunities for image making. The fair is quite fun— and Marin has a lot of talented artists. I enjoy the opportunity to show my work there—and it is the prints that I have made that are being judged, not a digital file I have electronically uploaded. The ribbons and cash rewards are fun, but I am most fond of sharing my work—which is what I really want to do.
Sandra: Can I just say how much I love the fact that you are “confident that [you are] not a terrible photographer”? You most assuredly are not, but I loved reading that because it reflects exactly how I feel. I have friends say to me “You are an amazing/great/wonderful [choose your adjective] photographer” (these are usually non-photographers as other photographers are, and should be, more discerning) and all I can think in my head is that I am, absolutely, not. I see many mistakes in my work, I have endless doubts, and I am striving constantly to become a better photographer but like you, after all these years, I can pretty confidently say that I’m not a terrible photographer. : )
Take a look at any of the top images from any of the reputable competitions and you will see exceptional work. In my opinion, there is not even a hair’s breadth of difference in ‘quality’ (if we can actually determine that objectively) between first, second and third in most competitions. They are almost always all wonderful images. The decisions of the judges as to who is going to win a category and who is going to come third comes down to things like personal preference or taste, whims (as you quoted Guy Tal as saying) and perceived novelty (to the viewer/judge, at least). So, then, as you say, why enter competitions? We are all humans with egos and if social media allows us to share our images with a wider audience, contests do that as well. I am not immune to that desire for external validation, but I try to remind myself regularly about what I love about photography– the places it takes me to, the adventures I’ve been on, and that absolutely supreme joy I get when I am photographing something compelling or beautiful in the right conditions, even it’s just beautiful to me. The desire for that ephemeral ‘pat on the back’, I hope, will never be my motivation for doing this.
Nathan: What are your thoughts about photography workshops? I have been asked to teach one on several occasions, and I have always, ultimately, shied away from doing so because my approach to photography is to just do it when I do it in the way that I do it. I cannot imagine someone paying me money to hear me say that all you need to do is to just keep doing it. I learned how to create images all on my own. I have read a few how-to articles for using Photoshop, but. overall, I learned everything entirely by experimenting. Would you ever teach a workshop?
Sandra: I love that: “my approach to photography is to just do it when I do it in the way that I do it.” I think that lots of people could benefit from that philosophy.
I have been asked to co-teach a few workshops recently, and I have shied away each time, just like you. Unlike you, though Nathan, I have taken a few workshops and on occasion they have changed the way I do photography – I am thinking particularly of a workshop I did over 10 years ago with Bruce Barnbaum, Jack Dynkinga and Jay Dusard— which convinced me to switch from travel to landscape photography; a one-on-one workshop with Bruce Percy (when he still offered them, years ago) that completely changed the way I thought about composition; an online long exposure workshop with Marc Koegel which helped me fall in love with LE; and a workshop in Japan with Rohan Reilly and Stephen Cairns which challenged me and the way I photograph in so many ways. The two keys to a great workshop are that the leader or leaders are great teachers (not all great photographers are great teachers), and that they have an intimate knowledge of the location where they are offering the workshop. However, many people– who are not good or natural teachers and who don’t know the locations where they are taking participants, at least not intimately– are now offering workshops. There are so many photographers hoping to get to these marquee locations, to learn and to improve their practice that there is a huge market for photo workshops, but it’s become very much a caveat emptor landscape. I have been taking fewer and fewer workshops over the last years, not because I have nothing more to learn (nothing could be further from the truth!) but because so few of these workshops have had a positive impact on my photography. There are some locations where it is very hard to organize a solo trip, and that is when a workshop can be useful, but when it is possible to travel on my own, that is my preferred way of photographing. I am very motivated to create my own projects and find inspiring subjects myself. I enjoy the process of discovery, of scouting online before a trip and scouting on the ground once I get to a location. Sometimes there’s a wonderful serendipity when you do that.
All of this is to say that I have no plans right now to offer any workshops because I’m not sure what I have to teach people; maybe I’m a member of your school of ‘just keep doing it’– and I don’t think I know any regions well enough to feel qualified to give workshops there. I wouldn’t want to offer a workshop unless I could be sure of giving people something useful in terms of learning about photography and an expert’s intimate insight into a place.
Nathan: Okay– I am going to switch direction and ask some general questions. Name ten books that you think everyone should read.
Sandra: This is such a tough one! I am a voracious reader and I am most happy when I have a fascinating book on the go (conversely, life is quite miserable when I can’t find a consuming book to read). Maybe six or seven years ago I stopped reading fiction. I can’t really tell you why, but I now read nonfiction exclusively, so my ten books will have to be nonfiction. But wait: can I have 15? If so, then here they are, simply in alphabetical order by title:
- A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
- Alone On the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story In The History Of Exploration by David Roberts
- Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Hans Rosling, and Ola Rosling (I just read this while on my trip in Manitoba in December)
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O’Hanlon
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel
- Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
- Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
- Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow
- The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
- The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spenser Wells
- The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War by Robert Gordon
- The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
- Why? Explaining the Holocaust by Peter Hayes
I wonder what your ten books would be, Nathan?
Nathan: I always like to ask this question in the safety of not having to choose my own! But I shall endeavor an incomplete list in no particular order:
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
- Opened Ground: The Selected Poetry of Seamus Heaney
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
- King Lear by William Shakespeare
- Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson
- The Collected Poems of George Oppen
- The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder
- Magnus by George Mackay Brown
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
- Dubliners by James Joyce
- The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien [the movies are good– but the novel is fantastic!]
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki [the best introduction to the practice of Zen for non-Easterners]
- Moon in a Dewdrop by Dogen (translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi) [the writings of the founder of the Zen school of Soto]
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
And a book I am currently reading that I think is very important and worthwhile–> The Overstory by Richard Powers
Nathan: Tell us three things that you think everyone should know about librarians.
Sandra: I don’t seem to be very good at sticking with your numbers, Nathan. Can I have four things?
- Librarians are experts in research. A big part of my job at the College where I work is going into classes to teach students how best to find and evaluate resources for their assignments. We think that with access to the Internet that we have access to all knowledge, but it can still be hard to find exactly what you need (especially in subscription databases) and, almost as important, it can be difficult to evaluate what is good quality (authoritative and accurate) information and what is not. Librarians teach students that.
- Librarians can’t stop themselves from helping. Sometimes it’s the simplest interactions at work which are my favourite – a student comes into the library looking for information for an assignment, usually feeling stressed, I help them find what they’re looking for, give them tips on how to do it themselves and they go away happy. Any day where that happens is a good day for me. There is a flip side to this, though – sometimes we can’t stop ourselves from helping. I have had one or two students try to slowly back away from the Research Help Desk while I’m saying, “Wait, there’s more. We can look in another database”.
- Librarians are dogged. I tell students that when most people don’t find what they’re looking for on Google, they think the information isn’t out there. When a librarian can’t find what they’re looking for, they usually assume they have used the wrong search terms. We are relentless when trying to find information.
- Librarians are all about sharing and making information available to everyone. Librarians have spearheaded projects to create OERs (Open Educational Resources – among them, free openly-available textbooks), and other initiatives such as the publication of Open Access scholarly journals, that are trying to change the information landscape to give everyone access to all knowledge. I see part of my mission as a librarian to make as much information available to as many people as I can.
Nathan: When you read, do you prefer reading a physical book or magazine, etc. or are you happy reading from a digital device?
Sandra: Oh, I love a physical book. I read a lot, so I borrow a lot from the library, but if I’m enjoying a book, I will often buy it so I can have it to keep. For a book I’m going to savour, I always prefer a physical book. I love to own those books I’ve particularly enjoyed or which have changed my view on something or helped me delve deeper into a topic that fascinates me. I look at my bookshelves as a history of my intellectual interests as they’ve evolved over time. I own an eReader though, and I use that exclusively when I travel. In the old days, when I travelled with one camera body and one lens and a pile of film, my suitcase was probably ? full of books. Now I have all the cords and chargers and cleaners and filters and tripod and multiple camera bodies and lenses and accouterments that go with digital and landscape and infrared photography, so there’s no room for books in my suitcase. Hence the eReader.
Nathan: And … back to a photography-related question … what advice are you willing to give to anyone who is interested in pursuing their own photography?
Sandra: I’m not sure if I have any advice that others haven’t given– and I’m a bit worried that this will all sound like a cliche– but here goes. The main thing is to just get out there and shoot. If you’re shooting digital, just shoot a lot. The learning curve at the beginning is steep and you can improve dramatically quite quickly, but you have to work at it. Shoot what you love, not what you think other people will love. Look at images that inspire you and figure out why they inspire you. Don’t copy the images, rather try to incorporate that why into your own photography. Don’t worry too much about gear/camera equipment. That’s not what’s going to make a great image. Critiquing your own work is the hardest thing you are going to do as a photographer, but try to be brutally honest with yourself and only show your best work.
Nathan: And, finally, thank you so very much for taking the time to share some of your images and answer my questions. I am a great admirer of your work. I will end our conversation by asking if there is anything else you wish to add?
Sandra: You are really too kind, Nathan. I’m incredibly flattered to hear that you are an admirer of my work. Thank you so much for giving me this wonderful opportunity to think about photography and my photographic journey and to share some of my thoughts with your readers. It has truly been a privilege.
Explore More of Sandra’s Work: website
Several Images with Notes from Sandra