If you had to describe your overall photographic vision in 25 words or less, what words would you choose?
To walk the line between tranquil and dramatic focusing on subjects often overlooked to evoke an emotional response and sense of wonder with the viewer.
Why do you prefer black and white photography?
When I was a child, my family would take trips to the mall, and my big sister and I would wander from shop to shop looking at the merchandise. We used to frequent a poster shop and my sister would point out Ansel Adams posters, saying how she wanted them on her wall. I remember seeing these majestic landscape images and loving how they made me feel even though I didn’t understand why. Canadian photojournalist, Ted Grant, once said “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes, but when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” Without that presence of color, the image is reduced to its basic form of shapes and lines, light and shadows, tones and contrast, leaving nothing to distract the viewer from these elements and allowing the subject to take center stage. Working in monochrome allows me to mold and shape the image until it represents my personal expression– and it’s aesthetically pleasing to my eye.
Why are you so drawn to long exposure photography?
When I got my first camera, I wasn’t quite sure which direction I wanted to take my photography. For the first month or two, I began to try my hand at everything from street photography to overly saturated sunsets to HDR. I really enjoyed being out and about with a camera but never seemed satisfied with anything I was producing. I didn’t feel like I was making images that truly expressed my personality. And then, online, I came upon a daytime, long exposure image and literally stopped breathing for a second. OH WOW was the only thing that came to mind. I remember being transfixed and staring at the moody, calming image and being mesmerized for a long period of time. I said to myself out loud, “That’s it; this is what I need to do.” I scoured the Internet for any information I could find about how to produce these kinds of images. After much trial and error, my photographs began to look somewhat decent and I continued, feverishly, to improve my skills. I continue to use the long exposure technique in the majority of my images and don’t plan on stopping any time in the near future.
I am drawn to the long exposure image because of its calming, otherworldly qualities, which exemplify mood and emotion. Being able to shoot for many seconds to many minutes in one frame, one can, over time, capture what the naked eye cannot see in real time. This draws the viewer in and allows him or her a break, if only for a moment, from our all too busy lives– a sort of stop and smell the roses effect if you will. It’s these qualities that allow me to create a world that I can escape to and lose myself in– and hopefully the viewer can as well.
I also enjoy how long exposure photography makes you slow down and carefully consider the shot before you take it. With the instant gratification of the digital camera, it’s easy for photographers to “shoot and delete,” moving quickly from subject to subject and rattling off hundreds of photos in a given day. With each LE shot averaging several minutes, you really want to make sure that you have composed the subject in the best possible way– and you have time in between shots to consider other possible compositions or subject matter. I can spend hours shooting a given location and walk away with only 30 images that will later result in one or two final images.
Who are three of your favorite photographers, and, more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
There are dozens of photographers that I admire and provide me with inspiration on a daily basis. Many of them are contacts of mine that I found on the various photo sharing web sites I frequent and others I discovered from photography books and personal web sites. These are three that have an impact on my photography.
Michael Kenna: While this may be an obvious choice for this style of photography, Kenna has mastered the four C’s: Composition, Contrast, Compelling, and Consistency. His photographs possess a magical quality of deep blacks and illuminating light that comes to life as if they have a soul. His utilization of minimalist compositions is both striking and inspirational. He’s been producing exquisite photographs for decades, and it’s no surprise that his work is often mimicked by other photographers. Kenna’s work has taught me not just to LOOK at a given scene but to SEE a composition. I was fortunate for the opportunity to view his work in person at a local art museum recently. It was a twenty year retrospective exhibit and I was blown away by these masterpieces, I could’ve stared at them for days taking it all in.
Keith Aggett: A long exposure photographer from the UK specializing in seascapes, Keith epitomizes elegance and craftsmanship. Each image is well thought out and crafted to the highest standards. His photographs produce a sense of calmness that you can lose yourself in for long periods of time. His work is also very consistent, and I always look forward to the next image. Keith’s work has taught me to set a high standard for myself: to always strive to produce the best images possible for my skill set.
Nathan Wirth: At the risk of appearing to be a suck up, I must be honest in saying that Nathan is one of my favorite photographers. His work is some of the first that I found at the beginning of my long exposure journey, and I was mesmerized by the mysteriousness and feeling of solitude in his photographs. I feel that there is always more than meets the eye, and I’m convinced that I never fully understand a given image. I am in constant awe with the world that he weaves with a processing skill that is truly original. Nathan’s style is all his own, and he constantly pushes the envelope with fresh new ideas. His work has taught me to think outside the box and not to just follow the trends. [note: Nathan is simultaneously flattered, grateful and embarrassed to be mentioned.]
What artistic influences, outside of photography, have had a significant influence on how you approach your photography (for example, painters, filmmakers, musicians, poets, etc.)?
It’s sad to say that I’m ignorant in regards to the art world. The more I develop my photography, the more I am becoming more interested in paintings and I will most likely begin to enjoy and study many more painters. Music, however, plays a large role in my photography. I love listening to music when shooting in the field, and I also listen to music while editing my photos. I’m even listening to music as I write this. I feel as though my mood is heavily influenced by the particular music that I’m listening to and that it significantly influences the outcome of my photographs. Some of my images are titled after albums, songs, and lyrics that I happen to be listening to at the time. Sometimes, when I hear a song that I haven’t heard in a few months,I can remember what image I was editing at the time or where I was shooting when I was listening to it last.
What are your thoughts about trying to find the best gear possible versus working on making the best possible image with the gear you already have?
Not trying to throw my financial woes on the table, but with an enormous amount of student loan debt and a mediocre income, I’m left scratching and clawing for any sort of photography bankroll. When considering purchasing my first camera, I begged my wife to let me finance a “cheap” DSLR with a kit lens. I am currently still using this camera– and it’s the only one I own. To afford the necessary filters, tripod, and shutter remote for long exposure photography, I ask for gift cards from my family at certain holidays to help me out. My overall point is this: you do not need the best expensive gear to (1) have fun (because that’s what it really is all about, right?) and (2) produce satisfying work. The best gear will not make a bad photographer good. The best gear will not teach composition and technique. With that said, I do feel that a good camera can help a good photographer produce a higher quality image, i.e. upgrading to a full frame censor from a cropped censor, etc. I do hope to upgrade to better equipment as time goes on so that I can improve the image quality, but I also feel that I need to pay my dues by cutting my teeth on entry level gear. I understand that it all comes down to what you can afford, and, hey, if you can afford the really expensive gear then more power to you but don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll automatically produce great images. The camera is only a tool, only one piece of the puzzle to get from conception to final product for the artist. I feel that sometimes people are too concerned with the latest and greatest equipment when that energy would be much better spent focusing on honing technique.
How would you define fine art? Is it just a label?
When I first discovered the world of black and white photography, I noticed some artists describing their work as “Fine Art Photography.” I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant or how to define it. At first I felt it was a bit pretentious but understood what they were trying to convey by categorizing their work as such. What I didn’t like about the label was the word “Fine,” which is really defined as “high quality,” because I don’t feel that it’s my place to deem my own work as high quality. That’s for others to decide. “Why not just call it: Art Photography?” I thought. I then decided to look up the definition from various sources, and although there is no clear consensus, there is a similar theme. My assumption is that fine art photography is used to distinguis between the vision of the artist who focuses on aesthetic qualities and photographing for documentation purposes. If this definition is correct then I understand and agree with it. I guess my images could fit into the fine art category, but because the term is obscure and I don’t really care too much about how my photography is labeled, I choose not to use it much. With that said, I’m not against the term by any means and have no issue with other photographers using it. There are times when I may have to use the label, such as entering a contest or something, but for the most part I just say that I’m a black and white photographer and leave it at that.
What are your thoughts about the benefits of online sharing? Are there any particular social media or image sharing sites you prefer or do not prefer?
I truly believe that I wouldn’t be this far along in photography without online photo sharing. There is a very strong community and fellowship among artists on these sites. I have online contacts from all around the world– and this has exposed me to a variety of different styles, techniques, and view points. It allows me a window into their lives and beautiful lands. It’s rewarding to have others appreciate your work and share quality dialog about photography as well as other life topics. I have developed what I consider friendships with some of these artists and few of them come to visit me here in Seattle. There are, however, cons to online sharing as well. It’s easy to become addicted to the admiration and accolades and misuse these as a barometer for how good your work is. I still struggle with this myself and, purposefully, won’t post certain images because I’m worried of what others may think about it. Worrying too much about what others think of your work can hinder the creative development in my opinion.
Here are some of the web sites that I participate in and a brief description of what each means to me:
Flickr: I discovered many well known online black and white long exposure photographers there and developed a rapport with many of them. Many photographers at Flickr leave quality, thoughtful comments, explaining what exactly it is they enjoy about a particular image. I also like the various groups that you can add images to, and I also find new artists in these groups. A downfall to Flickr is they seem to be behind the times without having real time notifications and the navigation can be a bit cumbersome.
UPDATE: While writing this Flickr received a face lift and I’m hearing some negative feedback. I’ve seen many of my contacts discussing possibly leaving the site due to these changes. I guess we’ll see how it all works out.
Google+: The most “social” of the sites in my opinion, Google+ is quickly becoming the preferred site for many photographers. In fact, I sometimes wonder if there are any non-photographers who actually utilize the site. The vibe here feels more casual and the dialog between contacts is much more frequent and swift. I tend to post more images here than Flickr due to their “hashtags” of particular themes that act like adding an image to a group.
UPDATE: Google+, just like Flickr, also made changes to their layout while writing this. They seem to have done a better job than Flickr, but, again, we’ll see how it all works out. [ed. And Now Google Has Dismantled It!]
Art Limited: This website, which is based out of France, aims to showcase high quality photographs and other art forms. This is the newest site that I’ve joined, and it’s quickly becoming a favorite because I have discovered many wonderful photographers that I had not seen on any of the other sites. They also have groups and personal projects, and they highlight selected images on their home web page. You can leave comments and give varying levels of admiration on images and add them to your favorites.
Facebook: Although Facebook has the poorest image quality of all the social sites, it’s a great way to share your work with non-photographers. I feel that the majority of people who follow my work there are not involved in the photography world at all. I just hope they improve their image quality sometime in the near future. Hey, Zuckerberg, if you happen to read this could you take care of that? Thanks.
Stark Magazine: A small but quickly growing web site promoting the “Intelligent Eye.” The site has a ways to go with regards to navigation, but, again, it’s still small and they’re making quality improvements weekly. I’m seeing many artists coming over to Stark and enjoying it. Stark also prints a magazine. A photograph in print, what a concept, huh?
500px: I don’t spend very much time on this site anymore. I don’t want to bash any photography sharing sites, but it seems like 500px, with its voting system for images, is mostly a popularity contest. Many of the comments left on your images are from people who are just trying to promote their own images. I also don’t like or agree with their “I don’t like this photo” button, which demotes the images voting percentage. To me, sharing photography isn’t supposed to be about anonymously hitting a dislike button and running away without any explanation as to why. I’ll still upload the occasional image but it’s becoming less and less frequent.
What photographic cliché or common photography question, if any, irritates you the most?
What irritates me the most is not necessarily a specific question. It has more to do with when people give me their opinions on what or how I should photograph without me asking for it; for example, “You should shoot more color” or “You should take more pictures of people.” I understand that they don’t mean to be offensive, but I’m very passionate about and content with the subjects that I choose. You don’t hear about people giving a painter advice on what to paint, or anyone telling a musician what kind of music they should play, but for some reason it happens with photography all the time. Not too long ago, I was out shooting and a stranger struck up a conversation with me. He told me that he used to be into photography– and then, all of a sudden, he began to point out what I should be shooting in our surroundings. I guess it’s people’s ways of telling me what they like, but I don’t do photography for a living, so with the limited time that I have, I’m going to focus on what makes me happy.
If you were stranded on an island, and you could have one camera, one lens, one filter, one tripod, two books, and ten CD’s, what would they be and why?
Photography Equipment: If I was stranded on an island I would like the exact photography gear to be a surprise, to be something that I’ve never used before– maybe a medium format film camera or something that utilizes the wet plate process. I could make a grass hut darkroom and use coconuts as chemical holders and banana leaves as dodging and burning tools. This would give me something to do so boredom would not set in– and it would help keep my mind off the fact that I was really hungry.
Book #1: Japanese writer Koushun Takami‘s Battle Royale tells the story of a class of junior high school students that are placed on an island by the government and forced to fight to the death. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins has been criticized by some for copying Takami in terms of plot as they’re very similar (Battle Royale was written 12 years before Collins’ books). This book is filled with suspense, and you can’t help but think of what you would do if you were faced with these situations. Plus, it would be very fitting for my situation since it takes place on an island.
Book #2: I am a big fan of the series A Song of Ice and Fire by author George R.R. Martin [note: recently made into a miniseries by HBO]. I would take any of the current 5 (there are two more in the works) as my second book. Martin is wonderful with character development, and he weaves a complex, cruel world of drama, politics, and battle.
10 CD’s: Instead of describing each one, I’ll just say that I’m a nostalgic person and that each one of these albums reminds me of certain times of my life that make me smile.
- A Tribe Called Quest Midnight Marauders
- John Coltrane Blue Trane
- Atmosphere Seven’s Travels
- Aether Artifacts
- DJ J-Rocc & Babu Soundbombing II
- Descendents Milo Goes to College
- Miles Davis Kind of Blue
- Wu-Tang Clan Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
- Cannibal Ox The Cold Vein
- Madlib Blue Note Remixed
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
Although I will always be drawn to photographing the water, I do want to begin to move inland more. In my opinion, the Pacific Northwest is a very beautiful area of the country and has more to offer than just waterscapes. I want to work in our mountains, lakes, and cloud forests more– while still continuing my minimalist approach. The east side of Washington State has farm lands, rolling hills, and almost desert-like areas that I’d also like to capture.
It’s difficult to take many trips for photography since I have split days off from work, but I would like to both head up to Canada and down to California sometime this year if my schedule allows.
As far as processing is concerned, I will likely continue with darker images but would love to figure out how to make a decent high key image. For some reason this is very difficult for me, and I have never produced one that has any redeeming quality to it.
Is there any specific place that you would like to visit to take photos?
Although Japan has been heavily photographed by great minimal photographers such as Michael Kenna and Michael Levin, it holds a mysterious Zen quality that I would love to experience with my camera. I visited Japan long before I was into photography, but I still remember those mysterious feelings nonetheless. To go back now with a camera would be a wonderful experience. Many of my online contacts have been beautifully capturing the UK coastline for years. There are so many intriguing structures in their waters that make for perfect long exposure subjects. I would like to see how I could infuse my personal style with that landscape.
If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?
To not care so much about what others think about your art. This is something that I’ve been thinking much about a lot lately, and Cole Thompson, in his recent interview for slices of silence, discusses this topic at length. I think all photographers can use this advice to help them grow creatively. When I first began to post photos publicly, I would feel hurt and upset when I didn’t receive a lot of faves, plusses, or likes on an image. It felt as if I was heading in the wrong or direction with my photographs, and then I would post an image that would receive praise, and I felt happy and confident in my work. Over time I realized that I was producing images that everyone else would like and wasn’t necessarily following my own vision. I’m just now coming to terms with this and producing images that I like and not being so concerned with what others think about them. With that said, I am very appreciative of every single comment and admiration that I receive, and happy if there are people who enjoy my work, but it doesn’t determine the outcome of my images anymore or what I choose to make public. My photography is, of course, a work in progress. The creative process is a funny thing with its ebbs and flows like the tides and its ups and downs like a rollercoaster, and it helps to take everything in stride and continue to just create. Pop art icon Andy Warhol summed this up well when he said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
Is there anything else you wish to add?
I would like to thank you, Nathan, for the encouragement that you’ve given me this last year both verbally and by example. You choose to spend much time promoting other artists instead of yourself and your modesty is admirable. This eZine, as you say, is a labor of love and it shows. I am very appreciative for this opportunity to be a part of it. I would also like to thank my wife, Sara, for her wonderful support and for putting up with my obsessiveness about photography as I’m sure it gets annoying after a while. Lastly, I want to thank my good friend– and fellow long exposure photographer– Quincy Jefferson, who not only encouraged me to get a camera in the first place but also deals with my childish antics like a champ (especially during our long car rides to photo locations).
And, finally, if the mood should strike you, write a haiku that describes your photography.
The bird still sleeps
Daybreak brings hope
Light on the horizon
— Michael Salmela —
Explore more of Michael’s photography: Website | Art Limited | Flickr | Facebook | 500px
Spotlight on Three Images
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