In Conversation… John Chapple

hut over a lake at sunrise

By John Chapple »
Linhof Technorama 617s III | | | |

John Chapple was born and raised on the rugged North Devon coast of England, where the spectacular scenery inspired him to pick up a camera at the age of 14. A self-taught photographer, John began a successful career as a news photographer in the UK, and then overseas in both Australia and the US.

During the past 20 years he has become a regular contributor to a wide variety of publications from The Times of London to Rolling Stone and everything in between. Assignments have included the 9/11 atrocities in New York, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.

John has also captured the lighter side of life covering Hollywood red carpet events featuring the biggest names in showbiz, and stunning celebrity portraits of stars including Jon Bon Jovi, Shirley MacLaine, Samuel L. Jackson and Hilary Swank.

It was while traveling on assignments across the globe that John found his love for landscapes. Combining the two interests, photography and travel, he discovered his true passion.

Now John spends his time discovering little known corners of the world to shoot in his unique and memorable style. The married, father-of-two has returned to his coastal roots – albeit 5000 miles away from Devon – currently living on the coast of Southern California. Coming full circle, John has gone from shooting on film to digital imagery, and now returns to film. For his panoramic images he uses a Linhof Technorama 617s III. This camera is unique in that the negatives are a huge 6 x 17 centimeters, with only four exposures per film. He also used a 50 megapixel digital Hasselblad and a top of the range 1DS Canon digital camera.

Interview by Dimitri Vasileiou


John, the first thing I would like to ask you is this: why panoramic and why Linhof Technorama 617s III?

After living in New York for six years, my wife and I decided to give up the crazy life and do some travelling before moving to the west coast and starting a family. We put all our possessions in storage and packed the absolute bare essentials into two little army surplus back packs and hit the road for a year’s adventure through South and Central America and Australia. We wanted to travel lightly, with only our passports to worry about. I knew I'd be seeing some amazing things on our travels and, in preparation, I picked up a Leica M6 TTL and a couple of fast lenses. It was the perfect kit for the road, wrapped in tape, looking very inconspicuous, but the quality was outstanding.

As perfect as it was for our travels, it was still only a 35mm, and when we got back from our big trip, I decided I was ready to go bigger. I was considering a 6 x 9, until I walked into the gallery of Australian premiere landscape photographer Christian Fletcher. I'd never really paid much attention to the panoramic format until I saw his work. The stunning high definition wide screen images that Christian had captured really opened my eyes to the 6 x 17 format. I fell in love with the Linhof Technorama 617 III because it felt so solid and, with the Schneider lens, I felt I couldn't go wrong.

So after careful consideration, I traded in my beloved Leica and picked up a Linhof Technorama with a 90mm lens. I loved the high quality of the Leica, but the Linhof, with it's huge negative gave me the capability to produce much larger prints. I didn't want to cheat, and crop a 35mm frame size to produce a panoramic. The Linhof allowed me to utilize the entire viewfinder. I prefer not to crop my images and work with the full frame size, so this camera really worked for me. It's a really enjoyable piece of kit; there are no electronics, everything is manual, even to cocking the shutter.

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I was looking at the image in your gallery called “In The Spotlight”. This image has claimed a Hasselblad award. Can you tell us the story behind this striking image?

john-chapple-11Hasselblad were kind enough to allow me to test drive their H3D-50 in the summer of 2010. I took a road trip up the west coast of the States to Canada and back down through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. I was really excited to get to Page Arizona to photograph Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, and really use the Hasselblad as it was intended.

The canyons are on Navajo land, and after a flash flood that killed 11 tourists in August of 1997, visitors are permitted to enter the canyon only with a Navajo guide. I joined a guided tour group, and we were shown the best spots to photograph. When we got to the place I'd wanted to photograph in Antelope Canyon, I got caught up in what I was doing, and didn't notice that the group had moved on. While I was waiting for a shaft of direct sunlight to filter into the canyon, the guide came back to get me to keep up with the group. I knew I had only seconds to capture the much-anticipated shot. I got ready to take one last shot. There was dust in the air that was illuminated by the shaft of light, which looked incredible. During the long exposure, another visitor decided to jump in front of my tripod mounted camera and dance in the beam of light. I'm ashamed to admit that at the time I wanted to throttle him, and shared a few choice words with other photographers there. But when I previewed the image on the back of the camera, I knew I'd captured a magical shot and it was a 50-megapixel file!

This photo was the first image I entered into a competition, and I was delighted when I found out that it was a semi-finalist in the 2010 Hasselblad Masters. It also picked up a Bronze Award in the 2010 International Aperture Awards.

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Besides your main interest, panoramic landscapes, I see that you experiment with other genres of photography. Tell us about your philosophy on this please.

I started out working for a news agency in the southwest of England in the late '80's, and then took a job in Los Angeles working for a celebrity based photo agency. For the past 22 years, I've been covering breaking news, features, events and celebrity portraiture. I went freelance in 1998, and have made a fairly decent living (my wife would disagree) working for newspapers, magazines, websites and television. This kind of photography, though never dull, has always paid the bills, but it's never really been my passion. If I could, I’d spend my days working on landscapes, instead of sitting outside courthouses, waiting on doorsteps with reporters, or photographing diva celebrities.

Many photographers have a moment that could change the way we see photography. Have you had such a moment and how did it affect your style?

I can't complain about my job too much, I've had some great assignments. While on assignment in the Bahamas, I clearly remember contemplating how much I love what I do. I was deep in thought, 50 ft underwater, photographing the sharks featured in the movie 'Open Water' for The Times (London), when a Caribbean reef shark brushed up against me, swiftly bringing me back to reality. The thought that I was being paid to be in this situation, instead of in a cubicle crunching numbers, really confirmed how extremely lucky I am to be doing a job that is so diverse and rewarding.

The biggest moment of clarity as a photographer came with the birth of my first son, Radley Danger Chapple (yes, Danger really is his middle name). After a conversation with my father-in-law about how visibility in the mountains has decreased so much in his lifetime because of air pollution, I suddenly felt a real urgency to capture images that my children can share with their grandchildren. We live in a changing world, and photography is the only way of documenting exactly what I see for future generations.

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Would you give up your day job for photography as a means of earning your living, or would that affect your photography in a way that would spoil the pleasure of doing photography in the first place?

My dream is to be able to make a living with my landscape photography. Right now it’s something that I love doing, and squeeze into my hectic life when I can. I can't imagine a greater life, being able to shoot landscapes AND make my monthly mortgage payment. There's nothing greater professionally than being paid to do what you love.

Can you tell us a few things about the rest of your gear and why you chose them?

I started using a Nikon F3 and then graduated to the F4, F5 and finally over to digital with a Nikon D1X the same week as the September 11 attacks. I remember purchasing my first 1 gig memory card for $550. Eventually I switched from Nikon to Canon, using a 1Ds Mark II with a nice selection of lenses. My favorite lens at the moment is an old manual focus Nikkor 50mm f1.2 lens with a Canon adapter ring.

Like almost every photographer, you must have a favourite image (or two). Tell us a little bit about it, all the details and especially the why.

My favorite image to date is, 'Serene Jetty'. I shot this image when I was visiting my wife's family in Western Australia. I grabbed a coffee and took an early morning drive out to Quindalup. The sun rose quietly over my shoulder and I got this amazing shot. One of the things I like most about landscape photography is that you can't force it. Sometimes you have all the elements in place, and you still don't get that amazing shot. But sometimes, when there's something magic in the air, you just get it right.

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Some photographers are so called purists and do their best to deal with everything on location, above all, with exposure. Are you a purist who deals with everything on location or do you prefer to blend exposures and, if so, why?

I have never thought of myself as a purist, but I definitely prefer to capture an evenly exposed image where the highlights and shadows fall reasonably within the exposure latitude of the film that I'm using. With the help of graduated neutral density filters, I can balance the exposure in the sky and the landscape. I'm not a huge fan of HDR files that are overdone, because they don't look authentic. I think that landscape photos should be believable, a place that the viewer imagines they could actually visit.

Obviously you shoot film when doing panoramics and then scan to digital. What post processing do your images undergo after this? Can you give us some details of your workflow?

I have two film scanners, an Epson Perfection V750 Pro and a Nikon Super Coolscan 9000 ED. Although not recommended by Epson, I wet scan my 6x17 transparencies on the Epson scanner, and for my 35mm and 6x6 film I use the Nikon scanner. Both scanners are operated using Silverfast professional scanning software. I then import the large Tiff file into Adobe Lightroom. I love the easy use of Lightroom with all the controls, which are basically the same as an actual darkroom. It takes me back to my days of being stuck for hours slaving away in a darkroom, and I'm amazed yet again at how technology has advanced photography. I soft proof an image in Photoshop and then return it to Lightroom to print. All my prints are made on an Epson Stylus Pro 7900. Although one friend commented that it looked like Michael Jackson's oxygen chamber, I'm blown away by the quality of prints that it produces. I also cut my own mats on a Logan Graphics mat cutter.

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Almost everyone can name photographers who are an influence and inspiration. Who are these photographers for you?

I have a bookcase full of photography books that I try to draw inspiration from. I love Elliot Erwitt's work, and the humor in his photographs. I'm a PADI certified underwater photographer, and in that field you can't find a better photographer than David Doubilet. Landscape photographers Christian Fletcher, Peter Lik, Ken Duncan, Clyde Butcher and Galen Rowel all have a prime spot on my bookshelf. I also have quite a few World Press Photo and Magnum photography books that I read again and again.

Have you received any formal training in photography or are you a self-taught photographer?

I am self-taught. Funnily enough, I failed art in school. I completed an apprenticeship when I finished school, but I was really only shown what I'd done wrong, as apposed to what I'd done right, so I found that I learned mostly from my mistakes. In years following, it was really trial and error and learning the hard way.

Is your love for landscape photography a passion, obsession, or both?

My two kids are my passion and obsession, but photography is a close second. I don't feel that I'm obsessed with photography, but I do have a way of framing everything I see as if I were photographing it. I tend to see the world through a viewfinder. Landscape photography is most definitely a passion. I don't have enough time for it to develop into an obsession though. Being a dad of two little boys, I have very little free time. I'd like to be able to pick up a camera any time and head out to a location that I want to photograph, but right now my kids come first.

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When on the lookout for an image in the field, you must have a certain method or process you follow in order to find the subject. Can you share this with us?

Most of the time I see something, and feel as though a switch has flipped on. Almost instinctively, I see something or someone, and feel a need to capture it, like an itch that needs to be scratched. When I'm working as a photojournalist, I'm assigned to photograph a subject, and it's not always something that I want to do. Some of the news stories that I cover can be traumatic or heart breaking. Working in Hollywood can leave me feeling a little empty and unrewarded. It can also be quite forced. When I'm on the way to a job, I go over every angle and try to work out beforehand how to do the shoot. With landscape photography, it's always on my terms. I'm free to shoot what, when, and where I want.

When I've got a location that I'm really interested in photographing, I look at Google maps and zoom in to try to figure out where might be the best place to stand. Most of the time that spot isn't quite right, but it gives me an idea of where the sun rises and sets to optimise the light, and what time of day I should be there. I try to have as much information as I can before I get there, but no matter how much preparation and planning go into it, there are always unexpected factors that can ruin the idea of a brilliant shot. Once, when I was traveling in Argentina, I decided that I wanted to photograph a rock formation, shaped like an arch, detailed in my well-worn Lonely Planet Guide. Without doing any necessary research (the backpacker's hostel didn't have an internet connection) I took a bus for 14 hours to the location, only to find that the arch had been washed away in a storm the month before.

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Have you ever had an awe-inspiring experience that will stay with you for the rest of your photographic life?

That experience would have to be the sun rising at Mesa Arch in Utah. I want to go back there to photograph it again, because I don't feel I did it justice. I was really distracted by the incredible beauty of the sun rising and bouncing off the rock face, illuminating the arch with brilliant orange light. When you see it in photographs it doesn't look real; you have to be there to appreciate what an electrifying sight it is. Literally it took my breath away, and I don't thing that's happened before. That will certainly stay with me.

How do you come up with ideas, and what do you use as inspiration for your images?

I draw a lot of inspiration from other photographers, images in photography books and magazines. I will sometimes see a photo that someone else has done, and want to have a crack at it, but do it differently. Finding and shooting the well-known locations is a must, and these images are a part of every landscape photographer's library: finding a new and undiscovered location is a reward.

No doubt your work evokes strong emotional responses. To what degree are your own emotions reflected in the subject?

I feel a great deal of pride when I see my work on a wall anywhere or in newspapers or magazines, so I think that's a very tangible emotion that I feel about my work. I like to be able to manipulate an image with darkness or lightness to evoke a response. I also feel that landscape photography is a big part of environmentalism. In a world where kids, in particular, have very limited access to anything resembling the wilderness, it's difficult to get them to care about the environment, because it's not necessarily anything they're likely to see or feel compassion for. I'd like to think that someone who's never really thought twice about a forest, for example, might look at one of my photographs, and feel its beauty.

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Often, I am asked by people, especially participants on my workshops, if I have a favourite location. Do you have a favourite location and why? Would you share it with us?

It's tough to narrow down my absolute favorite spot. So many come to mind. I think Western Australia probably has the most varying scenery in one general area. From its azure-blue ocean to its rich red dirt, its long, empty beaches, incredible wildlife, picturesque rocky crags and wildfire-burnt trees, it's really a place of immense beauty. It's also where my wife's parents live, so it has the added charm of a place where I can leave the kids for a bit so I can take some photos!

Now, here is an easy one. We all have a dream location that we want to visit before we are too old. What is your dream location?

I'm currently living in Los Angeles but I'm originally from North Devon (UK). I haven't been home in five years because I've been busy raising a family and working. It seems as though I blinked and five years passed by. I have a trip home planned, and I couldn't be more excited. In the time that I've been away, my direction in photography definitely has altered course, and now I see North Devon through changed eyes. I have a list of places I want to photograph - beaches, cliffs, rivers and waterfalls. There is an old farmhouse in the Midlands that has been calling me. So many locations, so little time…

And here is a tough one. If you could turn back the clock, what advice would you give now to a young John Chapple about photography?

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Use your tripod and wait for the right light. When there is a spectacular sunset, turn around and see how soft the light is behind you. I'd also tell myself not to go to Death Valley in August because it's going to be 120ºF.

How do you see your photographic future?

I'm hoping that I will be able to embrace landscape photography and shift my efforts solely to this genre. I'm getting older, and photojournalism is getting crueler. I'd like to have the time and finances to travel around this big beautiful planet and shoot everything I've ever dreamed about. In an ideal world I'd spend more time with my family on location. I'd love to be able to take my kids to see some of these magnificent sights. I also hope to have my own gallery one day.

What advice would you give to our readers?

Invest in a good alarm clock, a comfortable pair of boots and a sturdy tripod, and you can't go wrong.

www.johnchapple.com

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Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 12 of Landscape Photography Magazine.


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