You are widely known as one of the greatest portrait photographers of our time, but beyond your portrait work lies your landscape photography. Joe Jr. from Really Right Stuff brought it to our attention and we just had to sit down with you to find out more. When did you start to photographing landscapes?
Well, you have to look back 40 years. I started out as a freshman in high school and chose photography as an elective. Being able to go into a classroom and actually be taught art was heavenly. I was hooked right away. I looked at photography as a way to document the world around me. I would go backpacking and document my trips. I lived in Tucson, where you have three groups of mountains that go up to almost 10,000 feet. People don’t realize that. So you have all these canyons and trails to explore. I lived in this perfect environment for rugged backpacking and I wanted to document that.
When I was a freshman in college, I ended up taking a class in junior college (and I say this all the time). There was a professor that changed my life. Instead of photography just being a way to document the world around you, he presented the case that photography was a creative outlet, a way to have a voice, and for you as a person to make a stamp on this planet through your artistic vision. I have been chasing that ever since.
It was at that point that I began to study the masters. I wanted to be Ansel Adams Jr. I had a large format camera and would haul all that heavy gear while backpacking. I went through college shooting landscapes and I was sold out. Once I got my degree, I then had to go into the real world and that was a rude awakening. Back then (and even now) it’s hard to make a living as a photographer, no matter what type of photography you do. I had large format experience and therefore, a studio I worked with suggested I do architecture. So, when we moved to Denver, I opened a studio and started photographing architecture. Architecture was a form of landscape. You had to get the big camera, great light, great angles, and that was my intro into making a living as a photographer.
I walked into an ad agency to show them my photos of interiors and they said… “do you think you can put a mom, dad and kids on a couch in a room for a lifestyle shoot?” I said “yeah, sure”, but I didn’t know anything about lighting. I panicked, but got the job. They gave me a 15 ad campaign. That launched my career photographing people. So, I started doing portraits and ad campaigns nationally and internationally.
Over the years, I learned the power of branding; how to create a signature brand in the marketplace that identifies you. That is the ultimate goal for all of us. It sounds difficult, but it’s not as difficult as you think. I still love doing landscapes and I love photographing people.
I have always been this kid that was never good at academics in school. I can rebuild engines though; anything with my hands or problem-solving comes easily. Photography is in between these two worlds. You have a technical hands-on structure and on the other hand, you have a creative outlet.
One of the things I like to always mention is that a photograph is not a technical process. It is a creative and emotional process.
My portraits are always about creating emotion and drama with a touch of fantasy. You can capture Mt. Hood at high noon, which can look pretty boring, or you can catch it under breathtaking storm light, which can look spectacular. The photograph has to work from its emotional angle to win over your audience.
One thing that I always say is that I am not a purist – Ansel Adams said the same. I’m not someone who is trying to capture the world as it is; I’m trying to capture something that is beautiful, but I want to build on that beauty to captivate my audience. The last thing that I want to do is create an image that is real. I want to create an image that lies between a real and a fantasy world.
Being a landscape photographer is difficult, because so much has been done before by others. How can you create an interesting picture of a classic view that has been photographed by thousands of photographers before you?
There are some artists that rock the world with their style and Nick Brandt is a great example. He photographed wildlife with a wide angle lens, in black and white. Most wildlife photographers use a telephoto lens and work in color.
If you are going to make a splash, you have to go against the grain of the everyday and that’s the challenge that we have - trying to predict what that is going to be.
You mentioned in your bio that as a young child you enjoyed drawing, painting, sculpting, playing music or building something. Is it safe to say that you have always been an artist in your heart?
I knew that I had to do something that was creative. I thought about building homes, painting houses and I carried out handyman work for a while. Even on that level, you can step back and see what you have created. I always knew that I was going to do something like that.
My dad always said that I would never make any money from photography, so it would be a waste of money to study it. However, I knew that this is what I wanted to do and I was willing to pay the price for it. I went to ASU for two years and finished up at U of A. Once I got hooked on photography as a creative outlet, there was no stopping me.
How does your landscape work differ – on a personal level – from your portrait work? Is it more fulfilling?
During a portrait shoot, you have to get the body in front of you. You have to know the time of day, wardrobe, gear, lighting and it’s a huge production. I like that, and there is nothing wrong with having a big production.
During a landscape shoot however, it’s just me, the Really Right Stuff tripod (which is amazing) and the backpack – simple. What I like most about landscapes is that it is an exploration, a discovery. It’s that discovery of surprises that I love about landscape. It is a release of the creative process.
Do you get energized by solitude?
Yes. I went to Seattle for ‘Creative Live’ with my wife Amy. She flew back and I drove back along the coast. I spent the night sleeping in my car so that I could get to this tiny stream that I had found somewhere around the Silver Falls State Park. If I was to win the lottery, I would probably get a camper van and drive around to photograph landscapes.
Would we be saying goodbye to Joel Grimes the portrait extraordinaire, and hello to Joel Grimes the master of all landscapes?
There is a part of me that would love to do that. I still feel that I have stuff left to do with portraiture though; I’m not done yet. Portraiture was born out of the fact that I had to make a living. Landscape photography is the ultimate joy of being in nature. Landscape photography is the one thing that I’m not getting enough of.
Some time ago, I spent a lot of time in the desert ‘strobing cactus’, which is a great challenge. I went out about 80 times to get the body of work of cactus that you can see on my website. I then had enough images to say that I had a body of work. This is how I like to work in landscape.
I create images that fit my vision as an artist. Do what you love more than anything. Do it really well. Use the tools that you have today, apply those tools and create something that rocks. People will make concessions for what you are doing, because you are making a great set of images. Work in series. Build a body of work that represents one theme.
HDR has turned into somewhat of a nasty word in photography, but you are embracing it. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It is unfortunate, but it is the case. When HDR was first presented to me, Adobe had a plug-in in CS2 that brought all the tones together in multiple images. I had spent 10 years studying the zone system. We knew that film had a certain set of latitude and limitations, and digital was the same. You had to either expose highlights or shadows. Here was an opportunity to create one final that would give you all of that information.
Not being technical, I didn’t understand a lot about bit depth at that time. I knew that basically what HDR was giving me was more bit depth. That is the goal; you want more latitude, but to get that you have to get more bit depth. To get more bit depth, you have to have a true under, over and middle raw exposure and blend them together, which gives you more tones, hues and value.
Photoshop came along and allowed the process of 32 bit. Our screen or monitors don’t even see it. It’s not where you end up, it’s where you start. It’s about having more information to play with. If you take a 14-bit capture and do what Ansel Adams did with the black sky, you can take the blue color channel slider and move it to the left, which will make the sky black. If you move it all the way, there will be a lot of noise there. If you do the same with a 32 bit RAW file, the sky will look very smooth. The transitions will be gorgeous.
What is one key element you feel is important to doing HDR the right way?
If we could capture 32 bit in a camera, we would not need HDR ever again. People think that HDR is some magical thing that gives you funked out neon look images. It’s the amount of tones that you can get to expand the file latitude. Not everyone is going to like the process. It takes a lot of work, but there are advantages.
Do you use HDR to achieve wide dynamic range, or do you also use it for an image with more narrowed tones? Although in this case HDR for dynamic range might not be necessary, are you still processing in 32 bit?
When you start with more values, tones and smooth transitions, you are going to have better results. When you shoot with 32 bit, you are getting smooth transitions. No matter what you photograph, you get a greater tonal smoothness of values. So yes, it does have to do with high dynamic range, but it also has to do with the mid tones having a smooth gradation. Even during an overcast day with soft light, I still shoot 32 bit. When I process in 32 bit, the tones are very smooth. It’s not just about getting details in the shadows and highlights, it’s more about the transition of tones throughout the range in your image.
When you mix business with something you are very passionate about, sometimes that can result in losing your joy in creating. Have you found that to be true? If not, how do you stay passionate?
Well, you stay passionate by creating a business model that allows you to be creative. I never looked at photography as a way to make a living. If I did, I would be earning a ‘technician’s’ wage. For an artist however, there is no limit on how much you can earn. When you create a look that comes from your soul, one that is breaking ground in the marketplace, you will always be able to ask for more.
Would you ever consider running a landscape photography workshop?
Canon and I were talking about that, so yes, I would. There is so much fun involved when you get outdoors. I love teaching and I would love to teach black and white photography.
What is one piece of advice you’d like to leave with our readers?
Some people want to get beyond hanging their images on their own wall or sharing them on social media. Perhaps they want to make an income from their photography. I usually ask this question: what images would you put on a gallery wall that represents your name? Would it be the images you currently own? Is there something in your work that represents one theme or one body of work? You might not know it, but this is what galleries want. Find something that you can do a series on.
What a joy it is to be published in a magazine, to be hung in a gallery and have someone buy your images.