Interview by Tiffany Reed Briley.
Hi Joshua! First let me say that I very much enjoyed researching for this interview. I am truly excited to hear your responses to the questions below. Thanks for agreeing to this. I understand you left a corporate job to pursue photography full-time. What caused the transition and what was your motivation to pursue it?
That’s a good question and the answer is quite complicated. I left the corporate world more than six years ago to pursue nature photography as a full-time profession, without any other source of income. It was a major step into the unknown and, honestly, a very daunting one. At the time I had a well paying corporate paycheck, more than eight years with the same company, a mortgage and two kids about to enter school. The bills were mounting up on the horizon and it was a significant – albeit calculated – financial risk.
Although I studied fine art photography and photojournalism formally in my early years, it was not until many years later that I could honestly call myself a full-time professional nature photographer. The interest in photography was always there and I was pursuing it as often as I could. Even from a very young age I would carry around my father’s tripod on weekends. That’s where my passion really first started.
The transition to full-time pro was to take many years though. Part of that transition was also finding my niche and understanding what it was that I most wanted to photograph. When I fell in love with the polar regions I knew I had found my niche.
The motivation to jump from the corporate world to nature photography as a full-time profession was born out of my love for being outdoors in the polar regions with my cameras and wanting to share the experience of what I had seen through my photographs. The motivation part was easy, as anyone who loves nature photography almost certainly possesses that quality; figuring out how to transition from corporate life to nature photographer and still pay the bills was more complicated. I had made up my mind more than two years before I left the corporate world that I was going to try my absolute best to build a portfolio of work I could stand behind and that would give me a solid foundation from which to build a business in nature photography.
I committed myself to working every spare minute on my photography. Weekends, late nights, early mornings, lunch breaks; basically any time I had free I dedicated to doing something that was going to help me reach my goal. If I didn’t have free time, I simply gave up whatever else was planned to make time. Sometimes it was nothing more than processing an image or two; other times it was leveraging my marketing background to help build awareness of my work in the marketplace. It was working on my website and, more importantly, working on my network of contacts.
I travelled extensively – including to the polar areas I most wanted to photograph – at significant personal cost as often as I could to help build a portfolio and a network. I always had it in my head that I needed to work not only smarter, but harder than anyone else. I mentally gave up other things in my life and committed myself totally to the one goal, working as a professional nature photographer. It was tough on my family and friends, but I had to take this path if I was going to realise my goal in such a competitive marketplace.
I was fortunate to have learnt a lot in the corporate world about how to run a business and it really helped me build my own. When I look back on the last six years I really think it was my desire and will above all else that helped me to make the transition.
What is it that calls you to the Arctic?
If I had to sum up the draw of the Arctic – and Antarctic – in one sentence it would be the quality of light one finds in these extreme latitude areas. I also have a passionate love for icebergs, snow and ice. Icebergs in particular are my passion. Each one is unique and transient, like a diamond. They are here today and gone tomorrow and there is something very alluring about that to me as a photographer. It’s not like turning up at a famous location and making the same image that has been made thousands of times before. It’s about capturing a transient aspect of nature few people ever experience or witness in their lifetime.
You need three things to make a great photograph: subject, light and composition. There is a quality to the light in the polar regions that I find extremely intoxicating and that continually draws me back. It’s not just how long the great light can last either but the quality of that light. The light is often soft and ethereal. Other times it can be powerful and dramatic. It’s highly variable but almost always wonderful.
What makes each experience in the Arctic unique for you?
The Arctic is a dynamic place with its constant shifting of icebergs and glaciers. It is an ever-changing environment that keeps me as a photographer very active and motivated. You never know what you are going to find around the next corner. Unlike the Antarctic, where wildlife is plentiful, the experience in the Arctic is very different. There is more of a sense of struggle for life. The wildlife is farther apart and harder to find. But it’s that search and the potential result that I find so invigorating and unique. I know that images I capture there are going to be different to what other people have captured before, or will do after.
One thing that was very interesting about your personal website is the care you take to distinguish your boundaries with post-processing. What causes you to feel so strongly that you wanted to dedicate a page to this?
I believe strongly that as a nature photographer it is my job to document what I photograph and present it as nature photography. Yes, it is art. But it is documentary art. It has to be real and I have no wish or desire to deceive my viewer that what they are looking at is not an accurate depiction of nature. I made the decision to be completely open about my processing and ethics so that the viewer could feel confident that what they are seeing was real at the time of capture.
I used to receive many emails asking me if my images used significant digital manipulation. I grew tired of answering them, so sat down one day and wrote about my ethics and put them on my website. I feel it is important that people know when they look at my work that it has not been highly manipulated and that the art is in camera capture.
In your opinion, how vital is integrity in the field of landscape photography?
Integrity is critical if we are to be honest with the viewers and honest with ourselves. When we look at a photograph we expect – or at least hope – it is real and not a digital creation. I personally believe in rewarding the skill of the photographer in the field and not the skill of the retoucher in front of a computer. Nowadays, literally anything is possible with digital manipulation in post-production. Multi-image composites are commonplace and are frequently presented to the viewer – often through social media – as ‘captures of nature’. Whilst it is fine to do this sort of manipulation I find it disingenuous not to disclose it. Nature photography should be about capturing what we find in the field, and not creating it on a computer. The latter is digital art in my book.
When I see images that are clearly composites being used to market workshops to exotic locations, that really irks me. Participants on those trips are going to expect to see that scene and are unaware that it is a fabrication. Our integrity as photographers is all we have to stand behind. That’s not something I wish to compromise.
What is it about RRS that’s different from other tripods and what has caused you to be so loyal to the brand?
I was first introduced to RRS by the now late Michael Reichmann in one of his very early landscape video journals. There were two things that immediately appealed to me about the brand and company. Firstly, it was all made in the USA and I believe very strongly in supporting products made in home countries, especially when so much manufacturing is now taken offshore. Secondly, it was the care and attention to customer service that Really Right Stuff demonstrated to its customers to produce not only a great product, but to support it on an ongoing basis. It has been the ongoing support from RRS that has kept me so loyal. I know that if I do have a problem, they will get it fixed to the best of their ability. I also very much appreciate that I am dealing directly with the manufacturer and that there is no middle-man involved.
You have been involved in photography at a deep level for a very long time. How have you seen the industry transition?
There have been massive shifts in the industry during the digital revolution of the last decade or so. Things were quite static before the digital revolution. You purchased a camera and it served you for many, many years, possibly even a lifetime. Photography has since been economized by many manufacturers and their marketing departments have done a wonderful job of brainwashing us all that our current cameras are now defunct because the new model is ‘coming soon’. One unfortunate side effect of this has been the belief amongst many that it is their camera that isn’t good enough. The truth is that most modern cameras are more than good enough to match the user’s ability.
Now, in the digital world, the ability to take, develop and print photographs almost instantly and without a chemical darkroom has put the joy of photography into a great many more people’s hands. As a result of this change the industry has been turned on its head. Photography is no longer the domain of well-kept chemical darkroom secrets. There is now a plethora of knowledge in the marketplace when it comes to ‘how to’ and this has really helped to elevate the standard of photography.
In many ways the industry is still transitioning and I expect things will continue to change and evolve for the foreseeable future. We are in many ways in the golden age of photography.
What is the one element to our photographic past that you wish you could bring back?
I can decisively say that it would be an appreciation for the fine art print. The print is the ultimate output for photography and far too few photographers these days print their work or even understand what makes a good print. I never really feel like I have finished with an image until I have made a print and when I am gone from this world and end up in the ink maintenance cartridge I want to have left behind prints and not ones and zeros on a hard drive somewhere. The print is really the reason I take photographs.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I read and collect photography books on a regular basis. I am constantly looking at the work of other photographers and seeing what they are doing that is new and fresh. I get great inspiration from looking at the work of other photographers who I admire and respect. There is incredible work being done in some of the Scandinavian countries, for example, by photographers who are little known outside the region. These photographers are pushing boundaries and keep me inspired to continue to do the same.
I’m a very big believer in looking at the work of other photographers in your chosen field. I feel it is important to see where the standards are set, how high the bar is, what is being done that is new and innovative and who is pushing the boundaries. Inspiration comes in the form of looking at this work and kick-starting my own ideas for projects.
Of course, I am also inspired just by being out in the field in remote places. If the conditions are good and the light and weather dramatic, then it can really be inspiration overload.
Do you find that developing your eye for composition comes naturally to you, or do you believe it’s something that has to be learned and developed?
I believe the art of composition is a skill you continue to develop throughout your photographic career. It is a personal journey that is very different for everyone. We can learn the basic rules of composition in a classroom or by studying great artists who have gone before us. The key is to learn what they did and why, and then try and grow our own compositional skills in the field. It is not about emulating what others have done, rather developing your own personal style. This takes years and I don’t think we ever complete this process. We certainly continue to develop our compositional skills as we grow as photographers, or least we should!
How do you keep your compositions fresh?
If we are continually working to improve our photography, then I believe our compositions will always remain fresh, as we will be open to implementing new ideas. It’s getting bogged down in a rut that leads to stale, repeated and banal compositions. Turning up to a location with an ultra wide-angle lens, getting down low and waiting for sunset isn’t difficult or even challenging. Yet, it will net you a pretty dramatic image most of the time. The problem with this approach and those who get stuck in this rut is that their compositions become stale. They lack innovation and their images lack mystery, and as such the images quickly become boring over time. Challenging ourselves to do something different is going to keep the compositions fresh. In order to challenge yourself you also have to be prepared to fail – that’s just part of being a nature photographer.
You are the recipient of countless awards. With that much success under your belt, what keeps you challenged and what is one personal goal you have yet to achieve?
Staying challenged is something I find that comes very naturally to me. I am always looking to continually improve my photography and always looking at my own work as objectively as I can. I am my own harshest critic, or at least I try to be.
I am working on numerous projects at the moment. In fact, I hope to have a book out in the next two months. I have several other projects on the go as well as several others I want to start. Staying motivated and busy keeps me challenged.
My main personal goal at this point in my photographic career is to help raise awareness of the environmental projects that I am involved in and what they are working to achieve. The Arctic Arts project and Penguin World are just two of the projects I am involved in; they work toward combating climate change and encouraging healthier oceans through photography. If I can help raise awareness for global warming and the effects it is having in the Arctic and Antarctic through my photography as well as help contribute to the preservation of the world’s oceans, then that would be the achievement of a major personal goal for me.
If you could leave one piece of advice for our readers what would that be?
Print your photographs. Prints are the legacy for our photography.