Photographer of the Month Interview: Cecil Whitt | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, February 2017:   Cecil Whitt

We are happy to have Cecil Whitt as our featured guest photographer this month. We appreciate that he gave us some of his time and generously shared his beautiful photography with us! Please visit his website to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: What got you started in the fine arts? What about the camera drew you to it?

I never really got excited about anything I was being taught through high school and I wasn't looking for that kind of education that would lead to a career. At 18 I began my own quest for knowledge. I would say that in general I started a very intensive reading program which could loosely be described as the world of ideas. The subjects included comparative religion, psychology, philosophy, the arts, and the sciences. I was very content doing that but it occurred to me that I might need some concrete link to the real world however tenuous. I was 21 in 1971 so the big cultural event going on was the music. The players in that world were mostly already very accomplished musicians or at least the ones that attracted me. My previous dabbling with musical instruments gave me no indication that it was something that I could master very quickly. Since I had been exposed to the black and white photography from the past and liked it I decided to give that a go and bought my first camera and black and white darkroom. I can't remember ever having taken a picture in my life before that. My thinking at the time was that photography would provide the easiest entry into the arts. Even so...for me...the real importance was the ideas behind the work and the photography was just going to be an indicator of that at best or just product at the worst.

:: What attracts you to the landscape of New Mexico?

Permit me a short backstory. In 1978 I moved to NYC to take my photography to the next level and back then before the internet that is what you had to do...a different world then, huh. Upon arriving I found a flop house of sorts and made a bee line to the Museum of Modern Art where there was some photography being exhibited. I was able to view Moonrise Hernandez NM by Ansel Adams and it was so far ahead tonality wise from what other photographers were doing ...suffice it to say I was very impressed. I was not doing any landscape photography at all then, but his craft was the bleeding edge. Anyway, since I was already in the museum I wanted to view the rest of the art, the Bauhaus school, Picasso, the American abstract expressionists and all the rest. I spent the whole afternoon doing that until closing time. I remember when I was walking out of the museum that I was sucks. The abstract imaging was pure magic. It was as if you could almost feel the power and the vibration of it coming right off the wall. It was like...this is art and you are not. It seemed to be on a completely different level of achievement. That general genre of painting is directly from the inside outward as opposed to the other way around.

Fast forward to the present. As for desert rock geology I was drawn to it because of it's bizarre and curious forms and it's general tendency of abstractness. It sets up very well for me psychically and I am very happy being around it. I suppose looking at it from another point of view you could say it's the first time that I have ever been happy.

:: What challenges does this alien landscape give you from an artistic standpoint? You've been shooting it for a good while now, what do you still struggle with?

At first getting good comps was challenging. On the other hand, because the formations are so unusual whatever you shoot would be interesting on a certain level. I am a tonality freak so I am always working on that. In the desert this generally requires some serious tone expansion. Yes, you can start with detail in the shadows and highlights, but it's all of the other zones or tweeners as I sometimes call them that you have to fight for. And, it's not just luminosity values. I strive for color separation as well. If there is a rock with ever so subtle degrees of color difference I want that in the image. It's all in the files...sort of...getting it out of them completely seems the elusive grail. For myself, that's what separates the men from the boys.

It's not to difficult to get an initial impact quotient from some images with not so much information. You hang those on the wall and they get old pretty quickly though like a snappy postcard... in my opinion. As a 66 year old man I have been viewing images for a long time as a fan and the images with shelf life tend to have a very high level of craft. We have all heard the line about an image that is finely crafted lacking merit. Honestly, I can't recall even one like that. On the other hand, there are a plethora of poorly crafted images lacking merit. I might stop short of saying that craft alone equals excellence, but it's a lot closer to that than some might want to believe. After all, if a person masters the technical aspects they are pretty likely to have put out the effort to learn all of the other elements in imaging as well. I see bad craft...I see a lazy artist.

I think at this point I should add a quote that I read a few years back. "In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals"...from The Symbolist Manifesto. Yes, I know...and no I am not a qualified enough writer to expand on that other than to say that incorporating that sentiment into an image is challenging.

:: As a musician and artist of other mediums, how do the landscapes you're drawn to play a part in the other mediums?

The landscape work is my principal full time endeavor and I should probably clarify something about the music. On my website I am pictured with two guitars which are mine and I do play them everyday. However, I am not a virtuoso guitar player. Because I am older some might have gotten the impression that I have been playing for years. Actually, I only purchased them four years ago and I had thought at the time that I was losing my mind in doing so. There was a little bit of showbiz in the picture and a fair amount of posing as well. I can be a bit obsessive, but with the guitars it's more of a hobby for fun and a release from the image processing.

Having said that, I have noticed that going pretty far in one medium shortens the process if you were to jump to another medium. When I was a kid I picked up a guitar and put it right back down as I couldn't get anything out of it. Now I am making a steady progress and it's fun. There is another phenomenon that I have noticed. When I have been processing images for several hours and I am in the zone and then stop and pick up the guitar it is always my best playing right away. I suppose from that you could make a case that photography is a legitimate art form.

In an earlier question I mentioned in 1978 mumbling photography sucks after leaving the MOMA. I am not a self hating photographer and I'm not sure where photography is on the Art food doesn't matter to me... The academicians will come up with some theory on that which most people will accept. They are the experts, right. Different mediums are more suited at some things than others. I've heard songs that I had to put my sun glasses on as I was tearing up. That has never happened to me viewing an image. On the other hand images elicit responses that I don't get from music.

I also do a fair amount of purely digital work and have been doing that look in different ways with different means since the early eighties. You can have a field day with the color palette on that and use colors that you would never find in nature so it can be quite liberating. There is of course an overlap with the landscape still have to have a composition and many other things. I'm sure that the two reinforce each other although I can offer no specific proof on that. I look at it as two sides to the same coin.

:: When you look at your own portfolio, which image pleases you the most…what aspects of creating that image stand out most in your memory?

Finally, a softball question for me. My favorite images are the ones that for whatever reason include a new way of looking at something. It might be a new approach to using light, or a different type of composition, whatever. It often seems quite accidental. Mostly those things come up as an element in the greater whole. The image might just contain that new idea and not be the whole symphony, but they are my favorites. If I were to try and explain it better using the guitar analogy it would be like when you are just noodling around and come up with a new lick, or a new chord progression, or a different way of phrasing an older one and it just seems don't have the whole song at that point just the seed idea.

When I am out shooting the landscape I don't think about it too much I just shoot what looks cool to me. All of those little ideas that were filed away eventually get into the images though. Sometimes it happens in a different way from the post processing. I might discover a new tool or find a different way of using an older tool. Those are my favorite images.

I have a rather large desert portfolio and it's difficult for me to actually pick what would be my best images. I would probably need an editor for that. I could tell you which of my images are the most popular with the most hits and not to sound like an elitist... I'm not convinced that really tells you that much... although it does tell you something.

:: Artists tend to be the worst critics of their own work, how do you combat those feelings of doubt that artists inevitably feel when viewing their work? What creative process' can you cling to that help to push you forward from the doldrums?

Well, you certainly have to look at your own work critically if you want to improve. But, here is the real short answer to that question...if you are unhappy with your work...get better. Do the work that is required to do that. Don't fall into the trap of judging your own work compared to others either. Naturally, that's fine in the beginning as a learning process, but if that is causing you to go negative remember this old joke. "When you start judging your images against your neighbors best friends cousins husband it's probably time for you to get on speed dial to the psyche ward again and check yourself back in".

We all go through the same process and I have certainly had my share of doubts, some invented, some probably justified. I don't have a very high tolerance for pain so any that I can avoid seems like the smart play. Doubt is natural, but it can be corrosive and never helps the work. Here's some advice I received several years ago. You might have heard the quote from Strasberg which goes something like this "Some people do art and some people live art". When I was living in San Diego I was getting a little out there even for me. I decided to take some horticulture classes, a floral design class included, which led to the one and only workshop I have ever attended. Phil Rulloda out of LA was the best floral designer in the United States. He had won designer of the year many times. Anyway, he said to me "I have had many talented students, but that's not the most important thing. You can always out work them".

The doldrums, I work every day. I don't get it every day, but I work my way out. I suppose that's why there are liquor stores as well, but I wouldn't recommend that method. The biggest myth out there is that if you don't have it you can't get it. That is a lie. Anyone can do it in their own unique way.

:: What's the scariest thing that has happened to you while on a photo shoot?

I have always had a feeling of "awesome protection" as they say while out in the field. Now I am not saying that I am awesomely protected, I only have that feeling. I have been shooting landscape exclusively for ten plus years now and stuff does happen and the stories grow. Most of those involve some sort of getting lost, falling down...more annoyances than something scary. I got caught in Killpecker Sand Dunes once during a spirited lightning storm with a metal tripod and that was certainly sketchy, but not scary. I've been ready to go ever since I was five years old.

I was shot at in Utah. While doing an evening shoot at Stansbury Island photographing that end of the Great Salt Lake. This cracker stopped on the road a couple of hundred yards away and began firing at me with his rifle. I was never in the military or ever been around guns for that matter. There is an interesting affect that I witnessed first hand though. As the bullets went over my head and quite close actually... you could hear a strange sort of whistling as they cut through the air. My thoughts were that the gentleman was firing warning shots. Someone that carries a rifle in his car from Utah and had probably been shooting since he was six years old could probably put a shell right between my eyes on the first shot if he had wanted to. I stood my ground defiantly and he got back into his vehicle and drove off. I wasn't scared at all though.

Okay, something scary. I was shooting some badlands very late one evening and while hiking back to camp it was completely dark. My headlight was losing power and I heard a roaring sound that I couldn't figure out. I didn't know if I was dragging something or what. Anyway, I stopped and the roar was getting louder and more distinct. As it got closer I was able to determine that it was an animal stampede. I didn't know if they could see me or not, but I wasn't wanting to get trampled to death. It was a small herd of free range horses running at top speed. Because my headlamp was low all I could see were sets of eyes reflected back at me as they passed like a bunch of demons or something. When I got back to the truck the horses were all there waiting for me.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photo gear that you can't live without?

Somehow I'm guessing you are not asking about Miss Sharons good sugar for an answer. My Ovation guitar through the Roland amp. I suppose technically that is two things, but the two together make one thing for me.

:: What advice do you like to pass on to new photographers and those who are inspired by your work?

As for those that have shown an interest in my work and the many kind comments I am very thankful. After viewing Ansel Adams work way back in the seventies I actually realized pretty quickly that I was going to have to up the dosage considerably if I was going to be even remotely relevant to a wider audience. I learned the zone system and moved to sheet film. My work improved dramatically although it was becoming more and more abstract to the point that it didn't represent anything recognizable at all. I was lucky though. Some galleries showed an interest. I got a one man show, invitations, wine and all. Again, this was before the internet so you had to be viewed in person or in print or not at all. I woke up one morning to find a four column critique of my show in the newspaper which was quite favorable. Nevertheless, no one was buying anything.

Before I answer the first part of your question I have to share one more story. I had just gotten to NYC in the late seventies. I thought what the hell, take a workshop. Workshops there and then aren't the same as they are had to be deemed worthy to get in them. It wasn't a matter of just plopping down some cash and you are in. I took the interview and had brought my portfolio...the woman looked at it and this is the kind of thing you never forget said "this crap is hokey". She suggested I take one of their beginner courses. I didn't think it was all that terrible, but compared to the best it was pretty lame. Since I had already been doing this for seven years I very seriously thought about quitting photography completely. "Thanks for your time lady and the kick in the gut...I'm leaving now...want to kick me one more time somewhere on my way out". She was right...although I think she took a little too much pleasure in doing it.

My advice to new photographers is difficult as there are so many different agendas. If it's something you might want to do long term and you aspire to do great work I think it would behoove you to find something behind the work that you can attach to it. I might suggest a philosophy, a spiritual (vision) quest or something of that ilk. On a more practical level I would say to try and get a competent grip on the classical fundamentals of the medium. When you have the basics down you can break the rules one by one after that if it serves you. Google is your friend. You can find many tutorials on almost anything post processing now. If you are looking for fame and fortune through product I would consider that to be a monumental waste of time, money, and energy.

The future will change rapidly. I'm not referring to cameras with more resolution and more dynamic range. Those will come of course. I am talking about a new technology which will make flat photography essentially obsolete. If you aren't terribly old you could become a part of that if you want to. At any rate...some will.

Sorry for this rant...but one more thing. Here is where I am "at" as they say in New Orleans about the case for self taught versus being taught by others. There are so many paths and so many different personality types... there can't be one right answer. For me, I am an advocate of the self taught school of thought. Sure it takes a lot longer and I am familiar with the old adage that a self taught artist is a dumb artist. Nevertheless, for the ones that drink that cup to the dregs you are guaranteed that you will come up with your own unique contribution. Even if you find it expedient to take lessons at first, my advice would be to drop that fairly early on because at the end of the day you will have to find your own voice. Back to the guitar analogy, all of my guitar heroes are recognized in the first bar or sometimes even just one note. A fine arts professor from Yale once commented "I have so many gifted students...getting them to find their own tools is the most difficult thing to teach". "Authenticity in a society such as this one, saturated with images and trivia, becomes perhaps the most elusive grail for many". That last quote is from a commentary on the novel Stone Arabia.

:: What inspires you artistically?

I believe the work itself whether that is being out in the field or even in front of the computer processing. Other genres in photography other than the landscape can inspire me. I already know what I know so I am most drawn to work that is completely different from mine. There are two hundred something galleries here in Santa Fe and I periodically go downtown for that. Whenever I get in a dopey mood of thinking that I am better than I actually am...all I have to do is walk in any gallery and that takes me down to size rather quickly. I listen to a fair amount of music from many different genres and have been a big fan of the art house/foreign films for many years now.

:: Landscape photography seems to be the popular medium for a lot of creative types these days, does that detour you or sour your enjoyment of the craft?

Not at all...I think it's great for everyone involved. Who knows, this period might be looked back upon as the golden age of landscape photography. Back in the sixties and seventies a lot of creative types jumped to music so times have changed. There are so many talented and dedicated people in landscape now I have to think good things will come from it. At the very least with people getting out and experiencing the beauties of nature...that just has to make the world a better place.

:: What's on your photographic bucket list next? Do you find that you look for specific types of scenery when you scout out places to photograph?

My landscape work is quite specific. I shoot the desert, badlands, and rock geology. I love the oceans and lakes and mountains but I don't really shoot them. This spring I will be concentrating on some brand new areas. Most landscape photographers have heard of the Bisti Badlands and a few others. Actually, there are washes holding formations for two hundred miles from New Mexico through Arizona. My only concern is my age at 66...there is no such thing as an easy hike anymore so I won't be able to see them all. I will never retire completely, but when I can't get around anymore I would like to get a little boat and shoot the Oklahoma lakes for a couple of summers. Since I was born there it would seem to bring the endeavor full circle.

:: How much time do you like to spend with pre-visualization and planning out images before you arrive to photograph, and how much is spontaneous in the moment?

Back in the sheet film days pre-visualization was pretty important. There wasn't much that you could do in post. You could expand or contract the tonal range in black and white film and developing...with color you couldn't even do that. I don't do any pre-visualization at all now although I might do some planning to make sure that I have the right type of light for my workflow. I have been doing this for some time now and I could probably imagine a decent idea or two, but to be honest, I am often confronted with situations that just happen and are better than what I could dream up. There is also the fact that when you are looking for something specific you might have a tendency to miss the other things. Pre-visualization could also take the unconscious or accidental out of the equation if you weren't careful. Having said that...that is what I do and I wouldn't presume to say that is what you should do or that is the best approach.

:: When it comes to the post processing side of things, how much is too much?

How much is too much? Well, if a too much exists I haven't met it yet. I of course have my own personal taste. If a person were to view one of my images I would want them to be able to visit the location and not be completely shocked. Am I going for an exact replica of the scene when I clicked the image, no.

One final story. Several years ago I posted an image on a site where critiques were welcome. I had composited a sky that was not in the original scene. I wasn't very experienced at doing that but it wasn't too bad, but it was a bubble off and not really good enough for me. In the caption I mentioned that I had done that. I got a response from a photographer that I'm pretty sure most everyone would recognize his name if I were to mention it which I am not. The comment went something like this. "As landscape photographers we don't do that sky thing because it doesn't work. What you should do is learn how to blend exposures", etc.

I actually already knew the exposure blending method. His comment was respectful and it didn't hurt. I knew going in that the image wasn't quite up to snuff. I think I posted it more just to see how the comments went. As for following his should I put this...I haven't followed it at all.

What do I do in brief...I torture every single file I process and sometimes I feel that I torture every single pixel one at a time. Do I sometimes scale (check) composite (check) and on and on. Occasionally I come across someones statement that says "any photographers that manipulate an image outside the rules should state that in every posting". Really, I'm not doing that crap, I don't even know what the rules are. Does anyone out there have a list of all of the rules we as landscape photographers are not supposed to break? If such a list exists who made it, academia, photo historians, some camera club...whatever. It's pretty simple for me and assuming that you bought your camera and software I believe you have the right to use it in anyway you see fit. To make it easy for the dissenters of this philosophy... when you see a Cecil Whitt image just go ahead and consider it to be completely fake whether it is or not according to whomevers definition you subscribe to. For me the camera is a machine, post processing methods are doors, the photographic image is two dimensional and not three.

But hey, I'm not trying to sell you a philosophy. In fact, I find it much more interesting when I see different and unique approaches to imaging. I could go on and on, but I will spare you. If you have made it this far in the reading I hope you will forgive my rather suspect writing skills and I hope all of your photo adventures are auspicious ones.

Cecil Whitt

Top (L to R): Craig Thompson, Paul Rojas, David Thompson, and John Whitworth
Bottom: Cecil Whitt -- photo by Michele Rojas

"You certainly have to look at your own work critically if you want to improve. If you are unhappy with your work...get better. Do the work that is required to do that."

Cecil Whitt's Link

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