Featured Photographer, October 2014: Erin Babnik
We want to thank Erin Babnik, this month's featured ApertureAcademy.com guest photographer, for her time to share her wonderful photography and thoughts with all of us! Please visit her links to see more of her beautiful work, and to let her know you enjoyed this interview!
:: Your background is in Art History; why did you get into photography as a medium, as opposed to painting or drawing? (Did you take photography in your educational journey?)
Because it's a lot easier to hike with a tripod than an easel! My first medium was painting, which I used to do in the plein air fashion during visits to national parks, schlepping an easel and canvas out to scenic locations and working frantically (and usually in vain) to render fleeting moments as they happened. I also worked a lot with painting and drawing software during my years of employment as a graphic designer. It was actually the practice of these other arts that led me to art history, which in turn caused me to take up photography.
I discovered art history when I was enrolled in art school and had to take breadth requirements for my B.F.A. program. Since I have always enjoyed writing, art history married two of my greatest interests and quickly seduced me. Being introduced to the art of ancient Greece was the tipping point that got me to change my major and transfer to a university where I could work with some of the top art historians in the field. I was particularly enthralled with this specialty because studying ancient material culture necessarily involves doing archaeological field work, bringing the elements of travel and adventure into the mix and amounting to an irresistible combination for me. My doctoral work ultimately necessitated the creation of a custom archive of images for research and teaching, so I went about learning how to make the highest quality photographs that I could as I visited archaeological sites and museums. While I never enrolled in any practical photography courses, I took many that covered the history of photography, and of course much that I learned in my studio art courses carried over to my photography as well.
:: Why landscape photography?
My first forays into outdoor photography involved photographing archaeological sites in Greece and the Middle East, an undertaking that requires a fair amount of frustrating compliance with restrictions and regulations or else a lot of effort to get special permission to circumvent them. After years of being forced to work in unfavorable light, with access issues, or without the option to use a tripod, I grew weary of feeling hamstrung more often than not. Turning my camera toward landscapes instead was therefore an incredibly liberating experience, and of course the fact that it allowed me to indulge my passion for being out in nature as well meant love at first shutter click. It is probably the inherent difficulty of landscape photography that keeps me utterly obsessed with it, however. Doing research, enduring physical hardship, and being at the mercy of nature amounts to a special blend of challenges that can make a successful outing feel like a real triumph, and victory that sweet tends to be rather addictive for me.
:: You spend your time between California and Slovenia. How did you get such an interesting split in places to live? Do you do the same things in each location for work?
Most Americans whom I have met in Slovenia moved to the country for the same reason that I did: love! Slovenes tend to be quite beautiful and charming people, so I often warn anyone traveling to the region that they run a high risk of meeting someone special and ultimately moving to the country, as I did! I first made the move a decade ago, which has meant many years of commuting back to California periodically to teach courses in art history in order to earn my keep in my Ph.D. program. I don't know whether or not the future will see me continuing to keep residences on two continents, but I am certain that travel will always be a mainstay of my lifestyle.
:: In terms of photography, what opportunities does each location provide you that the other does not? What challenges do they have?
The biggest difference as I see it is that it is somewhat easier to produce original landscape photographs in the Alps, simply because the tradition of landscape photography is relatively young in Europe. Interest is growing, but there are fewer European photographers specializing in landscapes and fewer working in the newer styles of the genre than is the case in the United States. Therefore, even the few real 'iconic' locations in the Alps are nowhere near as exploited as their counterparts across the Atlantic, and it is not difficult to visit a world-class site in the Alps and find completely new compositions that would be much reproduced if more people were shooting there.
On the other hand, shooting landscapes in Europe means working around a lot of civilization. When incorporating charming cultural elements into a scene is the goal, then the interplay of nature and culture can be quite welcome, but oftentimes manmade elements are simply intrusive. Even doing a lot of backpacking will not guarantee the absence of these elements, since the system of refuge huts and permanent bivouacs in the Alps means that even the most remote areas are likely to have shelters and their associated structures, such as pump houses, helipads, and aerial ropeways. Interventions from the First World War are also ubiquitous in the Alps, so it is very common to have to work around bunkers, trenches, and monuments that are still extant from that era.
:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic equipment?
Definitely my pink Karrimor "sit mat," which cost me all of three euros at a sports store in Slovenia. It folds in quarters to about the size of a water bottle and opens to become a very comfortable barrier between me and whatever rocky, icy, muddy, or thorny terrain might exist wherever I park my tripod. Landscape photography often involves a lot waiting around for special moments, so I really appreciate the modicum of comfort that the sit mat can provide! It also doubles as an effective rain cover or mist shield for my camera, and I frequently use it to keep my backpack out of moisture or muck as well. I never go shooting without it!
:: Having a background in art history, I'm sure you've seen the increase of photographers coming into the field, and recognize that traditional art painting and drawing don't draw nearly the crowds that photography does. I'm also sure that you've heard a lot of people who judge the value or relevance of "art" based on their own analysis of whether or not they could create the work. How do you handle the thoughts that photography, specifically fine art landscape work, is not seen as art by many people because they assume it is either easy, done primarily with a good camera, or all done with a couple clicks of a computer program. How do you see this age of photography playing out in the future in terms of historical importance, and what will distinguish the leaders in this field from the masses?
I suppose that the mushrooming popularity of photography relative to other visual arts is largely due to its accessibility and immediacy, but it seems as though its popularity is helping to increase appreciation for the art and craft of the medium. The equation of good results with good gear is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, but as all types of cameras become more capable and as more people have them, the camera itself is less often implicated as the primary factor that sets apart the best from the rest. The same is increasingly true for post processing as well, I think; the more that people see the typical results of automated or easily produced effects, the more they recognize and appreciate sophisticated processing of the sort that only skill and an experienced eye can produce.
As for the likely historical legacy of contemporary photography, I suspect that the current urge towards interpretation will be what most distinguishes this generation of photographers. Photography has always had a certain relationship with 'reality' that is unique to it as a medium, but that relationship has become more oblique as new technologies allow photographers to present a version of a given scene that expresses their own personal experience of it rather than a 'straight' documentation of light and space. In landscape photography, this type of expression may mean collapsing slightly different moments into a still frame that tells the story of the experience of a place better than any one fraction of a second could possibly do. It may mean removing distracting elements that the brain naturally 'thinks away' as it takes in visual stimuli. It may mean manipulating spatial relationships, tones, or colors to impart a sense of perspective or a certain mood. It may mean compositing different frames to achieve a certain field of view, depth of field, or a combination of photographic effects that a camera cannot pack into a single frame on its own. These techniques come together in post processing, but they usually require a deliberate approach at the moment of capture, which may involve shooting a whole sequence of frames that will contribute to the final image. Both the techniques and the goals that they serve are significant departures from those of previous generations, and the photographers who are pioneering and evolving these new trends will surely be the ones whom history will remember.
:: What is the scariest thing that has happened to you while out shooting?
I wouldn't say that danger is my middle name, but I've certainly seen my share of it. Spending so much time in the Alps makes risky business inevitable, so I've endured most of the hair-raising experiences that avid four-season hikers know well. The moment that really stands out for me, however, is one where I was in not actually in harm's way myself. I was crouched behind my tripod on the shore of an icy alpine lake when I heard the formidable rumble of a massive avalanche ravaging the side of a nearby mountain. Although my position by the lake put me at a safe distance from any trouble, I knew that the mountains were crawling with backcountry skiers and mountaineers drawn to the peaks by the weekend's beautiful weather. The din of cracking trees and crumbling boulders gave me the most unforgettable chill, and for good reason; avalanches in the Alps claimed the lives of six people that day.
:: You have some lovely winter scenes. How do you approach shooting a winter scene in terms of gear preparation and safety? From an artistic standpoint, what extra challenges does winter present?
If anything, winter scenes reduce artistic challenges because snow tends to make elements of a landscape more homogenous and therefore less busy, with fewer features competing for attention. It is also easier, for me at least, to be creative when I am not overly sleep deprived, and the short days of winter make it possible to get a decent amount of sleep between outings at both ends of the day. The real challenges of winter photography come in the area of preparation and safety, which means making the effort to schlepp along the crampons, snowshoes, or whatever gear might be necessary for safe hiking, even if the necessity of those items is uncertain when setting out. Since avoiding hypothermia is one of the main concerns of winter shooting, I've been careful to invest in clothing and outerwear that manages moisture and offers proper protection from the elements. I also feel more comfortable doing winter trekking in areas that I have visited in other seasons so that I have a good sense for the type of terrain that lies hidden beneath the snow. As far as camera gear goes, it helps a lot to have good weather sealing and a tripod that isn't held together with cast alloy metals. I've had two high-end tripods become brittle and fail spectacularly in cold temperatures, so now I use a tripod that won't break and become a useless bi-pod right when I need it most!
:: How is the landscape photography "scene" different in Slovenia than in the U.S.?
For starters, there really isn't a 'scene' per se, in Slovenia, at least not anything that resembles the unique social aspect that tends to characterize the landscape photography community in the United States. American photographers, particularly on the west coast, tend to shoot in groups and network with other photographers habitually. I recently organized a meet-up of landscape photographers that took place in the area of the Columbia River Gorge, and we had more than thirty prominent names in the field in attendance. That kind of turnout would be extremely difficult to achieve anywhere in Europe, outside of the UK, perhaps. Landscape photography in Europe tends to be a more independent endeavor, which is rather ironic, given the strong culture of independence in the United States. The pool of photographers working in Europe is smaller, and although we all seem to be familiar with each other, social engagement and networking is much more subdued there.
:: How does having an art background and art history background help you when you're creating your own art with a camera? What kind of principles and elements are you able to incorporate into your work that you can attribute to this education?
All art forms have certain visual principles in common, so studying a wide variety of artworks can help to illuminate how these principles operate in general and how an artist can leverage them for effect in particular media. For example, the so-called "Black-and-White" style of Hellenistic Greek sculpture has a lot in common with black-and-white photography; both exploit light and dark areas to achieve emphasis or recession, both utilize strong lines to suggest movement, and both rely on textures for differentiation and visual interest. Moreover, these ancient sculptures were originally ablaze with color before time stripped them of their pigments, so they had an additional aesthetic layer integrating with these formal qualities in the same way that color adds a layer of complexity to photographs. Studying how formal principles work individually and together in a variety of instances makes it easier to determine whether or not one is working in a given case, an understanding that may help a photographer to decide whether or not to break a "rule" when creating an image, for example.
Above all, however, the one benefit that I have developed from my studies that has most resonated in my photography is the tendency to analyze images as bearers of meaning. Although the 'story' of a landscape image might be more ambiguous than those of other genres, such as street photography, they nonetheless have the potential to communicate powerful narratives and concepts. The stalwart tree surviving through adversity; the sun-kissed peak transcending all others; a soft cloud meeting the rugged tip of a mountain like a reenactment of Beauty and the Beast; light at the end of a gorge giving assurance that something good is just around the corner: these are just a few examples that abound in landscape photographs, and of course each image will have its own intonation and set of implications that help to nuance the essential message. Thinking about images on this level helps me at every stage of the photographic process, even when that thinking is largely subconscious; it is a guiding light of sorts that often dictates composition, timing, mood, and certain processing decisions.
:: Have you tried any types of photography other than landscape? Do you have any plans to? What other kind of photography appeals to you, and what about it draws you in?
I am a glutton for photography of all types and have experimented with many photographic genres and techniques. My first specialty was not landscapes but museum photography, which I did professionally for years on assignment after I developed the necessary skills through photographing antiquities for my own academic projects. Working with strobes has always been an appealing process for me because I enjoy having total control over the light in a photograph. It is also a lot of fun to be able to work in a museum while it is closed to the public, which not only allows me to carry on without intrusions but also gives me time alone with stunning works of art. The one genre that probably appeals to me the most that I have practiced the least is street photography, which has a lot in common with shooting landscapes: the importance of timing, the challenge of working with found scenes and available light, and the opportunity to tell a story with the images. My enjoyment of it will probably remain an experience of viewing, however, as I do not see myself ever straying from landscapes for my own creative output.
:: What places are on your bucket list for photography?
Every place that I have yet to see in a photograph! I love the idea that there are many stones left unturned in this world, even in areas that have popular sites associated with them. Oftentimes a little extra effort on the ground can open up a world of untapped possibilities, and I really enjoy poring over topographical maps to identify these types of locations. There are some specific regions that have long held great interest for me, however, the Himalayas being chief among them.
:: What was the best piece of advice you've gotten while learning photography? What advice would you pass on to someone who asked?
The best advice that I've received came from a professor that I studied under in art school. His philosophy was to 'go big' in the broadest sense of that term; the basic idea being that an artist should always strive to produce at the highest possible level. In landscape photography that could mean anything from going the extra mile, literally, if it will improve a composition, to spending countless hours processing a photo, if it will improve the end product. I would add to that advice that seeking out critique is an essential part of gaining perspective on one's own art and that no photographer should ever think that they are 'beyond' the point of benefiting from critical feedback.
:: When you photograph a place like Slovenia (which, I imagine, isn't at this point on the radar of most landscape photographers), what goes through your mind on HOW much to share from this country, and how much to keep back to avoid it becoming too overrun with photographers?
I do worry about the more fragile locations that could be ruined by an influx of photographers, and I sometimes withhold identifying information when I share photos of such places on the internet. For the most part, however, I am happy to share information about the country that is possibly Europe's best kept secret. Slovenia's economy can use every boost that it can get right now, and tourism is one of the industries that holds the most promise there. Furthermore, Slovenia's many natural treasures are not all accessed easily, despite the country's small size, so only really determined photographers are going to reach a lot of these sites anyway!
:: What projects are you currently working on?
I just spent six consecutive weekends working at some of the higher elevations in the Dolomites in an attempt to capture the rugged natural beauty of the region that exists apart from the encroachments of civilization in its many valleys. I am also writing an article about landscape photography aimed at those authorities in the greater art world who hold the purse strings for the most prestigious exhibitions, grants, and photography contests and do not seem to take landscape photography very seriously. It is a 'state of the genre' address of sorts, pitched fairly high in the hopes of getting it published in an art journal where the right people will see it and hopefully will realize that landscape photography did not reach a cul de sac after Ansel Adams.
"It is probably the inherent difficulty of landscape photography that keeps me utterly obsessed with it... a special blend of challenges that can make a successful outing feel like a real triumph...."
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