Photographer of the Month Interview: Marc Adamus | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, June 2016:   Marc Adamus

Our sincere thanks to Marc for agreeing to be our featured guest photographer this month! We most definitely appreciate his time and generosity in sharing his story and incredible wilderness photography with us all! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: What made you get into photography as a way to represent the things you see in the natural world? Why not writing, painting, or drawing? What is it about the medium of photography that makes it the perfect tool for you?

Photography allows me to instantaneously make a photocopy of what I saw before me at that moment, and with that I have a starting point for my art. Writing can be fun but the passion for it does not come as naturally to me as it does for some,. Painting and drawing are both things I have done before but are also difficult to take with you on trips that often involve great exposure to the elements.

:: You have a background in culinary arts. How did that help to foster the creativity you use with photography? I've heard some crazy stories of your culinary magic in the backcountry. I've found that a lot of creative folks who make their living with one art form often use a second as a pretty serious hobby. How does cooking fill that role for you?

Cooking, like landscape photography, is also about creating compositions from many different elements. Although as a chef, I decided the professional world was just too high stress and kept it a hobby.

:: You are arguably the most polarizing figure in landscape photography today. Why do you think that is? Does the admiration and praise you get offset the negativity?

Well, that is a bold statement! I am pretty certain that title easily goes to Peter Lik, myself, but I know what you are saying. First of all, 99% of everything I see and hear is positive. My interactions with others are almost always positive. 80% of everyone who does trips with me comes back again, we all get along great, and I have received only a handful of negative emails or responses concerning my photography in my entire life. But what you are referring to are the few out there who might be considered negative at times but also make the most noise in doing so. The haters always seem to get it out there in this age. And yes, of course the fact that I've been able to be extremely successful doing what I love absolutely offsets these few negative opinions. Why do I think they are out there? Well one reason I would say is you look back to say, ten years or so. At that time I can honestly say I don't think anyone was doing the type of photography and post-production in the landscape realm that I was, and on the whole, it shocked people and it just wasn't well accepted by the establishment who wanted someone to blame for the new course the art of photography was taking. Now, of course, there are hundreds of great shooters out there who are also artists in the post-production realm. But I am still seen as an innovator, one of the trendsetters and I am treated as such, good or bad. Not everyone appreciates change. Whenever an art form, or anything really, undergoes such a period of fundamental change it's bound to upset someone.

If you look at history in general, the innovators out there and really anyone who is depicted as being near the top of their respective platforms are usually those who people find the most polarizing. When you are near the top those around you often want to bring you down, especially if what you are suggesting runs contrary to the status quo, and I am not afraid to suggest such things. Ultimately history sides with those who push the envelope, who embrace new ideas and who aren't afraid to speak their mind.

:: Are you ever concerned that maybe all of the bad isn't worth the efforts to share your art with the public? I see folks like Art Wolfe and Thomas Mangelsen who have been in the field for quite awhile but they never get involved in any kind of online debate, nor does it seem to find them. Do you think there's a point 10-20 years down the road where you're in the "old masters" category and you can get past being so polarizing?

Of course, some people do shy away from stating their real opinions online in this age, and who can blame them? I guess that's just all personality, business or whatever. For me, I am not insecure enough or worried enough about the business end of things to shy away from posting my real feelings. Also, I understand something of the history of art. I am married to someone who holds a masters in Art history and we debate positively all the time. Much of our time on vacations together is going to galleries, museums, shows, etc. I understand what art is across multiple mediums, not just photography, which many people like to call an art these days, even those who are really just hunters who happen to use a camera instead of a gun. I understand that the art of critique is firmly ingrained in our understanding of what art is to us, and I am not afraid to give it, solicited or not. I am not afraid to start a conversation about a piece, because it furthers everyone's understanding and rationale for doing what we do. I've started many good debates online on purpose, and I don't apologize for that. Take any class in an art and you know the art of critique is taught as well.

Critique forces us to evaluate not only the artist's motives, feelings, sensitivities and desires but our own, and it's an important part of growth and progression. I have started debates even by questioning my own work and also critiquing those of others. I have started them by doing everything from adding a fake sky, to saying that I find something 'cliché' or unoriginal, or even by questioning the reasons why we shoot – is it competition or a connection to our subjects and desire to express ourselves? I have even questioned whether photography adds or detracts from our connection to the wild. I personally want to further this art form by stating not just my technical opinions about a piece but my opinions on a much deeper level, an emotional level, and I have started profound discussions on the history and state of the art in doing so and I am proud of that. I think it helps everyone. But of course, find me one passionate online debate about anything these days that at least someone didn't take the wrong way, right? Yeah, it's worth it.

:: For a lot of people, negativity fuels them, but for someone who prefers to be off-grid, does the negativity push you to share more? Or to go MORE off-grid? How do you find you balance the need to represent your work to the public and also not get involved in the banter?

Sure, it does for some. I mean, look at anyone from Lik to Trump to Kobe Bryant to Steve Jobs. I am sure that, agree or not with them, those who doubted or questioned them fuel them even more. But there I am talking about competitive fields in sports or business or politics. When competition enters into art I feel it also limits us in certain ways, and fuels us in others. It's up to the individual artist to stay true and respond in a way that continues to separate them. Some would say it can't help at all though, and I get that, it's all personality and what you want to convey. When your idea of a photo trip is to take the exact same image someone else took and do it 'better' than they did then that is not art, that is not a personal expression, it is merely about business or bragging rights. I see very little "negativity" from my position though. I am a very friendly but very real person and I get overwhelmingly positive feedback, and lots of it. One of my great joys in life is the opportunity to take others further "off-grid" than they have ever been before, and further their connection to the art and to nature. I've been very successful at doing so and as a result have a long list of people who have taken many, many trips with me.

I am not afraid of any banter about the art, but I will never make it personal with anyone either. I never stoop to posting insults about anyone, or making personal accusations regarding character. I keep it about the art. I will share only when I feel like I have something important I want to say with an image about a place that is special to me. When it comes to going off-grid that is one of my life's passions, and photography is a product of that not the other way around. I don't get involved hardly at all in social media, I don't self-promote all day like so many do these days. I am secure in who I am and what I believe.

:: Your style of shooting has become so popular that many others are trying to replicate it completely, or at least in part, and I'm sure many people who take workshops with you want some of that "magic." Are there parts of your way of working that you don't share? Does it drive you crazy at all to see the folks who are working in your style?

There are absolutely no parts of my working I do not share. I am not someone that is even capable of withholding the details. The more I can explain the better. Does it bother me that I have been so heavily replicated? Cypress Hill said it best in Rock Superstar :-).

If you're at the top of the game then to stay there you have to expect that, and you know what? You have to evolve. You can't be complacent. My style of shooting has changed tremendously over the last couple years and that hasn't been just because of others, but because if it didn't I'd just burn out as an artist. I can't do exactly the same thing forever! So no, on the whole it doesn't bother me. Now, of course, if some pro shooter wants to walk 8 miles into the wilderness and off trail just to find the exact same perspective on a plant which I shot, then yeah, personally I find it flattering to some degree but I also wouldn't withhold my opinion that perhaps they could learn to explore themselves as an artist a bit more and that might serve them well.

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

One time in 2012 I was in the middle of a 35-day long solo across Alaska's boundary range and was making my up this 60-degree slope of alternating firm and loose rock framed by ice slopes with a 75-pound pack on and got myself into a situation, unroped, where I was totally cliffed out. I thought I could continue but it was too loose to take a step further, and I had a bit of a panic attack, legs jittering uncontrollably, because I knew I couldn't descend with the pack weight on me.

I took some time out and stood there at least 15 minutes when seemed like forever and grew a bit more calm. I reached out for the next hold and tried to continue forward but didn't have the strength for it and, having already unbuckled my waistbelt in preparation for just such an emergency, had to relinquish hold of my entire pack and watch it go bouncing off to the bottom of the slope, breaking a couple more buckles and causing my camera cube, among other things to come flying out along the way, 500ft vertically to the bottom. Somehow, the camera, which was a D800 wrapped in an F-stop ICU and also padded with an extra jacket, survived the fall. I lost a couple miscellaneous things but not too bad, all considered. I very gingerly made my way back down the slop without the pack to hold me back and eventually tried a much longer route up, which I succeeded at.

:: I liken the way you work to mountain climbers and rock climbers, in the way they are pushing themselves to crazier and crazier extremes to set themselves apart. The thing that scares me when I see climbers like Alex Honnold for instance. I think there is a sense from folks that eventually they are going to perish doing what they love. Not to be overly morbid, but I get that same sense with you sometimes. Do you ever feel that you're capable of pushing yourself too far to get out of?

I am absolutely NOT anywhere even remotely like Alex Honnold, but believe me, I do understand that addiction. I climbed some crazy stuff for at least a few years, way back when, but nothing like what he's doing now. What those climbers have, is an addiction to the momentary clarity of mind and freedom that comes from pushing yourself to the place where the only thing in front of you is life or death. I get that.

A lot of people just shrug it off as a death wish, but it isn't. It's an exhilarating state of mind that I bet was forever missing from their own lives and is very difficult to find in today's age of security and leisure. But the types of things I am doing wouldn't be so unbelievable 100 years ago. It's just people are not as in touch with nature and what's possible out there these days. I certainly used to be capable of pushing myself into some pretty risky situations, but these days I have a family and it's more carefully measured. If I was to die in nature it would be an acceptable risk that I took. If you count sleeping around an area where bears might possibly be as too significant a risk though, it just illustrates your lack of connection and understanding with nature. You were more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the trailhead.

:: There have been several recent debates lately online that you've found yourself square in the middle of. You must know that you're in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position. Why get involved at all?

I've answered this clearly above... anyone in my position is in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" position at times, but I embrace it. I don't run from it. I just don't want to.

:: You've really limited yourself in the forums you share your work. Why 500px as one of them?

500px, for all its egos and incredibly unproductive 'like me I'll like you back' commentary is still the largest photography-dedicated forum for sharing online and it attracts some pretty amazing talent. I am not on Facebook or anything so I go there to catch up with what a lot of folks are doing when I don't have their personal websites at hand.

:: Where do you draw the line at how much is "too much" when it comes to your treatment of an image?

If my viewer goes to a scene which I have photographed and can't find within that the permanent subjects I have photographed, I feel like the appeal of the photograph is diminished for them. Obviously I treat my subjects with and capture them in very different light, color, perspective, lenses, atmosphere, etc. than the casual viewer might see, but I want the image to appear to be something that "could" have happened, not a complete fantasy piece. Now, mind you, I do also very much enjoy fantasy pieces and digital artworks made from nothing but the artist's mind, but I am also in recognition of my fan base and the fact that their enjoyment of my art comes from that unique relationship with "reality" that photography has.

:: You recently said your work in Patagonia is done. How did you know? What draws you to a new location when you are looking for your next place to visit?

I knew because I don't feel a passion for capturing the place anymore. I am proud of what I've done there, but it's like I said, if we don't evolve or move on to the next thing we just burn out. Or at least I do!

:: When you take tours of folks' places, I'm sure they largely want to be a part of an experience the way you would shoot. You're not the typical photographer, and I've heard you don't tone down the type of shooting schedule you have much based on who signs up. How are you prepared for handling others with you in some of these remote locations? Do you ever worry about that, or do you have the training to save them should they get injured?

I lead a lot of types of trips, including trips for everyone which are awesome. It's not always remote heli-in backpacking. In fact, just by saying that's what we plan to do I eliminated 80% of the prospective people that would have signed up. My plan for those more rugged trips, however, is to usually try to scare (ok, emphasize the potential rigors of) people with my advertisements and trip brochures because people regularly, in incredibly high numbers, overestimate their abilities or simply just don't know what it's like to hike high and steep and off trails. I get super endurance athletes all the time who can't handle a slippery talus field and I also get guys that look rather soft but who did that stuff growing up and are totally fine with it. It's really hard to tell who is really going to be able to do what, so there are some trips where I require people have hiked with me before. That's the only and best way sometimes.

I am also, of course, well trained. I have been a certified professional guide, have an 80-hour wilderness first responders certification and glacial rescue training. I carry a satellite phone with me everywhere on every trip and carry a detailed first aid kit. I can't save people from their own lack of abilities though, and had a situation most recently on a trip where all but 2 members of the group were struggling with the terrain and it just looked like a bad accident waiting to happen. Fortunately I was able to get them at least to a good spot to shoot before continuing on as to not deny those who wanted to go further. I don't take unnecessary risks, and I am in control of the situation. I usually am as patient as can be and stress being careful over being fast. I have been guiding for 20 years now, since I was 18 years old, and I have taken several hundred people into the wilderness in ways beyond anything they've ever done before, and so far they have all thanked me for it. We haven't had to get any helicopter evacuations yet either.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic gear?

My pool cue sticks. I have been a serious player my whole life, believe it or not. I find the games of billiards, one-pocket, snooker and the like very relaxing. It's a little-known tidbit there. They even came with me recently on a 45-day trip around Asia. At 18 years old I was already a BCA masters ranked player. For me it's a very contemplative game with limitless possibilities. America doesn't do portray it in the most gentlemanly of fashion at all times, but it's actually a really worldly game that generates good thinking and strategy. People have this opinion of me that I'm always on the top of some remote mountain but this is not the case. I live a well rounded life. Just yesterday I was in a very good one-pocket match with one of the top players out of Malarkey's in Tacoma, Washington. He won, but it was a fine match.

:: What advice would you pass on to young photographers who look at this type of work as where they want to go with their life?

Stay true to themselves. Don't get caught up in games of ego, self promotion, etc. Let it come from within.

:: Last question. When this ride is over for you, at whatever point that is, how do you want people to remember you and your photography?

Ultimately, in art as in life, history tends to remember the innovators, the ones who changed or helped to change the public perception about what or why something is or works the way it does.

Marc Adamus

"I personally want to further this art form by stating not just my technical opinions about a piece but my opinions on a much deeper level, an emotional level, and I have started profound discussions on the history and state of the art in doing so and I am proud of that. I think it helps everyone."

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