In the whirl of today's digital world, with the ability to take thousands of photos in minutes and post them moments after clicking them, not many photographers are willing to carry around 65 pounds of very old camera gear into the back country to capture a single exposure on a piece of film that might run upwards of $5. Let alone be OK with hiking back out without having taken a single photograph.
But landscape photographer Alex Burke relishes the slower, more deliberate method of taking photos with a large-format camera. Through his choice of camera equipment, Burke makes a very clear decision: The photos he takes while hiking do not take priority over the hike itself.
Instead of share-worthy photographs being a goal or a product of being outside, Burke has created something of a partnership between his landscape photography and time spent outside simply enjoying the wilderness. One exists only when the other is present.
We talked with Burke about his perspectives on wilderness, landscape photography, and balancing enjoying the wilderness with capturing it on film.
MNN: What drew you to becoming a landscape photographer?
Alex Burke: Ah, the classic question that can actually be incredibly hard to pinpoint. A lifetime of passion takes years to brew and it took me a long time to step back and try to figure out where it all began.
I grew up in a Colorado mountain town, but I remember not having a strong appreciation for the outdoors as a child. Nevertheless, my parents took me on long hikes through Rocky Mountain National Park (sometimes against my desires) and got me outside.
When I turned 18, I left the mountains to go to the metropolis of Phoenix, Arizona. I often tell people that it wasn't until I left the mountains that I began to really appreciate them. I would escape to the hills north of the city as much as possible to just get some peace and quiet. At some point, I had the desire to capture the sunsets I would see up there, along with the stark beauty and openness of the desert.
My dad had a really lousy digital point-and-shoot camera that he mailed to me and it got me looking at things in a new way. I don't even have any of the images from back then and I know none of them would be worth viewing, but it was the spark that started it all.
In the end, I believe that photography was a reason for me to get out that door and go somewhere new. It became a driving force that pushed me to new limits and guided me through life, always daring me to take things to the next level. I couldn't even begin to imagine where I would be without it; photography has taken me to epic wilderness locations thousands of miles from home and helped me see the beauty in everyday nature just outside my door.
You've said, "Take a stroll into the forest or the mountains and just keep walking until that phone doesn’t work anymore. This is where life begins." What do you feel you gain by going "out of touch" for a while in nature?
It would be foolish to deny that we've all become far too attached to those pocket computers. They do a fantastic job of filling our brains with someone else's thoughts as we scroll through that never-ending feed of social media. Since we have this constant background noise of information overload, we never take the time to break away and deal with our own thoughts. It's a lot easier to have prefabricated media packed into your head than it is to take charge of your own desires, goals, dreams and life.
It seems as if we are almost afraid to take control of what goes through our minds, so to really think things through it can be helpful to get far away to a place in nature where nothing can distract you. Remember that not very many generations ago we humans didn't have any electronic devices and spent much of our time outdoors. The technological advancements have come far too quickly and we've begun to forget how important nature is to us.
Go find yourself in a forest or a high alpine lake, and once you're done taking in the view just spend some time to actually think. You'd be amazed at the type of clarity you'll find when you do this. You might work out some problem you couldn't previously conquer, you might remember the things you're thankful for and how wonderful this world is, you might just find some direction for the next big step in your life.
Instead of looking at nature as a place we go out to, I often think of it as the place where I am at home.
You've pointed out that while photography goes a long way to get you connected with nature, sometimes it can distract you during amazing moments because you're concerned with your gear and capturing that moment. How do you counter this when you're shooting?
Sometimes the only thing you can do is put the camera down and enjoy the moment. Granted I always push myself to get the shot, but it's important to remember why I'm there and to have fun while doing it. The type of film equipment I use is never quick to set up and there's times when I know I'm going to miss the best light. Sometimes I choose to continue working as hard as I can, other times I just leave the camera there on the tripod and sit down on a rock and watch the view unfold.
This actually gives me more inspiration by watching all the small things that happen during a sunrise. The way the light gradually shifts from revealing the earth's shadow, to hitting the clouds with pink light, to blasting the mountains with incredible alpenglow. I'll notice the way that first breeze runs across the lake as soon as the sun rises almost like clockwork, and I'll carefully observe every minute detail revealed by the changing light.
I think I often prefer sunrises because I can focus all of my efforts for a few minutes on getting the perfect shot, then relax and enjoy some time outdoors without any pressures of time.
You shoot with film on a large-format camera. What do you love about this tool for capturing images over digital?
There are many reasons I love large-format film! The first time you ever lay your eyes on a large-format transparency over a light table your mind will melt into all the details of the film. You'll quickly understand why the few crazy people like me strap 65 pounds on their back and head out for a backpacking trip. The results are just amazing.
I also enjoy the ability to use lens movements for creative control over focus and perspective. When you walk into a photography gallery you can almost instantly pick out the large-format images because of this. The detail is insane and there's just such a natural look to the image without any wide-angle distortion that is common with smaller formats.
I find that film allows for as much creativity as anything digital, but one of the biggest things for me is that it frees me from the gear. There is a level of disconnect you get from fiddling with menus and controls and playback screens, a feeling that to me takes away from the simple pleasure of creating photographs.
I also found that once you find a film system that you're happy with you can be free from the desire to get the latest gear. You don't worry about a new camera coming out, you don't worry about the latest high resolution sensor. You just worry about ways to pay for that never-ending supply of film you want to run through your camera.
Maybe one reason I shoot film is because I'm just too darn hard on my equipment and would have destroyed a dozen fancy electronic cameras by now. The metal box of a camera in my backpack has never failed on me despite the horrendous abuse I've put it through.
How do you select your scene and compose your shots? What goes through your mind? After all, each exposure costs you about $5, so you must be quite careful about selecting your shot.
I put a lot of effort into studying topographic maps, Google Earth and the angle of light through the seasons. You want to make sure the place you're going to will get some good golden hour light either at sunrise or sunset, so it's best to do some research first.
There's very helpful and even free online programs for this such as The Photographer's Ephemeris that will let you see where the sun will be for any location and date. That said, sometimes I just explore without any clear-cut goals because it can best to find something new by stumbling upon it.
As far as composition goes, I really like to keep it either simple or flowing. The challenge is in trying to make a clear and concise composition among the very busy scenery of mountain ranges. When I'm in the mountains, I often work with the natural "V" shape of valleys and place my elements around the dip between mountains. I find this keeps the composition from getting too "heavy" on one side.
Sometimes the view doesn't work that way and I'll use trees to complete the composition, often finding that you can bring them to the apparent height of mountains with careful camera placement. I often look for leading lines such as streams to point to a dramatic mountain backdrop. In more stark landscapes, I try to work on simple compositions by having one clear subject among the beautiful open scenery.
With large-format film I really try to get it right in one shot, or maybe just a few if the light is changing rapidly. There's no reason to waste a ton of film, and like you said, each shot is getting to be even more than $5. Often when the light doesn't work out for me, I won't even take an image. I'll just enjoy the time outside and look for new compositions for next time. There will always be another day to try again.
You've pointed out in your writing that landscape photography is a big inspiration for people to go and enjoy the great outdoors for themselves. How do you view landscape photography as a tool for social change or our overall health?
Landscape photography brings us all a little closer to nature even when we can't be there. We all have things that keep us inside and away from our outdoor needs, it's just a byproduct of modern western life. Landscape photography gets people thinking about the wonderful things in this world on a daily basis, it's a constant reminder of all the beauty that we need to preserve in order to move forward. It pushes people to get outdoors and seek out those places that we photographers visit and share with everyone. It gives people the motivation to get off their seats and take dream vacations, see new places, and find new direction in life.
I would like to think that anyone could find a place in nature they connect with, it doesn't matter if it's a remote wilderness or the small secluded open space just outside of town. Everyone can find some peace and clarity in nature and make that connection.
My favorite places are those where I can think away from crowds. I work best when I have time to study the landscape in all of its natural wonder, which often takes me off the beaten path and away from the landscape icons. If I do visit a popular destination, I try my best to go when it's quiet. Living in Colorado, I have endless areas to explore without going that far from home. Just staying in the state there are plenty of wilderness areas to backpack which I do as much as possible in the summer. One of my favorite wildernesses is the Sangre De Cristo in southern Colorado for its jagged peaks and trails that are long and remote enough to keep visitors from bumping into each other too often. There are countless other wilderness areas in Colorado that offer equally amazing experiences and I hope to explore them all.
As far as overall health benefits, I think the inspiration people can find from photography is huge. Health is a complex system and you need to be both physically and mentally healthy. Without a doubt in my mind I think inspiration and motivation lead to a boost in mental health, and getting out into the fresh air of nature is always good for everyone. 7. What are some of your favorite locations for photographing landscapes? And is there a certain place in particular where you find continued inspiration?
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