Two things were always really important to me growing up—things related to nature and things related to photography. I grew up in the era of LIFE magazine. But I also was inspired by Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter. When I was a teenager, I read the Elliot Porter book 'In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.' That had a really big influence on me.
When I went to college I flipped back and forth. For the first two years in college, I went through seven different majors. And they were all related to either something nature or biological or something communications. I eventually got a degree in plant and soil science. I actually have a masters degree in plant and soil science with a minor in ecology. But photography had still always been a part of my life. I was a newspaper photographer for the daily at school.
But there was always this conflict, because I didn’t really have support for my photography. I didn’t really know anybody who photographed. First out of college, I worked as a naturalist, as an environmental educator. Then, I got a job with the Minnesota Department of Transportation as a photojournalist. They really liked my work, and that was the first time I started to say, ‘Hey, I’m a photographer.’
My first camera was a Brownie, when I was probably about 10. My first serious camera was an Argus C3 that my Dad had. He wasn’t using it, and I had gotten interested in photography and taking pictures. It gave some manual controls, and I actually could change lenses.
Affect on your life
Photography, for me, is a way of focusing on the world around me. I feel really strongly that photography is something more than just a superficial capturing and collecting of images or subjects. The best photography comes from my connection to the subject. I want to connect with that subject. Photography helps me focus; it helps me really look at what’s going on, because I really want to see what is happening in my image. I want to honor and respect that subject.
Thanks to digital, there are multiple times that I’m experiencing this subject matter—in the moment, on the back of the camera, and then again later on the computer.
I want people looking at my images to engage with the subject. I am less interested in people saying, ‘Oh, wow what a great picture.’ I once had a woman come up to me after a presentation and she said, 'You know, I don’t like spiders and other kinds of bugs, but when I see your pictures I think they’re okay.' I mean that was cool! That meant a lot to me.
Truthfully, I have that ‘Alive’ feeling almost every time I’m out with my camera. That’s why I’m out there. It doesn’t have to be far away. I can sit in my native plants garden for hours and watch my San Diego sunflower. That thing, for whatever reason, attracts all kinds of insects. I can sit there for hours and photograph, and just watch.
We have a hummingbird that’s nesting outside our front window, and I’ve set up a camera. I’m in awe. The nest was empty, and I was waiting for him to come back. He came back with a whole bill of spider webs! It caught me off-guard. I didn’t get the picture, but I saw it. And to me it was so cool to actually see that. That was a privilege and uplifting even if I didn’t get the picture.
Interest in insects
I love getting in close to things with a wide-angle lens. It gives you a feeling of the setting. Maybe it’s partly because of my interest in ecology and in connection. In other forms of photography you don’t get that feeling of connection.
These little critters are a part of our world that is so important. Spiders, for example, are the most common predator in the world. Period. They have a huge influence on things. People wouldn’t think that spiders have personalities. But I’ve seen more than once, little jumping spiders have a lot of personality. They’re fascinating little critters.
Not too long ago I found one that had caught a fly. Well, that fly was as big as he was, and he was hanging on! That was like a lion tackling a wildebeest. It’s just incredible! There’s all of this all around us. That’s something that I love to explore, and I love to share.
People talk about nature as something separate from man. But we are a part of nature. I think it’s important to acknowledge that connection and to say, ‘Hey, we’re a part of this world.’
If we are feeling disconnected from nature, it’s a lot easier to screw around with it, to dump poisons it, and to drain swamps, and things like that, because we’re not connected; so, it’s not important. If we are connected—and I think photography is a way for all of us to become connected—there’s going to be less of this arbitrary dismissal and disrespect of nature.
My favorite place is the place where I am. For example, I’ve gone to meetings in New York city. Every time I’m there, I get out into Central Park. And I really love Central Park. I always want to find the special nature anywhere I go.
Photo over your mantle
I have pictures up, but I always want to put up a bunch of them. The collection tells more of a story about a place. Like for Death Valley, I don’t just have up one picture, I have a whole collection of about 20 pictures to give a feeling for the place.
I was talking to Art Wolfe, and we included this idea in our recent book on composition. What you have in your house is something that you feel comfortable with and what reflects you. It’s not just the pictures. I have stuff—paper wasp nests, fossils, a variety of insects, birds, fish. All these little things remind me of the world of nature. All of those things combine to affect my sense of composition.
One of the most important things that a photographer today can do is to certainly learn the craft of photography. Stay with your subject, and shoot lots and lots and lots of pictures.