Erin Babnik – On Landscape Meeting of Minds Conference 2016


[Music] okay given my background in art history I’ve had a number of people here at the conference asked me if my talk will be at all art historical. My interview and the current edition of the on landscape magazine is pretty much. This talk however is not really it’s much more personal. It’s actually an adaptation of an article that I wrote for the photo Cascadia blog that was one of my most popular articles. It really seemed to resonate with people and what I decided to do actually for a keynote speech that I gave it a previous convention let’s see if I could take these ideas and marry them with a lot more of my own personal experiences and that one over extremely well so I’ve adapted it yet again today and I’m very excited to be able to kind of present to you an overview of my work through the lens of these life lessons that have really informed my work over the years not only as a photographer but much much before that also as as a painter, as a graphic designer, as an art historian and an archaeologist. Because yes those are actually creative pursuits as well and what I’ve been able to do is look through all of the wonderful bits of advice it’s received wisdom that has helped me to kind of stand course when I felt like I was in those darker moments of the creative process and I picked out the ones that have most resonated with me and have been the most helpful and I think they I hope can be helpful to other people But they also I think say a lot about where I’m coming from with my work and maybe a little bit about where I’m going we’ll see. So I just want to start off with an image that for me at any rate sums up my happy place. I am essentially an Alpine photographer so-called adventurer landscape photographer. I’ve spent a lot of times a time in the mountains and I grew up in the mountains and that’s where I feel most at home and this photograph to me really represents what it is for me and that keeps me going keeps me in the mountains keeps me photographing them and that is that sense of of course but also there’s something about just having a wonderful atmosphere around the way that it’s always changing and moving it’s exciting. The sense of remoteness I really enjoy I love that when I go to a lot of these places I tend to be the only one around or else it’s just me and whoever else has come with me and I of course loves when there’s great light and everything just comes together and I can really concentrate and really feel as though I’m really being me and that I’m able to be creative and ideas are just flowing and I’m engaged and I’m in the zone and that is an awesome feeling and really there’s nothing else like it and those are the moments I think that keep us going and that’s really when it’s all easy. It’s easy to be yourself and to tap into what it is that is meaningful to an important and your ideas when when you’re in that kind of frame of mind. You know sometimes everything just goes really well for example this time when I was out in the Mojave Desert and this rainbow came out and just stuck around for about an hour. You know rainbows aren’t supposed to do that right there’s a thing that you’re supposed to dash off to catch because you see it in exactly the wrong place and so all you can do to get there and right when you do and you get set up of course it’s faded and it’s gone it’s how rainbows work but this time know now that rainbow came out. I’ll be showing you a picture later when I was actually shooting a composition that I already liked and then this rainbow this one just drop right down into it the left end of it perfectly in my frame. Are you kidding me! It just stuck around for at least an hour and I’m scrambling I’m thinking is going to die at any point and it just didn’t and I actually had time to remember how he’d seen these really cool arcing forms in the southern Playa quite a ways from where it was and so I went running up there to see if I could align them with the rainbow and the rainbow is like that’s alright I’ll wait and it’s just hung out there and I got there and and and it worked it worked perfectly. The rainbow is pretty much in the exactly the right spot to finish off this composition and then it continued to stick around and it came back you know they move throughout the day as the sun moves but it got to the point where my friend it was with me was saying could someone just get that rainbow out of my shot it’s kind of in the way, just had enough of rainbows. It was great, so that’s when everything’s really really easy right and then there are the other times when it’s just not. When things just aren’t going really well like when you’re out in the desert for a week primitive camping and it’s really hot and you haven’t seen a cloud in about a week it probably haven’t had a shower and about that long either and you have all these motivations these ideas things you want to do that depend on certain conditions maybe it’s not skies not everyone’s into great skies. That there are always conditions that can make or break an idea and you know it sometimes I can really weigh on you and get you down and it can distract from that creative process of seeing. You can get so focused on something that you really want and when you don’t find it these these can become real drawbacks to the to the whole process of coming away with something that you feel is personally satisfying and ultimately I believe that is the most important goal really for me at any rate and they think it probably should be for most photographers is that ultimately what you want to produce is something that’s personally satisfying. But lots of things can get in the way and it’s not just these sorts of unfortunate circumstances or difficult experiences there are external factors that can be distractions to the creative process as well things that can get in the way of you connecting with yourself and and staying on course. Social media is increasingly becoming a big one for photographers especially for those of us for whom a large part of our income kind of depends upon being able to reach people through social media. I teach a lot of workshops and so I need to put myself out there on social media. It’s sort of a necessary evil and it can be a real distraction. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that you know they are really sort of anxious about social media because they feel as though not only that they want to do well and they want to reach people but also that now it’s to some extent has turned photography into a sort of sport. Because everything’s measurable now you know that photos better than that one you know this is my best photo according to the world and that all of that diverts attention away from what you really care about what which is your favourite photo and that sort of thing when you have the world constantly judging in such measurable ways and they can be really distracting. It can get you off course and get you thinking about well maybe I should be going more in that direction because that’s where the rewards are and that can be that can be that can be tricky. Another another one is just the whole realm of professional activity for any photographers who make their living this way then you know you’ve got you’ve got the websites the selling the workshops of selling the prints to setting up an exhibition or whatever it is and it can be very easy to sort of work towards those goals rather than coming from a space of outward inward out and you can reverse that process by trying to take things from the outside and sort of make them fit inside somehow and that doesn’t always work and so professional considerations. Contests or another one I haven’t entered a contest in a really long time but I do judge them a lot and they recently judged the Epson International Panel Awards and they had a surprising number of people contact me with these anxious questions about how they could do well in the contest. I thought that’s really unfortunate because you know I mean I don’t necessarily I mean I fully understand that that that range of concerns and I under 20 understand why someone want to be in a contest I think they’re great and they actually have their benefits for creativity. They can be a way of really motivating an artist to do whatever it is that they do so long as that’s what it is it’s a good thing. If it pulls you away from whatever it is that you do not so much. Other distractions might include just basic practical considerations safety the big one for me since I work in the wilderness a lot. But just over a year ago I actually went through a certification course to become a Wilderness First Responder. This was about 90 hours of study and training and that which is just enough time really to introduce you to pretty much every possible way that someone can have a really bad day in nature and these are these weren’t things that necessarily were new to me but you know once you’re exposed through on the incredible number of ways that someone can have something really horrible or painful or debilitating or even fatal occur to them can really kind of pile up in your mind and make you think about that a lot more than maybe more creative concerns. This is a picture of me briefs talking my medical kit not all of that goes into it but I had to cut everything out and I thought well that’s interesting and that this is actually an aspect of photography that you have to go through this and when you do put it all together you know it really makes these possibilities very real. Sometimes that’s good it’s good to be safe. Sometimes it can have the the side-effect of bringing about more kind of irrational ideas and and those can be problematic. This is an image of mine that I created recently in Death Valley and on this particular day I was doing something that I really loved to do I was out by myself and I had seen that these about amazing wind storms were coming and because I love photographing blowing sand on dunes and I’d done it a bunch at this point and it’s just become one of my favourite most exhilarating experiences. I wanted to do it again I had some more ideas I wanted to work with and I made a plan to come out and time to perfectly got there when the winds were howling I couldn’t barely stand up as I was walking. I’ve forgotten how fast the wind was gale force winds. And I got out there and I started taking pictures and I was really having a great time no one around of course because only crazy photographers would even want to be out in those sorts of conditions or not they’re actually not dangerous despite everything I’ve just said being out and that kind of wind on the sand if you know what you’re doing you can you can just go out there and have a nice time. So I wasn’t concerned about safety and you know I was I was just fine, well prepared for what I was doing and then things started to get a little weird. So I was out there and I photographed this image which doesn’t doesn’t feature the blowing sand the wind had kind of died down in my area at that point but it turned out to be one of my favourite images and it also reminds me of not only what I was able to accomplish by being lured out there by a motivation and then finding another one. This wasn’t something that could ever have planned for that the clouds would come down and practically kiss the top of this dune, no way was I planning on this was not my idea not what what I was out there to do I did that first but the ideas that I did have and then this moment came along. So this this image kind of represent and that that successful moment of me being able to be creative in the zone thinking seeing and responding. But also what happened right after this I was out there shooting and I went a little bit further out on the dunes and I was having a great time watching this amazing storm clouds come in and there was all of this sand swirling around in the in the foreground it almost looked like this like a sand tsunami and there are these these dirt devil, dust devils that are pretty common in Death Valley And I’d seen those a lot so I was kind of fascinated with it I knew that that wasn’t going to take me off to Kansas like Dorothy or anything all right they’re pretty they’re pretty okay if they come close it’s not too bad. So I I went over closer to it because I wanted to photograph it some more and all of a sudden poof everything went white I mean the whole everywhere the whole world to me just suddenly turned white and that freaked me out. I didn’t really understand what was going on in retrospect I realised with a cloud inversion the clouds having come this low just finished the job and came all the way down so now I was inside the clouds and my first response was, oh my gosh the sun had been completely snuffed out at this point. Thinking wow I’m in some kind of cyclone or something I wasn’t thinking rationally and so I decided well it’s time to evacuate and I think because I just finished that ,woofer course the first responder course ,I had all those sort of irrational ideas in my mind and the most logical explanation hadn’t really occurred to me, which is that the clouds had just dropped down. I was thinking about the worst-case scenario this cyclone of sand coming out and carrying me off so what I did is I instead of staying around and photographing what could have been some really unique conditions. I got out of there and in retrospect I look back and think wow this is very unusual and as I was exiting the dune area was about a mile out I was seeing these really repeating forums of dunes going off into the distant fog. How often do you see that? Very very rare I’ve maybe seen one or two pictures ever of that and that would have been really fun if I could have just stayed in the mind frame that I had been in I might have yet another image that that I really enjoy. So what I’m going to go through now are five points. These five points that I’ve been able to pick out over the course of my education. Starting from art school now a lot of this stuff is like I said received wisdom these are the sorts of things that address issues that most creative people face and so art educators tend to focus on them and none of this a lot of this will probably seem like common sense and it’s not necessarily these aren’t secret points or anything and not certainly nothing that I came up with and it’s probably the sort of these are the sorts of lessons in life that I think everyone at some point really understands and knows and takes to heart. But I like putting them together and kind of putting a focus on them because I think these are the most important ones for me at any rate the ones that have had the biggest effect on what I’m doing now. The first of these is to remember to have fun and it’s probably the most important as far as I’m concerned. I think that is the most important part of getting to that space where you are really being creative. Because creativity is ultimately a playful process if you start there you’re already in the zone. It’s great if you can do that if you can get yourself into that frame of mind. Now sometimes it’s just easy to have fun everything goes well or you know just crazy things happen like on this occasion when I was shooting out in the Dolomites. I was with a workshop at this point and we were out there shooting a sunset. Here comes this pink balloon flying over and it stops right over us and just dropped straight down now we’re out in the middle of nowhere. We are at about 7500 feet in elevation quite a ways we’ve hiked in this is a backpacking workshop we’re nowhere near civilisation. So this balloon comes down it drops right down into this World War One trench and I went over to retrieve it and I had this note on it and it said our birthday kid has just turned 75 and would like nothing more than to receive cards from all over. How fun is that we thought you know this is really great and it really put us all in a great mood and I tied that little pink balloon to my backpack and it walked around with it following me around everywhere and these are the sorts of things that buoy a whole moment everybody was in a really great mood after that and you know that’s when it’s all it’s all really easy. I’ll never forget when I learned this this particular lesson that you need to have fun, because sometimes you do need to kind of consciously go back to it and this experience is one that brought it forward for me for those occasions when it’s not like this. A pink balloon doesn’t just land and let you know that it’s time to have fun and I’m just as a stand-in for my experience was actually in art school in a classroom during one of these really serious critiques. This this image is just a behind-the-scenes shot of me working with some workshop participants in the field just reviewing stuff in the backs of LCDs because they asked me to. So this is just going to stand in for that critique process although this process is much more fun the way it goes in art school anybody who’s been in art school probably knows how just stressful it can be. When you have to go into a classroom and you pin all of your artworks up on the wall and everybody in the class has their picture up there and along comes the professor and he peruses these images and you will then hold forth and let you know exactly he thinks about them and then there’s a discussion and the time when this this idea of having fun really came forward for me was was in one of these critiques when the professor was someone I respected greatly. He’s one of these guys who’s in all the history books really loved his work of course we really wanted to please him so that put the emphasis on him not on me. When I was producing my piece for this critique and you know there were other considerations as well when you’re an art school everybody thinks oh this is your time to sort of cut loose and and be you know be a student and you know produce your juvenilia and all of that it is to some extent but in my case I actually also had a scholarship that depended upon getting good grades. So if it wasn’t hard enough that you know I wanted to please this this really great professor, I also had that concern that you know I needed a needed a good grade and I know I wasn’t alone in this. So the professor comes in this one day he looks at everything on the wall and he says everybody sit down pull up a chair come closer he didn’t say anything about anything on the wall and he just looked at all of us and he said it looks to me as though you’ve all forgotten to have fun and that really hit home for me because he was right. I think we were all just so concerned this is our first really big critique really so concerned about what he wanted or what was going to please him that we’d forgotten to go through that essential process that essential playful creative process it tends to produce good results. Sharing another image here just to get back on the idea of what’s fun for me this is a behind the scenes photo taken by a friend of mine Michael Shainblum when we were out in Death Valley. Again one of my other favourite areas for photography and we were out in this place it’s called the dot district and I love this kind of thing where there is no obvious composition. You have this jigsaw puzzle of options there and you can just play with that all day and I can do that for hours. I love thinking for these various foreground compositions that you can get out of these sorts of environments and when the light is nice and it’s all and you’re the only ones out there wonderful, absolutely wonderful and again to return to the other side of things that trudging through the desert that process of scouting, scouting, scouting is just the opposite of that. When you you know scouting actually become something you feel like you have to do you’re not seeing anymore at that point and it’s this high this particular hike was miles across this very kind of difficult and this difficult terrain with some friends and I think it started in a great place we were all in a good mood having a good time shaking mud off our boots and everything was really messy and in the end it ended at a different place. It got it got a little roughed in and I think we were pretty down and that that image I showed previously of us back at camp feeling a little rundown followed this and that was the next morning. So how do you turn it around? Well sometimes you do have to do it consciously this is an example of something and I think any landscape photographer has a really distinct motivation might understand well we tend to plan things a lot of us not all of us and I don’t always but it is one way once you’ve been to a place a number of times you’ve developed a relationship with it. You start to have pretty specific ideas about it sometimes and something you really want you saw a potential potential for something and you want that. Well this is one of those places it’s an alpine lake in Slovenia where I had done quite a lot of photography and at this on this particular day I wanted to hike up to this lake and shoot a mountain scene in the opposite direction from the ones that I’d done before. I had done this before and I had done it before in winter and it’s usually a snowshoe hike up about 2,700 feet in elevation so it’s not super simple. But it’s something you can do you can get up there in a day in winter. So I was really excited at going up there and having all this great snow and really cool conditions and and and everything all my research for the weather and everything had shown me that this was going to be a possibility so I was excited and here’s here’s a better views as well from Google Earth of that Lake. So there it is and that’s that’s the mountain that I hadn’t shot I hadn’t shot map direction that’s the mountain that gives Lake. Its names I kind of wanted to work with that I had an idea of something I wanted to do and I was pretty determined to get up there and give it a shot but when I got up there there wasn’t even any snow. Personally I didn’t need my snowshoes at all get up there and my crampons my ice axe I was ready to go and that just wasn’t on offer so I got up there for and for a while I was thinking whom got all the way up here there isn’t even any snow the trees are all dead this is in one of those sort of I call them the tweener periods when you’re kind of in between seasons and there was however one really amazing condition to work with there and that was that the lake which freezes over every year. This is a frost Hollow that gets very very cold the lake this year didn’t have any snow on top of the ice and that hadn’t happened for ten years. So I was kind of having a nice time to sort of running around on my crampons and noticing all of these great bubbles isn’t in the sand in the ice and some of them were pretty impressive. You can just see a few little ones here but some of them were really beautiful and now bubbles are kind of a favourite thing for landscape photographers too but but I wasn’t expecting this at all. There are places a lots of people that go to spots for shooting in bubbles with mountain that sort of thing is very common and I’ve seen some great bubble abstracts but I I had not that was not on the menu and so it wasn’t something that had really thought about and I just allowed myself to let go of my my idea that remembered just just let’s just have some fun with these this is really a nice treat. I’m actually this is a gift I didn’t get what I wanted but this is really great. so I I can really got into the bubbles and I just ran went with it even though I’d you know I’d hike 2,700 feet up in these really kind of cold conditions to go shoot these little itty-bitty bubbles. It’s it was something that I think and in a different frame of mind I wouldn’t have thought to do I wouldn’t have wanted to do it would have been kind of so depressed that I wasn’t getting what I wanted because it’s a lot of effort to get up there. But I really got into it and I shot these bubbles wide I shot them long I shot them for days. I shot them in flat light I shot them in broad daylight and this is the actual setup for the final shot that the one that I produce that that I really liked. It’s a telephoto shot actually focused act because in order to get all of the bubble cluster into focus I had to take a whole bunch of exposures at different focal points and put them all together and so here is my my wonderful lake shot with a sunset and a mountain and a lake. Looks like that and this is not an image this now this is an image that I find personally satisfying I I really enjoy it I’ve called it Frizzante, because to me it looks like kind of a light sparkling wine and it’s fun and it’s bubbly and it represents that whole process of just going out and having fun and doing something with the ephemera that is ultimately really meaningful. I also on the way up encountered some of the largest hoarfrost crystals I’d ever seen in my life so that that idea having fun had already started before I started shooting the bubbles even and I produce some some images that to this day I still like that are of those hoarfrost crystals. I’ve seen a lot of really impressive ones even in the Canadian Rockies or there’s a little get some pretty great examples of but nothing like this these were huge and they were really fun to shoot so I had a lot of fun with those too. Another way that I go about having fun is using my phone instead of my big camera and I know that a lot of people do this too and I think it’s very recommendable. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of fear business and wait literally that comes with using the big camera and it can help to kind of put that down for a while and for me at any rate just take the phone out and play with it and it’s you know something about not only the fact that it’s light and easy and portable and everything but just something that divorces me from the seriousness of the real kit. I find really helpful, so here I am out in the Mojave Desert on some of the largest mud tiles that I’ve ever seen in my life the cracks are big enough that it could fit my DSLR with its ultra wide-angle lens down in between them and this was really a great jigsaw puzzle for me and took me a while to sort it out. But I ultimately came up with this image which I really liked and this is when I spoke about the rainbow dropping down into my scene that’s what happened. I I figured out this composition they practiced it for a couple of outings until this morning when I got the light and I even got the rainbow which it wasn’t wasn’t expecting at all just dropped right down in there. So I don’t know sometimes magical things happen and you’re going out there and you just let yourself have fun. Another anecdote that I think is relevant here this is a trip that I recently took with my good friend Ted Gore we were out in the French Alps exploring one day just sort of looking for whatever we wanted to find what might be out there and we didn’t have any really set ideas about what we were doing or what we were looking for we were just looking. Just having fun was the idea but we weren’t because we’d been we just had come from teaching a 10-day workshop we were pretty rundown I’d actually been teaching workshops in the mountains all summer so I was really rundown and mountains are a big place and trying to explore them takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and I think we were really letting that wear on us and we’d gotten up to this point with this lake that is quite charming and it’s not even hard very hard to get to this point. But we were already pretty exhausted this is only a couple hours of hiking to get up here and really the mood for us was was pretty down and I don’t know what prompted us to do this I think maybe seeing this little stone halfway across the lake is what did it because that was so fun for us and so unusual not something we were really expecting. But we thought let’s just take some selfies this isn’t something that we normally do some people specialise in this Instagram has a whole sort of industry about that and I don’t I don’t tend to do that myself I rarely have figures in my shots at all. But that’s what we decided to do like let’s you know let’s take a break from this scouting mission for a while let’s just have some fun so we did that for a while and it turned things around instantly. Just to snap this out of that funk that we are in and what we ultimately did was a lot of scouting that day may or may not have produced photos we took some the next day but I think it was some really quality scouting. I felt like we were really seeing and it’s just a place we’ll have to go back to and keep working it I’d like to go back at any rate and this process of having fun really got me to the point where I feel like I now know the place. I have started that relationship and I’m ready I’m ready to go back and continue it. Sometimes having fun just means switching up a lens it can be that easy you know that can be the thing to switch you get you out of that funk I’ve found. This is a photo actually I consider work in progress due to a horrible story that I’ll spare you right now I’ve lost the shot and was never really able to process it the way I wanted to. But it’s one of many that I’ve taken a at this location this is a spot that I discovered years ago while scouting and they discovered this alignment of the rising sun with this particular very enhancing peak. But one day I decided to go up there and try some telephoto stuff and this is I’m all standing and very close to the same spot I was actually teaching a private workshop at the point at that point and the guy who was my participant who’s working with me was by my side and he was actually shooting wide in that other direction and I was I was just poking around my telephoto having a great time because he was all set up and finding it need me anymore. So I I started looking around for fun stuff and sometimes fun stuff to me not only me having fun or the things that happen or the conditions being fun. Sometimes for me it’s seeing whimsical instances of dialogues going on between elements in a in a photo if they amuse me they come to mind they may be only it may only be I who see them but in this case I I saw this this peak looking up from the distance like it was sort of photobombing the scene and I really liked that distant peak in the way that it was sort of almost viewing over the top of its ridge there and looking back at the mist coming in and swirling around this little hill in the foreground and to me that was really really great fun and I had a lot of time a really good time photographing this and this day I really for me at any rate I’m very happy with the photograph. I really love these kind of misty quiet photos and it was really nice to be able to come away with one that day. This is another one this is out in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument area of the American Southwest and what really charmed me about this scene is the way that this beaut looks very much like a big shark fin cutting through the desert and to me that’s really fun. So I love that idea and it got me in that playful mood just thinking about that and I actually at the time I had just gone full time with my photography and this to me had all kinds of meaning too. So it kind of started to get really deep after the playful process is thinking about you know I kind of feel like I’m in a way in jeopardy I’m in I’m in the deep end here I hope this can work for me. So the idea of sort of being circled by a shark you know was very real and it brought all of these sort of vivid ideas to mind that I think helped me work through what I wanted to do with this location and I see these sorts of things all over. In this case I saw this what looked to me in the clouds were echoing the form of the mountain this is what I refer to as an echo composition in my writing. So I saw the shape of the mountains looking very similar to the mountain itself to shape the clouds and I loved the way that was sort of like the spectre looming up like you know trying to be scary behind the mountain. Almost trying to maybe even mimic it like a doppelgänger back there and I thought that was really fun and and these sorts of instances really helped me I just sort of run with those ideas mentally they keep me keep me going keep me away from all those other distractions that might be weighing on this stay focused on that. A last example this is again out in Death Valley and on this particular occasion I was teaching a workshop I was my co-leader Ted and we had brought this group out onto the dunes and is a pretty good march out there. You’d go about a least a mile two mile and a half to where the spots that we like are and we had a fantastic fantastic outing we tend with these are sort of weather chasing workshops that we do and people love that and so we’ve gotten rainbows and sunsets and we had all the stuff that a lot of landscape photographers are into the scenic’s really want to get and we had a great time so everybody was feeling pretty good about what they got. When the raindrops started falling and the storm started rolling in most of the participants were ready to go back and so Ted escorted them back off the dunes and one stuck around and he was a 70 year old participant good old Karl. Karl despite his age would go anywhere if there was a good shot to be had there he wasn’t real fast but Karl would get there. He’s the most enthusiastic participant I’d had in a long time and so he’s out there and I saw him looking at the same thing I was looking at which are these wonderful storm clouds coming in. They’re just so shaped land so moody and the Blues and they completely changed the whole colour of the dunes they go from these warm hues to this. These steely colours that I just I just love so I looked over Karl and they said I can see he was sort of looking and I was looking and I just said Carl do you want to stay and he looked at me he said yeah I’m having fun. So I you know can come up with a million different examples probably of ways that I have fun and I’m sure that others can come up with more this is one of the more silly instances of me just waiting before the light that I really wanted was coming and I just filled the time by sort of making good on a dare to do that create create that video. That was really fun and that definitely lifted my spirits that day too which had been a bit down before that. My second point and this is one that can often be misunderstood is to go big. Some people as I did misunderstand this point to be well you should go big with your prints or you should go shoot big mountains or you should go look for epicness or you should go really remote or you should just have a big idea and come up with a big idea and and do that. And that’s not really what it’s all about although I believe that to you always secure this go big go big. Until I realise that it doesn’t mean that it’s not the size of the finished product or the size of the mountains the epicness of them are the grandness of the landscape that matters. It’s the extent of your ambition if your passion is pointing you towards a particular motivation the idea is to ask yourself what is the fullest expression of that idea and do that. So essentially don’t sell yourself short if and don’t tell yourself you can’t do it don’t listen to those voices in your head that say well that would be very hard or that would be very expensive or nobody would like that or whatever it is. Don’t stop short go go big. My biggest project is kind of big on a lot of levels of all big mountains and big scenes and a lot of hiking and all of that. But I’m now going to show you how about how that all came together for me and how it actually enabled me to make more personally satisfying images because I wasn’t doing any of this because I thought I should or ought to because it’s big and that would be impressive. I was doing it because I gradually organically naturally evolved into a love for these sorts of environments and decided that well if I was going to take it to the level that I wanted to I was going to have to do some certain things and that meant getting out into the the mountains getting higher. Going for a bigger approach than what I had already been doing what and I focused ultimately on the Dolomites for this at the time this was about six and a half years ago I hadn’t seen any photos of the Dolomites actually have trouble finding them. This is back before the days and this is when social media was just sort of starting to get going and it was actually pretty hard to find digital photos online of the Dolomites and the books that I could find it tended to be these valley views and this is an early photo of mine that. It was just that I went and I found this little church this at the time when I put it out this is early early days of social media I put it out on channel 500px which is the time it just graduated from being a forum only to actually being a website and it was my first photo ever to go viral and and it was at the time it may still be my most stolen photo too. And so that’s where I started I found this little church and at this time I hadn’t seen any photos of it but now I’ve seen a lot I’ve actually seen ones that I like a lot better than mine. But that that’s that’s a beautiful beautiful area of the Dolomites down in the valleys and everything but I was really curious about well let’s higher up. I wanted to get into the high mountains that I wasn’t seeing so much in pictures aside from more telephoto shots from accessible vantage points. So I got a bunch of maps lots of maps and this was expensive and I didn’t have a lot of money but that’s what I did because I couldn’t think of any other way to do it. So I bought I have mean literally huge box of maps and I just went through and what I had learned from my first outing there in the region I had a good sense of where the tree line generally was and what sorts of features might be photogenic and I went through all the maps and I put these little markers on them. Like that orange one there and I try to target possibly really rewarding areas for me and I had to do a lot of hiking that wasn’t necessarily what I was used to so I also really got more into mountaineering through doing all of this and some of this stuff is actually kind of treacherous. This isn’t the sort of thing I do in my workshops but it was what I needed to do to get around a lot of these via ferrata and there’s a lot of scrambling and you know there’s a lot of a lot of heights involved in cliffs and I scampered all over the place for years and I found a lot of places that were great and a lot of places that just weren’t and it was just a lot of work to get there so it was not necessarily a very productive use of time but I was having fun and it was great and I was really excited about exploring these areas on my own. Because I felt as though they weren’t necessarily haunted by the ghosts of a million other photographers and I could actually hear my own voice there and some people are really good at tuning that out and for me it helps if I’m in a place where I can kind of think it through for myself and the first outing. So these are all from a one particular hike but they stand in for the sorts of things that are necessary if you want to really get around really explore find out what’s out there and what you can do. Including going to some more popular areas this is this is an area that I could find in photos and I fell in love it and instantly I really wanted to go do something of my own there and it started off with some summer shop ultimately got into winter the working winter shots. They’re only just this last one through actually and this is a shot oh this is behind-the-scenes photo of me taking a photo and I owe this one to my friend Ted Gore who took the picture of me. And this this opens up as many photographers know a whole other wonderful world of photography if you just sort of think about even a different season you know sometimes that really can be going big – it means that you’re having to do things that are pretty difficult. So in this case that means getting on the snowshoes and the hut it’s closest to this massey was closed so we had to stay at the one that’s about an hour hike away and it was a lot of elevation for for snowshoes before sunrise to get down for this sunrise but you know that’s what you got to do got an idea it’s all good it feels great I actually even got frost bit well well classic frost nip I was trying to make this photo and it was difficult to stand up the wind was pushing me over that’s why I would crouch down like that. Sometimes it meant you know getting up doing a lot of these crazy hikes that I was just showing you before sunrise and then you know sleepily purging myself in the edge of some cliff that I could get something done and that’s that photo there. But I did find a lot of great stuff and it was really really rewarding so I was out there not letting myself say this is costing me a fortune I am wasting all of this time I only occasionally find anything that really resonates with me. But I pushed I persevere because it was something that was coming from within and I wanted to express that I wanted to go big with these ideas. Another one is this is one of my very early winter shots in the Dolomites maybe four five years ago and again headlamp hike before sunrise isn’t necessarily easy but somehow it is if you’re coming from that space if you just want to do what’s the fullest expression of your idea you’ll do it. This also extends to I think processing not everyone is into this they don’t like putting in a whole lot of chair time. I don’t mind it I actually kind of enjoy it up to a point and I’m fine with it in this case this is a focus stack of a lot of images and so if I get out there and I realise I’ve got fast-moving weather I’ve got a foreground that’s inches away from the front element of my lens. I’ve got a background that I’d also like to be sharp I’ve got high dynamic range I’ve got a lot on my plate there if I want to produce a photo of that. That’s a lot of work but then you just have to get into that at least for me that mentality of I’m just going to do this I’m going to go big this is what I want this turned out to be one of my most popular shots it’s an older one now. But you know at the time immensely personally satisfying to finally get this thing done and and to have something that reminded me of everything that I had wanted to achieve and more. This is another instance of an earlier shot this is an area a very famous massive again this is the Trait Chami Massive from the Dolomites and it’s there’s anything that can really be considered an icon in the Dolomites it’s this. I think it can at this point when I first started going there and even know that and I because I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know that the go-to vantage point is directly opposite this completely other way from where you start where you park and start hiking and where most people go is over by this other hut where you can literally sit on the porch and sipping cappuccino while you play click away because it has this really easy view towards the mountains and for a long time that was almost expected I think. Especially I’ve heard at times photographers tell me that yeah well that’s just the way you’re supposed to do it but that’s the way it’s done you shoot from there. Why didn’t know that at the time which is good so I went around the other way and and at the time I’ve never seen a shot of this stream. Now I have and now I take a lot of workshops here and so there loads of pictures of this stream but I love this stream and it was really fun to find it and to work with it and just figure out how I could put together a story about the process of the snowmelt which is happening a really dramatic way that year. This is seasonal spring that doesn’t exist all year long and this is that the picture from the one I was showing me of me on the snowshoes earlier this is what came out of that I really wanted to catch that process of weathering. This is what happens to these craggy mountains that makes them so fantastic. That process of the weather kind of eating away at them and the snow blowing over this is sastrugi was a shot that I had wanted for a long time because I had seen it I had tried and had failed for various really sad reasons and so I finally put something together of just this winter that for me at any rate is immensely satisfying and I’m happy I’ve got it. But I had to go pretty big to get it. This is another instance of a time when I really scampered around a lot and almost found nothing I often liken myself to the way that cats are with boxes you know if I see something on a topo map that’s blank and there’s nothing in there nowadays that’s where I want to go. You know I just want to find out what’s inside that box and this is what I found this is an area that’s a pretty blank on the topo maps not indicated as anything interesting and there’s this really cool double waterfall there with a snaking stream and it was really exciting to find that again seasonal and I’ve never I’d never seen anyone work with this and so I was able to kind of clear my head and have a great time with that. But again a lot of scouting just because of that sort of mentality of this is my project now organically I’ve arrived at this idea that I want to explore these areas and by golly I’m going to do it another one very high up in the Dolomites to this day I’ve never seen another photographer in this area that I didn’t bring there myself and I’ve been able to produce a couple of my favourite photos from this area. Because of that very mentality and now I this is one of the photos that participants most requests that we that we this composition is one that most of participants want to visit and see how how actually looks and they’d like to shoot it. So I’ve been taking a lot of people there and that is immensely rewarding to. I really enjoy that show introducing these places to people this as well is one of those areas that’s out back and way far from anything that most people would ever go to. It’s one of my more moody darker images and to me it sort of sums up the creative process in general that it is kind of a dark place a lot of the time and then in the distance you know there’s that sort of that light that you’re moving towards and that’s the light within. One other spot that I really like and I’ve been working on a lot is this little waterfall in the Dolomites and again just came from poking around I actually have a video of how you get there it’s not obvious at all so this is me rock hopping along to get over there. Just just comes by I actually just came up with the idea by being on the other side of the stream a couple of years earlier and seeing there were cascades of some sort I didn’t know that these are even there they’re kind of tucked away went exploring there with my friend Ted again and we came across this waterfall and I subsequently returned many times to have a good time with with that it’s really a fun place. I really enjoy going there this is a picture of Ted standing on a rock this is an image that has a lot of personal meaning for me it’s not one that I’ve ever released and I may never. Not sure it fits in my portfolio really but I’ll have to think about that but at any rate it’s one of these these things that to me summarises this idea of going big because you’re you’re out there you’re looking up at this idea of sort of metaphorically speaking and you don’t realise that you can’t get there it looks like there’s. This chasm that you can get across you can get around you can get up there there’s some way to do it you’ll figure it out. If you really want to and that’s your motivation I think it’s important that you do it and of course going big doesn’t necessarily mean just going to the mountains it can mean getting in the water instead of standing on the beach communicating out in the hot again another behind-the-scenes photo that I that I owe to friend. It could mean standing on you know standing out and really windy conditions and getting some sand in your clothes and not to mention your gear although there’s ways to protect against that it can mean driving 50 miles down a dirt road in a 4×4 and then hiking another two miles out just to catch a moon set. It can mean climbing higher getting up higher than you’ve been before it can mean exposing yourself to yes sometimes sort of dangerous conditions. This is a stand-in for a previous visit when I trying to get a shot like this broke my ankle because I got too close to a train trap so in it and learned the hard way that rocks absorb heat you shouldn’t get too close to them in the snow. which brings me to my third point, find the tipping point and this was very simple and I’ll be able to go through it quickly it’s related to the last one. Is that sometimes just going big isn’t enough sometimes you have to go too far I’ve found. I had an art instructor tell me once that in fact you’ll know the point where you’ve gone far enough after you found the point where you’ve gone too far so basically push it and I think that that’s kind of true for portfolios too even finish to work. Sometimes you just do have to put them in that portfolio and you think maybe that’s gone too far but I’m just going to let that sit there and see how this all fits together in the end and maybe at some point I’ll say yeah that was too much. But now I know and some examples of that in the in landscape photography for me is back to this shot. I shot this in all kinds of light once I found it I was really excited about it double waterfall snaking stream awesome and I tried really dramatic lights. Really you know brilliant sunsets nothing quite just sort of brought together what I wanted with the circular composition and the subtlety of the of the tones and everything so I really preferred this soft light so once I shot the super dramatic stuff I pulled back and I liked this slightly more quiet version. And sometimes the tipping point as well of like like with the picture of me in the ocean is it enough to get to the side of the water or do you have to get in the water in your ugly waders or do you have to traipse all over dunes for two hours only to find that the place you started was really the best point after all. That’s where the composition was yeah we did that and I owe this bet behind the scenes shot to workshop participant really great shot love it. Or in this situation where I tried my usual approach to making water more smooth for a long time before finally giving up and saying no I’m sapping this waterfall of its power and there was something about the water flying up into the air like that. That to me express the particular character of this this waterfall in a way that smoothing it out didn’t I was just sapping it of its strength and it wasn’t until I tried and try and try and realise that those slower shutter speeds were going too far I pulled back and I got this raging kind of image of this the raw power of this waterfall on the French Alps and for me personally satisfying. My third point craftsmanship matters and this’ll sound self-explanatory and it’s related also to going big. Sometimes you just have to have to dive in and do something even though it may seem tedious. For me that has meant such things as returning to a composition again and again and again. That can be very tedious and sometimes I don’t like doing that at all I just want to shoot whatever first comes whatever I see and and that has that also has actually more often than not that produces the best results. But sometimes I see something and then I want to work it and work it and work it and this one took me a long time I did this comp probably three or four five outings or something like that and the moon is all over the place after the first instance of course because and then it’s never going to be there again until you come back a month later so I came back a month later. Again a lot of driving a lot of hiking just to get out there but I made it work and to meet up part of the craft. If that’s your motivation and you want it to be a certain kind of lighting I wanted this moment where the ambient light was coming in the sun was rising over my shoulder the moon was just setting and this is I had to nail that moment was very hard and so I just kept at it because that to me is part of the craft and I finally nailed this image. Again the focus stacking and all the processing I have a lot of these sorts of shots where you has a really high dynamic range and you have focus stacking and we have some stars to clean up and but I like them you know I really liked the way that the spokes of this tree echoed that’s that Sun star and I firmly wanted that once I thought had the idea I just knew I’ve got it I got a just sort of roll up my sleeves and get it done. And likewise with this one not easy to put that together you have all that going on. This is an example of when craftsmanship just involved simple gear I’d first shot this on my phone an iPhone which has pretty high resolution and actually for a lot of people that that does it. You can do a lot with that and I could have I could have put this online and left it at that but I thought I’m probably really going to want to print this it was really excited about it. When I showed it on my phone to workshop participants they went nuts and they really loved it they wanted to go shoot that that playa and so I actually went back with my phone and my big camera and it was like finding a needle in a haystack but I found that comp again and I shot it for real. This is an example of one image that is probably the most technically difficult I’ve ever done and interest of time cut short the story on this but it was a lot to plot to shoot it technically and a lot to put it together and it is kind of just for me the kind of craftsmanship that really tries on me but I got it done. The last one and I think this is probably as important maybe as a first one or second to it and that is creativity a messy place. So the caveat to everything that I’ve just said is that creativity works in mysterious ways sometimes we arrive at solutions without really understanding how we got there. But we can still feel a sense of accomplishment when we do now we’ve all heard of the happy accident well there’s that too we should be able to take pride in things that somehow just worked out for us even though we can’t quite explain why. And sometimes they you know creativity is that it is really very chaotic and we don’t really understand why we’re doing the things that we’re doing we just know that that’s what we do and that’s really important. So anytime I’ve used the word should or I’ve said anything in this in this talk that sounds in any way prescriptive just dismiss that because in the end you have to just do what you do. This this this one last story I would like to tell has to do with a friend of mine who once confessed to me that he felt that he was kind of disappointed in himself because he was instead of using his tripod a lot of the time he was just leave it stuck to his bag and would run off with his camera and shoot handheld and that meant having to take a whole lot of images sometimes and do a whole lot of processing to produce something else extensively could have done a lot been done a lot more simply simpler if you just shot on a tripod. But that spontaneity that he got out of running around like that enabled some really unique compositions enabled him to nail some moments of light and so these really ephemeral wonderful moments that just caused his portfolio to sparkle with a certain kind of it has a shimmer that wouldn’t be there I don’t think otherwise if you weren’t doing that and that’s just the way he works. And he’s also a great craftsman and he’s able to pull this all together in a way that it looks like it was shot on a tripod. So it’s really important to just keep in mind that you know sometimes it’s best not to let that little voice in your head tell you that you’re doing it wrong you know even when you’re going against received wisdom that you truly respect. So again this this desert image is one of those for me that I have to say well that rainbow dropped down into my frame again and here that rainbow just sort of stuck around can I take credit for that? I don’t know I brought myself out into this environment of this storm and I shot in those conditions maybe I should allow myself to take some credit and in that sense it emboldened you. Again with this one I like these kinds of echo compositions where I have the repeating v-shape can I take credit for that that the the atmosphere has happened to do a V on the lasted echoed the one on the right? Not really inside uh I did recognise it I did appreciate it and it’s something that I that I really respond to and though I find personally satisfying. And another event when I somehow wandered on to found this scene when I wasn’t even looking for it was supposed to be shooting the other direction those two according to what I had set myself out to do. And I found this scene that that I really enjoyed looking the other direction I do I take credit for that either was totally accidental maybe I should? So in summary it’s important to have fun number one. Really is number one this day I was having a great time sloshing through the water in my puddle stumper stompers. Getting out to these salt formations never expected that that’s what I was going to go out there to do is to try to hero-ise this tiny little salt formation in this way I usually actually have different ideas about composition entirely but this in this case this one all came together for me just because I was out there having a great time. Go big this is a small scene it’s just a little little piece of mud at the back of a canyon full of water I had to with a couple of my photo Cascadia teammates do a 10-mile hike mostly through water just a few weeks ago to get this shot because we had this motivation when we first got in there we found these outstanding examples of dried mud and that just got us going and nothing was the stop us we just kept going until we’ve got found more and more and more and. It was long gruelling hike through the water but we had a great time and spawned some wonderful little vignettes of nature like this. Find the tipping point another example of where the dramatic light killed off all the colours that killed off that kind of subdued dusty mood that I really enjoy about the desert. I pulled back and went with this which I much prefer and lastly creativity is a messy place starts out that way and somehow in the end it all comes together. So that’s it and I hope that by keeping all of these ideas in mind if any of them resonate with you you’ll be able to follow your own nose even when you can’t really see. Thank you. Hi welcome back to the green room on joined now by Erin Babnik who’s just I don’t have to describe it. Erin you wowed us was the most amazing mountain shots really good I mean. Not all mountain shots but there were an awful lot of pictures in places where I would never dare to walk have you all yeah I mean you talked about going big you talked about being driven. What drives you to go to those points, that there in excess of ever very inaccessibility? Yeah you know it was gradual there was a time when I couldn’t have done that I actually had a bit of vertigo when I first started doing this and was terrified of some of these places and now I’ve completely lost it. Right. So that’s a good news vertigo is something that you can just lose. And I did and now it may actually even be sort of a problem that I’m a little bit less aware of dangers maybe than I should be even. Right okay yeah now it doesn’t bother me. Yeah because you were going along the via ferrata in the Dolomites yeah and kind of perched on edges that there’s no way I would go anywhere near. You talked about tipping point you talked about this notion of going past the optimum and coming back and I know that’s certainly something that that I’m aware of in work and I think it’s the way that you refine your your approach but you but it’s also the tipping point changes? does it not? Oh I should think so yeah I should hope it every all of it keeps changing otherwise you know it becomes stagnant or something. Yeah so the whole thing’s dynamic and how how would you characterise your progression from the early days of, could you can you started off as an archaeologist somebody who was interested in the environment you had an interest in in art history and all those kind of things but how would you how would you characterise your you’ll change. It’s how I think I’ve gone through a couple of swings and I started off because of the archaeological photography doing something that had to be to some extent fairly illustrative and straightforward and then I started to get more and more liberated with everything. Doing things that were in some ways obscuring what it was that was maybe obvious or illustrative about a place and or in some places really pushing the aesthetics of an image and the processing or even in the the way I was approaching it things in the fields such that they look kind of painterly or they they in some small way reference the makers hand. I don’t want to be that present in my images and so or at least I don’t know and so I’ve sort of pulled back from that yet again and so right now I my images are getting quieter so the tipping point for me has moved, yeah. So going sort of referring back to Simon Norfolk’s talk today he’s talking about the sublime and and there was a there’s a kind of it that an interesting cusp there it seems to me between the sublime in the spectacular which side would you characterise your images on or is That unfair question? I’d like to think I leaned towards the sublime myself the spectacular isn’t what interests me so much I coming out of my art history background I have a great respect for Hellenistic Greek sculpture which is known for its sort of profundity and and it’s the yeah actuality which I would say was just more on the spectacular sorts of things. But also that it has this sort of deep money mentality and this profoundness about it and I think that’s more at home and the sublime realm, yeah, and that is where really what resonates for me when I see images not it’s not that superficial at least I think of spectacular as being on some level kind of superficial to me it’s much deeper than that. So for instance the desert shots that you were showing death valley shots and and a number of other shots you’re talking about process you’re talking about with the windblown sand across the sastrugi you’re talking about all this is the process that that sculpts the mountains, yeah yeah, so you’re trying to reference that? Sometimes sometimes. That’s what interests me I always have some kind of motivation even if I don’t I’m not really wholly aware of it while I’m in the field I’m not going to say that I always have this very clear idea I don’t you know it is a messy place and you know but in the end when I decide when I’m in that curatorial process those ideas come to mind like yeah that’s why I want this one and I want a process that’s when I want to put that one out there it belongs in my portfolio for that reason. But sometimes I do have those motivations very clearly. There’s a critic Aalan zeinrich I think his name was who was referencing Cartier-Bresson you know that’s the idea of the decisive moment and he said the decisive moment was when Cartier-Bresson pointed at a negative and said print that one the editing process is is is the decisive moment. I think I agree. And I think we make a lot of subconscious choices during the making of a photograph in fact I think that for me I don’t know if you’d agree with this but for me the photographs that seemed most complete are quite often the ones that you just felt you made it and then afterwards you work through the process of fine tuning it or or choosing which particular frame? Absolutely yes. gree completely! It’s a novel thing! We have we have a question from Brianna Wolf. Okay um hi Brianna she would like you to describe your style and ancillary clause and how to explore new styles in landscape photography. How do I explore new styles well okay? Let’s go back to describing my style I think we’ve just just done a pretty good job of that actually in talking about the sublime. But I also have I think coming from a background really steeped in the arts I have some very set ideas about composition and so I’ve mentioned this in my talk but I do respond very much to these ideas of sort of discourse going on in the in the in the landscape. I see mountains as in some way anthropomorphic I see them as in some way being in dialogue with other elements they’re like abstract sculptures and landscape and in that sense they have that monumentality about it and I think if there’s one thing I probably lock on to the most in my images it is kind of that sense of monumentality even when I’m working on something that’s not that monumental. Like a little bit of mud yeah to me there’s something kind of profound about it and that’s I think as far as I can go just describe what’s really at the heart of my style and that plays out both the composition and also in the choice of areas that I go to and all that comes together and in my processing I try to bring that together what it is that I find about it that kind of resonates and hums on that kind of work. I’m really glad that you described your style in that way because so many people describe style as as about the graphic nature of the images about choice of palette to acid forms choice of subject but you, you are going to the heart of what style is and that is what concerns the individual photographer or artist. I think so for me at any rate it is yeah I don’t think style is anything else it’s style-ism is something else when you see people yes grating away its stylised yeah but but if you’re if your images are truly speak to what what you’re about then then that’s where true style comes from. I’m glad you agree we’re quite in agreement to do so so that’s that puts the the ancillary clause in an interesting position doesn’t it so how do you explore new styles I mean I’m going to put it unknown I’m gonna let you order that yeah and then I’m going to posit something. Yeah you explore yourselves the short answer to that I mean I don’t although I we had a discussion yesterday about the idea of looking at other people’s work and I am a great proponent of the idea that this is a healthy thing to do. I think but that’s one way of exploring styles it’s look at a lot of photography and if something catches catches you I don’t mean just catches your eye but catches you to where you want to in some way sort of work through that that’s telling you something about yourself and I think it’s a healthy thing to pursue it and work through it and if you stick with it and you just sort of go big on that eventually you will come out of that so that’s how I feel style happens. Yeah okay I think that’s a good description Ansel Adams I think said them that he was never really very interested in in other people’s photographs because if he’d like that he’d be making those kind of pictures so that’s fair well I’m paraphrasing but yeah more or less or not and I think that the only way you explore new styles is is to find new things that interest you and that is like you’re in yourself yeah yeah okay. I think we’re going to have to wrap it up there because we’ve got a few more bits and pieces to do. But thank you very much very thoughtful answers and very thoughtful talk thank you very much Erin.

11 thoughts on “Erin Babnik – On Landscape Meeting of Minds Conference 2016

  1. the friend that you mentioned in the end that confessed not using his tripod. could it've been alex deschaumes? haha

  2. Thanks for a very interesting presentation.
    What is usual, is to tell photographers to take pictures that have a story to tell to the viewer.
    You said that your pictures tells you a story, and that was something I really like. My most important pictures is the ones that telling me a story, but they are not necessery the ones others like the most.
    When I listen to you, I hear a person with lot of fantasy and imaginations, thats probebly why you take so fantastic pictures!
    Thanks again!

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