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Friday, August 1, 2008

A New Look At The Landscape

Reimagining the traditional landscape image

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Zen And The Art Of Photographing Landscapes—Holistic healer Shane McDermott photographs the desert Southwest as a spiritual exercise

The digital revolution not only changed the way many photographers work, it also opened up the medium to a whole new kind of landscape photographer—those who had never considered picking up a camera before. Shane McDermott is one of this new breed, and he makes no bones about digital’s direct spark to his newfound creative passion.

McDermott’s first experience was in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he again picked up a camera. Life got in the way of what he now sees as his true calling, and he says that in the intervening years, he read OP to continue fueling his fascination. By the summer of 2004, he knew two things: He needed to photograph again, and he needed a new camera. So McDermott invested in a Nikon D-SLR and headed back to Africa, where, this time, he realized that he could utilize his natural photographic talent for a higher purpose.

Says McDermott, “It all started to come together. I was learning photography, participating in something really useful and having a blast. The whole of my interior life has prepared me to see the exterior world in a completely integrated way. I absolutely need to be in nature, in isolation, daily—even if for only a few minutes. It feeds my body, my mind and my soul’s inspirations.”

Listening to McDermott describe his photographic passions, it’s easy to see how his yogic lifestyle—meditative and contemplative yoga, not exercise yoga—has influenced his photographic pursuits. He applies a Zen-like approach to accepting whatever a particular location may provide, and he eagerly uses meditation to help bond with the landscape he’s photographing.

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“Often, I’ll meditate in a place, just trying to connect and absorb its energy, before I actually photograph it,” he explains. “To truly not limit myself and what I can capture with my camera, I must clear myself of all expectations. I try to go with no expectation of what I’ll actually return with; just allow nature to unfold and reveal her spectacularly beautiful and radiant self. It has been so important for me to pursue photography in a detached way—not having a strong expectation that it needs to turn out a certain way in order for me to consider it a success.”

“If I go, wanting to shoot only a waterfall,” McDermott continues, “and there happens to be one there, that’s all I’ll see. If there wasn’t a waterfall, then I’d consider the whole trip a failure. So when I go exploring, it’s a form of meditation and actual yogic practice: Stay completely present and unattached, and what’s really there will reveal itself. Then the remaining challenges are reduced to technical execution.”

Technically, McDermott prefers to keep things simple. He has studied intensely, however, to learn the ins and outs of his technique. From capture to processing to printing, he feels the hands-on approach is crucial to his creative process, and digital makes being hands-on possible.

“My decision to shoot digital was, in large part, based upon my perception that film seemed like so much work,” he says. “And digital seemed so cool and convenient to me. To be completely honest, I wouldn’t even know how to put a roll of film into a camera! I chose to self-learn all the technical skill associated and involved with photography: ƒ-stops, shutter speeds, depth of field, lens selection, flash, etc. It took me at least a year to start feeling somewhat confident with the technical aspects alone. Of course, that’s still being refined daily.”

Originally from Canada and now living in the desert Southwest, McDermott’s creative visions are largely influenced by the locale he now calls home. His success, though, is attributable mostly to the amount of work he has put into photography.

“Photography is something that has taken a huge commitment of time and conscious intention to develop,” he explains. “For the last four years, I’ve shot a whole lot—around 150,000 images. I just now feel I’m starting to scratch through the surface layers of well-known Southwest landscapes. I have almost no desire to shoot at the iconic locations anymore; I really look forward to the adventure and challenge of getting to the unknown or secret locations, of which there are so many. I live in the hub of some of the greatest landscape photography on the planet.”

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McDermott may be new, but he has a traditionalist’s code of ethics. “I hold myself to a pretty strict code of conduct,” he says. “I’m not a digital artist. It’s imperative I accurately share in the most expansive and expressive way possible what it is I actually saw and felt at the moment of capture. My image adjustments are limited to color, contrast and sharpness. Typically, this can be achieved in two to four minutes per image. Much depends on where the final image will be used—stock, web, editorial or fine art. My workflow for each varies slightly. More time is spent on making sure an image is perfect for fine-art display.

Regardless of the intended purpose, I never add or remove anything from my images that wasn’t present at the time of capture. To achieve this, I use whatever means are the most powerful, easiest and efficient. If this involves layers, masks or plug-ins, so be it.”

McDermott is full of passion. He hopes to continue his exponential growth in the coming years, both creatively and professionally—if for no other reason than because he can’t seem to put down his camera.

“To say it has been fun would be the understatement of my life,” he says. “I clearly recognize I’m in the infancy of my photography. I’ve mastered no single aspect of it and probably never will. My photographic journey has unfolded swiftly, yet profoundly. I feel I’m being pulled as much as I push. The only thing I feel strongly about is that I’ll still be photographing far into the future. Beyond that, all else is burned in the heat of the present passion I have for nature photography.”

To see more of Shane McDermott’s photography, visit www.wildearthilluminations.com.

Shane McDermott
The desert Southwest, where Shane McDermott lives, serves as the main inspiration of his photography. After moving there, the Canada native says he found everything about his new home totally fascinating. “I was so inspired with the radical complexities and bizarre configurations of the whole Colorado Plateau,” he says. “And, of course, what I saw first was what any newcomer to Arizona sees first—all of the iconic locations of the Southwest: the Grand Canyon, Sedona, the southern deserts, etc.” The Painted Desert is one of his favorite locations. On a trip there earlier this spring, he expected to find potholes full of water because of all of the moisture the Southwest received this past winter. “There should have been water everywhere, or so I thought, but upon arrival—nothing. Bone dry,” he recalls. “Back in Flagstaff, 60 miles away, there was still more than a foot of snow on the ground. Nature and her complexities are so humbling.” ABOVE (TOP TO BOTTOM): Grand Falls in northern Arizona; Moments before a big summer storm in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in northern Arizona; The Left Fork of North Creek Trail, Zion National Park, Utah. The first image was shot with a Nikon D3 and AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED; the other images were shot with a Nikon D200 and Tokina AT-X 124 AF PRO DX AF 12-24mm f/4.


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