Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Scott Mead’s Hawaii landscapes show the depth of color, mood and drama of the islands’ stunning and wholly unique environment

Labels: Locations
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Hawaii's paradise on earth reputation belies the difficulty most photographers have when they try to get meaningful photographs there. One reason Scott Mead's images are so strong is his ability to read the sky. Says Mead, "A lot of it is reading what's happening in the sky—what the light is doing, how much do we have in the atmosphere and cloud cover. That doesn't change on a minute-by-minute basis; it's happening second by second. Things happen so fast here and you've got to be able to react—change camera settings, maybe add another split ND filter to balance the light. It's a harsh and challenging environment for photography."

Imagine Hawaii. No doubt you're picturing beautiful white sand beaches, lush tropical forests, maybe even an ocean sunset. You might also see a luau or mai tai in your mind's eye, and that's fine, too. There's a lot more to Hawaii than the images most often seen in tourism brochures, though, and that's the Hawaii in which Scott Mead is most interested.

"Typically, whenever you see an ad for Hawaii," Mead says, "it's all green. You see Waipio Valley, Iao Valley, you see all these dramatic green landscapes. Well, yes, that's tropical and beautiful and nice, but there's a whole lot more to Hawaii than just tropical rain forests. We have the desert, we have the lava, we have the incredible waves, we have the sunsets. There's the plumeria, the hibiscus, you've got gingers like mad— there's just so much. But when it comes to advertising, we've sort of been spoon-fed the big green dramatic landscape. That's just a little tiny fraction of what Hawaii is all about."

When Mead describes the islands, it's easy to see why they make for such an ideal host to his moody nature photography: crashing surf, glowing lava, calming waterfalls. It's a wonder that we don't consider Hawaii more frequently in the same breath with other popular photographic destinations. Hawaii really is a nature photographer's paradise.

"Hawaii, in a way, is paradise," Mead says, "but it's also one of the most incredible places on earth because it has such degrees of extremes. The world basically has 13 unique climate zones. The island of Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii have 11 of those. So, literally, in one day, you can experience snow up over 10,000 feet at Mauna Kea, and in the same day, you can be at sea level surfing. And if you want, you can go out and watch lava—literally, the birth of new land—pouring out into the ocean. You've got the shorelines of the islands where you have lava desert; the opposite are these dramatic lush tropical rain forests. There's a bevy of tropical flora, the different ferns, all the plants... For a nature photographer, it can be sensory overload."

"There's just so much," Mead continues. "You really have to be selective. When it comes to the average person coming here, I think a lot of people can be overwhelmed because there's so much to see, so much to do, and the typical vacation is a week to two weeks. How are you going to get out and get all that in? A lot of it is that you've got these huge beautiful dramatic landscapes, but I find there's always one thing that's calling, and it's picking out what that one piece is within the landscape that's calling you to it—you focus in on that, and then you've got the story."

Listening to Mead speak about how to best photograph Hawaii, it's easy to hear his passion for teaching. He leads workshops for photographers—those who live in the islands and those just visiting. Mead himself is a transplant from California, having grown up visiting grandparents here. It quickly became his life's passion to photograph the islands, and seven years ago he relocated to dedicate himself to his passion full time. Though there can be some resistance to outsiders in Hawaii, it's usually if they're perceived as parasites. Mead is no drain on sparse resources, however. He's clearly there to preserve the island's natural beauty and honor its history. He's fully Hawaiian in spirit.

"Hawaii itself has, for the Hawaiians, a very big spiritual power, which they refer to as mana," Mead explains. "It's out there; you just have to be there and you'll see it, you'll feel it, you'll understand it. But you have to open your heart to it. So going out and sitting on the lava watching the water, if you open yourself to it, you can see and, actually, in a way, you can kind of feel it. There's a lot of power within the ocean, with what the light is doing, everything that's around you. And a lot of it, for me, is kind of learning to get in tune, like the Hawaiians would, to be able to understand what the water is doing, how it's moving over the topography of the lava rocks in the ocean, how the light is moving, what are the clouds doing—this entire dance moving all together to come through with one incredible image.


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