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Fine Art With A Purpose
Four years ago, Chris Miele found himself bored at work. He was a professional video editor, working in a fast-paced environment, but he felt creatively stalled. So, he began using his free time to photograph landscapes around his Southern California home. He had always been an outdoorsman, and he knew he wanted to spend less time chained to a desk.
“I knew that sitting in a chair for 10 hours a day was my impending fate if I had stayed a video editor,” Miele says. “I wanted to avoid that fate.”
Miele, who’s just days shy of his 30th birthday, grew up outdoors. But whether he was hiking or snowboarding, he wasn’t photographing those activities. In fact, for most of the last four years since he rediscovered photography, he has used his camera exclusively for landscapes. This focused approach helped him progress from newbie to pro in a few short years.
“In 2011, when I re-picked up my first SLR,” Miele says, “I shot landscapes around Los Angeles. Soon, I decided I was going to go on a trip a month because, if I do that, I’m going to really progress quickly. So, I started backpacking and exploring the Sierras. Within six months, I had racked up a pretty good initial library of images. I pretty much dedicated myself creatively to that. It only has been in the last six months that I’ve been a full-time professional.
“For the time when I was employed,” he says, “trips were usually Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, and then twice a year, I would take something long, a week or two weeks, and do a really intense four-state attack. I did a trip in 2012 that was my first 10-day, nonstop, on-the-go, sleeping-in-the-car-in-the-backcountry kind of trip. I went through Jackson, Yellowstone, through the Pacific Northwest…. The next year, I went to the Southwest for two weeks, the following year, I went to Iceland.”
Upon his return from Iceland, Miele decided to take a few months off from shooting and focus on building his business. This enabled him to quit his day job, but it also left him feeling, once again, creatively restless.
“I kind of got stagnant in a bad way,” he explains. “I didn’t realize how important it was to keep shooting. By fall, I got back in the routine and was shooting consistently again, and now I realize I always have to be shooting. My focus has shifted from going to an area and covering it, and now it’s more about what topic do I want to touch on, where will it be, and then I can focus on all the details that go into it, and in the end, I’ll have a 10- or 12-image series that’s concise.”
This new approach is similar to the way a photojournalist might take on picture stories, but Miele considers himself firmly in the fine-art camp. He speaks about his landscapes in terms such as surreal, magical and whimsical, and he maintains a rigorous visual aesthetic. He once even said that his approach is one of an artist and not a photographer.
“I still have that distinction, to some degree,” he says, “but I think some maturity has leveled it off a touch. Still, when I create images, I always get stuck in my visual aesthetic, for better or worse. That’s largely what makes me happy about my images, so then I’m still hitting that artist’s approach. If I hit that mark, but now I’m telling a story about a little bit different subject matter, I’ve kind of crossed over into the realm that some people understand as more of a photographer and less of an artist. It’s kind of funny that I made that distinction, and now I’m kind of leveling off between the two.”
Given his youth, his professional history of postproduction and his penchant for creating artistic interpretations of his subjects, one might assume Miele is bound to lean heavily on Photoshop. In fact, his mind-set is quite the opposite.
“I took the approach, pretty much from the start,” Miele says, “that I wasn’t really interested in heavy Photoshop work. So one of my main live-or-die aesthetics early on was that I didn’t do any composites, I didn’t do any HDR. I still use graduated ND filters, and I very much want to get it right in-camera. But, in the last year, I’ve started doing more focus stacks and playing with composites, mainly because with workshops and teaching, I want to make sure that, if I have a client ask about blending layers and luminance channels, I want to be able to offer that.
At a glance, Miele’s photography might lead one to believe that it’s mostly digital construction, but that’s not the case. “Computer art is wonderful,” he says, “and those are the guys that I call the 500px stars. I would sign on there and see all this amazing work, and I kind of fought it for a while because I knew it was all layers and heavily composited. Artistically and creatively, it’s wonderful stuff. But it’s tough because people see those things and lust after them, and then they look at yours and, you wonder, is my stuff up to par with these fantasy visions. I was trying to strike that balance, and I’ve always really enjoyed people asking me, ‘Is it real?’ because of the look on their faces when I say, ‘Yeah, with about 20% enhancement afterwards.'”
“I did go to art school,” he adds, “and that was one of the big things I took away: You want to get it right in the camera. I carried that into practice. It’s very apparent, especially in my night photos. Most of those are light-painted, or other trick techniques I’ll use, like a gel over the lens to give it some color, things like that. To me, the camera is a way to strip off this layer that we can’t see. I kind of believe that the camera can see wavelengths and interpret light in a different way than we can. That’s the way I like to use a camera. That’s why I kind of give it a surreal connotation.”
Miele’s night photographs are striking and bold, and definitely surreal. He relishes the challenges of working after dark to produce very different images than he can make during the day.
“With the night images,” he says, “the process is really enjoyable because it takes an extra level. It’s cold, it’s dark, I’m almost always out there by myself—do I really want to go out there right now? It always takes a little extra: Okay, you’ve got to get up and do this; you’re going to be happy you did.”
Shooting at night allows the photographer more time to work, as the light isn’t changing quickly as it does during the magic hour. Miele relishes this freedom to experiment with techniques and augment the lighting of a scene, as he did with the image called “Forgotten Bunker.”
“That’s one of the first focus stacks I ever did,” he says. “It’s a little more of using the tools to get the job done, so to speak. It’s not a flash. I use a head-lamp for everything, a 100-lumen Black Diamond headlamp that I can dim. I always wanted to be a director of photography when I was studying video, so learning how to light was always my main study. Now, I go out with a simple, dimmable one-source unit that I can put in a spot, put in a flood, or use my hands as barn doors to shape the light. I carry a second lamp, and I have one or two shots where I’ve used two lamps, and I’ve lit up stuff with fire, throwing kindling on to strike up some light. The night is fun because you don’t have these five-minute windows of light; you have an hour or two, or as long as you can handle being alone in the dark.”
In daytime hours, Miele’s aesthetic is largely defined by soft light.
“You can’t quite re-create that,” he says. “Or at least I haven’t learned how to. For a long time, this comes down to learning how to recognize light; it’s something you learn over time. Other guys interpret harsh light or soft light, and the really amazing guys are the ones that can use all of it well—and I’m not there yet. I still love soft light the most. It gives it that surreal look where it’s kind of cartoony. The blacks are still deep. I don’t like overly defined shadows; I like to keep some things dark. I’ve started to recognize my ideal light at different times in the day than I used to. I used to only think it happened 20 minutes before and after sunset. But Iceland had this really nice filtered light all the time, and I was shooting in the middle of the day, which never happened before. I’ve gotten a little more trained to recognize those signifiers and go after those because that’s usually when I can create the images I love the most. I’m still trying to harness harsher, more contrastier light, but damn, it’s hard.”
AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm ƒ/4G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm ƒ/4G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED
Induro CT214 tripod
Induro BHD1 ballhead
LEE graduated ND filters (0.9, 0.6, 0.3)
LEE 2-stage rotating filter holder
Tiffen Circular Polarizer
Tiffen ND kit (1.2, 0.9, 0.6)
Vanquest Javelin 2.0 sling bag
Cheap shutter releases (these things break on me like crazy) Lens rag, lens cleaner, flathead screwdriver, air blower
Rosco gel swatch kit
Black Diamond Storm 100-lumen headlamp
Batteries, 16 GB SD cards, and cheap shower caps for unexpected water spray
Klean Kanteen water bottle (insulated, dinged and dented; I don’t go anywhere without this guy)
Nikon D800, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm, LEE graduated ND filters
For this image, “Krypton Leak,” Miele was both lucky and good. He had never been to Devils Postpile before, and he only got to the trail at midnight. “I can remember hitting those rocks at Devils Postpile,” he describes. “That was the first time I had ever been there. I had never even been there during the day.” Vision doesn’t always come from scouting a locale.
As a young photographer rapidly progressing in his career, Miele is finding that he wants to do more than visit new places and create images that speak to his aesthetic. He wants to create fine art with a purpose, and he’s willing to branch out into different genres to find that purpose on a project-by-project basis.
“Everyone has their own vision,” Miele says. “And when people have tools to execute that vision, it’s intriguing to see what they do. The more I do, the more I understand what it means to have your own vision. At first, it was more on the selfish end, of me wanting to explore and see the places that I hadn’t gotten to see yet, and bringing back images that people would say, ‘Oh, my god, I have to go there now!’ I enjoy creating whimsical, magical things, places for people to escape to. That’s still a core value of my work, but as I move forward, I do want to create images that have a little bit bigger purpose and things that people can get behind rather than just, ‘Wow, that’s really pretty.’ I really want to have a purpose beyond a well-lit imaginative photo. I like the idea of fine art with a purpose, where you really are crafting a message with your images. You can still use the same compositional rules, you can still use the same light that you seek. So once I got over that hurdle, I was able to create images that aesthetically still pleased me, but are now telling a more encompassing story with a targeted audience.
“The purpose is going to change from project to project,” he says. “I feel like a lot of outdoor guys take the conservation avenue, and I don’t want to say it’s the easy way out, but it’s an easy target. And I always like to go against the grain a little bit so, initially, I stayed away from that concept. But, now, project to project, I’m exploring that. So, for example, starting next week, I’m going to hit the road all through California and really try to photograph a series of the water problem that we’re having—the reservoirs that are drying up and things like that—and that will fall under conservation. But that’s something that’s also timely and topical, and a way for me to be out there creating, and keeping the ‘creating with a purpose’ part of my mind really sharp.”
See more of Chris Miele‘s work and sign up for his workshops at www.adventureguyphoto.com.