A New Look At The Landscape

Reimagining the traditional landscape image

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The Outdoor Photographer 2008 Landscape Annual features the work of three artists who each takes a somewhat different look at landscape photography. Rodney Lough, Shane McDermott and Sean Bagshaw are all widely recognized photographers who have made their mark by taking steps away from the more staid, traditional landscape scene. Their work differs in both look and approach. While Lough shoots with an 8x10 view camera, both McDermott and Bagshaw are digital shooters, and it’s interesting to note that McDermott has never been a film shooter.

The torch is passing. The path blazed by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Galen Rowell and others is being followed by an ever-growing number of new-breed photographers who aren’t saddled with the same restrictions of film and darkroom. Moving forward, the very fundamentals of landscape photography will be evolving. The first steps are being taken now.

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Chaos Theory—Rodney Lough’s mind for math makes for amazing landscape images

Rodney Lough double-majored in statistics and mathematics, and followed it up with a master’s degree in the same. He eventually left a highly lucrative corporate job to pursue his other love—landscape photography. Interestingly, neither photography nor math is his true passion.

“If I had my druthers,” he says, “I’d be working as a ski instructor at an out-of-the-way little mountain someplace. For me, the outdoors is exploration. That’s the fun part.”

Lough finds fun in skiing and hiking, photography and statistical analysis. Listening to him talk about the latter two subjects, though, it’s hard to tell whether he’s talking about the numbers or the pictures.

“Math is very creative,” he says, “don’t get me wrong. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division—these are all tools in the toolbox of math. What you do with them—that’s mathematics; that’s what’s creative. Sure, you have rules and guidelines you have to follow, but what you do with those tools can be very creative.”

In that way, mathematics is clearly a lot like photography. The cameras—be they digital or film, large or small, old or new—are the tools, and it’s in the hands of a skilled craftsperson like Lough that the great works are made. More than just a vehicle to get him out from behind a desk years ago, Lough’s left-brained photography actually utilizes his right brain’s affinity for math. Chaos theory, for example, is a continual inspiration.

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“Even in chaos there are patterns,” Lough explains of the mathematical principle that influences his visual style. “For whatever reason, when I walk around, I’m looking for patterns—patterns that are beautiful, things that make me stop in my tracks, and go ‘Ah!’ They touch that inner piece of me, hopefully of other people, too. As time goes by and your image library gets larger and larger, you start critiquing your own work more and more and then eventually you come to this realization.

“One of the best compliments ever paid to me,” Lough continues, “was from this photographer who said, ‘You know, he doesn’t use any rules, and I can’t quite figure out his compositions. I don’t know what it is he’s trying to do. But what I do know is, it works. What intrigues me is that I can’t figure it out.’ That’s when a little light came on, and I thought, ‘Oh, I wonder if it’s because I can see the patterns in chaos?!’”

Whether the patterns are bold and striking or subtle and hidden, Lough’s eye seems to be precisely attuned to finding them. When he does, he works quickly to capture them, knowing that such moments in nature are fleeting.

“For me anyway,” Lough says, “there are three classifications of photography. There’s the grandscape, there’s this midscape thing and then there’s the intimate. A grandscape is obvious to see; it’s slapping you in the face, yelling, ‘Here I am; photograph me!’ This isn’t anything revolutionary. Sometimes I have an hour to work and compose and set up, and sometimes I have five minutes. I’m trying to fling crap out of the backpack with the 8x10 and put it together and do all the adjustments and compose it. It’s kind of ugly-looking sometimes, with stuff scattered all over.”

Lough has been at this new career for only about 12 years, but he still prefers the timeless method of large-format film photography.

“Trust me,” he says, “there’s no bravado to carrying a 150-pound backpack into the backcountry for two weeks. It’s really a pain in the butt. The moment they can give me a credit-card-sized device that can capture a one-gig RAW file in under a second, I’m all over it. The problem for me today in the digital world—at least for landscape photography, for being able to capture an image under multiple types of conditions—is that 8x10 film is still sharper, especially on large photographs. And I like going large. It’s basic physics, isn’t it?”

Lough may prefer film over digital capture, but he’s neither a classicist snob nor a technophobe. “It’s not like I think digital is dirty,” he says. “Oh, no, I’m not afraid of it. My goal has always been to get back to what I saw. How I get there, I don’t really care. We’re scanning 8-bit TIFFs at 1.2 gigs. They’re huge. I’ve done 60-inch-wide prints. You should see them. I have one from Mule Canyon, the burning-roof ruins; at a 40x50, it’s as plain as day—on the roof is the little tiny circle of what’s left from where a bees’ nest broke off. You can actually see the little honeycomb pattern in it. It’s amazing. It puts you in the moment. When it’s that large and that crisp, you actually feel like you’re there. That’s one of the things I want to convey. I want people to feel like they’re standing there.”

Adds Lough, “The integrity of the medium is tied to the user. The engineer who created the crescent wrench never thought that it would be used as a murder weapon, but I’m sure it has been. I don’t think the artistry is the tool; I think the tool is the tool. Is a chisel in my hands going to work the same way as a chisel in Michelangelo’s hands? I don’t think so. It’s the artist who makes the artwork. It’s the photographer who sees that beautiful thing and finds how to obtain that image to share it with others because, ultimately, that’s the goal.”

To see more of Rodney Lough’s photography, visit www.theloughroad.com.

Rodney Lough
Rodney Lough describes his shooting style as “hit and run.” A trip to the Mall of America may involve a detour to the Badlands. “Let’s see what we see,” he says. “It’s like a drive-by.” His mind is always looking for patterns. Sometimes, they’re subtle. Other times, they’re quite obvious, what he calls “slap-you-in-the-face” landscapes. When composing, he uses all of the fundamentals, but it basically comes down to how the shot feels. “Sometimes I have to tear down and walk away because it doesn’t feel right,” he explains. “I can stand next to my camera and look at the scene and say there’s definitely something there, but I can’t get it. It comes with the territory. There’s always another day.” ABOVE (TOP TO BOTTOM): Navajo Falls, Havasupai Indian Reservation, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming; Glacier National Park, Montana; Kings Canyon National Park, California. Lough shoots with an Arca-Swiss 8x10 F-Line camera, Schneider Super-Symmar XL 150mm f/5.6 and Fujinon 300mm f/5.6 lenses, and a Gitzo G1325 MK2 carbon-fiber tripod.

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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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Expecting The Unexpected—Sean Bagshaw strives for a sense of mystery in his landscapes

It’s not unusual for nature photographers to get their start using cameras simply to document their expeditions. What’s unusual about Sean Bagshaw, though, is how quickly he turned from just recording his trips to using a camera as a means for creative expression.

“Taking photos enhanced my experiences in the wilderness,” Bagshaw says, “causing me to see my surroundings in a much more engaged way. I became aware of Galen Rowell, first for his climbing exploits and later for his photography. That was the start of my realization of a couple of things—first, that photography could be a creative outlet, not just a documentation tool, and second, that there were people who made their living as photographers.”

Bagshaw shifted his focus from documentation to artistry. Now he concentrates mostly on his own artistic expression, not really concerned with exactly where he’s shooting.

“Originally I started out by trying to recreate the photography of the established photographers I looked up to,” Bagshaw says, “and I traveled to the places I saw in their images. The national parks and grand landscapes of the American West are still some of my favorite places to photograph; however, I soon realized that, to develop my own style and voice, I needed to find locations that were less photographed, where I wouldn’t be able to simply reproduce what I saw in other people’s work. I enjoy traveling to off-the-path destinations, but time and expense limit how often I can.

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“My main inspiration is trying to find and develop my personal vision and voice in photography,” he continues. “To me, this is more important than the specific subject matter or location. I expect to develop my voice as a photographer for the rest of my life, but at this time I’m very focused on creating images of the landscape and nature that are in some way mysterious and slightly surreal. My goal is to create photos that simultaneously feel familiar to the viewers and yet beyond their imaginations. I want my images to feel like there’s a story behind them. I strive to feature combinations of dramatic light, composition, color, intriguing subject matter and, at times, abstraction to depict a world that appears on the edge of reality. With my background as a science teacher and a naturalist, I hope to show people that nature, in reality, can be more beautiful and compelling than fantasy.

”Bagshaw prefers to approach landscapes with a laissez-faire attitude. “No matter how carefully I plan and previsualize,” he says, “it’s usually something unexpected that I stumble across that makes the best photograph. Planning for a shot often gets me to the right place at the right time, but the key elements that make images great are usually unpredictable and fleeting. Often, I feel the essential elements of a photograph coming together more than I see them. I love the anticipation of exploring places I have little knowledge of, in the hope that I’ll come across something fantastic. I seem to have a knack for capturing good images during unplanned stops while on my way to planned destinations. If I’m feeling uninspired, I convince myself to just go out and drive or hike with nothing specific in mind and see what turns up.”

Bagshaw’s approach is increasingly common, perhaps because more photographers are utilizing versatile digital cameras. Though Bagshaw had been photographing for years, he had only invested in a couple of them learning to shoot film.

“I think because I wasn’t intimidated by or suspicious of the new technology,” he says, “digital provided me with a new and exciting doorway to photography on terms that I could more readily relate to. Because of the newness of digital, I also felt that I was on the leading edge of something that allowed me to improvise and create my own techniques instead of being locked into the film framework that had been perfected long before. Working on my own images in the computer took away the mystery of sending off my film to a lab and having someone else make all the processing decisions for me. This, in turn, helped me understand how to make in-camera choices that would help lead to desired final results.”

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Without the baggage of a longtime film photographer, Bagshaw also brings a modern sensibility to postproduction, too. Though he’s no advocate of digital fakery, he utilizes the medium’s full power to pull the most out of every scene.

“The amount of work that I put into postproduction varies from image to image,” he says. “My first priority is being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to capture the best light, color, texture and composition I can. If the lighting of the scene is particularly balanced, then basic color/contrast/sharpening adjustments are all that I’ll apply, along with basic clean-up of dust spots and minor distracting elements. Because I really like the mood of extreme lighting and the drama of light found on the edges of day, I often find that my scenes have a greater dynamic range than can be captured in one exposure—even with the use of graduated neutral-density filters. In these cases, I’ll shoot two or more exposures in-camera for highlights and shadows and manually blend them in Photoshop. I also do a fair amount of masking and layering of adjustment layers and luminosity masks when trying to create localized adjustments, as well as dodging and burning to locally balance light and contrast.”

Adds Bagshaw, “I’m very interested in using natural conditions to create images that are on the edge of what we commonly experience as reality. I’m exploring a variety of techniques, both in-camera and in postproduction toward this goal, but it mostly depends on being in the right place at the right time.”

To see more of Sean Bagshaw’s photography, visit www.outdoorexposurephoto.com.

Sean Bagshaw
Sean Bagshaw borrowed a digital camera for an expedition in 1999 and didn’t look back. For him, photography is mostly about artistic expression and vision, but the digital realm has opened up new opportunities. He says the biggest challenges of shooting digital are the time spent working on images in postproduction, managing his backup system to prevent losing files and the tediousness of getting images published through the various channels that have become essential in the digital age—his website, stock agency sites, forums, blogs and more. Ultimately, he says whichever kind of equipment a photographer chooses to work with, whether digital or film, is the right choice. ABOVE (TOP TO BOTTOM): Sunset at Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon; Exposed sea grass and kelp during low tide, Lone Ranch Beach, Samuel Boardman State Park, Oregon; A ray of sun breaks through the clouds behind The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona. Here, Bagshaw used a Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L USM.


11 Comments

    Congratulations Shane on the recognition you deserve. I know first hand how much time you have invested into nature conservation photography. I can’t wait until we meet to shoot Vancouver Island!

    Shane your passion for life, nature, and humanity are fully captured in your art. It is very real and genuine to observe that you are in alignment in body, mind and spirit through your photography. Keep on bringing it! Dan Hegerich-“The Blue Collar Healer”

    Congarulations Shane on receiving this recognition from such an acclaimed magazine. Through your website I, and others I know, have been admiring your photographic work for years.

    If I didn’t personally view Shane’s photos in Outdoor Photographer I would think they are illustrations from a mystical fairytale book. The photos are absolutely amazing.

    Thankyou to Outdoor Photographer for making us aware of Shane McDermott, and his work. His images are simply wonderful, and he’s made amazing progress in just a few years. Very inspiring. Hope to hear more about Shane in the future.

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