|Based in New England, Kurt Budliger has a special affinity for the landscapes of Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and the Adirondacks of New York. He gets to know these areas well by returning to favorite locales over and over, waiting for the perfect light. Above: Sunrise sky over the rocky Atlantic coast, Acadia National Park, Maine. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 16-35mm, polarizer, 3-stop grad ND|
Kurt Budliger appreciates the great American tradition of Western landscape photography. He makes photographs that fit nicely into that canon, but it just so happens that his preferred subjects are found far from the American West. Budliger lives and works in northern New England, photographing mostly in Maine, New Hampshire, the Adirondacks of New York and especially his adopted home of Vermont. It's the perfect locale to create quiet, intimate landscapes.
"There are a couple times a year when I think, 'What am I doing?'" Budliger says, "because the weather here is horrible. We don't have leaves for six months at a time, and for a nature photographer that can be tough. But there's so much to Vermont. I feel lucky to be here. The landscape is very beautiful. It's subtle, it's nuanced. You have to put in some time to get the most out of it, but I think it kind of suits my approach to life."
Budliger's approach involves making photography a very real part of normal, everyday life. This allows him to continually revisit favorite places, refining his vision and perfecting his work.
"The images in my ebook," he says, referring to Vermont: Behind the Lens, "I bet most of those are taken within 30 minutes of my house. Maybe a handful push out to the 45- to 60-minute range. Ellie's Run, for instance, that's a stream I shoot all the time. It's literally 10 minutes from my house. If it's a rainy day in spring and the rain is stopping and the light is really nice—boom—I know where I'm going. I can pop in the car, get down there and see what's going on. And it's always different.
"I'm lucky," he continues. "I've got the Mad River Valley to the south of me, Stowe and Mount Mansfield to the north of me. I've got a beautiful mountain range and a trailhead within a mile-and-a-half of my house, so if it looks promising I can get up on something in the evening. You get to know a place well. There's a certain luxury. Some shots are years in the making before you get the light you want or the sky you want or the conditions you want. It's nice to have those places nearby."
A series of cascades creates an abstract quality, Acadia National Park, Maine. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L, polarizer
Such was the case with the stunning image of a beautiful pond not far from Budliger's home. He visited for years before everything came together. "From the first time I saw it," he says, "I knew I wanted this shot, but the conditions have to be just right. It's a morning shot, with low-angle warm light from the rising sun sidelighting the fall foliage on the distant mountainside. Since the reflection is a critical component, the air must be absolutely still, which is unfortunately rare. I can't tell you how many times I awoke well before dawn and made the drive only to find a slight breeze rippling the surface of the pond when I arrived. Plus, because it's an autumn shot, you really only have a window of about a week when the foliage is at its best to get the color you see here. I think it was four years' worth of attempts before it came together, and it almost didn't. I arrived on that morning to find the clouds low and the mountain socked in, with little hope of good light. The reflection, however, was amazing. I set up and waited to see what might happen. As luck would have it, a brief window in the clouds opened and the mountain lit up only to be obscured minutes later. It was brief, but there was enough time to get my shot."
Though his portfolio belies the fact, Budliger says New England is a challenging subject. While the West is filled with iconic landscapes that attract photographers by the busload, the Northeast doesn't have the same draw. There are fewer icons of the American landscape in Vermont, except for fall foliage, which Budliger says is only the tip of the iceberg. The best thing about working in the region is not having to worry about treading on the footsteps of others.
A carpet of colorful aspen leaves, northern Vermont. Canon EOS-1D Mark III, EF 24-70mm ƒ/2.8L, polarizer
"It's a hard place to photograph," Budliger says, "no doubt about it. That's partly because [the Northeast] does not have those grand icons. It's about nooks and crannies. You get down in these little river valleys and you can't see very far—it's maybe a mile or two across the valley—and you're in the woods and a lot of times it's cloudy. And if you want a big sunrise or sunset sky, you've got to get up high or you've got to get out by the lake or in a big open valley. It definitely requires you to put in the time to find the spot.
"You could come here and take a lot of postcard shots," he continues, "like the white steeple church and a farm field full of cows, but a lot of those shots, to me, are just too simple. They're not all that intricate. I really like things that are simple, but also have a level of complexity, a level of refinement, that's a little bit above what you see in tourist magazines. I like to challenge myself to shoot something a little different, so maybe it's not what the average tourist will see when they come here."
Though it's not Budliger's focus, the New England countryside is heavily influenced by the hand of man. Those working farms and white steeple churches have crowded out untouched land, but pristine landscapes do exist. Wild places abound. They're just not vast open spaces. A born naturalist, Budliger constantly works to refine his vision and find simple, subtle, natural beauty.
"I photograph what I've chosen to focus my attention on," he says. "I think my background as a naturalist informs the way I shoot. I spend a lot of time simply observing nature. I've always felt a great sense of calm and peace when I'm in nature, and I think that resonates in my work. I want my images to convey a sense of place and allow the viewer to enter the scene and have something to explore and get lost in for a while."
Clearing storm and peak foliage, Seyon Pond, Groton State Forest, Vermont. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EF 17-40mm ƒ/2.8L, polarizer, 2-stop grad ND
Adds Budliger, "I may notice things that many people would pass right by. I may overlook a rundown farm, but then I see the pattern on the edge of forest—the way the mix of red maple and sugar maple might be or the new spring green in a farm field. I spend a lot of time exploring and looking for those things, especially when the light or the atmosphere or the season is just right."
One of his favorite indicators that the time might be just right is when it recently has stopped raining. The moisture from a recent downpour—in the air and on the land—tends to create exactly the working environment Budliger covets. Water turns light in the landscape into something magical.
"I'm so drawn to water," he says. "I shoot in and around water all the time. It's my favorite thing to photograph. There's something calming, something peaceful about it. In Vermont, there are more days when you can go and photograph in and around a stream than there are days when you're going to get some kind of beautiful, dramatic sky. We get a lot of cloudy, overcast, drizzly days, especially in the fall and spring. So I just find I can spend more time shooting and less time driving and looking and waiting for light if I go and sit by the stream.
"I'm almost as fanatic about fly fishing as I am about photography," he continues. "If I'm not photographing a stream, I'm standing in one trying to catch a fish. I've actually incorporated that. I'll bring waders when I photograph so I can actually get in the stream and find a composition that's maybe a little more intimate, maybe get the perspective that really makes you feel like you're in the water. Compositionally, this can set the image apart and give it a little bit higher level of impact and engagement for the viewer. The better foreground usually winds up being somewhere out in the middle of the stream anyway."
Adds Budliger, "I like to shoot streams on misty, drizzly days or right after a rain shower. When everything is wet, especially rocks in and around a stream, it brings out so much of the color."
Misty mornings and diffused light are hallmarks of Budliger's portfolio. It's partly practical—if you want to shoot in a challenging location, you take what nature provides. But it's also technically beneficial, especially if your goal is creating quiet, contemplative landscapes.
Says Budliger, "When you get down into a forest or along a creek or stream, if the light is intense, it's really tough. The contrast range is way too high. You get super-deep, dark shadows and blown-out highlights; you lose all color. You lose the nuance of all the detail and texture.
"I've been out West," he says, "and I know what it's like. I love it out West. It's grand; it's striking and fun to shoot. There are tons of places out there I want to go shoot. But I like how intimate the Northeast is. When I lived out West, I spent a lot of time in the car driving. If you're going to work or go to school, you have to live in civilization, and those places are sometimes really far from the vast tracts of land. That's one of the things I stress to students in my workshops—you can shoot beautiful landscapes anywhere. I have an example where I show a series of images of birch trunks with some pretty beech leaves surrounding them. It's a nice intimate landscape, and I show a few different variations on it, and then I show the wide-angle scene—it's literally the edge of my yard. The garden shed and the lawnmower are sitting right there by the kids' swing set."
Perhaps Budliger excels at finding and photographing untouched bits of wilderness because of his passion for preservation. The son of a biology teacher and an environmental activist—and a former science teacher himself—he has worked in nature his whole life, and long before he picked up a camera, he was first and foremost concerned with enjoying and protecting nature. The camera serves as an artistic outlet, to be sure, but it's primarily a tool to get him outdoors and keep him working to preserve the natural world.
"What I love about photography," says Budliger, "is that it's this beautiful melding of something fairly technical and scientific that also highly engages the artistic part of your brain. My landscape and nature photography very much allows me to express that part of me—that real ardent advocate for natural resource protection. Even though I don't teach science anymore, I want my photography to still get that message across."
See more of Kurt Budliger's photography at kurtbudligerphotography.com.