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The Reticent Landscape
For much of his 25-year journey through a few careers—from photojournalist to commercial photographer—Chuck Kimmerle’s love of landscape photography simmered quietly on the back burner. After he found the right place, though, it came roaring to life.
“Throughout my career,” he says, “I photographed the landscapes near where I lived. It was a way for me to explore and appreciate my surroundings. I wasn’t serious about it. It was, at the time, simply a hobby—a way to relax. In retrospect, I guess you could say there was a small spark of love for photographing the landscape, but it was far from a raging fire.”
Since his discovery of photography—before newspapers, before assignments, before the landscape itself—photography always came first. Kimmerle knew above all that he wanted to take pictures, and he worked to develop a personal style even before he really understood that’s what he was doing.
Fresh out of high school, while Kimmerle used a Canon rangefinder he received as a graduation present to document his new life as a GI, he quickly found himself unsatisfied with the results.
“The technical quality was fine,” he says, “but the subject matter seemed irrelevant and unimportant—as if they could have been taken by anyone. I wanted my voice to be heard, so I began to be much more critical of my images, even before snapping the shutter. Slowly, I became much happier with my work and discovered that I had, without really knowing it, developed my own style.”
That propensity for reflection and the desire for improvement are still a fundamental part of Kimmerle’s process. It has led to a style that’s balanced and formal; he likes to center subjects, craft geometrically symmetrical compositions and ultimately break traditional compositional rules. He also works only in black-and-white.
“With my personal work,” Kimmerle says, “I’ve taken exactly two successful color photographs over the past six years. Aside from those anomalies, all of my work is black-and-white. Even as a photojournalist and commercial photographer, I responded more strongly to the graphic forms of shapes and textures than I did colors. At times, I’ve tried to broaden my portfolio with color images, which seem to be preferred by the print-buying public, but the resulting prints felt forced and shallow—the latter being the worst possible description of an image.
“What makes a good black-and-white image depends solely on subject and intention,” he says. “Most of my images are presented traditionally straightforward with a wide tonal range and deep depth of field. Lately, however, I’ve found myself printing darker, moodier, with the intention of introducing a greater emotional feel. Often, a technically beautiful image with a full range of grays simply doesn’t convey a great deal of meaning. At those times, I’ll make the decision to either create a very high-key image, as with many of my snow scenes, or more low key, as in ‘Lone Boat’ or my image of a white tree trunk in the midst of a dark woods. The basics remain the same: no blocked shadows and no blown-out highlights. Clipped shadows can sometimes be hidden, but blown-out highlights are usually pretty obvious. I find technical errors like these seriously distracting and detracting.”
Adds Kimmerle, “Gear-wise, I’m 100% digital. Prior to the advent of high-pixel-count digital cameras, I used a series of 4×5 cameras for my landscapes and even built an amazing, fully furnished darkroom in the basement. While I liked working in large format, I never loved it. I’ve never been accused of being patient, and large-format work requires patience. So when digital came of age, I pounced. I currently use a Nikon D3X with the 24mm, 45mm and 85mm PC-E lenses as my primary glass. As these lenses have tilt and shift, and they’re manual focus, they force me to slow down. When working digitally, it’s all too easy to rush through a shoot. When that happens, we miss things. These lenses help me avoid that pitfall.
“I also rely on the tilt/shift lenses when photographing scenes where there are both near and far elements,” Kimmerle says. “I tilt the plane of focus so that I can ensure all elements are in focus—something that’s important in my work. The shift, or rise, allows me to avoid converging lines when photographing tall structures such as buildings or hills.”
Kimmerle’s love of the landscape really exploded when he relocated to, of all places, North Dakota.
“I first arrived in North Dakota in 1996,” he says, “and looking at the flat and reticent landscape, I thought I had entered photographic hell. I could find nothing of value in the landscape, either visually or recreationally. It seemed to me the most bland landscape in the world. It took me eight years, but eventually, suddenly, I discovered photo possibilities everywhere. My disdain for the landscape was transformed into heartfelt appreciation. I began again to photograph the landscape, this time with a zeal I had not before experienced. I learned to appreciate that dichotomy and have carried it over to much of what I’m doing today.
“Despite now living in Wyoming,” he says, “where there are ample photographic opportunities, I miss it. There’s something about the peacefulness of the plains—be it the organized and tidy landscape or large sky or sparse population—that makes it a magical place for me. The eastern half of North Dakota is primarily agricultural, divided up into the mile-square Jeffersonian grid. I think it was a combination of that orderly grid, combined with the formality of the plowed fields—farmers take great pride in straight rows and even evaluate their neighbors’ plow rows—and the tree rows, and the peaceful reticence and solitude of the area that finally inspired me. It was all quite relaxing and meditative. As my style of photography has always been formal and balanced, it was a perfect match. I really don’t know why it took so long to realize. I wish I had felt the connection sooner, but something like that is really out of our control as artists. It happens when it happens.”
Kimmerle shoots RAW images in color and processes the files in Photoshop, as well as with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. He uses Silver Efex Pro for the greater sense of control it offers him.
Along with an affinity for photographing the hand of man, Kimmerle’s portfolio also reveals a newspaper photographer’s appreciation for context, juxtaposition and plain old-fashioned storytelling.
“Photojournalism taught me numerous lessons that still influence me today,” he says. “First and foremost is the ability to work quickly and instinctually, without too much distracting thought. As important, it instilled a sense of honesty and forthrightness in my work. It’s the hallmark of photojournalism. My previous jobs were primarily about photographing people. In order to do justice to those subjects, I would engage in dialogue. It allowed me to learn a bit about them for relevancy, get their ideas for an image, and serve to relax both subject and photographer. I treat landscapes the same way. I rarely go in for the kill. Instead, I slow down and hold a mental dialogue with the scene before I make an image.
“I was never a great photojournalist,” Kimmerle says, “avoiding the newsy photo when I could, instead preferring feature and pictorial work. Those types of images allowed me greater opportunities to juxtapose different elements into a cohesive theme—which offers more meaning than would a single subject. I find the same thing in landscape photography. By including the hand of man, even subtly, I can often produce an image with much more depth of meaning than could be made by a photograph of raw nature. I mean, I do have plenty of worthwhile images where man’s presence is absent, so this isn’t absolute, but I do tend to be attracted more to mixed landscapes. I’m sure this comes from my photojournalism background and its emphasis on telling a story in a single image.”
Clockwise From Top: Nikon D3X; Really Right Stuff Tripod; B+W graduated filter; B+W Pro Polarizer; Nikon PC-E 45mm ƒ/2.8D ED
Nikon PC-E Nikkor 24mm ƒ/3.5D ED
Nikon PC-E Nikkor 45mm ƒ/2.8D ED
Nikon PC-E Nikkor 85mm ƒ/2.8D
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 80-200mm ƒ/2.8D ED
Really Right Stuff tripod and head
Lowepro Pro Trekker AW backpack
Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer
Working in the upper Midwest also helped Kimmerle learn to find beauty in any situation. “I’m of the firm belief that there are meaningful and important images to be made everywhere,” he says. “There are no bad landscapes, just as there’s no bad light. We just have to be willing to open our eyes and our hearts to the possibilities. A real benefit to photographing in the Northern Plains was that it taught me to look beyond the obvious and to be patient. The plains are subtle and hide their charms very well, so a quick glance or casual look are insufficient. This has allowed me, even at grand locales like Zion, to often see things that are so quiet and peaceful as to be hidden from view to others. While I don’t totally avoid grandiose and dynamic destinations, I don’t often seek them out. Instead, I tend to be drawn to quiet and unadorned landscapes, which often say as much in their silence as do the verbose scenes of mountains or ocean coasts.
“The stark beauty and simplicity of the Northern Plains dictated, at least for me, a photographic treatment that was quite straightforward and direct,” says Kimmerle. “Now that my surroundings are quite different, I’m no longer tied to that presentation and have found myself making prints with much more of an emotional feel. In a way, I feel somewhat liberated. I guess they call that growth.”
Adds Kimmerle, “What I mean by emotion is a meaningful connection with an image, a feeling that’s invoked either when creating an image or by viewing one. The trouble with most photography, and it has been this way since the mid-1800s, is that most images are mere records. They don’t offer much beyond a short list of descriptive adjectives. In other words, they pretty much only tell us what something looks like. I want to journey beyond the obvious physical attributes to convey what something feels like, or at least what it felt like to me.”
You can see more of Chuck Kimmerle‘s photography at www.chuckkimmerle.com.