EWW: What draws you to focus your work on Landscapes and nature?
Gene: I don’t know that I would say that I focus on landscapes and nature. Some of my favorite photos are my images of people (“Behind The Veil” and “Broken Promise”) and of manmade structures (“Room With A View” and “Reserved Spaces”). I think the unifying elements of my photos are the use of color, texture, and, hopefully, a touch of mystery. Nevertheless, most of my photos are what would others would consider landscapes, and I’ll address that issue.
My parents were both teachers. They had summers off and liked to travel, so when I was young there were several summers where we spent 4 to 5 weeks traveling around the country. I hated sitting in the back of the station wagon and eating bologna sandwiches, but I got to see some amazing places. We camped in a lot of beautiful national parks. Later, I joined Boy Scouts and enjoyed being out in the wilderness with my closest friends. I look back on those times as some of the best in my life.
My parents are both gone now, and, regrettably, I’ve lost contact with those friends. However, I still retain my love for travel and the outdoors. In my opinion, there’s nothing that matches the beauty of Creation. It’s a privilege for me to be able to attempt to capture that beauty, and I’m blessed to live in the United States where we have so much of it. There are other beautiful places in the world to photograph, such as Iceland and Italy, but for variety and jaw-dropping vistas, there’s nothing like America.
I love the mountains and forests of the eastern US, but in my opinion there’s no place in the world that can compare to the beauty of The Great American West (and yes, I capitalize that when I write it and when I say it, because it is so unimaginably Great). A car trip through TGAW is like a journey through the most amazing Hollywood sound stage that just goes on forever and ever.
EWW: Besides subject matter, are there any other consistent themes in your fine art photography, such as, lighting, technique, type of shot, etc.?
Gene: I’ve been a photographer for 40 years. A lot of the photos I’ve taken were journalistic photos (documenting family outings, etc.). Of probably 10,000 photos I took in the first 36 years, I probably had 3 that I think were really artistic. That’s not a great success rate!
Starting about 4 years ago, I decided to get serious about my photography. I began to study what works and what doesn’t. One of the things that made a huge difference in my photography was when I heard Scott Kelby say “If you want to make interesting photographs, you have to stand in front of something interesting.” I took that to heart, and I started traveling to places where I could stand in front of things that I found interesting. So, I guess you could say that one of the consistent themes I try to have in my photography is that my images are photos of things that are interesting.
Now, I learned by trial and error that you can take some really bad photographs of interesting things. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at a lot of the photographs on social media. And you can’t turn a bad photograph into a beautiful image by converting it to black and white. I’ve tried. A bad photo is just a bad photo.
The temptation with landscape photography is to get the widest-angle lens possible and try to capture all of the beauty in one photograph. Better yet, stitch together a panoramic image and get an even wider shot. The philosophy is that if some is good, more is better. That may be true for some things, but not art. In photography, it’s like the cowboy who tried to jump up on 4 horses and ride off into all 4 directions at the same time. I have seen many beautiful panos, but I’ve also seen (and taken) many more boring ones.
In feudal Japan, geishas understood that if the goal is to attract, it is more effective to open the kimono just a little bit than to take it all the way off. It’s the same in photography. A little goes a long way. The most powerful images are those that have a simple powerful subject. And a touch of mystery doesn’t hurt, either.
So, my goal is to create simple, mysterious images of interesting subjects. In many cases, those subjects will be landscape elements. But I also find myself being drawn to edgy fine-art-type portraits. I’m starting to learn more about strobes and light modifiers so that I can create the types of looks I’m wanting.
EWW: Gene, if someone were asked to make a comment about your work as a whole, what do you think they would say?
Gene: Haha. Well, I know what some say. My wife and friends say that I’m the most amazing photographer who ever lived. That’s why I have to take what they say with a huge grain of salt. If I relied on my wife to critique my work, my head would be so big I wouldn’t be able to get through a doorway.
The fact is that there are a lot of photographers who are better than I. Which is a very good thing, because it means that there are so many people from whom I can learn.
We are awash in a sea of stunningly beautiful photographs, mixed in with a sludge of very bad snapshots and selfies. People who study the impact of photos on society have said that more photos have been taken in the last 6 months than in all prior history combined.
I’d like to think that my photos would at least make the cut out of the sludge of bad photos.
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EWW: What would be your comments about your work, as a whole?
Gene: Well, it’s a little awkward having to give an opinion about my work, but I’ll try. We have a saying in Texas: “It’s a poor dog that can’t wag his own tail.” So I’ll try to wag my own tail a little bit.
I’m very proud of my recent work. I think I’m doing some very strong work with color. Not just bold colors, but with subtle colors as well. That doesn’t mean that I’m satisfied with where I am, though. I’ve still got so much to learn. I’ve had the privilege of learning at the feet of some great photographers, but there are 2 whose works inspire me the most right now.
When I look at the work of Peter Eastway, I am struck by the way he constructs his images. I didn’t use the word “constructs” by accident. Everything Peter does, in terms of composition, foreground, blur, leading lines, color, contrast, shadow, and post-processing, is designed to focus the viewer’s attention on the one single subject of the image. The lesson I’m learning from him is to simplify my work. I think the temptation for most photographers starting out with landscape photography is that they see a beautiful vista and they want to use a wide angle lens and try to capture all of it. What they end up with instead is a jumble of details that overwhelms the eye. Peter focuses on the one key element that he wants to emphasize, and he draws the viewer’s eye to it. If I had only one website that I could draw inspiration from, it would be www.petereastway.com. There are other very successful photographers who photograph the same types of subject matter, such as Jeff Mitchum and Peter Lik, but nobody focuses the viewer’s eye on the subject like Peter Eastway does.
The other outstanding artist who inspires me is Gregory Crewdson. His subject is people. Now, we all find other people interesting. But that doesn’t mean that all photos of people are interesting. To make an interesting photo, people have to be doing something interesting—what Jay Maisel refers to as “gesture.” Most of what passes for “street photography” these days is really just bad snapshots of people doing some really boring things, like walking, eating, or having lots of wrinkles.
Gregory Crewdson’s images of people are different. Like Peter Eastway, Gregory painstakingly constructs his images. His images are carefully designed to convey emotion and mystery. The closest analogs I can think of to his work are the paintings of Edward Hopper. When I look at Hopper’s paintings and Gregory’s photographs, I marvel at how each of them is able to use two-dimensional images to convey mystery and emotions such as despair.
Gregory’s images are full of “gesture.” I keep coming back to Gregory’s images, wondering what the people in those images are thinking and doing. Gregory can captivate me with a photograph of a woman looking at a refrigerator in her front yard. Is the food in the refrigerator spoiled? Is there a dead body in the refrigerator? Why isn’t the refrigerator inside the house? Was the refrigerator left on her lawn by a tornado? Aliens? Federal Express? Burglars? Unpaid furniture movers? And why is she wearing a bathing suit? And why is she holding a shovel? Gregory’s images work for me because they make me stop and wonder. There’s a story behind every image, and it’s the fact that I’ll never know those stories that keeps me going back to his images for just another look.
The lesson I take from the art of Peter Eastway and Gregory Crewdson is that great images take a lot of work. The most compelling photographs are the ones that stir the viewer’s imagination and emotions with a careful arrangement of shapes and colors, the subtle interplay of light and shadow, and just a hint of intrigue. At the end of the day, the viewer should be left not only with an appreciation for what the image reveals, but also with a longing to know more about what is concealed by a shadow, what is obscured by a touch of blur, what is meant by a gesture, and what is just out of sight around the next corner. To quote Diane Arbus, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.”
I don’t know what others would say about my photographs, but I would hope that my images have a little something extra in them, something different that draws others in and makes them want to stop and stare at my images for a while. Every day, I’m in competition with a lot of other very talented artists, so If I can get people to pick my images as the ones they want to look at, then I feel that I’ve succeeded. I try to do that with gesture, with subject matter, with color, with texture, with patterns, with composition, with post-processing, and with the way I print them.
EWW: What do you see as unique about your fine art photography?
Gene: I photograph a lot of the same mountains, lakes, beaches, etc. as other photographers. If my photos look the same as everyone else’s, then my images will just be lost in the simmering stew of pretty pictures floating around in the cloud.
I’m not satisfied with that. I’m not trying to be a journalist. I’m not trying to document what I see. I’m trying to create art. I want my images to stand out from what other photographers are doing. If I’m standing in the same spot where other photographers have stood, then I want to emphasize different foreground elements, or shoot at a different time of day or in different weather conditions, so that I can create something different. As Georgia O’Keeffe famously said, “Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something.”
Post-processing plays a big part in how I create my art. I don’t apologize for that. As Ansel Adams once said, “Most creative photographs are departures from reality and it seems to take a higher order of craft to make this departure than to simulate reality.” Adams spent far more time in the darkroom manipulating his stunning images than he ever spent in the field making them. In fact, he printed more than 1,300 different versions of his great photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” forever seeking perfection.
I recognize that not everybody accepts the use of post-processing. I’ve heard more than my share of snarky remarks about “getting it right in camera.” All I can say is “different strokes for different folks.” In fact, I’ve written a blog article on this subject, “Artistic Integrity: The New 10 Commandments Of Photography.”
The final step in creating art is putting it into physical form. After I’ve gone through all the effort of showing up the the middle of the desert in 25°F weather two hours before sunrise to get the image I want, after I’ve spent hours post-processing the image, I want to display the image in the boldest, most impressive manner possible. I shoot almost exclusively now with medium-format digital cameras, so I print BIG. I have the company that developed the metallic printing process print all of my images on ultra-high-gloss white aluminum in sizes ranging from approximately 48”x60” to 48”x72”. That’s my secret weapon. The detail and colors are stunning. Honestly, the company I use for printing is so good that I think I could print a 48”x72” aluminum photo of my big toe, and people would stop and stare and gush about what an amazing photographer I am!
EWW: Marketing these days seems to be quite a challenge for many fine art photographers. What do you see as the biggest challenges for a fine art photographer or digital artist in terms of marketing?
Gene: Probably the biggest challenge is the lack of a definable market. Who buys this stuff? In most cases, I think the answer is “nobody.”
In the first place, I think the field of fine art photography is filled with talented artists who are producing art for self-satisfaction and for friends, and they’re happy just accomplishing that much. It’s an ego thing, like having a book published through a vanity press. And I’m not saying that creating great art for one’s own satisfaction is a bad thing. In the end, shouldn’t we all be producing art for our own satisfaction? “To thine own self be true.” The history of art is replete with great painters who worked only for themselves and who were unknown until long after their deaths. The world would be a sadder place had they not created art for its own sake. I applaud artists who create only for their family and friends.
For the artists who are actually trying to make a living with fine art photography, that’s a very difficult thing to do. Many digital artists have day jobs and, on weekends, sit in lawn chairs at flea markets and local art fairs hoping to sell just enough of their work to pay for the cost of the booths. The problem is that it’s hard to sell art at flea markets and local art fairs for enough money to cover the cost of the goods sold and still pay enough extra to compensate the artists for the time they spent creating the art. I don’t think very many people go to local art fairs with the expectation of paying $10,000 for a work of art.
Other artists loan artwork to coffee shops and restaurants on consignment, with the hope that exposure will result in sales. However, if the professional photographer forums (fora?) that I read are any indication, such sales are disappointingly uncommon.
The few bright shining examples of artists who appear to have had major commercial success with landscape photography are the marketing geniuses like Thomas Mangelsen, Jeff Mitchum, and Peter Lik. The reason I say that they “appear” to be successful is because they have shiny galleries in extremely high-rent locations, and we all assume that they are selling enough to cover not only their rent, but all of their overhead as well, all while paying themselves a living wage for their time spent taking photographs. Are they making money? I’m pretty sure they are, but who knows?
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EWW: What types of marketing activity work best for you?
Gene: I’m pretty new at this game, so I don’t think it’s fair for me to try to talk about what works best for me. I’m still building the airplane while I’m flying it.
The problem with pricing my work is that the cost to me of printing on ultra-high-gloss aluminum in the sizes I print is extremely high. To justify the time I spend shooting on location and the time I spend in post-processing, I’ve got to sell at a multiple of that. Nobody is going to spend that kind of money to buy a 48”x72” print from me based on a 4”x6” display on a computer monitor. And I’m not going to sit in a lawn chair at the local art fair. I’m competing in a different market. Whether I’ll be successful at that remains to be seen.
I’m doing a lot of networking with other photographers and local business professionals. Through my networking, I’ve gotten some interest from some small professional offices about buying my prints, and a few of my pieces have been acquired by some high-net-worth individuals. I’ve also been asked to donate one of my works to a local charity for auction. I’m dubious about the marketing value of donating to charity, but it’s for a good cause, so I’m glad to do it even if it never benefits me in any way.
My big game plan, though, is to make appointments in upscale markets with art galleries that carry photographs. I plan to start making personal visits to those galleries in late March and early April in an effort to obtain gallery representation. We shall see.
EWW: Do you incorporate social media into you overall marketing strategy? If so, which social media platform works best for you?
Gene: I have my own website, www.lightandfury.com, that I use to showcase my work. That’s my primary focus. I also try to write a blog on a regular basis, although I’ve missed almost a month because of flu and pneumonia.
I’m really not the person to ask about social media. I don’t like Instagram. Not only do the terms of service concern me, but I think Instagram would dilute my brand. I’m new to Facebook and Twitter. I’m looking to use them as a way of directing traffic to my website, but I’m not posting my best photos. In a little over 6 weeks, I’ve developed more than 3,500 friends and followers on Facebook, and I’m starting to get a lot of buzz there with people sharing my photos. I don’t think I’ve tweeted a single thing on Twitter yet.
The concern I have with social media is the terms of service on the various social media platforms. I don’t like losing control over my images. Because of that concern, I don’t post my best photos on Facebook. I’ve noticed that most of the photographers whose work I admire don’t post their best photos on Facebook or other social media, either.
EWW: Gene, just to wrap up the interview, do you have any final thoughts about you and your work, that you think would be important for others to know about?
Gene: I’ve been taking pictures for 40 years, but I don’t really have 40 years of experience as a photographer. The first 36 years, I just got the same one year of experience over and over. I wasn’t growing.
I didn’t really start to improve until I made a serious effort to learn what makes a good photograph. I read all the standard teachings about the rules of composition, and then I began studying good photographs to learn what distinguished them from mediocre photos. I’ve probably studied—really studied—over 20,000 photos, from bad to mediocre to brilliant, and I’ve listened in as experts critiqued other photographers’ images.
The result of all of that study was that I finally began to learn what I wanted my images to look like. Once I found the look I wanted, I was then able to start becoming proficient at the technical steps necessary to create my unique look. I’ve spent several hundred hours reading books and attending classes, conferences, and workshops to get that proficiency. I’m still developing my style, and I’m still learning what I need to do to translate that style into art. I have a long way to go.
I think the most important step a photographer can take in learning the craft is to study good and bad photographs and learn how to tell the difference.