Landscape photography is as much of an art form as any other genre; just ask Erin Babnik, one of the leaders in the genre in the present day. This artist, educator, writer and speaker is not only known for her talents but for her genuine pursuit of compelling scenes across often difficult terrain.
This month, we had the pleasure of chatting with Erin about how she got into landscape photography, what is involved in planning a photo workshop, her creative style and projects in the year to come.
Arrow Dynamic. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
Hello Erin, tell us a bit about how you first got into photography.
The short answer is that my former career as an art historian necessitated that I learn how to produce photographs for teaching and research, but my story really begins even earlier than that. Working in the arts has been the one constant in my entire adult life, so my career as a photographer developed out of long succession of related pursuits. When I was already working full-time as a creative director in a design department, I enrolled in art school on the side, with the idea of pursuing a fine arts graduate degree. Through that program, I was introduced to the history of art and became enthralled. I soon left my job to return to college full-time and ultimately entered a Ph.D. program as a specialist in the art of ancient Greece and Rome. That development, in turn, got me into photography. Initially, I simply needed to produce an archive of photos for my dissertation and to use in my lectures while teaching, but I soon discovered that I enjoyed the photography a little too much. I found myself spending inordinate amounts of time improving my photographic technique, delighting in the creation of especially high-quality photographs.
It wasn’t long before my photos caught the attention of people who commissioned that sort of photography, and I started getting assignment work that brought me to museums and archaeological sites all over Europe and the Middle East. As a Ph.D. student, I had great demands on my time, but I also had a very low income and wanted to invest in better camera gear, so I accepted the assignment work. Moreover, I really enjoyed having an excuse to do more photography. About the same time, I joined up with a stock agency—and this was when stock photography could bring in a decent supplemental income—so I was quite motivated to produce photos for that reason as well.
Eventually, I came to the realisation that although I loved art history, I loved photography even more. I had grown frustrated by the constraints of photographing in areas where there were strict rules about site access and about using tripods, so I started bringing my camera out into nature to produce personal photos instead. At that point, my background as an artist came rushing forward again, completely consuming my interests. I had come full circle, but with a lot more wind in my sails thanks to having a substantial education in art history to inform my work.
Gold Rush. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
How long has it been since you decided to drop everything to pursue what you love doing full time? What kind of struggles have you had to face along the way to get to where you are today?
After about a decade of moonlighting as a working photographer, I finally allowed myself to go full-time with my photography, and it has now been about five years since I made that very momentous leap. I was already accustomed to working long hours and living modestly, so the transition went very smoothly, and I quickly exceeded my own career expectations. Nonetheless, getting to where I am today has involved some struggles, and I don’t expect that this career will ever allow me to coast on the strengths of my accomplishments.
One of the greatest struggles for me has been maintaining balance between my profession and my personal life while traveling about 300 days per year, and I’m lucky that my family members are very supportive and understanding. I also struggle to make enough time for personal projects. Although I love teaching and public speaking, those activities consume an enormous amount of time, making it harder for me to indulge myself in personal photography, writing my books, and other passion projects. I feel very gratified and fortunate to have been quite successful so far, but I don’t take it for granted, and I have many large goals still left to achieve.
Grand Opening. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
As a well-travelled photographer, what makes the areas that you photograph in time and time again so special to you?
Although I enjoy the thrill of new experiences, there is something very comforting and nurturing about revisiting my favourite areas. I don’t spend much time in any place that is truly my home each year, but familiar regions give me a feeling of being at home that I really value. I also genuinely delight in sharing these areas with students on my workshops and having the opportunity to impress upon them what makes each place so special and so worthy of respect and conservation.
How much planning do you put in before travelling to a new place and devising a workshop?
Planning a new workshop can take years and usually does. I specialise in areas that are relatively remote and that are not established photography spots, so I spend a lot of time figuring out how to design a successful workshop in a new area. From logistics, to accommodation, to meal considerations, to physical requirements, to conservational concerns, it is always a complicated puzzle to sort out.
High Sodium. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
What is the greatest lesson that you have learned from your travels?
Wherever you go, you have to bring your own sunshine. In other words, the one constant in traveling is always your own self, and you get out of any experience what you bring to it. So it’s important to have a positive attitude, to be respectful of different places and the people in them, and to enjoy the great privilege of traveling for the totality of what each experience has to offer.
Aside from how difficult it may be to reach a new place and what you choose to show to your audience when advertising a workshop, what can’t we see in terms of the logistics?
I probably spend more time on logistics than anything else in planning a workshop. I take into consideration how the average person is likely to feel after each outing, how much sleep they will have had, how much physical energy they have exerted, how long it will have been since they had a good meal, how much time I can devote to indoor seminars, and much more. Some of my more ambitious workshops do involve some strenuous hiking, and some involve sleeping in rustic huts, so I try to balance those challenges with comfortable accommodations and adequate rest whenever possible. It is essential to me that my students are able to get into a productive creative zone and that they learn a lot during the workshop, and therefore they need to be comfortable, and the overall experience needs to be fun for them.
Silver Lining. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
What has been the reward for facing those challenges?
It has been enormously rewarding to have designed a program of very unique workshops that people consistently tell me are extremely inspirational and educational. And of course it is very rewarding to have a high percentage of students returning to do more workshops with me, many of them even repeating the same locations, and some repeating them numerous times.
Have there been any highlights or low points that you may not have expected when guiding a photography workshop?
I think I went into offering workshops with a very good idea of what to expect, but there were some surprises. I knew that I would get to interact with a lot of interesting people who would enrol as participants, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I would develop such great relationships with partners and business owners as well. I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with a lot of different photographers who I brought in to co-lead various workshops, and they are all among the best landscape photographers in the world. When I first started out, it felt like a stretch to invite some of my favourite photographers to partner with me, and I was overjoyed when they accepted. Some were already my friends, but others I had never met before, so I had no idea whether or not they would be interested. Over the years I have also developed friendships with people who own the hotels, transportation companies, and restaurants that I use, and I also count those relationships among the highlights of running workshops.
As for low points, I mentioned above that I invest an enormous amount of time and energy into running my workshops. More than once I’ve suffered from actual physical exhaustion after a long run of workshops, which invariably hits me hard about a day after the last workshop concludes. That exhaustion also comes with a strange sense of loss, missing the experience of community and the bonding that develops with each group. I’m learning to be better at pacing myself, at delegating to my assistants, and at scheduling rest days between workshop sessions so that I still have energy left for personal projects when I get back home.
Swept Away. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
What is your “essentials list” – the gear that comes with you regardless of the location that you’re travelling to?
The essentials change depending on whether I’m teaching, scouting, or photographing for myself. In general, I like to have a single camera body and two lenses, one ultra-wide zoom lens, and one telephoto zoom (all Canon). If I’m doing personal photography, then I will almost always bring along a full-sized tripod as well, but I sometimes leave it behind when I’m teaching or scouting. I don’t do a lot of my own photography while I’m teaching, but I do like to have camera gear with me so that I can work through compositional ideas with my students. In those cases, I also like to have a Hoodman Loupe with me so that I can see the LCD screens of people’s cameras more easily when they ask for feedback. I also always pack a fairly substantial first-aid kit, and I carry everything in one of my f-stop gear backpacks.
When shooting on-location, do you have an idea of what the final result will look like, or do you prefer to improvise? How much pre-visualisation is involved when you create an image?
My results tend to come from a combination of reacting and visualising. Usually, I’ll simply notice something that gives me an idea, and then I'll start playing with it. More often than not, the process of play evolves into a more deliberate process as visualisation starts to take over. At that point, I may decide that I want to pursue the idea at a different time or in a different place, and then I am more directed by a vision than by a reaction—but ‘seeing’ is usually what kicks off that whole chain of events.
Tail Wind. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
How would you describe your photographic style? What is characteristic about your photos?
I have a very compositional style, meaning that I tend to gravitate towards more ‘structured’ results. When I was an art historian, I specialised in Hellenistic Greek sculpture, and to this day I tend to see features of nature as abstract sculptures in a landscape. I like to use grand forms, symmetry, and hierarchy to lend a slight air of ‘gravitas’, in the same way that the Greeks employed these qualities to instil a sense of dignity in their monuments. In character, my images lean towards “the sublime” and are often somewhat theatrical, but I try to temper it all with a relatively restrained aesthetic in my post-processing. People often comment on the subtlety of my colour work, and I think that also is a big part of my style. I prefer a more delicate touch with colour and tones to balance out the boldness of the scenes and the compositions. A famous art historian once described Greek sculpture as having “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”, and I think those are the qualities that I strive to create in my photographs.
Moondial. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
Do you aim for your images to tell a story or do you like to leave them open to interpretation?
I absolutely do think of storytelling as an essential quality of my photography, but images are always open to interpretation. The artist will always intend more than the viewer sees, and the viewer will always see more than the artist intends—that’s the nature of art, and I embrace it! I only ever choose to process an image if I see a story in it, with the features of the landscape seeming to be in dialogue with each other, or with qualities that are highly suggestive of an idea or of a universal human experience. If a photo speaks to me on that level, then the chances are strong that it will speak to viewers as well. It may prompt different ideas for each viewer, but if it’s compelling enough, the photo will be expressive of something meaningful to anyone willing to ponder it.
The Lost Ark. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
After all these years and your success, what aspect of being a photographer inspires you the most?
I feel a very strong sense of duty as an artist and an educator. I’m very firm in my belief that art is essential for the wellness of humanity, that without art, we would not survive long as a species. I see firsthand how the great combination of being creative and being out in nature can make people feel happier and healthier, and how people benefit psychologically from expressing themselves through their photography. Making art allows people to communicate in a nonverbal, open-ended manner that few other outlets in life can offer. At the same time, viewing art stimulates the imagination. Either way, art makes the world a better place. I draw a lot of inspiration from knowing that I’m contributing to the cause of art with my own work and with my educational efforts.
Do you think an artist is born or grows with age?
Being an artist is a decision, in my view. Although some people demonstrate an early aptitude for certain crafts or for thinking creatively, they will never be artists until they make that decision. An artist is someone who is devoted to personal expression, to allowing the inner self to guide the process of making something. A photographer who achieves a high level of craft or who is very good at solving visual problems may end up being a very good technician or documentarian, but being an artist requires being a bit vulnerable in addition. Anyone who is willing to expose some part of the inner self in a lifelong creative process that can never be ‘solved’ and can never be ‘right’ in any absolute sense: that person has chosen to be an artist.
Whirlwind. Photo by: 'Erin Babnik'.
Tell us a bit about your future projects.
In addition to my ongoing production of articles, I have a number of book and video projects in the works, all in varying stages of completion. Two of the books are collaborations with my Photo Cascadia teammates, but two others are solo efforts that are very much passion projects for me. Those two are going to take a while to complete because I have a lot of ideas for them that I want to flesh out as fully as possible. Otherwise, I have a few new workshops in the planning stages, and I have a traveling post-processing seminar planned. The first traveling seminar will take place in Munich, and I intend to bring it to cities in the United States and elsewhere in Europe afterwards.
Although speaking engagements come about more serendipitously, they are also an essential strand of my creative output, and I consider them as projects as well. I typically make a half-dozen or more appearances each year to give talks, and I am always writing new ones to keep my repertoire growing and to keep the content fresh. I include talks in many of my workshop seminars, so they are vital to how I frame my understanding of my own art and how I make those observations useful to others. Right now I am finishing work on three new talks that I will be presenting on both coasts of the United States in October.
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