Being surrounded by nature is an intensely calming and meaningful experience. For Perri Schelat, it helps her to understand what is important in life.
Residing in Washington State, this adventurer and nature enthusiast is dedicated to educating others and sharing her work and knowledge of photography to inspire like-minded photographers. With a decade of experience behind her in photographing around the USA, Canada and Iceland, Perri has become one of the newest additions to the Iceland Photo Tours team.
This month, she sat down with us to talk about the importance of learning, pre-visualisation and how to improve upon your own landscape photography.
Hello Perri! Thanks for chatting with us at Iceland Photo Tours. Tell us a bit about yourself and how your passion for landscape photography began.
Thanks Serena. It’s a pleasure.
As long as I can remember I always enjoyed tinkering with a camera. It really wasn’t until 2004 that in earnest, landscape photography became a passion, when I left my corporate America job in Facilities Planning. I became disenchanted with my job and made the jump to follow my passion and dream in photography.
I had been working in corporate America as a facilities planner for a pharmaceutical research company. To my surprise, excelling and getting promotions have their drawbacks. My position involved travel, the company had offices on five continents. My responsibilities were very much rooted in a creative vain. When I was promoted to a facilities project manager, the traveling stopped and so did the creativity of designing offices and the things I enjoyed. Soon I was faced with trend sheets, facilities analysis and speaking to corporate leaders about my responsibilities. It was then I decided to leave my job. Advice from my husband was to leave if I wasn’t happy, but to most definitely have a passion and a plan to be productive and happy. That is when I began reinventing myself for a second career in photography.
From 2004 to 2007 I went to communities colleges and Mary Baldwin College in Virginia where we lived immersing myself in any and every photography course I could find. In 2007 I participated in photography workshops and in 2008 I moved with my husband to Missoula Montana and enrolled in specialised photography studies. The following 6 years were spent living in Montana and coming into my own as a landscape photographer and photographing in Glacier National Park.
What motivates you in general and how do you channel this into photography?
Anything that feeds my soul motivates me. As a creative, an athlete with many interests, an explorer with a gypsy spirit, as a person with childlike curiosity all lend well to motivation.. I’m a very active person involved in many outdoor pursuits which allow me to be in nature.
It is my love of nature, being a creative, an explorer with gypsy ways where I can never stay in one place too long for fear moss will grow under my feet. All which align so well with landscape photography.
Some photographers say that photography allows them to see the world differently, and that it gives them a different perspective on life. What is your perspective on this and how has photography influenced you as a person?
The world is so beautiful and vast with much to enjoy and discover. As a landscape photographer that translates into a zest for life and adventure, able to be ever present and exceedingly grateful for all opportunities. The Earth is much bigger than ourselves and our time is very short here. That is a reminder that I feel all the time while immersed in the grand world we live in.
What aspect of photography gives you the greatest pleasure and why?
I wish the question was “which aspects” of photography give me the greatest pleasure. Then I wouldn’t have to chose. It would be impossible to pick just one aspect of photography that gives me the most pleasure. If you tied me down and forced me, it’s the spiritual connections it provides between myself, my camera – my tool and all my special places in nature. The spiritual and emotional sides of myself are fed and flourish. It is my religion, where I am present, I am free, at peace, joyful and grounded.
Beyond that if I may take the liberty to expound: the creative process. The technical challenges and success. The coming together of all the right conditions. The creative journey. The exploration in nature. The creative release. They all come together to make the experiences worthwhile and so memorable.
Glacier. Photo by: 'Perri Schelat'.
What were the difficulties you first encountered with landscape photography?
The technical aspects of photography took a lot of practise in the field to perfect over time. To be honest, I’m always learning and expanding to become more diversified and prepared to handle challenges as they present themselves.
Learning that conditions and light are literally everything to a landscape.
Learning to be unique and make my work my own.
The physical demands. Long hours, early hours, late hours, travel time, lack of sleep, exhaustion, stamina, being physically fit. Committing.
The fragility of being human when dealing with self worth and feelings of inadequacies when comparing my work and experience to other photographers.
Learning to share my work and let it live in places other than my hard drive.
What draws you to landscapes rather than other types of photography or subjects?
Having already discussed the spiritual and emotional side of photography that drives me, which definitely pointed me to landscape photography, I will answer this more literally since spirituality and emotions are more abstract.
I think it's the enormity and scale of the grand landscape that is so intoxicating and addicting. To that end, all the exploration and realising how many intimate landscapes reside within a grand landscape. There are so many photographic possibilities. Being able to spend time outdoors and align photography with fitness and adventure is definitely a plus.
How do you differentiate yourself from other landscape photographers?
As creatives, photographers are very impassioned, emotional people who lead with their hearts for the most part. I know that is true of me.
The passion/emotion within each of us that drives our photography comes across in our photographs. It’s those emotions and connections to what moves each of us which translate as identifiers to our personal style setting us apart as photographers. I can see an image shared by someone and know exactly whose image it is without even looking and that goes beyond simple post processing. They have stayed true to themselves and I always try to embrace that as well.
I know that I see the landscape with a romantic eye and I usually have a bond with a place I love that I have visited a lot. We have a relationship and it’s translated in my images. Much of me is intertwined in my photographs, so if that is true, how can I be similar to other photographers or my images like anyone else's? I hope there are differences anyway. I really try never to lose sight of myself and try to stay unique to myself if that makes sense, by avoiding the sheep mentality. Perhaps that means, that I don’t process the same way, or I don’t photograph as many cliches or I am not a photograph collector where quantity overrules quality.
In the literal sense I might differentiate myself in the field through a unique perspective, a favourite lens, favourite atmosphere or a unique observation of a location. I really don’t know how any of these things can be accomplished without a lasting relationship and intimacy with a place. I have never believed in the “shotgun” approach with my photography. For me quantity is not better than quality. Immersing and knowing a place may translate in my imagery allowing me to feel unique about my process.
In terms of my photographic principles and morals. I have some. But I do not impose them on others. You do you and I’ll do me. The end.
Ice Beach. Photo by: 'Perri Schelat'.
Do you spend any time pre-visualising images? If so, can you talk about that process and why it's important to your photography?
Pre-visualisation definitely occupies my mind when I’m planning to visit a place. I’ve usually studied the possibilities and already know how I’d like to approach the location and make a scene my own.
Whether that is a unique perspective, complicated technique, waiting for the perfect atmosphere. Usually it's all of those things.
I like to have a couple of approaches in mind when I visit a location. To that end, I don’t like to be so steadfast in a single solitary plan that would cause me to fail to see other opportunities that I had not planned on. I like to keep an open mind to all possibilities pre-visualised or otherwise.
Kirkjufell. Photo by: 'Perri Schelat'.
Do you have guiding principles that you follow when you’re making pictures? Is there an underlying philosophy that binds all your work together?
In the field it’s important to me to communicate a scene the way I saw it and leave it the way I found it.
Staying true to myself and my beliefs about how I photograph and translate that are always at the forefront of my mind.
Integrity. Passion. Love. Soulfulness. Presence of mind. These things are ever present in my body of work.
Spending time, developing an affection and connection for a place creates habits and the foundation for successfully developing the potential for a strong body of work. I have never been a photo collector where I’d run around at warp speed making superficial photographs that feel hollow. You look at my images you see my heart and soul and affection for the location. I hope that is the commonality in my photographs.
What do you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
I’ve repeated these things over and over in this “story of me” and my photography. Learn the essence of a place and depict that the best I can. Compliment that by visualise the end result and plan for it the best that I can using all the resources available to me. I set the bar high and I don’t like compromising.
Are there any images that you’ve chosen not to take for some reason?
Sure. Lots. If conditions aren’t favourable, maybe I can’t find a composition that resonates with me, or maybe I’m simply scouting and have no expectations.
Sometimes there may be philosophical reasons. I learned and I try to avoid getting up on a soap box to express that point of view. It’s usually not a good look and leaves one open to a lot of misinterpretation. An audience processes what they hear depending on how they are wired.
What are your thoughts in relation to the saying, “everyone is a photographer these days”?
I don’t pay attention to catch phrases. Life is too precious and short to get bound up by these comments that are divisive in nature. I don’t spent time residing in negativity and ideas that are not productive.
Contemplating the answer to that question seems irrelevant to anything I’m trying to accomplish as a meaningful photographer. I am less concerned about keeping up with the masses and most concerned with “doing me” and spending my time in enjoyable ways.
Aerial photography in Iceland. Photo by: 'Perri Schelat'.
Do you prefer to shoot alone versus with friends or others in field?
I generally prefer to photograph alone. I can relax and be present and enjoy a place in my own time without pressure or time restraints. Pressure to socialise when I really want to focus and give the creative process my undivided attention is a distraction.
When I’m in the field on a mission, I don’t like wondering what other people are visualising that I may not be seeing and wondering if I’m missing something. Nor do I like someone hanging over my shoulder. Sometimes the pressure of those things cause me to “choke” and it interrupts the creative flow. Creatives have so many neurosis and I’m certainly no different. This explanation is one reason why I choose solitude verses a group setting in a workshop for example. It’s too much pressure to produce images that I might not ordinarily capture, because, well you can’t leave without making an image… or can you? Many times when I’m alone, I leave a place without a photograph. I don’t make photographs just for the exercise of making them unless I’m learning a technique.
I suppose it really depends on what my purpose is and what I want the outcome to be. If I know the trip is designed to develop a friendship, I’ll be less motivated to make great photographs and focus on the comraderie. I know a lot of photographers like to go on photo trips with small groups of good friends. I’ve never really had that opportunity because I always traveled with my husband Tom. Maybe that is where I got into the habit of photographing alone.
Moonlight in the Icelandic Highlands. Photo by: 'Perri Schelat'.
Last but not least, reflecting upon how you came to be where you are at today, what is something that you would like to tell other landscape photographers that you think they should know?
There are many things I could tell other landscape photographers.
Tread lightly and leave a place the way you found it.
Show some respect and consideration to people around you.
Do not be afraid to embrace you work and stand behind it without apology.
Trust your process without always relying on others.
Do not cave to the pressures of acceptance and conform to peer pressure. Make your own way.
Don’t allow yourself to feel diminished by other people's successes. Use their success as inspiration to grow. Promise to work harder and get out there and practice.
Do not be afraid to share your work. Get it out there, let it be seen and breath life into it. It gets easier to do that the more you do it. Generally people are kind and appreciative of your creative process.
Look at lots of photography. Figure out what you like and what inspires you. Let that inspiration lead you on a journey of self discovery and success.
Enter a contest. If you are afraid of failure, you won’t grow. We all fail and dust ourselves off. Choose a contest that is anonymous to enter. Nobody will know but you. It’s small successes and achievements that feel good and reward us for our hard work.
Set some goals and stick to them.
Diversify. Diversify. Diversify. In the field and subsequently in your portfolios Don’t be a one hit wonder.
Come from a place of yes.
Try try again… Practice makes perfect.
If you think you are close enough…. Get closer.
Have fun. Love the journey.
Join Perri on a winter photography tour in Iceland!