Is print dead? Definitely not! Call me old school but nothing beats a photo in print. There is simply no substitute for bringing an image captured out of the digital realm and back into a tangible, tactile element on your wall or bookshelf.
Recently I had the pleasure of working with Tomasz Trzebiatowski who founded the gorgeous photography magazine–better to call it a quarterly photobook–FRAMES. He takes such great care in publishing a quality product that embraces a myriad of photographic styles.
Volume 3 features HUMAN CANVAS and the images looks so beautiful printed on such high quality paper. If you’re a fan of photography and high-quality products, get a subscription and support this new photographic community!
Penguins are a staple of nature photography these days and one can easily book a cruise to Antarctica for themselves through numerous operators, but that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when emperor penguins were rarely, if ever, photographed in the wild. With this in mind, I invested $25,000 in trip arrangements (a massive investment and an enormous risk at that point in my career).
Essentially I was rolling all the dice at once that I could pull a shoot off. These arrangements put me on my first exploratory photography trip to find emperor penguins on the frozen Weddell Sea in Antarctica. As I said, the penguins had been photographed before, usually as odd members straying towards a base by over-wintering biologists, but I was attempting to photograph them on purpose and I had just two weeks to do it in the Antarctic summer.
The expense of trip was split between me, two explorers, Shirley Metz and Peter Harrison, as well as a French and German photographer—five of us total. We all met in Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city on earth which sounds like a potential paradise. Well, it’s not. We were stuck for eleven days waiting for a break in the weather to allow us to make the trip to Antarctica. During those eleven months of waiting (okay it was eleven days, but it felt like eleven months!), we had no idea if we would even ever see the sea ice or ever travel any further south than we had come.
I was bored out of my mind. To know me is to know I don’t sit still very well. I would have been the poster child for ADHD if it had been diagnosed during my childhood. I memorized every back street and alleyway in the city, not to say that was very difficult as to even call it a city was pretty generous. I visited the one museum four times. The displays never changed, and I ate in every restaurant more than once and the food never improved. My roommate for this internment was a French fashion photographer who had a penchant for smoking the nastiest cigars. Needless to say we had more than one less-than-civil discussion about smoking in our tiny shared accommodations.
On the twelfth day the weather finally cleared and we, perhaps a little too optimistically, boarded an old, rickety, DC6 that looked like it was a set prop for a disaster film. (This plane has since crashed and is today entombed in the Antarctic ice.) Boarding the plane and buckling in all five of us put our faith, and lives, in the hands of the pilots. This was not the time to look for alternative flights, not that we had any choice in the matter.
We soon crossed over the alps of southern Chile and lost sight of land, and all hope, as we crossed the ocean perpendicular to some of the most severe wind patterns on the planet. Sailors know these winds as the Roaring Forties, an area where the winds can circumnavigate the globe over the ocean without ever running into a stretch of land or mountain to slow them down. In hindsight this was perhaps not the best aircraft for this journey. During the entire crossing the plane sounded as if it might fall apart, rattling and creaking, snapping and popping from the stresses on the wings and fuselage. It was not a flight for the faint of heart and just about all of us had found religion of some sort before it was over.
With tremendous relief we descended and eventually lined up to land at the base of the Ellsworth Mountains where the winds are so horrendous as they constantly blew the snow off the ice before it could build up, leaving what is called a “blue ice” runway—hard as cement, but not nearly as smooth. You couldn’t put skis on a plane that size to land in deep snow so this was our only option to get on to the Antarctic continent. With the constant winds the landing was so hard it broke the seats loose from their bolts and the toilet from the back of the plane passed by me where I was strapped in. Perhaps it sensed how badly I needed it just about then?
Arrival at Patriot Hills Camp
First shaken then stirred, once down, the next challenge was to stop the plane before the winds literally blew us back toward the sea. Watching through the small, round, windows I could see it took at least ten people on the ground with ropes to lasso the wings as the winds spun the craft around on the ice and none of us could attempt to stand up, much less deplane (abandon ship was more like it!) until it had been completely arrested. All that said, to this day, I still count the eleven days in Punta Arenas as the worst part of the trip.
We overnighted in the Patriot Hills Camp from which expeditions traditionally set out for the South Pole. The following morning, believe it or not, we boarded a smaller airplane, a Twin Otter equipped with skis and capable of landing on the snow and flew out over the frozen Weddell Sea circling the ice below searching for a colony of emperor penguins. With much elation we spotted a colony on the ice and after a closer inspection it proved to be the largest colony of birds I could ever have imagined.
With our goal in sight, bearings taken, we landed on the frozen sea a safe distance away. We unloaded our equipment and bid goodbye to the Twin otter with arrangements to return at the end of our intended stay. We immediately got a visit from a few curious locals; however, the weather turned for the worse and we set up a base camp we were caught in a blizzard that buried us in our tents; we had no choice but to hunker down not knowing how long we might be stuck this time. Oddly enough, Punta Arenas was starting to look better and better.
Waiting for weather
For several days we sat and we waited. We melted snow for water and cooked our freeze dried meals; we traded war stories, told the same jokes, none of us knowing if and when we’d ever get a break to try and find the birds or how the plane might even find its way back to find us.
It was difficult to sleep, the sun never actually setting below the horizon and I found myself awake in the middle of the night wondering what I was hearing, or rather what I wasn’t. It was calm. Aside from the snoring in the nearby tents around me I couldn’t hear a thing. I stuck my head out of the tent to check on the weather and there I could see the sun shining through a break in the clouds at its lowest point in the sky, it was the first I’d seen the sun or any semblance of sky since the blizzards had pinned us down.
Everyone else was completely sound asleep, sacked out solid in their bags and rather than try and wake them and risk missing what could be a fleeting moment, I grabbed my equipment and half ran, half hiked two kilometers across the ice and snow to where I thought we had seen colony from the air.
Foolish? Absolutely. The storm could have returned at any moment, the sun was only breaking through a small gap in the clouds. Had the wind picked up at all I would have immediately turned in my tracks for the tent. I was well aware of the danger. (Several years later a photographer who called himself ‘Mr. Penguin’, Bruno Zehnder, well-versed in photographing in the Antarctic set out as I had, alone in the night, when the weather did pick up. Attempting to return he missed an entire research base by only 50 yards and froze to death.)
I would have been looking for just several small tents. If I had gotten into any kind of trouble, twisted an ankle, broken through the ice, if the storm had come in or even the winds picked up and I got disoriented and lost my tracks I would have been dead. I was fairly well-trained in climbing as I grew up in Washington State climbing the volcanoes of the Cascades. All those skills come right back to you when you are out there reliant on your own wits and strength to see you through.
With a lot of luck and good karma I managed to hike the two kilometers and the penguin colony had obligingly awaited my arrival. For three unbelievably glorious hours at 2:30 in the morning, in the month of November when the sun never sets, I had 10,000 emperor penguins to myself. They were bathed in golden light and the most difficult thing about the whole process was getting photographs without having them coming up to me and pressing their belly feathers into my lens.
They were extremely curious; they wanted so badly to investigate me that I always had to keep moving, walking backwards, ahead of the pack to get portraits of mothers with chicks and fathers with their babies on their feet. That was the whole objective, to get lots of babies in golden light, and I got them! Oh boy did I get the shots!
I found my way back to my tent without incident, welcomed by the snores and sounds of slumber and fell asleep in my down bag with what I’m sure was a giant grin on my face. Hours later I awoke to conversation, breakfast cooking and the sound of the violent storm outside my tent, it was snowing hard. After some teasing for sleeping in I said to them that I had gotten up in the middle of the night and seen the colony. No one believed me.
“Yeah, yeah, right. Tell us another story about how you saw a polar bear too! Ha, ha ha…” Well, we went to bed in a blizzard, woke up in a blizzard, absolutely no tracks to be seen, why would they believe me? As this was 1992, long before digital capture, no one would believe my fantastic tale until we had returned home and I had the film processed and could share the images with them.
That was the one and only break in the weather we saw the entire time on that expedition. We flew back to Punta Arenas in that same decrepit DC6, no one believing my story. For one full calendar year I got those photos on the covers of nature magazines around the world making back my $25,000 dollar investment. Because of those images, the following year Russian ice breakers went down to the Weddell Sea replete with helicopters and many of my top colleagues to photograph the emperor penguins on the sea ice. An entire industry had been born out of my success that night in November, 1992.
I have traveled to Iceland several times in my career to photograph the volcanic landscapes, the icebergs along glacier fed shores, even the diminutive and iconic Icelandic horses. It was on a trip in October 2013 however that I set out with the intention of capturing the aurora borealis or northern lights phenomenon — a spectacular sight I had seen before but never captured to my satisfaction. This was an ideal opportunity to observe them due to the long nights and the fact that we were at a peak in a 9-year cycle of solar activity responsible for generating auroras. Now, I just had to cross my fingers for a clear night and the ideal opportunity during my short, week-long stay.
So this story should be all about auroras however, as I have always said, you must remain open to opportunities that present themselves wherever you are. Don’t be blind to what is right in front of you simply because it’s not what you had planned to photograph when you had first set out. Seize every opportunity, don’t tell yourself “that looks great and I’ll come back and shoot it later”. Weather changes, winds pick up, clouds move, and schedules change. The best time to capture an image is when you first see it.
I was in route to a new location and it was an unusually calm morning. We were simply driving along the northern coast in Vesturland when I saw Mount Kirkjufell with a very light dusting of new snow near the summit which certainly wouldn’t last the day, perhaps not even through the afternoon. What immediately caught my attention was a huge eye staring back at me from out of its side. I had to practically rub my own eyes and look twice but there it was, plain as day, staring right at me. It immediately reminded me of the eye on a US dollar bill hovering above the pyramid. It was a little disturbing even. Had there been any less snow, it would not have been there at all and any more snow and it would have been covered up entirely. It was just that perfect dusting that revealed the eye in the mountain, always there, but rarely seen by passers-by.
All of the elements coalesced that day for this shot. The beautiful symmetry of Mount Kirkjufell, a perfectly placid lake at the base to reflect the mountain and the eye, and then, as we stopped and pulled over to compose the shot, I could see two whooper swans up the lake sitting on the water. They would be too small to see in the final image so I chose not to include them in the composition so as not to distract, however as I stayed with the subject, moving my tripod, trying different exposures and angles they took flight moving from left to right down the lake. Seeing it unfold before me I panned the camera, framed the mountain and shot a sequence of images as the swans passed directly front and center.
Everything had to come together at that moment, entirely unplanned and unpredicted. I love these serendipitous moments. While I always have a plan when I go out to a location, sometimes orchestrating the shot, getting up before the sunrise or planning for a moonless night, working with interpreters and locals or using guides to help find specific animals, it’s these moments that can’t be anticipated, can’t be planned for, that I love and am always on the lookout for.
And that wasn’t the last time a serendipitous moment that would fall into my lap on this trip.
The following day I came across a nice young couple in Southern Iceland and we struck up an instant conversation comparing notes on the landscape and what the other had discovered. It turns out they were professional climbing guides who were more than happy to show me some of the less accessible areas of Iceland on and even under the glaciers. Well I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity. No, I hadn’t come to Iceland for glacier photography nor did I even bring the basic equipment from my own climbing days – it simply wasn’t on the agenda. However, I found myself, later that same afternoon, meeting up with this young couple again and donning borrowed crampons, an ice axe and roping gear and we set out racing the sun late in the day to investigate an ice cave they had told me they had found high up on a glacier.
Practically racing up the glacier was only the beginning as I would soon learn. Once on location we had to rappel down directly into the glacier where a stream had melted out a shallow tunnel beneath the thick ice above. How they discovered this I still don’t quite know as we had to crawl on our hands and knees for over 200 hundred yards under the glacier. “What would drive them to do this in the first place?” I kept asking myself. We were crawling in wet gravel, crossing the stream from time to time, always bent over or on hands and knees, clothes and boots getting increasingly wet with each foot forward, and I was freezing trying to keep hold of my tripod and constantly bumping my backpack into the ice immediately above me.
As promised there was an eventual payoff 200 feet below the surface of the glacier. A crevasse had bottomed out on the stream we were following providing a source of light to illuminate this cavern which they had discovered. It was a spectacular scene and I only had about 20 minutes of light to quickly size it up. I choose a wide-angle lens and exposures started at one minute and only grew from there as I worked fast in the fading light. I love the jade blue cast to the entire scene and the movement in the water. The elements all came together to provide an unworldly scene unlike any other ice cave I have photographed before.
With headlamps, we retraced our route crawling back through the ice cold water and gravel. Prior to leaving for Iceland and even that very morning, for that matter, I had no idea I’d be crawling around underneath a glacier in such conditions. At the very least I would have packed some warmer clothes, heavier rain gear and even knee pads for the trek. I am very aggressive and seeing an opportunity like this, knowing that wind and water can reveal beautiful patterns in the ice beneath snow fields and glaciers, I wasn’t about to pass it up simply because it wasn’t part of what I had planned or imagined when I had set out.
Now did I ever get around to shooting the auroras? Absolutely! Though it was only on the very last day of the week on this long trip that the clouds parted and revealed the dancing colors in the skies over the glacial Lake Jökulsárlón on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. Every night leading up to that last day was clouded over and I had begun to accept that photographing the auroras, the only reason I had initially set out for Iceland, simply wasn’t going to happen on this trip.
Taking one last chance I waited until 1 a.m. and despite earlier clouds that evening, eventually the lights came out and the stars shone, it was like magic. It is a joyous moment as a photographer when you guess right and your effort is rewarded, and even more so sometimes when you take a risk and seize an opportunity.
I love it when it all comes together like it did for this trip to Iceland.
The tools may change, but the skill of a master storyteller is timeless.
Technology has changed our communications in unimagined ways—allowing us to capture a story as it unfolds, using innovations of creative wizardry, portable, affordable, advanced in every measure. And the ubiquitous nature of our digital era means anyone, anywhere can be a storyteller. But, there is more to this ancient craft than simply point-and-shoot. To evoke sentiment, inspire change, and unveil hidden truths about a subject, one must master certain skills.
In this two-part collectors edition, some of the world’s most iconic ‘Masters of Photography’ share their secrets and explore the skills that define a truly exceptional storyteller. Lessons that span a lifetime contribute rare and timeless insights on how to impact change, express emotions and compel empathy through the lens. Life has many facets and each demanding a different approach. Our experts advise on all genres of photography, be your passion adventure, wildlife, or culture, there is something here for everyone.
The thread that connects us to this wide and wild world of ours, is strengthened through discovery and a growing knowledge of the workings of nature. I invite you on a journey of discovery spanning the globe with masterful storytellers and their stunning images of life on earth. I hope it inspires you to BE curious and never stop exploring!
The new-look PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine goes on sale now worldwide. It includes an 8 page interview with Art by David Clark.
Subscribe to PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine before June 15th and you’ll get their entire special 100th issue (not just the 4 pages shown here) plus the Ultimate Canon Handbook for free! That means you’ll get 14 issues in a 1 year subscription, wherever you are in the world.
Curious Animal is an online magazine for Adventure Travel, Photography, Music, Books, Big Issues and Ideas from around the world. Graeme Green interviewed me for a couple of pieces on Curious Animal. Apparently they had the pleasure of talking to many of the world’s best photographers, from Steve McCurry to Soren Solkaer, who spend their time traveling the world photographing everything from sharks to rock stars. I discussed disappearing cultures… Roger Ballen on the art of the strange… Chris Hadfield on photographing the Earth from space… Here are some of their thoughts on photography, the world and life itself.