Introduction to Photography: Interview with Jeff

In March of 2014, my buddy Jeff and I took a week-long photography trip to west Texas. I recently asked him about some of his thoughts on trip, and how it’s changed his views of landscape photography as an art form.

Jeff and me hanging out at our home base in Study Butte - a single-wide with a courageous mouse that would come out at night.

Jeff and me hanging out at our home base in Study Butte – a single-wide with a courageous mouse that would come out at night. He kept us on our toes!

Tim: So how much, if any, experience have you had with photography before this trip?

Jeff: Oh, back in middle school, my dad was really into photography and he used to take pictures for the newspaper, but he didn’t really teach me very much so I ended up getting a camera from my grandmother. I actually shot pictures for the middle school newspaper, but I didn’t really know what I was doing though.

Tim: Did you enjoy it?

Jeff: Yeah, it was enjoyable, you know. It was fun. Past that I really didn’t do much with it.

Jeff trying a different perspective next to the highway in Big Bend State Park.

Jeff trying a different perspective next to the highway in Big Bend State Park.

Tim: You still have the camera?

Jeff: I do still have it. It’s not digital so I don’t use it. It was my grandmothers. She was really into photography. She used to take pictures for her newspaper too, for the Weatherford Oklahoman. But uh, I didn’t really know a whole lot for the trip. I learned lessons from you the first drive out there, reading through the books.

Tim: So knowing that this was going to be a photography trip, what were you expecting?

Jeff: Really just to get out and see nature and be able to record that, and to learn a little bit about it. Maybe be able to put what I learned into action and take some decent pictures that would be fairly good quality that I could print out and put on my wall.

IMG_5616 copy

Tim: How closely did your expectations match your actual experience on the trip.

Jeff: I think you taught me a lot about a different way to look at things; about lighting and using the right settings. Not just the location but the timing. Being there at sunrise or sunset to get the right light, using clouds for more depth in the photograph, things like that. I thought I learned a lot on the trip. I thought I captured a lot of good quality shots.

Tim: So your happy with what you came home with?

Jeff: I like the ones I took. You might have seen something different when you looked at the same setting as me, and took it at a different angle, but I enjoyed what I got.

IMG_0010

Tim: Any particularly memorable or exciting moments from the trip?

J: I liked driving along the highway by the river in Big Bend State Park and stopping at different sites along the way. Walking down Closed Canyon was really awesome. Most people don’t see those things because they don’t want to stop.

T: What was your favorite location on the trip?

J: Santa Elena Canyon, I loved that area. I liked walking back into the canyon by myself. You didn’t come back there with me because you’d already done it before and it was nice to get back there and set up on my own and take my own shots. That area was pretty awesome.

Inside Santa Elena Canyon

Inside Santa Elena Canyon

T: Several of the sunrises and sunset had what I call “peak” color that lasted less than a minute, sometimes only a few seconds. Did you ever find yourself scrambling to get the shot?

Jeff: I think that the minute or two window that we had to take the picture and then set up for another one, I think that was scrambling but the first composition we were already set up for and once we took that, we’d have 30 seconds to move somewhere else for another shot to try to get another before that perfect light was gone.

Just before sunrise.

Just before sunrise.

Tim: So you pretty much knew the first shot you were going for and once you got that one, you would get busy looking for others.

Jeff: Some of that was kind of cool because when we were working below Castalon peak, you took a picture there, but then if you moved in toward the mountain a little more, the sun still hadn’t quite come up over so you had a small window to get a different angle.

Working some wildflowers in a dry river bed.

Working some wildflowers in a dry river bed.

Tim: How has this trip changed how you look at a landscape photograph?

Jeff: I’ve always enjoyed landscape photographs. It’s probably one of my favorite types of photography. Portrait photography is not as.. you know… landscape is capture the moment in a certain place. Just the beauty of what you saw, and you can see it again without having to go there.

I’m going to art shows now. Certain artwork does nothing for me at all. Landscape photography, I’ll stop at their booths and look at their work. And not just landscape but a lot of photography booths I’ll stop and look at.  Photography is the media I enjoy the most.

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock

Thoughts on shooting the Forts and Missions of Texas

In February I launched a week-long project to photograph several of the historic forts and missions of Texas. I find both to be an important part of Texas and US history. With this in mind, I wanted to capture the beauty and peacefulness of these places. (Note that the photographs in this post either did not make the final cut or are only for documentation.)

For this trip, I invited Dad along as he seemed to really enjoy last years trip through Arizona and Utah and I bought him a camera for Christmas so I wanted him to have a good opportunity to use it.

Our first stop was San Antonio. We woke up at 2am to shoot the moonrise over the Alamo. It was mostly cloudy, but there were just enough breaks to make me hopeful. While we were waiting, we met a security guard walking around the premises and talked with him for a while. Later, a very drunk or high or mentally challenged lady was cussing me out from the other side of the street trying to get my attention. I dared not to turn around as I wasn’t much interested in what she had to see at that point.

The clouds were still thick and no sign of the moon coming through. We were about to leave when we finally caught a break. Unfortunately it was already high in the sky and further south than I expected so I didn’t get the shot that I wanted. To make matters worse, all of the chains and posts in the foreground were an eye-sore that I simply couldn’t get around. I’ll just keep this as a documentary photo.

Alamo at moonrise, with a belligerent woman behind me cussing me out.

Alamo after moonrise, with a belligerent woman behind me cussing me out at 3:30am.

The next day we spent visiting each of the missions along the Mission Walk. Some were more photogenic than others. The best was the San Jose mission. Large, lots of rooms, doors, windows, and arches. Plenty of opportunities.

Dad shooting the chapel at San Francisco de la Espada mission.

Dad shooting the chapel at San Francisco de la Espada mission.

San Jose Mission arches

Arch windows at Mission San Jose.

Defensive Turret at Mission San Jose

Defensive Turret at Mission San Jose

Presidio de San Saba

Presidio de San Saba

After shooting into the early afternoon, we moved on down the road to Menard and stayed the night. In the morning we photographed Presidio de San Saba at sunrise, but there wasn’t much left of the fort and I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired as it had been mostly reconstructed.

We went down the road to Fort McKavett which was pretty cool. Many of the buildings are locked and the insides are staged with period furnishings so you can look through the windows. There are a few interesting ruins though that you can go into. These were my favorite.

Ruins at Fort McKavett

Ruins at Fort McKavett

Through a window at Fort McKavett

Through a window at Fort McKavett

Fort McKavett Bakery

Fort McKavett Bakery

Our next stop was the Calera Chapel in Balmorhea. This was a great little church to photograph. Because it was still in use, the door was unlocked and there was no one there so we had free reign. We shot sunset, had dinner in town, and then came back to try some night shooting. We got creative with our headlamps. It was fun but spooky at the same time as it was pitch black out there. It gets very dark in the desert with no moon.

Inside the Calera Chapel, late afternoon

Inside the Calera Chapel, late afternoon

Playing around with the headlamps. I'd trip the shutter, run inside, and paint dad with the light. Took several tries to get it just right.

Playing around with the headlamps. I’d trip the shutter, run inside, and paint dad with the light. Took several tries to get it just right.

Fort Davis Ruins

Fort Davis Ruins

 

After a quick sunrise shoot at the chapel, Fort Davis was next on the list. This is a huge place, but I didn’t find it to be as scenic as McKavett. Interesting photographs abound, but not exactly what I was looking for. Regardless, we spent a few hours there exploring most of the grounds before moving on to the border town of Presidio, home to Fort Leaton.

 

 

 

My buddy Jeff and I had briefly visited Fort Leaton the year before on our Big Bend trip, but we didn’t stay long enough to photograph. I saw enough to know that I desperately wanted to return. For me, Fort Leaton was the highlight of the trip. Beautiful soft light, natural southwest architecture, rugged and dirty but tidy and clean at the same time – just a fun, inspirational place to photograph with a multitude of possible compositions.

Fort Leaton Architecture

Fort Leaton Architecture

Fort Leaton Supply Room

Fort Leaton Supply Room

Dad next to a HUGE cart!

Dad next to a HUGE cart!

Wood Planes in the blacksmith shop

Wood Planes in the blacksmith shop

Terlingua Ruins

Terlingua Ruins

The next day we drove to Terlingua and photographed there. Terlingua is half ghost town, half tourist trap. And the line between the two is blurry. Some of the buildings are difficult to distinguish between abandoned ruins and working shops. Most of the ruins are small and not kept up, so it was common to see evidence of people having used them as overnight drinking locales. This made for a very run-down feel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; a few of my favorite photographs here actually have trash in them!

Terlingua Window with stacked rocks

Terlingua Window with stacked rocks

After shooting Terlingua for a few hours, we had lunch at Study Butte and drove down to Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park for a quick peak. I wanted Dad to see it, as I consider it to be Texas’ most impressive geologic structure. Santa Elena is difficult to shoot, but we were gifted with some nice clouds.

Santa Elena Boardwalk

Santa Elena Boardwalk

On the way out of Santa Elena, we stopped to shoot some bluebonnets that were attracting some bees. I wanted to Dad to see how much fun it was to work with a macro lens. Then, deciding to cut the trip short so we could spend a day processing and discussing his photographs, we drove 9 hours straight home.

Blue Bonnet Bee

You are invited to see the nine choice photographs from this trip at my home gallery show on September 26th 2015, in Pearland, TX, 5pm-9pm. Email me now to reserve your spot!

Old Texas: Forts & Missions

A few weeks ago I completed a significant portion of my latest project “Old Texas: Forts & Missions”. While the project is ongoing and have yet to decide how I’m going to present these photographs, I want to give you a sneak preview of this project to see how it is coming along.

FortLeatonEmptyRoom#22

Fort Leaton, Presidio

Fort Leaton is really what inspired this project of photographing these old historic places. It’s an adobe fort just outside of Presidio, less than a mile from the Rio Grande and Big Bend State Park is just down the road. If you’re in the area, don’t miss this beautiful place.

CaleraIndoors#22

Calera Chapel, Balmorhea

Calera Chapel is exactly how you would imagine a small adobe Catholic church on the side of a dusty road. While it is a Texas Historic Landmark, it is a no frills location on a small highway near Balmorhea. Here the late afternoon sunlight is coming through the one side window of this quaint sanctuary.

Mission San Jose, San Antonio

Mission San Jose, San Antonio

Mission San Jose is impressive, both in size and architecture. It is both a fortress and a church… a compound designed to host a complete community, harboring them from those outside the wall that might do them harm. This large and airy room is the granary. I loved the soft light and the textures of the floors, ceilings, and walls.

Stay tuned for more information on “Old Texas: Forts & Missions”.

Texas: God & Men

*This is a follow-up from my previous post about my next photography project.*

I truly love monochrome (black & white) photographs. They take me to an alternate reality. I love working with them in the digital dark-room as the process seems natural to me.  Monochrome emphasizes light, texture, and detail, and invokes drama and mystery in a way that a photograph with color can really only hint at.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy color also; but color photographs tell a completely different story and have a different set of strengths.

White House - Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

White House – Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

I also love dramatic light that sometimes even seems tangible. I love how light bursts through a window and reflects off of the floor of a dark room to subtly lighten up the stone or adobe walls from below.  Everyday objects like a table or a chair glow like they were posing for a timeless portrait.

History.  Well, it’s important that we are aware of where we come from.  As a state, as a nation, as a society. Many have sacrificed much, and still do, for the rich lifestyles that even the poorest of us enjoy.

I want to use my photography to take these three concepts and meld them together.  I want to create beautifully lit, detailed, and monochromatic images of historical locations in Texas that played an important part in our past – particularly forts and missions.  Unfortunately, most of these forts and missions no longer exist… some wasting away to nothing, some destroyed, and others having been disassembled into raw materials to be used elsewhere.  But I’ve found a handful of them that still stand, although some only a skeleton of the past.  I will be visiting several of these over the next two months to create a collection of photographs that will represent a huge part of what made Texas the state that it is today. I’m not a native Texan so it’s exciting for me to go out and explore these places and learn how each played a part in our history.

In case you’re curious, here is a map that I put together of most of the locations that I will be visiting over the course of at least two week-long trips.  I won’t hit each location on this map, but most of them.  I will begin my first trip next week and expect to be finished around April.  The green markers are “High Priority” targets: San Antonio Missions NHP, Presidio La Bahia Fort, Fort Leaton, Fort Davis, Fort Phantom Hill, Fort Concho, and Fort Stockton. I also plan to visit the Battleship Texas, which is not on this map.

My Next Photography Project

I’m always thinking about what I’d like to photograph next.  As an artist who sells my work, it is important to create not just great individual photographs, but great collections of photographs. These collections may be of the same location, the same subject matter, similar color palettes, or even represent an ideology, but they must have something in common.  I do not simply shoot whatever catches my eye.

So when I photograph, I photograph with purpose and I plan my excursions so that when I come home, I have a group of photographs that are related in some way. Up to now, my projects have mostly been themed around landscapes of a certain location – a geographic profile, a visual description of a state or region.

I think for a near-future project, I’d like to push a little deeper and photograph a series that incorporates even more elements that are close to me. I haven’t yet decided on the exact details of this project, but I would like to explore the historical roots of Texas. Specifically, a handful of its historical religious and military buildings.

What spurred this interest was during my trip to west Texas last Spring. My buddy and I just happened upon Fort Leaton, which is on the outskirts of Presidio. This old military outpost was beautiful in its own way. Mud walls, old log frame-work, deep dark rooms where only a whisper of light could penetrate.  Some of the blacksmith’s tools still hung from hooks in the walls. The beautiful lines, textures, light and shadows made for endless dramatic compositions. I didn’t even set up my camera because we were on a tight schedule for the day, and I knew if I started shooting, I wouldn’t stop.  I knew this was a place that I would like to come back to and spend hours exploring through a rectangular view-finder to give it due justice.

To read more about Fort Leaton, visit the State Historic Site website.