As we look back at 2019 there are several photographers that have made a big impression on the landscape photography community but one that stands out, is Erin Babnik. Not only is her photography world-class, she’s also a talented educator and someone who gives back to the community.
It’s with great pleasure that I share with you this in-depth interview with photographer of the year 2019, Erin Babnik, where you’ll get to know more about her background, her photography philosophies and much more.
Can you begin by telling us a little about who you are and how you got started with photography?
I’m a photographer, educator, writer, and speaker who has been immersed in the arts for my entire adult life. I first started experimenting with photography while I was in art school studying graphic design, but it became a primary activity for me only after I transferred to a university to pursue a Ph.D. in Art History. Producing an archive of photos for teaching and research quickly blossomed into an intense passion for photography as a creative outlet.
Has your background as an art historian affected your landscape photography in any way?
Yes, my approaches to composition, visual storytelling, and post-processing are all deeply rooted in my background as an art historian. I spent more than two decades studying works of art from pre-history through to the present day, constantly observing, interpreting, comparing, synthesizing, theorizing, and writing about why any of it matters. I’m so steeped in this background that it informs nearly everything that I do as a photographer, from how I see in the field, to how I make sense of what I’m seeing, to how I choose to present it, and later to how I discuss those processes in articles and talks. I also draw upon my practical training in the studio arts quite a bit, but I think it’s my background in art history that has done the most to form who I am as an artist.
How would you describe your photographic style?
A famous art historian once described Greek sculpture as having “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur”, and I think those are the qualities that I gravitate towards in my photographs. When I was an art historian, I specialized in Greek sculpture, and to this day I tend to see features of nature as abstract sculptures in a landscape. That habit not only results in certain compositional tendencies (especially the use of grand forms, balance, and hierarchy), but also certain tendencies towards storytelling. I can’t see sculptural ‘characters’ out in nature without also seeing a story there. Multiple characters usually seem to be in dialogue with each other, while single protagonists might suggest a metaphor. Either way, my imagination tends to provide little narratives to guide me. Storytelling is not always a completely conscious process in the field, but sometimes it is, and it’s always part of the process when I make decisions in culling my images.
Besides these more compositional tendencies, I also have some pretty distinct habits in post-processing. People often comment on the subtlety of my colorwork, and I think that quality is also is a big part of my style. I embrace color and use it very deliberately, but I prefer a more restrained use of hues and tones to balance out the boldness of the scenes and the compositions.
Can you take us through some of your thought processes before capturing an image? Do you look for something in particular when approaching a scene?
I touched on this process in the previous answer, which explains how I tend to see features of a landscape as characters, but there is an additional process of seeing for me that is more aesthetic. I’ve produced two articles about compositional “patterns” in nature, one article that dealt with scenic schemes and another that focused on abstraction. When I’m first approaching an area of interest, I do tend to look for one of those nine patterns or combinations of them. As I explain in those two articles (especially in the second one), the patterns have certain interpretive leanings, so for me they are very much connected with the process of seeing stories. Patterns often give me a starting point, and then whatever stories might come to mind guide me in refining my composition or in choosing my timing.
You’re involved in a lot of speaking engagements for various creative events. Share with us what you hope attendants get out of your talks as well as what you get out of it yourself.
My talks are an essential part of my own creative process as well as being my favorite method of educating and inspiring. Whereas time in the field with students is extremely valuable and productive for the purposes of teaching, talks give me the opportunity to bring more depth and breadth to the instruction. Most of my talks are essentially performances of certain articles, and the articles start out as meditations on my own creative concerns—they are ways of explaining certain ideas to myself first and foremost. As articles become talks and the talks evolve over time, my understanding of photography and myself becomes stronger. Ultimately, I always strive to be able to share those understandings in ways that are truly helpful and inspirational to other photographers.
Strong compositions are one of the key elements in your photography. Why is it important to focus on and should it be more important than other aspects, such as post-processing?
In my view composition provides the bones of an image. Without good bones, an image is unlikely to withstand the test of time. Exceptional post-processing on its own can be a wonder to behold, but its impact is likely to wear off easily if it’s merely providing an interesting superficial quality. Composition gives structure to the image and in turn to whatever story the image might suggest to a viewer. That said, I don’t see post-processing as being completely separate from composition because it can be very useful in bringing out or even in creating whatever composition a photographer might envision.
Is it essential for landscape photographers to grow a large online following in order to succeed?
I suppose it depends on how you define “large” and how you define success. I’ve never put a lot of emphasis on growing social media numbers myself, and yet my following has grown to be somewhat substantial and helpful to my career. For example, at the moment I have posted only 41 photos to my Instagram ‘portfolio’ in five years of having that account, but that small selection of photos has drawn in about fifty thousand followers there. Although that’s not a huge following compared with the largest accounts, it is an unusual ratio of photos to followers, and I also get a relatively high amount of engagement for that number of followers. I regard social media as one spoke in a large wheel, so I ration my time with it in order to reach more people through articles, appearances, and through my own website. By being selective about what I post to social media, I think people there feel a bit more connected to my work, and I have more time for the other outlets that in turn end up bringing more people to my social media accounts. This approach won’t make sense for every photographer, but it has been highly beneficial for my purposes.
What are your stands in the post-processing debate?
I’ve been very outspoken in my support of creative photography, including the use of post-processing for whatever results might appeal to a photographer. My own habits are relatively conservative, but my views are very open-minded. For example, I don’t create fantasy scenes that combine features from different locations, but I absolutely encourage anyone who is drawn to such creations to explore those possibilities. We have more to gain from encouraging creativity than we do from trying to govern or limit it. Photography is a young medium characterized most of all by rapidly expanding technologies and potential, so even defining the medium as a whole is highly subjective—from camera-less processes to ones that omit the photographer, we have seen it all, and surely more variations will develop in the future. What excites me the most is viewing images that are highly expressive and seeing people finding joy in the creative process.
Most of your images capture rather breathtaking sceneries. Do you believe it is important to travel and seek out these locations or is it possible to create great images without great landscapes?
What constitutes a great image is highly subjective, of course, but photos that stand the test of time can come out of very modest locations. One of the images that I show in my lecture on the history of landscape photography is a detail of a small cascade produced by John Blakemore in 1979. That photo continues to delight me every time I see it, and it’s just a small section of a small cascade in the Lake District. John is also notable for having photographed his living room for ten years as a “domestic landscape” after advanced age made it difficult for him to travel much anymore. On the other hand, very majestic locations can look quite unimpressive in some photographs. I think inspiration is ultimately what leads to a special image, and it really comes down to putting yourself in a situation where your mind can feel free of burdens and distractions. In my case, that pursuit usually means venturing out into wilderness areas because I feel a great sense of freedom in such environments.
How much planning goes into creating an image?
Over the years planning particular images has become less common for me, but even when I do plan one, it usually follows some discovery that I made through simple exploration. Typically, I will get an idea from seeing something through happenstance and will then resort to planning if the idea would benefit from different timing, a different location, or from a different technical approach. I spend far more time doing boots-on-the-ground exploration than I do on planning.
What advice do you have for someone considering to go full-time? Is there anything in particular they need to be prepared for?
Anyone aspiring to go full-time in landscape photography should be prepared to leverage their own unique strengths in forging a business model. What seems to be working for other people may not be the best route for you, so make decisions based on your own strengths, needs, and values.
What are the biggest ups and downs you’ve faced since turning full-time?
Being invited to join the Photo Cascadia team was really meaningful and motivating for me, so I look back on that development as a major highlight. Other highlights include various invitations and opportunities to work with brands and photographers that I respect. I also feel fortunate for the many opportunities that have come my way to appear at interesting events and in a variety of broadcast shows. Above all, though, it has been immensely gratifying to see countless students and followers express appreciation for my educational contributions and to see the photographs that they produce after they have some new wind at their backs.
By far the biggest setback for me was losing my home and office in California when the “Camp Fire” incinerated nearly everything in the town of Paradise a mere week after I moved in there. Ironically, that catastrophe also brought about one of the most heartening developments of my life when people from all over the world rallied around me in support. The Photo Cascadia team was instrumental in getting the word out about my plight, adding yet another reason for me to see the team as one of the greatest sources of light in my life as a professional photographer.
Most recently, I received the biggest honor of my career, but I can’t reveal it until the news officially becomes public next month. For now, I’ll just say that I am extremely grateful to all of the people who have supported me over the years, and I look forward to serving the photography community through a variety of new projects going forward.
You’ve done a great job teaching photography through articles, podcasts and other mediums; How important is it to give back to the community and help bring up new talent?
Thanks for those kind words! Serving and mentoring are core values for me, and everything that I do as a photographer stems from my belief that art is essential to the wellness of humanity. Being creative is not only therapeutic for people but it transfers from one type of activity to another, allowing us to exercise the more abstract powers of thinking that can help to solve problems of all sorts. Creating art that delights us and our viewers is a valuable use of time and energy, and so is undertaking any creative activity as a mental exercise. This set of beliefs is what motivates me, so my role as a creative coach is not just giving back; it’s also the starting point.
Tell us a little about Photo Cascadia and your role in it.
Photo Cascadia is a photography collective with seven team members who all specialize in nature photography. We collaborate on a variety of projects, most notably our educational blog, but we also collaborate on book projects, gallery exhibitions, and workshops. The team is currently celebrating our tenth anniversary by revisiting our vast archives of educational content in new posts that annotate and expand upon older ones.
We each have the same role in the group, and there is no designated team leader. Each of us contributes according to our own strengths and as time is available, and we take turns spearheading different projects and tasks—and somehow it all works out!
What are your top three tips for someone just getting started with landscape photography?
1) Concentrate on what you enjoy, not on what you think will sell or what someone else says is “right”.
2) Experiment widely with different ideas, techniques, and environments.
3) Feed your head by viewing art and by seeking out sources of education and inspiration.
Tell us what’s next for Erin Babnik.
As usual, I have a very full schedule of traveling for photography, workshops, and talks in 2020. I’m also close to having two new offices up and running to replace what I lost in the fire so that I’ll be set up again to move forward with my book, video, and exhibition projects. Beyond all of that, I have some very exciting news that I will be able to share in about a month. Anyone who would like to learn more about what I have going on in the future should subscribe to my newsletter to stay in touch!