Photographer of the Month Interview: Charles Cramer | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, May 2015:   Charles Cramer

Our thanks to Charles Cramer, our featured guest photographer for May, 2015. We appreciate that he's taken the time to share his story, thoughts and beautiful photography with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: Your first interest creatively was music; how did you make the transition from music into photography? What similarities do you find music and photography share?

Just before starting two years of graduate work in piano, I visited Yosemite National Park for the first time. I really fell in love with it, and for the next two years finishing up my degree, I was very distracted. That first summer back in California, I made a beeline for Yosemite with my new (used) 4x5 press camera. But I didn't really know how to use it, and proceeded to make some of the worst photos ever done in Yosemite! I started with black and white, but eventually also started playing with color. I was making terrible images, but I loved doing it--so, just like in music, if you practice, you get better! About seven years later (1982), the Ansel Adams gallery actually started selling some of my prints. (Of course, I never showed them those first prints!)

:: You have received a lot of accolades for your skill as a printer. What about printing drew you to perfecting that aspect of photography? What creative challenges did the darkroom (now, digital darkroom) provide that you enjoy?

As a pianist, you study how to bring musical scores to life, often ones written hundreds of years ago. Many creative decisions are involved in trying to bring the music to life. One uses the same mindset when making prints (how can I best bring this to life in the strongest way possible?). This is my favorite part of the process, so I've devoted most of my time in photography to learning how to make the best possible prints. Many photographers don't want to take the time to learn this, but I think they're missing out. In digital photography, most photographers are a little more involved in this interpretive aspect, as most will do their own "developing" of the RAW file. There are great opportunities here to strenghten and improve images!

:: Now that the traditional darkroom is used less frequently, do you still like the printing process as much? Do you still use a traditional darkroom process for printing?

I haven't used my darkroom (or now, "storage room") for many years. I did enjoy the time in the darkroom, as it could be very relaxing. But the advantages of digital in color images is undeniable. You have so much more control over every aspect of an image. I used to use the very laborious Kodak Dye Transfer Process to make color prints, but I can definitely do better now with digital.

:: Music, printing, and the actual photography process are all very analytical and mathematical in process. Do you find that the process is as fascinating to you as the creative aspects?

I think all photographers, at least of the old school, were to some degree "anal," or in other words, overly preoccupied with technical matters. Many photographers could spend most of their time working out Ansel Adams' zone system, neglecting the more important artistic considerations. Nowadays, photographers can be overly obsessed with things like sharpening. What the study of music gives you is the understanding that both technique and aesthetics come hand-in-hand. As Ansel Adams used to say, "There's nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept."

:: You worked with and learned from Ansel Adams while in Yosemite. What were a few of the biggest lessons you gleaned from him?

Ansel was very inspiring in the depth of his devotion and fascination with photography. I had the privilege of having dinner at Ansel's house on several occasions. After dinner on the first occasion, Ansel asked, "Did anyone bring prints?" Now, this is after a full day of darkroom work —- he wanted to see more prints! I wasn't ready that first time, but sure enough, at the second dinner, he asked the same question, and that time I was ready.

:: When I look at your portfolio, what I really enjoy is the way you notice color, line, and the intimate details of a location. A viewer would be hard pressed in a majority of the images to put a specific location to an image unless they knew the spot, or they were told. You have very few "iconic" grand vista shots, or images where an icon is the main subject. What do you look for when you go out to shoot? Do you plan trips to locations based on potential for textures and color as opposed to "OH man, I gotta get a shot of THIS Mountain at sunset?"

When I first started photographing in Yosemite, I did make photographs of all the iconic grand vistas. But after a few years of this, I wanted to do something a little different, so I started moving in closer. I'm primarily a color photographer, but I have a confession--I don't like blue skies! To me, it can start to look like a "postcard." So, I almost always compose without any sky or horizon in my images. I do this for another reason, too. The sky is usually the brightest thing in an image, and people are drawn to bright, shiny objects—-like skies. I think the highlights in a print are very important, and I find I can get more interesting compositions without dealing with the sky. It's just easier! I usually photograph in full shade, or on overcast days. Without any sun highlighting various parts of the image, I can subtly lighten things to make them more important, and thus choose what I want people to look at myself. Because they will look at the brightest part—-and it should be important.

:: Watching landscape photography progress and change over the past decade, what do you see as the something you wish hadn't changed? What do you wish could go back to the way it was 20 years ago?

It's wonderful to keep track of friends on Facebook, and see what everyone is up to, but, the reliance on just posting an image has led to a decrease in the amount of printing most photographers do. For me, the end result of my photography is a print. And in printing an image, you learn a lot more about the image, and how to make it even stronger and more compelling. I think those who only post images lose out on this aspect.

:: How have you embraced the social media aspect of photography and feeding people's needs for being constantly updated on what other photographers are up to, and share their own musings and work? How do you think Ansel would view and use social media?

Although I enjoy Facebook, I don't really post that often. Ansel had tremendous energy and kept up a voluminous correspondence with almost anyone who wrote him (like me!) So, I imagine Ansel would be fairly conspicuous on social media.

When asked, what was his favorite photograph, Ansel replied, "The one I'm going to make tomorrow!" I feel the same way. I also tend to go back to the same location over and over. At different times of year, or with different weather, you can often find something you haven't photographed before. But, perhaps more importantly, I have changed since the last time I photographed there. I see things slightly differently, so I enjoy time with these locations I've visited over and over.

:: What excites you the most with the future of photography, and what concerns you the most about where the medium is heading?

Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was exceedingly hard to make a really good color print. Now, it's much, much easier. This opens up opportunites for many more photographers. My only concern is that perhaps it's getting too easy!

:: What do you think is the most common mistake made by aspiring landscape photographers, and how would you recommend the problem be corrected?

I think most landscape photographers don't pay enough attention to the highlights in a scene. I especially advise people to look out for "rogue highlights," which I define as bright things that don't add to the composition. Often, it's easy to zoom in to avoid these. Or, if necessary, they could be cloned out. Also, in processing images, try to insure that highlights, like fluffy clouds, have some degree of separation. Many times they will be processed so they look washed-out. Many raw processors now have "highlight" controls that can help separate and give detail to such highlights.

:: What is the scariest thing that has happened to you while out on a shoot?

Four friends and I were out in a steep canyon in Yosemite. At some point, we lost track of one of the people, and could not find him. We each had walkie-talkies, but he didn't answer, so we became convinced that he must have slipped and fallen to his death in this canyon. It was only later that we realized he was OK, and his walkie-talkie was set to the wrong channel! So, always test your walkie-talkies.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic equipment?

Can't think of anything….

:: What's on your photographic bucket list you hope to check off in the next 2 years?

I've just returned from a trip to Antarctica, which was absolutely incredible. I would hope to go back there at some point. Perhaps Iceland would also be great to visit. But, for the most part, I'm very happy with my usual photographic destinations here in the U.S. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy revisiting places and photographing them again.

Charles Cramer

"When asked, what was his favorite photograph, Ansel replied, 'The one I'm going to make tomorrow!' I feel the same way."

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