Photographer of the Month Interview: Gary Crabbe | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, September 2012:   Gary Crabbe

This month, our featured guest is Gary Crabbe.

We want to thank Gary for his generosity in answering our questions and sharing his work with us! Please visit his site links to see more of his great work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get started in photography?

When I was a teenager, my parents bought me a Minolta X-370 SLR camera to use when I went away to college. Unfortunately it didn't get used very much. Finally in my senior year I took a basic Photography 101 class because I needed an easy elective class for graduation. The class was all about black-and-white photography, where we developed our own film, and processed our own prints in a darkroom. While getting my Masters degree in directing for the Theater, I became the official department photographer. I would run around on stage during a final dress rehearsal, shooting handheld with no flash, using ASA-3200 speed black-and-white film. After the rehearsal, I would head back to my apartment and set up my own darkroom in the bathroom. By 10 AM the next morning, I would deliver two dozen 8" x 10" B&W prints. By 6 PM, students in the art department would have all the prints matted and hanging in the theater lobby as an exhibit in preparation for that opening night's performance.

:: How did that get you started working at the Galen Rowell gallery in the Stock Department?

After I graduated with my Masters in Directing, I got offered an internship with San Francisco Studios. However, weeks later, before I could even start my internship, the studio went bankrupt and closed its doors. I wound up going back to the type of work I had done for the previous 10 years, working as a cook. After six months of waking up at 4 AM to spend my days cooking breakfast, I was so burnt out that I was applying for any job I could find, as long as it was a regular Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 job. One of those jobs said, "Outdoor Stock Photography; must love dogs." I had no idea what that meant, but I knew I liked the outdoors, photography, and dogs. By the grace of the universe, or as I was later told "fairy dust," I wound up getting a job running the stock photo department for Galen Rowell. I was specifically hired because I had no interest at the time in becoming a photographer, and had nothing more than a basic black-and-white photography course as the basis of my education. They were looking for someone to run the business side of things, and not a "wanna-be" photographer. Resumés of people that came into the office indicating they had hopes or aspirations of becoming a photographer were quickly sorted into the circular file holder.

:: What lessons working there, with Galen and in the stock side of things, helped shape your [current] business most?

Communication, professionalism, and attention to detail are the first things that come to mind. I still, and will probably always, struggle with the latter. Once you learn how to be professional, as in a state of being and operating, and how to communicate appropriately, your clients will come to see and recognize you as a professional, and hopefully recognize the value you bring to the business. Next is how to edit images, which is actually a three-tiered process. First is editing compositionally while in the field shooting. Second is while looking at slides on a light box, choosing which frames to keep. And finally, third is editing submissions of images from a collection of 400,000 transparencies for books, magazine editors, and advertisers.

:: What forced you out from Mountain Light into your own business, or did you have one during your time with the gallery?

Galen and his wife were super-sensitive to having photographers working for them after being badly burned by several early employees, to the point where it came across more like a post-traumatic stress reaction. So doing your own photography was like dancing on a sheet of glass. Most everything I did during those early years was either cleared by Galen in advance, or actually done through Mountain Light. (This is also one of the reasons I advocate having a strong professional ethos when you're out in the business world.) Any other business I had on my own during that time was mainly print sales resulting from shows hanging in coffee shops or local framing galleries.

I wouldn't call it forced out as much as I would call it chose out. When my wife got pregnant with our first child, we were absolutely sure one of us was going to be a stay at home parent. Sadly, the decision came down to health benefits; my wife's job offered full family medical coverage, whereas my job unfortunately didn't offer any such benefits. Add in the fact that I could also sell my photos while being a stay at home dad pretty much sealed the decision to leave.

:: What one piece of advice or philosophy that Galen shared has made the biggest impact on your photography?

Photographically, there is no doubt it was about how to see and photograph light, and what things to look for or avoid when shooting; in other words, editing and composing while out in the field. Philosophically, it would be to develop your own personal vision and style as a photographer.

:: Having been in outdoor/landscape/nature photography before the digital push, how has it all changed for the stock business, or fine art, now that digital has swarmed onto the scene and everyone has a camera and is out taking photos? And how has it changed your own approach to photography?

Digital photography has simply made the medium much more accessible for people to express themselves artistically. Back in the days of slide film, you pretty much had to get it right the moment you pressed the shutter. That knowledge and skill is no longer required as a must to be a professional, since digital has now drastically expanded the recovery and processing range. Basically, the world is now becoming flooded with digital photos. There has been a huge devaluation in the stock photography market, which can be blamed on both buyers and sellers. Buyers quickly learned they could get more rights for less money, and photographers, especially those just starting out, often have a terrible time learning how to value their own work. They also often price their work based out of the fear that someone else will sell for less. And down the spiral staircase an industry went.

An unfortunate reality is that in both commercial and fine art markets, the first budget to get slashed in a down economy is often what people would consider the most frivolous expenditures; and art usually leads the list.

Probably the biggest impact the digital push has had on my own photography is the amount of time I need to spend sitting behind a computer. I continue to shoot as much or more than I did when shooting film. Whereas before, all I needed to do was wait two hours for the rolls of E-6 film to be developed and mounted. I could usually have the entire roll on a light box in 10-15 minutes. Nowadays, between editing and checking sharpness in Lightroom, processing the RAW files, cleaning them up, captioning, keywording, and getting the finished files ready to deliver to clients or agents, it takes an average of 2 to 3 days total processing time for every morning or afternoon I'm out shooting.

:: With this new crop of photographers, there are numerous hands in the same cookie jar, which has led to some very heated competition in the field and online. How have you dealt with this personally, and tried to deal with any backlash you may have personally received?

I think one of the reasons things seem to have become more heated is that because a particular place, subject, or processing style becomes familiar or en vogue, people flock like lemmings to get their own trophy versions to the point when what was once fresh and new is now just another cookie-cutter clone. The sad reality is some people choose to act like rats in a crowded cage, focusing on what others are doing instead of on themselves. One of my photographer friends has experienced some pretty horrible and very personal attacks online which was absolutely disgusting to witness. Envy and jealousy can certainly bring out the worst in people, even in the photography circles. Fortunately I don't feel as if I've personally ever received such a level of backlash, or if I have, I was too busy to notice it. I did get raked over the coals once in an online forum of the Analog Photography User Group (APUG), when images I had posted online were held up as a prime example of what was wrong with digital photography, and the use of my extreme saturation was ruining landscape photography. However, they quieted down quickly after I pointed out all the images they were complaining about were straight scans taken from my older slide film, and how at the time I didn't even own a digital camera.

:: You're working on a new book, can you talk a little about the project, and when we'll be able to see it?

I've just completed a huge project putting together a photography guide for Northern California. The book will be called, Photographing California: Volume 1 - North. It's being published as part of the series started by Laurent Martrés, who did the Photographing the Southwest series of photographic guide books. Basically, we drew a line from Santa Cruz to Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra, and if it was a worthy place for scenic, outdoor, nature, or travel photographers, I tried to include it in the book. Unfortunately, Northern California is a world-class destination in its own right, with so many wonderful and spectacular sights, it was tough to fit it all into one book.

The book should be out and available by the holidays (2012). Another photographer, Jeffrey Sullivan, is doing the Southern California book, which I believe will be out sometime next year.

:: Where is your favorite spot in California to shoot, and why? What area do you perhaps wish you'd spent more time or haven't ever visited?

You mean besides the redwoods, coast, and Yosemite? Honestly though, I can't say that I have any one singular favorite spot; it's like asking which of your kids do you love more. Surprisingly though, many of my favorite images have been shot in the rolling and oak-covered hills of the Bay Area, especially in the East Bay near where I live.

There are actually two areas of California that I hope to visit or spend more time shooting. Foremost would be the high country of the southern Sierra, even though I'm altitude sensitive. There was about a fifteen year period when I couldn't do any backpacking or significant hiking because of chronic back pain and an acute knee injury after I ripped it out of its socket while hiking on a trail. Now that I've recovered those abilities, places like Evolution Basin, Palisade Range, and parts of the John Muir Trail are pretty high on my to-do list. The other area would be exploring around the stark beauty of the extreme southern California and Mojave Desert regions, especially during the monsoon season.

:: In addition to the new book, you have several other books; which of those (if you had to pick) is your favorite, or maybe just represents a particularly challenging subject to write a book about?

Four of the first five books I did were all written by a professional travel writer, having been teamed up with her through the publisher, with myself being the sole photographer. Of those books, my favorite was our first, The California Coast, which had a foreword by Jean Michel Cousteau, and won a book-of-the-year-award. My last book, Greetings from California, represented a particular challenge because I had to research a lot of the state's history. However, in contrast, I had a wonderful time researching many of the historical photos that got used in the book, including some by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, William Henry Jackson, and Edward S. Curtis.

:: You're big on minimal processing, and given we're in a Photoshop world where everything has some degree of post-processing, where do you draw the line? Secondly, how do you deal with it when people ask or are curious about your shooting and processing policy?

For myself, the line depends on where or how the images being used are presented. If I'm just prepping standard images for my stock agent files, I generally just hit a handful of basic corrections. If I have to spend more than three minutes correcting an image, I start getting frustrated that it's taking too long. Obviously, if I'm working on a master file for a print or portfolio quality shot, I'll give it as much time as it needs. However, I'm not much of a tech head, which is probably the reason why I don't spend a lot of time dealing with layers and masks. For myself, I will clone out the distracting rock, stick, or bright spot every once in a while, but not to the point where it changes the editorial accuracy of the scene, although it may no longer be photojournalistic-level accurate. The one thing I never do is add elements that weren't in front of the camera at the time I was taking the photo. In other words, I don't replace a boring sky with a more dramatic sky. When people ask me about my shooting and processing policy, I'm pretty straightforward and transparent. I simply tell them I try to get as much right in the camera as possible when I take a photo, and that no artificial ingredients have been added.

:: What goes into making a stock image for you? How does the process differ from setting out to make a fine art image?

A stock photo simply means an image that already exists. Technically any image you've ever taken could be a stock photo. It doesn't matter if the processing took you two minutes or two days if someone wants to buy an image as a stock photo. By the time any of my photos is ready to go to an agent, the master file has undergone as much process as would be needed or necessary to make a good double-page print spread in any national magazine. The difference with my fine art prints is that they will be made directly from the highest resolution master file, and are custom-sharpened and tweaked for final output based on a specific given size and process.

:: Your iconic image of the bird and El-Capitan in the background really stands out to me, and I think everyone automatically associates you with that shot. Can you talk about making the image, and then how you've used it to "brand" it to yourself and your business?

This was one of those moments of pure synchronicity and forethought, which occurred in the middle of what I thought was a rather mundane snap and grab photo. I was literally pulled off on the side of Northside Drive in Yosemite Valley, taking a photo of the road leading towards El Capitan in the background. As I was looking through the viewfinder, I saw this raven flying above the road down through the middle of the trees. I had just enough time to spin my aperture dial to wide open, pull off my graduated split neutral density filter, and recompose the photo without the road as the bird was flying towards me. I waited perhaps all of a second before the bird looked like it would be in the right spot. I managed to fire off a single frame before the bird flew out of the shot.

As for the branding aspect, I never really do any artistic titles, but the caption "Native Spirit" came to me almost instantaneously the first time I saw the photo. I started using it as my avatar because the bird seemed to be an iconic symbol for freedom, yet be in a simple and easily recognized photo. When I redid my website last year, we'd already gone through several variations of a new logo when my designer came up with this sunrise effect behind my company name. Even though I'm not a bird photographer, I thought that it might look cool for the bird to be included flying up out of that sunrise. I quickly cut out the bird from my master file and dropped it in behind the logo. Just as instantly as the original caption had popped into my head, my brain said, "That's it!"

:: How much time do you spend with trying to fight copyright infringement issues? Any tips for other photographers who are currently either dealing with a copyright issue, or wondering how to find out if someone is stealing their work?

I try to spend as little time as possible fighting copyright infringement issues. They're a headache, time-consuming, and often a no-win scenario. The best thing I can say to photographers who are finding their work used inappropriately is to try and resolve the issue as quickly and amicably as possible. I often try to give people the benefit of the doubt, saying I understand this might be simple oversight, and if we can settle this right away for a retroactive license, I'm typically happy to waive any penalty. If it's a personal weblog, I usually just send a note asking them to credit me and provide a link back to my website. If it's a company, then they should certainly know better, so I don't feel bad pushing the matter a little further. Most infringements I have found have come through Google, a Google images search, or a friend or fellow photographer has seen and recognized the image and alerted me to it. There are several technologies out there, including digital watermarks, or image recognition like TinEye, which can also help alert photographers to potential unauthorized uses.

:: What travel plans do you have for this upcoming year for photography?

With so much of my focus this year on my book project, I've kept the future travel plans to a minimum. Having done seven back-to-back books on California, I often feel like my only criteria is that it needs to be some place out-of-state. Currently in the works are plans for New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Baja.

:: What piece of non-photographic gear can you not live without?

First would be my truck; I drive a Toyota 4-Runner, which is my home on the road. The second would be a good set of hiking poles.

:: Can you share a story from a time out photographing where you were generally fearful you would not return from the adventure?

Fortunately I haven't had too many of those. I once had a drunk, hung-over boyfriend threaten to beat me to a pulp on a beach when he saw me taking photos of his bikini-clad girlfriend; this was after she agreed to step into a shot and model for me. Probably the most recent experience I had was several years ago when I walked off a nearly 40-foot tall cliff in the middle of the night while I was all by myself in Death Valley. Interestingly enough, I didn't have any fear at all when it was happening. In fact, I was surprisingly calm considering I'd just woken up in the dark, face down in the dirt on the desert floor, with a broken wrist, and no idea how I got there. The "fear" came several days later when I was laid up in the hospital for a week with a subdural hematoma, thinking back on what could've happened.

:: What piece of advice would you pass on to new photographers looking to start a career as a professional landscape and nature photographer?

The very first pieces of advice I would give to any new photographers looking to start a career is to be as professional in your approach and presentations as possible, and learn how to value your work. I always tell people, if you don't value your own work, nobody else will either. Don't just try to copy what other people are doing or have done. Try to develop a niche or specialty that will make you stand out in a crowded marketplace. Finally, if you're dealing with editors, always show your best work, and if they ask to see something specific, don't show them 23 other images that aren't what they're asking for, but you "think" they might like to see anyway.

Gary Crabbe

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