Photographer of the Month Interview: Michael Bollino | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, April 2016:   Michael Bollino

Our sincere thanks to Michael Bollino for agreeing to be our featured guest photographer this month. We greatly appreciate his time and generosity in sharing his wonderful photography with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: Where did the interest in photography as a creative medium come in?

Becoming a photographer was a gradual process, resulting from many years of outdoor pursuits and travel. Discovering the natural world as a freshman in college was a massively transformational experience. I went from a fairly depressed, rudderless teenager to one who felt as though the whole world was now opened to him. Any chance we had my friends and I would go backpacking in the Appalachians, rock climbing, take trips to New Hampshire for winter climbing, and drive cross country to do more of the same in the mountain west. The cumulative effect of all these trips was the development of a strong connection to the natural world. This connection remains a dominant influence on my life to this day.

So, naturally, I would carry a camera on all of these trips to document our adventures. Back home these pictures became treasured reminders of some really powerful experiences, not just of our personal adventures, but reminders of just how intensely beautiful nature can be. Within the first few years I realized what I truly sought going on these trips was to be immerse in beauty. Exploring the mountain world, and later traveling, was the easiest way I knew how to accomplish this goal. Figuring out ways to capture this beauty with a camera in a meaningful way was a natural progression. Once I recognized this point the journey toward being a photographer truly began. I never really decided to become a photographer, it just happened.

:: Unlike a lot of photographers, you started with film and slides. How did that experience help shape the photographer you wanted to be digitally?

I shot slide and film from 1995 until 2006 when I purchased my first dSLR. Back then I looked to Galen Rowell for both inspiration as well as technical knowledge. I devoured his books, read many of his columns in Outdoor Photographer, and relied heavily on a few of his maxims, such as exposing for your most important highlight. His writing exposed me to the use of graduated neutral density filters, wide angle lenses, and using foreground elements to create a sense of depth. These techniques alone steered me away from pure documentation and more toward creative end of landscape photography. Art Wolfe was also a tremendous influence in this regard. His book 7 Summits was a game changer for me.

As for how shooting film has shaped my photography today, that's a very interesting question. I can truly say that beyond the basic knowledge of aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focusing, there are very few holdovers from my film days which I still rely on while out in the field today. For me, shooting film was a slow, deliberate, cerebral, and, ultimately, limiting process. I metered religiously to help ensure proper exposure. Every release of the shutter meant money spent so I vetted every scene I chose to shoot and took few creative risks. There was just so much thinking involved. All of these considerations acted to separate me from the very nature I aimed to experience and capture. I enjoyed seeing the results once processed, but not necessarily the effort in the field.

Then digital came along and it marked a paradigm shift in the way I see, think, and capture. It was liberating. For one, I am now freer to explore the creative side of photography. I can take more risks, trust instincts, and push harder with little risk if nothing comes of it. The second, and in many ways more significant benefit, is that digital allows me to be more deeply engaged with my environment. When a shoot is going really well a sort of flow state develops where there is little need for thought or reason. It's more a matter of sensing everything then reacting to that input. It's a deeply satisfying feeling when it occurs. Pure experience -- that's been my goal since I started going into nature.

:: It seems that your early photography was more based on documenting the experience, maybe in a beautiful way, but I think now your work seems to come from a "creating art" standpoint first. How has working from the perspective of creating art changed how you approach photography and exploration?

Yes, things have definitely evolved over time. For the first few years my photography was very much documentary in nature. The goal was to bring home images of the places I went and my personal experiences as I moved through those places. Waiting for good light or searching out interesting compositions occasionally happened, but much of my collection from that time was much more opportunistic. I shot where I went, so the images reflected a journey in real time.

Over time a curiosity set in. I read more and began trying to capture images which went beyond the representational and more towards the style dedicated landscape photographers shot. Again, Art Wolfe's work really pushed me in that direction. Before spending three months in Nepal and India in 2003 I distinctly remember setting the goal capturing images more in line with what he and Galen achieved-- not that I thought I would ever come close! Then, when I switched to digital, I was really able to push more. One big turning point was the realization that the creative process didn't stop at the moment of capture. Post-processing knowledge and skills actually informed and broadened creative choices in the field. This marked a BIG perspective change in the way I approached photography.

:: What is your favorite type of environment to photograph, and why?

If some god-like power descended from the heavens and forced me to only photograph one environment it would undoubtedly be mountains. I've had a life-long obsession with mountains. To me, they are the most dynamic environment on earth. Mountain weather is unpredictable and moody -- clouds, sun, wind all mix together to create amazing displays. Also, mountains often rise above much of the air pollution and humidity of the lower atmosphere, resulting in crisper light and purer colors. These reasons all lead to making them perfect photographic subjects. Plus there's a power and mystery inherent in mountains which is irresistible to me.

I've spent a lot of time in the mountain world over the past twenty-five years. At times it bordered on an obsession. Deciding where to travel largely depended on which mountains or ranges I wanted to experience firsthand, whether it be the Himalayas, or Patagonia, or Peru's Cordillera Blanca, or Mount Kailash in western Tibet. These places, and the lore surrounding them, sunk their teeth in me until I relented and bought a plane ticket. One future goal is to return to some of these areas, notably the Himalaya, to photography them properly, hopefully with my son.

:: With landscape photography being so popular these days, and the Pacific Northwest being even more popular, what challenges do those pose for you to create new work?

Living in the Pacific Northwest is both a blessing and a liability. Seven years ago I rarely saw another tripod while shooting local haunts, now I'm shocked if I don't! The region holds an incredible variety of photographic opportunities: coasts, mountains, forests, and the desert. The upsides are easy access to a variety of stunning natural areas, and a vibrant landscape community.

The rise in popularity of landscape photography has been tremendous in recent years. Overall, I think it's a good thing. It's one reason the art form has evolved so quickly. Personally, I enjoy meeting other photographers out in the field. If I'm shooting the Columbia River Gorge in May I have to EXPECT a ton of other photographers to be on the trail. To be annoyed or bothered by this nonsense. I do wonder if there will come a time when this fervor dies down. People tend to get really into something then a few years latter give it up. It was like that for rock-climbing in the mid-nineties, or white water kayaking fifteen years ago. Lots of news, lots of people getting into it, then it all normalizes to a degree. The people still doing it are the people doing it for the right reasons. I could be wrong.

This landscape photography boom does have a few downsides. Many local haunts are approaching being "shot out". The sheer numbers of images flooding the photography world from these places turns me off from wanting to go there myself. That doesn't mean there aren't new and exciting images to be made, just that photographers have to push harder to find something original. That's the challenge I guess, and in many ways this is motivating. Also, in recent years I've noticed a few popular areas of the Columbia River Gorge being trampled, most likely by the steady tide of photographers. One example is the flowers at Emerald Falls. They have taken a BEATING from photographers. I've even seen damage at popular off trail areas a well.

So what are the effects of this on creating new work? Well, the challenge is to create new work which shows well known areas in a different way. Same elements presented through a different lens of seeing. This has long been a goal of mine. I usually don't look at too many images of an area before I visit. The danger is having other people's images in mind while in the field. This cramps creativity and originality and leads to a fixed mindset. I don't claim to be the most original photographer in the world, but I don't really do the icon thing or have any desire to plan a trip just to go grab a copycat image of a well known composition. Seems pointless. Often times my favorite images from a trip are the least expected.

:: What's your favorite piece of non-photographic gear?

Hands down that would be my AeroPress coffee maker! Not only does it make the best cup of coffee this side of espresso, but it's light, fairly small, fast to use, and super easy to clean. I've even brought it along on backpacking trips. I'm a coffee addict so there's nothing better than brewing a perfect cup of coffee after a sunrise shoot while taking in your surroundings.

:: Given the current state of landscape photography, if someone could wave a magic wand and go back to only film photography (and there would be no digital photography), would you choose that, and why or why not?

I would have to say no. Not only for the reasons mentioned above, but I truly believe we are living through an incredibly exciting time for landscape photography. How often does that happen in the history of any art form? It's phenomenal how far the landscape photography has evolved in only the last ten years! We are so damn lucky to be a part of this progression, especially for those who have been shooting for more than just the last couple of years. I'm much more satisfied as an photographer now than I ever was while shooting film, so there's really no reason to want to go back. Besides, I've met many good friends through digital photography! During my film days I felt like a lone wolf out there!

:: Where do you think this medium is headed? What do you get excited for, and what scares you about it?

I'm not really sure but I'm continually excited for what's coming next! I'm curious to see how far sensor technology goes, especially regarding ISO performance. I know this goes against the grain of common sentiment, but if you want to create the highest quality images at the leading edge of landscape photography (not that I'm doing that mind you!) then gear does matter. Put game changing technology in the hands of talent -- that's where the next horizon lies.

I have this weird fascination about where the next game changing photographer is right now. You know -- that kid whose Grandpa just gave them their first camera this past Christmas and now the fire is lit and in eight years (s)he's going to revolutionize the landscape world. They're out there somewhere. For some strange reason this thought excites me.

Over the past three years I have thought on occasion that landscape photography has hit a plateau of sorts. Every time someone manages to crash through the ceiling by showing the world something new. I do believe we are entering the phase of refinement, especially on the post-processing side of things. Control seems to be paramount. The photographers pushing the field forward have greater command their craft, from the moment of capture all the way through post-processing. HDR and nuclear day-glo images are becoming less frequent. Mood, atmosphere, and more subtle, yet technically powerful, processing styles are becoming valued more.

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

You know, I've been lucky enough not to have encountered any really terrifying events while out shooting landscapes. The most on edge I've felt was while hiking out of Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park through prime grizzly country in complete darkness after shooting sunset. I was with three other photographers and we used really sound grizzly country strategies (apart from hiking in the dark!) so it wasn't really that bad.

However, years ago, I did a climb on Alpamayo (no summit) in the Cordillera Blanca. Alpamayo is truly one of the most incredible snow fluted peaks in the world, and regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world. The classic view of Alpamayo's phenomenal southwest face was a scene I wanted to visit for years, so I dutifully carried my SLR up to the 17,000 foot vantage point to capture it properly. Long story short, we lost a day to weather so were forced to attempt to summit from a lower camp -- a completely foolhardy decision on my part as I wasn't properly acclimatized and the climb itself would push my technical skills to their limit.

On summit day we began climbing at 11 pm. It was pitch black and in the darkness we got lost on the broken glacier, wasting lots of time route finding. At one point we crossed a long snowbridge covering a particularly wide crevasse. The crevasse was so wide that the length of rope between myself and my partner wasn't sufficient to stop us in the event of a fall. It was hope, pray, and trust your partner terrain. Ten seconds after I stepped off the bridge and onto the glacier proper the entire bridge collapsed behind us. The sound was gut churning. On our way back down we inspected the crevasse. Both my partner and I agreed that if it had collapsed while still on it it wouldn't have been a good outcome. That was by far the closest I've come to dying in the mountains. Got the picture though!

:: Do you ever see yourself venturing into any other kind of photography other than outdoor/landscape?

No. I do have a healthy respect for travel photography, but I'm very much an introvert so I respect people's privacy too much to really want to go after it full bore. I tend to shoot what excited me and beyond taking some snap shots of my son, no other genre really grabs me.

:: Where do you personally draw a line in post-processing? How much is too much for you?

My view is landscape photography is an art. The grey-zone between what constitutes a photograph and what crosses into digital art is wide, and therein lies as many opinions as there are photographers. I could survey my photography friends and that line would move considerably across the spectrum.

So, where do I draw my line? A photograph pays allegiance to reality in the sense that the viewer expects the scene to be experienceable if they were there themselves. The line for me is this --- every element in the photograph has to have been present while shooting. Importing or faking compositional elements to ramp up the image's impact, to me, crosses this line. The two most commonly faked elements are skies and sun stars. Swapping dramatic skies is not something I choose to do. That would be immensely dissatisfying and ultimately cheapens my work. I'd say 99% of the time people swap a sky it's to get 'oohs' and 'aaahs' from the online world. It's a myopic approach to photography really. Then again maybe I'm a bit too cynical when it comes to others' motivations.

Having said this I do produce art so I absolutely do not aim to produce images which strive to match what my eyes saw. I personally think that's an impossibility. From the moment the shutter is released art is created. However, I do wish the photography culture as a whole would value being more forthcoming when presenting fabrications. At the moment this unfortunately isn't the case. Part of the blame has to be shouldered by the viewer.

So what techniques do I use? I dodge and burn with light and color, shift colors cooler or warmer, clone out distractions, warp to strengthen a dynamic or remove distractions, minor scaling, use luminosity and color channel masks, focus stack, use Orton effects, and for night/twilight scenes, shoot frames tens of minutes or even hours apart to ensure high quality RAW files. I feel these are all acceptable practices in the era of modern digital landscape photography. Others may say one or more of these techniques go too far. That's fine. I'm comfortable with the parameters I've placed around my work.

:: How do you name your photos?

AHHHH! I really dislike naming photos! It's a relief when the name comes to me in the field, but most often I struggle to come up with titles. I often don't think abou titles until the moment I'm about to upload it onto my website. Since photography is a visual art I have this weird resistance to applying meaning to images through the title I choose. I do understand a well chosen title can be powerful and help viewers make personal connections to the image. Sometimes I look for inspiration from whatever music I've been listening to recently, titles or a chunk of lyrics.

:: You have a strong background in mountain climbing. What are some similarities a successful climb has with successful photography? You've mentioned you're more drawn now by a good shoot than summiting a mountain? Do you foresee any time where you might do more combining of photography and high mountain assents?

Release. Both climbing and photography provide a post-event release. I do have to say photography has yet to provide the deep multi-day sense of well being that I've experienced after a big climb, but a similar feeling does take hold after a good shoot, just less intense and shorter in duration.

The other commonality between the two is they both place me in direct contact with what I consider to be a deeper sense of reality. I'll try not to delve too deep here as it's really a discussion which is very personal in nature. But, for me, connecting to nature is a very efficient way of achieving this. There's this common belief among people that going hiking, or traveling, or climbing, or photographing, is merely a form of escapism. To me, it's the exact opposite. Most of our lives are spent half asleep. We walk around with our brains clouded by worries and details and minutia which, more often than not, act as a barrier to being fully alive. Lying beneath this cloud is a purer form of reality. It's always there it's just so often masked by our thoughts. To me this is a fact. Engaging with the natural world allows me to cut through this flack almost instantaneously. Others may experience cut through with meditation, sports, religion, other art forms, or philosophical thought. Yet, in the end, I believe they all lead to the same place and kind of uncover the same thing. If photography didn't produce this outcome I would have put the camera down long ago and just went to nature to be in nature. Sounds mystical but it's more pragmatic than that. It's big discussion so I'll leave it there.

Oh! Will I meld mountaineering and photography? At this point I doubt it. I'll probably always walk up mountains until I can no longer do so. If my son gets into mountaineering I can see ratcheting it up again. One future goal I have is to revive traveling to the world's mountain ranges for photographic purposes, but my son is still young so that will have to wait a few more years. I really want to expose him to places which mean so much to me. Those trips will involve more trekking than dedicated climbing though.

:: Given that there are so many landscape shooters out there, where do you turn for inspiration outside of this field?

Music. I've always been fascinated by how music affects mood.. Whenever possible I try to use music to shade my mindset before heading into the field. If I have a song stuck in my head which doesn't match the setting, I change it. Usually I choose something which calms the mind.

I do enjoy movie cinematography and have a habit of trying to figure out why a particular scene was shot the way it was or why things were arranged in the frame the way they were. It kind of ruins the whole suspension of disbelief thing though!

:: What advice would you pass on to a new photographer, maybe that you had a difficult time learning in your own journey?

Take it seriously. Keep your mind open. Master the technical side, both in-camera and post-processing -- this opens avenues to creative thinking out in the field. Study the portfolios of photographers you admire, not 500px. Find a mentor who you trust. Ask them a TON of questions. Thing long term. Be skeptical of the gimmick of the day. Aim to build a well rounded portfolio not only filled with wide angle images of crazy sunset skies. Shoot what you want to shoot, not what you think others want to see. The only way to last in this game is to do photography because it's personally rewarding, not because people are slapping your back online. Work hard, fun will come naturally!

Michael Bollino

"Shoot what you want to shoot, not what you think others want to see. The only way to last in this game is to do photography because it's personally rewarding..."

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