Featured Photographer, November 2018: Phillip Monson
We are happy to have Phillip Monson as our featured guest photographer this month. We appreciate that he gave us some of his time and generously shared his beautiful photography with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.
:: How did you get started with photography? What about that medium drew you in?
I got my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel, back in 2007 as a graduation from college gift to myself before a big trip to Europe. I was convinced this camera would magically take better pictures than my point and shoot. On the trip, I found that photography was a lot of fun as I started to mess with different settings to get different effects and was quite proud of what I produced. Looking back, those photos are absolutely terrible but that's what caught the bug initially. Like many landscape photographers, I've always had a deep love and appreciation for the great outdoors and found that through photography it gives me an excuse to get out there more and capture some of the beauty that I see and experience. Photographs are amazing in that way as you can share things visually with people that they might not ever have the chance to see for themselves. Not to get all sappy, but I've found photography to be a way to connect with nature on a deeper level – it challenges me to see things in new ways and experience nature in all sorts of moods and variations. As the years go on, some would say my photos are still absolutely terrible, but regardless I find it to be an enjoyable form of expression and time well spent in nature.
:: Looking at your work it seems that you like to do larger projects, like the temple project for instance...what is it about doing a larger project that you like? How is that project going? Are you still working on it?
For context, I am Mormon and if anyone is familiar with the religion, they've probably seen the large buildings we call temples. Architecturally, they are incredible to look at and whatever your opinion of the church, I think people would agree the buildings are magnificent. I had casually photographed them here and there over the years but then had the idea several years ago that it would be fun to photograph each of the Utah temples in all four seasons and put them into a book. I got pretty far into the project but as happens, I've been side-tracked by other things. Landscape photography has taken more of a focus in my personal interests and the temple project for now is on a bit of a hiatus – it is something I would like to finish eventually though as I feel it has merit. I suppose I'm drawn to these grandiose endeavors as I like seeing things as a whole and in a lot of context – or at least in a story people can see or experience which is why some things take on a life of their own in my photography. Temples aside, I continue to return to places like the Grand Staircase Escalante to capture images from there that tell the story of the land and help communicate why the place is worth keeping – I suppose that turns into a project of sorts as well. All in all, these are all works in progress and might never be considered "finished."
What more, "projects" give me a focus and something to strive for. For a long time my photography was fairly aimless and a shotgun approach. Having a project helps me to have direction and focus on a purpose. I must then consider WHY am I taking this photograph, what story am I trying to tell? That's not to say I plan everything or don't allow for spontaneity, but having a project helps me have a consciousness to what I do.
:: You've started a relatively new project that is based on your SW photographs...but is more graphic design based. Can you talk a little bit about that project and what inspired it? It seems to have really taken off, and spawned a flow of creativity on your end.
My mind is constantly in a mode of wanting to create – while photography for a long time filled that need, recently with day job demands and other things in life, I haven't been able to get out as much as I'd like and really felt the impact of that mentally – not so much not being able to photograph but not having time or another medium for creative expression. I've always had an interest in graphic design and love the look of the old travel posters for the Parks and the look of design from the 50s and 70s so with not getting out to photograph, I started learning design in my spare time. As my knowledge increased, I started to put ideas down in the form of a National Park project and make them into stickers – it's been fun to make a tangible product that people have had a positive reaction to. While I still love photography and feel my years of landscape photography has helped with design composition, I've found a whole new creative outlet that I've really enjoyed and allowed for new expressions. Graphic design has been a great creative exercise as the only limit is my imagination – I have the ability to create and learn different styles and put them into practice
:: What is the end goal of this new graphic design project? What would you hope comes from it?
Make it my day job lol. In reality though, my real focus of this is that it has given me a bit of a platform to promote wilderness stewardship and bring awareness to a growing problem of vandalism and littering within our wild places. The end goal is to help spread the word of taking better care of our public lands and to do that in a visual way is even better. I've created some hats and stickers with the Leave It Better Than You Found It motto that have been well received and the hope is that people take into consideration more their impact in nature – there will always be idiots doing stupid things, but I'm trying to encourage others to make things better.
:: (Long question...sorry) I think everyone in landscape photography would say if asked, that they are an advocate for nature in some way...I, however, see a conflict of interests in people who are "advocates" for nature, but also need to derive a steady income at the expense of nature. If a photographer sells eBooks/guide books, sells images, and shares their work on social media regularly as a way to promote their business it seems that the results of that kind of promotion in this day and age of sharing photos all the time on platforms like IG, it will inevitably result in behaviors that are not good for nature, how do you think photographers who make money from nature and need to share work constantly can still be stewards of the environment?
I thought this interview was supposed to be easy? I saw an interesting excerpt in a guidebook once that basically defended their location revealing as sooner or later all this information will be out anyway. In a way, I can relate to that - we live in an information heavy time and there's a lot of truth to that. As long as the outdoors have been popular, there have been people who make a living from it rather being a guide, selling books etc and I really don't see a huge issue with it if done in the right way with the right mindset - for example, if you run a photography workshop business, do it legally and ethically - get your permits and teach wilderness ethics to your students. I know of one photographer who is offering discounts to people if they show how they leave the wilderness better. I would just encourage anyone who makes a living based around the outdoors thinks about their own impact and helps to give back to the places they take from - as the great Beatles song says "In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make."
:: What is the scariest thing that has happened to you while photographing?
Two stories come to mind. One time a group of friends and I were photographing some ancient ruins in Canyonlands NP at night. During a lull in the conversation there was this rattle behind us – we slowly turned around with our lights and saw a rattlesnake slither under our camera bags – if it wasn't for the snake giving a little rattle, we'd have no idea it was there. We safely removed the snake to a different spot, but it got the ol' adrenaline pumping for sure.
Another story is from storm chasing out at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah's West Desert. As you can get by the name, this landscape is totally flat and barren and you're the tallest thing out there for miles – storm light can be quite dramatic out there but in this instance the storm came in faster than I anticipated with heavy amounts of lightning. I ran to shelter as fast as I could but thought for sure I would be struck. Luckily that wasn't the case but it gave me a good scare.
Writing these down and reading them, I realize they don't seem all that exciting or scary, but I promise you the fear was real - that or I'm just a wuss.
:: I've seen a lot of discussion in recent months about locations that get over photographed, and whether or not to keep photographing them. What is your philosophy on photographing iconic subjects? How do you approach an iconic scene to try and photograph it differently?
This has been a debate for a long time. I would say icons are icons for a reason and people will always shoot them. I don't think there should be some photography police that says what you can or cannot shoot – my take is shoot what makes you happy and what brings you fulfillment – for some that is shooting icons and getting "the" shot. For others it's finding new places. Both have merit – let me explain: Shooting icons – We all have to start somewhere, and a lot of that is by going to those bucket list places and getting the shot for yourself. You can't tell me if you go to Paris that you're not going to shoot the Eiffel Tower. OK, maybe you won't but I for sure will. Icons are beautiful and an important part of connecting to places – I also find shooting them of historical impact. For example, if Delicate Arch were to fall tomorrow, all those photos are now of historical merit and I bet a lot of people who never had the opportunity to shoot one of the most iconic marks of the SW would be pretty upset they never got a photograph. While something may be cliché to one photographer it can fill another with wonder and amazement. Horseshoe bend may be overshot, but that does not take away the fact that it is beautiful and an incredible sight to see and very much worth taking a camera out to capture. That said, if you shoot icons I feel it is important to get your own spin on it – I still shoot icons if conditions are right – for example, one of my favorite shots of Thor's Hammer in Bryce Canyon is one I took while Bryce had very thick, low fog . Yes, it is of an icon, but it's a unique take on it. Shooting icons can be a great artistic exercise as you challenge yourself to get a different take on a popular place. On the flip side I relate to the need to discover and explore new places and get unique photographs. When I drive past the bridge in Zion and see hundreds of photographers elbow to elbow getting the same shot I can see how that is off-putting to other photographers. There is also the benefit of finding solitude in un-explored or lesser known locations.
Landscape photography rather it is shooting well known spots or lesser-known can both have merit as it adds to the story of conservation and helping to promote that these places are worth protecting.
Long story short, I think Abraham Lincoln said it best: photograph what you love and who cares what others think. Ok, maybe he didn't say that, but I'll say try and push yourself creatively whatever the situation.
I will add that if a location is popular it is even more important to promote stewardship of that location. Many places are seeing unprecedented amounts of visitors and it is important as a photographer to respect rules and people – be the better person and leave it better no matter where you are.
:: Where do you think nature photography is heading in the next ten years? Is it good or bad?
Hopefully more and more megapixels. I'm talking 5GB RAW files right from the camera. Seriously speaking, on the technology front, amazing advancements will take place for noise reduction, image quality etc. It is incredible to see the difference of what a camera can capture in terms of dynamic range vs a camera from even five years ago – this is a very exciting time for photography in general. Being active on IG, I see trends that are concerning – rather it be putting your life at risk for a shot or doing activities that are illegal in public lands again to get the shot. There's a herd mentality that drives people to one-up or do things to get "likes" which is very troublesome as the end result is our wild places being the victim. With other advancements in editing capabilities, I also see more outlandish "photos" that are shared by hubs and promoted as the ideal image with fantastical hero stories accompanying them which many times just seem ridiculous.
On the flip side, I've seen many photographers start to think about their impact and how they can use their influence/ platform for good - many are turning towards practicing leave no trace and working to make a difference in how our wild places are treated - that's something I actively encourage and really hope catches on with full force.
:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic gear and why?
Probably my MSR Pocket Rocket 2 (which typing that out sounds like a dirty joke - it's really a small backpacking single burner and mini-propane) - super tiny and lightweight but does the job - it's my favorite because you can only eat so many protein bars and a hot meal after a long day is most welcome.
:: Where do you stand on the processing side of photography? How much is too much? Do you think photographers should disclose how much or little has been done to a photo in processing?
Another tough one. Art is so subjective that is hard to tell another photographer what not to do with their photo. I do believe there can be over-processing and then there is the discussion of photography vs photographic art. I see one popular account on IG that has these sweeping mountain landscapes and a person will sometimes be shopped in - either they are shopped in or the person is 50' tall given the scale... other times photographers will warp and stretch mountains to the brink - again, not criticizing, it's just not for me. As I've gotten more and more into graphic design, I've found that less is more in most cases and feel that's a similar mantra for photography for me personally. As for my politically correct answer - as the artist, you get to decide what to do with your art, but that doesn't mean everyone will like what you do.
All photos will need some re-touching, processing, editing etc - I think most everyone can agree with that, but when you swap out a sky that clearly doesn't make sense in terms of light then I think there's an issue - if you choose to process that way, be smart about it - look at the direction of the light, dont swap a blazing sunset sky for a shot that was clearly taken during golden hour - again, this is just my two cents.
As for disclosure about your processing goes, again, I can't tell a person what to say or not but I do think honesty can go a long way in terms of what you are representing and how things are experienced.
:: How much emphasis should a photographer put on the opinions of others? I see a lot of people who ask for opinions, but then spend a lot of time defending their vision...as you become more experienced as a photographer, how much/often should you listen to the opinions of colleagues? When should you avoid it?
I've found that peer review and feedback is crucial and have a few trusted friends that I will seek their opinion and guidance. I wish early on I had been humble enough to ask for feedback as I have found it beneficial to see other views and expertise but at the end of the day, it's your photo. If you ask for feedback publically, be humble and receptive - you asked for it, after all. I see FB groups that are clearly for critique and people get offended when their image is actually given feedback - that just seems counterintuitive to me. I sometimes question the motives of those who ask and then get defensive - almost as if they just want to argue and cause disruption.
I think the time to avoid it is when the source may not be credible or it is unsolicited. I've also found that photographes love to pixel peep and offer their two-cents at times and it is important to separate those from actual, well intentioned feedback.
:: If you could flip a switch and bring the landscape photography field from 20 years ago back today would you? You would have all your current skill and knowledge, but there wouldn't be the same technical equipment, no social media, etc...would you?
Social media and photography is a double-edged sword. On one hand there's opportunity to connect with amazing people and get inspired on a daily basis, but we know the drawbacks of over-popularizing locations that can't sustain the visiting numbers, then there's hyper-competitiveness and in many cases exposing places to people who have no understanding/concept of wilderness ethics. With social media, the dopamine addiction is high for people to constantly post, get likes and repeat with what I feel is taking a lot of the "why" away from photography and replacing it with a quick fix.
Having that culture/environment of 20 years ago would, of course, change the dynamic of landscape photography and it would be interesting to apply that mentality to the current world view that we live - it would certainly make things harder in regards to sharing work and just getting a shot in general. If anything, I'd like to bring a balance back - more focus on wilderness education/conservation, more respect for the craft of photography but with the same ability to connect with others. Is that a safe enough answer? Haha.
:: What piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to get a start in nature photography?
I would ask them first "do you enjoy flushing $100 bills down the toilet each month?" If they answer yes, then nature photography might just be the hobby for them! Kidding aside, I've mentioned it a few times here, but I would challenge anyone to ask themselves why they want to get into photography? What is their motivation for nature photography? I cringe when I see people have an attitude of just wanting "likes" vs actually caring about photography as an art form and piece of expression. I'm not saying everyone should have some deep, personal journey with photography but my hope is that it's more than "doing it for the ‘gram," as they say.
:: What would you say are the 3 most important things someone can learn as a photographer to improve their skills, that are NOT related to the technical aspects?
In a world of fast food, microwaves and google, we have been conditioned to wanting everything right now and have lost the gift of patience - top thing a person can learn to improve their photography is patience- take the time to research and more importantly to understand and learn about the place they are going. Take time to study the light and the intricacies of your subject - it will be far more rewarding.
Closely related is appreciation - when I was younger I would get so disappointed if I went on a photo trip and came up empty handed but I've come to accept that those things happen and can take it as appreciation for just being able to get out in nature and enjoy a place - if I get a shot or two, that's an added bonus. So, be appreciative for the times it works out and is productive but also be appreciative in times it doesn't go as planned and take some lessons home.
Lastly I'd say learn to see things differently and continue to challenge yourself - maybe that's two things but this is my interview so I'll do what I want. Even if it is of a well-known location, try to challenge yourself with different lenses and compositions - maybe even only take one lens with you when you go out to force yourself to come up with more creative solutions. Never be happy with the status quo of yourself and try to be better than you were yesterday.
Even if it is of a well-known location, try to challenge yourself with different lenses and compositions - maybe even only take one lens with you when you go out to force yourself to come up with more creative solutions. Never be happy with the status quo of yourself and try to be better than you were yesterday.
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