Photographer of the Month Interview: Sarah Marino | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, June 2014:   Sarah Marino

Huge thanks to Sarah Marino, this month's featured guest photographer! We appreciate the time she gave us so we could share Sarah and her beautiful fine art photography with all of you! Please visit her links to see more of her breathtaking work, and to let her know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start with photography? You have another career as well. How does it relate with the photography you do?

Like many other landscape photographers, I got my start with photography because I took a camera on hiking and backpacking trips. I wanted to improve my photos, bought a few books, studied up, and found a lifelong passion.

I have an unconventional and very flexible working situation in the sense that I am self-employed and pull together a complete income through multiple sources including consulting work with nonprofit organizations, a large ongoing project with a local foundation, plus my photography income. This arrangement has been working for the last four years and I feel really fortunate that I am able to travel and photograph, all while earning a good living. I consider both my consulting work and my photography as professions, even though I do not do either one full-time.

:: You took a large trip recently; did you quit your job to travel, or did you work while you travelled? Was the purpose of the trip for photography or did the trip have a different focus?

About four years ago, I decided I needed a major reset and changed all kinds of things in my life. One of the most important decisions was eliminating all of my debt except for my mortgage so that I could live more simply and have significantly more freedom. This all lead to the ability to significantly scale back my consulting work so I could take an extended break from working full-time. For about two and a half years, I was able to travel extensively with my partner and fellow photographer, Ron Coscorrosa, while only working in spurts while we were home. Ron took a sabbatical from his software development job and we spent our time traveling extensively throughout the United States, dipping into Canada, and spending about two months in Iceland.

Photography was the primary purpose of this travel but it had all kinds of side benefits, like learning to live a slower pace of life, accepting that my life does not need to be defined by a stressful career, and finding both the best and worst meals imaginable in all kinds of communities across the US. Except for our trip to Hawaii, we camped or lived out of a RAV4 during our travels. This made more than two years of almost continuous travel quite affordable.

:: How did being in such a travel and photography rich schedule help you with your craft? How (if at all) did the time shooting have any kind of negative aspect to it?

First and most importantly, we have met dozens of wonderful friends along the way and experienced more than a lot of people do in a lifetime. Beyond those things, the ability to spend almost all my time focused on photography definitely helped me develop a more personal style and feel much more satisfied with my work overall. Photography used to be something I fit in on weekends and it never felt like enough. Now, I have three years of photos to process and have been to enough places that I no longer feel like I am missing out on actually living my life.

I do not think there were any negative aspects. There were only one or two times when I was ready for a break (like our trip to Arizona in August to photograph the monsoon, with the poorly developed plan of camping in 100-degree weather or when I was just sick of the relentless wind on our last trip to Iceland). Now that we have scaled back out travels, I have realized that I no longer feel the same extreme wanderlust I once did but I do miss being outdoors with my camera as much as we have been over the last few years. We have a plan to work from the road for longer stretches next year and we are saving up to implement that plan.

:: You've written a lot of ebooks, co-written, I should say, what has been the response to those books, and what possessed you to write them? What challenges did you find in putting them together?

I have co-written three ebooks – a book about Iceland, one about Death Valley, and one about photographing nature's smaller scenes. We wrote the Iceland book because there were so few resources when we took our first trip there a few years ago. We wrote the book we wished we had for our first trip. We wrote the Death Valley book because it is one of our favorite places and the small scenes book because we want to encourage other photographers to move beyond the single-minded focus on dramatic, grand landscapes that are so pervasive in the landscape photography community today. We have sold about five times more than our initial goal, so we have been happy with the response. We have received dozens of emails from readers filled with kind comments, which has been quite fulfilling, too.

Writing an ebook is so, so much more work than it may appear. Our latest ebook is about 45,000 words and features more than 250 images. Pulling it together required planning, writing, processing images, doing the layout, and planning the release with tiny, annoying details (like pulling together 200 image captions) along the way.

:: Having to maintain a social media presence is part of photography these days…how do you feel about social media in general as it relates to photography?

There are pros and there are cons. Without the internet, we would not be able to distribute our ebooks or share images so easily. We have also met quite a few now-real friends through social media. These are all really positive aspects, especially the ability to self-publish so easily.

On the other hand… I really hate the self-promotion aspect of social media as it just does not fit with my personality. I also find it depressing to visit most photo sharing sites because of the rampant and blatant copying of other people's work, the "you pat me on the back, I'll pat you on the back" culture, and the nastiness that can erupt from jealousy and petty behavior. I still promote my work online but I have started to distance myself from engaging in much beyond that. I find that I am happier with my own work when I stop worrying about what everyone else is doing or saying online.

:: You've written about, and commented often about women in landscape photography (and generated a little controversy)…why do you think there might be a lack of knowledge or appreciation when it comes to women in landscape photography by the general public and even among landscape photographers?

Interpersonally, I have generally felt welcomed and respected by my photography friends and peers, nearly all of whom are men. I think it is important to separate my positive personal experiences from what I see as a larger issue within the landscape photography world.

As an industry, landscape photography is, for the most part, a boy's clubs. I think this derives mostly from some basics of how our culture operates. If an editor of a magazine is looking for a photographer to feature, they turn to the familiar and the familiar almost always seems to be more well-established men. The same goes for photography conferences, interviews, profiles, podcasts, compilation books, etc – the same names always seem to be featured and this all seems like a self-perpetuating cycle. In such a competitive, saturated industry, it can be really difficult to find the entry points to break this cycle and only a few women seem to have done it successfully. Add in the complications for women who want a family and becoming a full-time, income-earning landscape photographer seems like an almost insurmountable task.

Even with the challenges, there seem to be many more women pursuing landscape photography at a high level than when I started. I come across talented women photographers every day and I find this encouraging for leveling the playing field and opening up opportunities for women to be more prominently featured at higher levels in this field. The accessibility of the internet is helping break down some of these barriers as well because now photographers can promote themselves more directly, rather than having to rely on gatekeepers.

:: What is the scariest thing you've had happen while out on a shoot?

Dropping my camera and lens on a concrete sidewalk in the Smoky Mountains, letting a lens roll down a hill and into a river in Hawaii, getting a camera drenched in a waterfall in Iceland, not tightening a lens enough and watching it drop right off my camera and onto hard sandstone in New Mexico, and letting my brand new camera and lens fall into a river in the Columbia River Gorge. All this has happened in less than three years! Word to the wise: do not let me borrow your gear. Ever!

In all seriousness, I have not really had any scary situations. We came upon the bear I have seen while backpacking in the Canadian Rockies and it was unnerving but nothing actually happened. We got our car completely stuck in a remote desert playa in near zero-degree weather, which could have been scary but we had a week of food and supplies so it was just expensive to get towed out two days later. One of our photographer friends told us we need more good stories and I guess he is right, based on my answer to this question!

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

My Garmin Oregon 550t GPS. It has all the functions of a standard handheld GPS with one bonus - it has a built-in camera. I use this GPS all the time for scouting places like sand dunes and playas. If I find an interesting spot, I can mark it on the GPS, take a snapshot to attach to the coordinates, and then easily navigate back to that exact spot later. Scrolling through the snapshots on the GPS makes getting back to a favorite spot, especially in a mostly featureless landscape like a playa, very simple.

:: What place do you find the most challenging to shoot and why?

Before answering this question, I think it is important to mention that my aesthetic preferences heavily favor elegance and simplicity. With this in mind, I would say that the Sonoran Desert in the southwestern US is probably the most difficult landscape I have tried to photograph. Visually, this part of the US is so interesting and the diversity of plant and animal life always surprises me. Still, I always find this landscape to be very challenging to photograph because of the chaotic nature of the plants. I really admire photographers (like George Stocking, for example) who have developed incredible portfolios of such complicated and chaotic places.

:: I've always admired your vision when it comes to composition and seeing….what do you look for when you approach a scene for the first time? What draws you into setting up a shot?

First, thank you for the kind words! I appreciate it. Compared to most other photographers I have been around, I work really slowly. I always spend a lot of time wandering around to see what interests me most about a place before I ever take out my camera. In addition to thinking about the literal qualities of a place, I also look for abstract qualities like lines, texture, shapes, and flow. If these kinds of things start drawing my interest, I usually take out my camera and test out some ideas. Once I am working with my camera, I spend a lot of time thinking about how small composition changes could possibly make a big impact on the success of a photo. Once I decide to take a photo, I spend a lot of time refining it – things like trying different angles, working to eliminate distractions, or waiting for more optimal conditions.

In terms of subjects, I look for interesting details and stop frequently to photograph them. Some of my favorite photos from my portfolio are of tiny subjects that most people walk by without a second thought but up close, offer really interesting lines, shapes, and patterns.

:: What is the best piece of photographic advice you've read or gleaned while you were getting started?

I took a photo tour when I was getting started and the major benefit was the leader's encouragement to explore, get off the beaten path, and experiment a lot. I backpacked before taking up photography but I always took the safe approach – well-traveled trails in familiar locations. After taking this tour, I felt inspired to start exploring more, both literally and visually. I also started traveling on my own which gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities and fostered a sense of independence that I needed at the time. I look back on that tour as a life-changing experience, as it helped put me of a very different, much happier, and far more interesting path.

:: What advice would you pass on to someone just getting started in photography?

For photographers who are interested in pursuing landscape photography as an opportunity for creative expression, seek your own path and stop worrying so much about your gear. A beginning photographer recently sent me an email seeking advice and in the email, he mentioned that he was losing sleep over the fact that he had purchased Canon's 5D3 instead of Nikon's D800. This made me sad, as the angst over gear seems to be taking the joy out of photography for some beginners. Entry-level SLRs and mirrorless cameras can produce excellent photographs and I would encourage newer photographers to use their mental and financial resources on things related to creativity (like learning experiences, educational and portfolio books, travel, etc) over buying the absolute best gear available, especially if buying that expensive equipment requires going into debt. I use a mid-level Canon SLR (the 6D) and lenses I have had for years. I can use the money I have saved on upgrades for things like travel and life-enriching experiences, which I think have had a much more important role in my development as a photographer.

Second, the vortex of internet popularity can be a really strong and negative influence for beginning photographers. Just because it seems like everyone else is following certain trends does not mean that you need to follow those trends, too. Spend time on identifying your personal vision, which I see as seeking to create photographs that are expressive and reflective of you as an individual. I wish I would have had the confidence in myself to listen to this voice much earlier in my development as a photographer, as finding and pursuing my own path has been so much more fulfilling than trying to copy the most popular photographers out there (which I did, mostly unsuccessfully, for a few unsatisfying years).

:: A good chunk of your work seems to focus on more intimate details as opposed to the larger grand scene…what is it about these types of images that interests you? How did you get past looking at the grand vistas, and be able to focus on details?

When I first took up photography, I was living a super-stressed out life and photography was my only relaxing and creative outlet. Getting lost in photographing some small subject, like a patch of corn lilies or ripples in wet sand, turned into opportunities to quiet my busy mind. I started seeking that feeling more often and as part of that process, naturally gravitated to spending a lot of time on photographing smaller scenes in addition to grand landscapes. Once you start looking, nature produces all kinds of fascinating small subjects and I really enjoy seeking out these details when we visit a place. I also see the practice of only photographing grand landscapes as similar to only reading one chapter of a book. All places have more of a story than can be communicated in a single grand landscape photographed under colorful, epic light. I would rather study more chapters of a location's story and therefore always spend a lot of time focusing on the interesting details whenever I am photographing.

:: Which place is still on your bucket list to visit?

Too many to list! Even though I have been there three times, I would really like to spend a long period of time in the Canadian Rockies. For the US, doing some backcountry travel in Alaska in the autumn is probably at the top of my list. For international destinations, our list includes Norway, Scotland, New Zealand, and Japan.

:: Please finish these two thoughts...

When I look at the future of landscape photography what scares me the most is.... Some special places are being overrun by hordes of people trying to get "the shot." Trail erosion and damage to natural landscapes is becoming obvious in these places because some photographers either do not care or do not know about basic conservation ethics. Some other things I find distressing: the rampant copying of exact creative compositions from other photographers (for purposes other than learning), a focus on popularity over personal expression, and just plain boorish behavior from others we have encountered in the field and online.

When I look at the future of landscape photography what excites me the most is.... I come across incredibly talented landscape photographers every day and I find inspiration in their work and stories. Seeing more people pursue a life of passion through photography is always motivating. In terms of technology improvements, the camera is becoming less of a limiting factor in implementing a photographer's creative vision, which is exciting. I also think the self-publishing revolution is wonderful and see so many photographers using this medium to get out work that would never have been published before.

Sarah Marino

"Spend time on identifying your personal vision, which I see as seeking to create photographs that are expressive and reflective of you as an individual."

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