Landscape Photography Blogger Interviews Photographer Gary Crabbe
Part Two of a Three Part Series
(Continued from the blog post, “Interview Of Gary Crabbe Part 1.”)
On Personal Style, Book Projects, Photo Editing And Working With Galen Rowell
Interview Conducted By Phone May 25, 2011
Rural Highway Below Mount Shasta, Northern California, copyright 2009 by Gary Crabbe.
(View photograph large: “Mt. Shasta.”)
HYDE: You also said that one important lesson in landscape photography you learned from Galen Rowell had to do primarily with responding to the light.
GARY CRABBE: That lesson originated with Galen Rowell and ever since I’ve become hyper-sensitive and in tune with what the light is doing and what the light is hitting, versus the subject I set out to photograph. Now I say to my student’s, “A boring subject in great light will always make a better photo than a great subject in boring light.” I may have a subject in mind, but if I see the light happening somewhere else, I am willing at a moment’s notice to drop any preconceived idea.
HYDE: That flexibility strikes me as not only the similarity between you and Galen Rowell, but also between Galen Rowell and my father, Philip Hyde. Many landscape photographers have this philosophy that they go out, scout out a location, then literally set up camp and wait for the right light, sometimes for as long as several days. My dad never did that. He would photograph in the middle of the day rather than wait. Part of it had to do with limitations of budget and time. He had to cover certain territory because he had his itinerary planned. He had obligations. He was often on assignment and someone else was paying his expenses. Certain landscape photographers like Jack Dykinga, for example, take the exact opposite approach. Jack Dykinga is sometimes on a loose assignment from a group like the iLCP, International League of Conservation Photographers. He may be setting the direction and parameters of the assignment, maybe he picks his own. He’ll wait days for the right light or weather conditions. Do you do that?
GARY CRABBE: No, I wish I could. I know a friend who does and he returns with some gorgeous images. He also has the patience to wait for something better. I don’t get it. (Laughter) I make the best of what I can because I can’t wait with my book projects. Plus I’m also a stay at home Dad. I’m the one that drops my kids off at school and picks them up in the afternoon. When I’m out photographing, I have to turn tail and get back. My time is limited. I did double back one time on my way to Lava Beds National Monument up in Northern California on my last book project. I cut from Weed over to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and then on to Lava Beds. I looked in my rear view mirror and said, “Wow, there’s a great shot of Mount Shasta,” making a note to come back for sunrise. I circled around through Alturas into Susanville, back over to Lassen Volcanic National Park and then up again toward Mt. Shasta, making a 500 mile loop. I can’t recall many occasions where I’ve made that choice, but it was my time to make something work. That’s why I’m here.
HYDE: So looping back 500 miles was more the exception than the rule for you?
GARY CRABBE: Absolutely, and it was one nice sunrise morning. Sure, I could have said, “I wanted more clouds in the sky, or the moon setting,” but I didn’t have the luxury to do that. In that regard I’m more of an editorial photojournalist. I’m out there to document the place. I need to get this, this, this and this for my book project. I work myself to max out a set schedule. Landscape photography art does not always happen like it did at Lava Beds National Monument. Two mornings later I also shot a wonderful sunrise in Susanville, but, the morning in between was crap. (Laughter) Nothing came out. It wasn’t the right weather. I couldn’t just stay there and hope that the next day was going to get better and miss all the other photographs I needed. In that regard, it sounds trite, but it’s a job. My work dictates my schedule and then my creative instincts guide what I do within the confines of that schedule. I just spent two days in Yosemite National Park. I had to get Vernal Falls for my next book project, Where to Photograph in Northern California. I’ve rarely ever tried to take, for lack of a better word, cheesy, iconic photos like the rainbow and Vernal Falls. But it’s the kind of photograph that provides the reason to go up to Yosemite National Park and face the crowds. It’s ironic to dread Yosemite Valley, but that’s summertime. In the text I’ll explain that to photograph the rainbow your best chance of seeing it is at ‘this time’ and ‘this time.’ Sure, my photograph was of Vernal Falls from the Mist Trail, but I am always happier as in this case when I came back with my own personal vision of the scene as opposed to the same image that has been on a post card for the last 35 years in every gift shop in Yosemite National Park.
HYDE: Speaking of waterfalls, I really like your “Sunlight on Berry Creek Falls.” You know my dad made a well-known photograph of Berry Creek Falls. Your photograph makes it look even more picturesque now. Berry Creek is a really nice waterfall. The way you framed it, that’s one of the best waterfall photographs I’ve ever seen.
GARY CRABBE: Wow, I’m beyond flattered. I just wrote about it. I put up an article at a place called Pro Photo Resource. It was called, “Seeking Out Definitive Moments In Outdoor, Nature And Travel Photography.” Berry Creek Falls was one of my examples.
HYDE: I want to talk to you about each of your book projects, maybe a spattering of what was interesting about each project. It’s important for people to know that you have illustrated six coffee table books. Also, there is one more question about your experience with Galen and Barbara Rowell that I want to ask you. It is personal to me because of my process working with my father’s photographs. Carr Clifton helped me all along in choosing images and many other people helped too, various gallery owners and other experts. I had consulting work by Ryan Baldwin, who at one point ran Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery in Emeryville. Did you work there when he did?
GARY CRABBE: Yes. I know him very well.
HYDE: OK. He actually did a little consulting with me in the very beginning when I really didn’t know anything about anything. He helped me start choosing images. I feel like my vision and my ability to choose photographs grew exponentially over the years since then. Ryan Baldwin’s good advice was to choose images of my dad’s at first that no other photographer could have done. He suggested that later I could mix in some that my dad did first and everybody else has done since. My question to you is, in managing Galen Rowell’s stock department of 300,000 images, you must have learned a lot about photo selection from Galen and also from editors. You stepped into it with no idea of what makes a good photograph. Tell me a little about your learning curve, what was that like?
Stormy Sunrise Over Lava Beds National Monument, Siskiyou County, California, copyright 2009 by Gary Crabbe.
(View the photograph large: “Lava Beds.”)
GARY CRABBE: Interesting question. I feel bad that at one point I fibbed to Galen, some people might call it a lie. I was so green, that when I first started working at Mountain Light and he asked me, “You know what a dupe is, right?” I said, “Sure.” (Laughter) I asked another employee later, “What is a dupe?” He said, “Oh, you know, a duplicate slide.” “Oh yeah,” I said. That’s how green I was. First I learned the basic technical points of what editors need. For a magazine cover, you need to have some negative space where your text can go, your subject needs to be centered in this area, you need to have space at the bottom of the frame where they can add the mailing label and bar code and so on. When you’re selecting a double page spread, be sure the most important part of the subject is not in the middle of the frame where the seam of the paper goes. I would go through slides and pull out what I thought might be appropriate and Galen would tell me what was good for what reason, “Yes this is good, this is good, no this one wouldn’t work.” Galen obviously had his own preferences. As part of the interview process, we started having people do light test submissions. You were put in a situation where an editor called you from National Audubon or National Wildlife Federation and you needed to send 20 images of polar bears or penguins. We would give the applicant the entire penguin folder or the entire polar bear folder and we’d see what they would choose to send. It was a great litmus test to see how people responded to what a photo editor wanted and how they responded to Galen’s images as well. Over time I got to where I could usually look at a sheet of 20 slides in approximately one second and know whether there were any images on that page worth taking a second look at for any given project. We’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of images. For example: you know you need a shot of the Marin County Coast. Galen didn’t have separate organized folders other than every shot from Marin County going into one folder. So I’d be looking at images of Point Reyes next to Mount Tamalpais next to Bolinas next to Fairfax, somewhere in that jumble of 35 mm frames was the photograph you needed. It always seemed that there was one or two images that would stand out. Those were the ones I found where the story and the light came together in the best way possible. That’s what I use to guide the editing of my own images. (For more about how Gary Crabbe edits photographs see his post on Jim M. Goldstein’s Blog, “Pro Tips: Photo Editing With Gary Crabbe.”) You want the viewer to instantly know what your photograph is about, if there is confusion, you’ve lost them. If something in the composition creates an emotional or bio-physiological hiccup, you’ve lost them. And this is what I said in this recent article I wrote is, you want every photograph you take to be a headline and an exclamation point for whatever you are photographing. You want the story to come across that quick, with no ambiguity whatsoever.
HYDE: Of course that is for editorial stock photography, but to play devil’s advocate, Paul Strand and my father even, at times, made images that when you look at them at first you have no idea what you are looking at, you can’t figure out what it is. (Find out more about the history of abstract photography and Paul Strand in the blog post, “Straight Photography And Abstraction.”)
GARY CRABBE: That’s true. That is where art photography is different. I love doing abstract photography myself, but that wasn’t the sort of work that Galen did. I used to judge local camera clubs. And they’d have a category that was called “Contemporary,” which meant it had to be some kind of abstract or manipulated photo. I would stand in front of 30 or 40 amateur photographers and say, “The faster I can figure out what you did the less I like it.”
HYDE: But it’s the opposite for magazine submissions or other types of stock photography, correct?
GARY CRABBE: Yes, but you are still trying to generate instant emotional impact, even from an abstract. You are trying to create some kind of subconscious emotional reaction. You don’t have to know what it’s about, but you need to know how it feels. And that’s where art becomes personal and subjective. Some people say, “That doesn’t do anything for me.” Others say, “I could spend a week looking at all the detail in that photograph.” All you can do as an artist is put out what you find interesting.
HYDE: When you first started working for Galen Rowell, your article said something like you had seen only two photography exhibitions, but was there an educational process for learning about the work of other landscape photographers?
GARY CRABBE: Looking through photography magazines, who pays attention to photographer credit lines? Other photographers. That’s how you learn. Every time I saw an image that made me say, “Wow,” I noticed the name. I began to recognize the names Galen’s work was published with right up through the evolution of outdoor photography. I certainly have developed my own personal preferences for the sort of work I like seeing.
HYDE: I’d like to hear how each of your book projects came about. So how did Backroads of the California Coast: Your Guide to Scenic Getaways & Adventures published in 2001, which won Book of the Year 2002 from the California Outdoor Travel Writers Association, how did that book come about?
GARY CRABBE: Way back when, trying to get your work in front of people, you would buy these source book ads and they would be like $1000 or $2000 a page. And the publisher would send these big books out to all the advertising agencies and publishers and whatever. I went into one of those books my first year as an independent photographer. One of the images I put in was of a twisting road below the Grand Tetons. One day a publisher sent me a note, “Do you have more good road shots like that? We’re doing a book called, ‘The Back Roads of Northern California.’ We would like you to submit some photographs for the cover.” They already had the whole book photographed and written, they were just looking for a different cover. They went through my submission and they didn’t choose any of my photographs. They went with a photo by the photographer for the book, but the quality of the images I submitted stuck in their mind. From that one failed submission, when a well-published travel writer approached them to do a book on the California Coast, they asked, “We need a photographer for this project, are you interested?” That’s how it started. Voyager Press has been the publisher for five out of my six published books.
HYDE: So were Our San Francisco and Yosemite & The Eastern Sierra, similar books?
GARY CRABBE: All of them except for Yosemite & The Eastern Sierra, that’s the one that was published by a different publisher as its own stand-alone project. The editor for that book was Peter Beren, the foremost publisher for Sierra Club books. Peter knew me from Mountain Light. I worked with him as kind of a liaison. I had also done some freelance projects for him as a photo editor. I remember this vividly, it was my daughter’s first birthday, a Saturday afternoon, the house was packed with friends and relatives. My office phone rang. I was thinking I’m not going to bother answering. The phone rang once, twice, a third time, “Oh I can’t stand it.” I raced back to my office as fast as I could go, grabbed the phone, and I hear, “Gary, this is Peter Beren. You’ve got a bunch of Yosemite images, right?” I said, “Hi Peter, yeah.” “Great. I’m going to recommend your photos for a book project.” “OK, thanks.” “Alright, bye.” That was the entire extent of the conversation. A couple weeks later, the publisher called me from her office in New York, “Can you have images to us by next Wednesday?” “Sure.” I never needed to take another picture for that book. Every image came from my existing slides. I sent them 300. They did a beautiful job. Unfortunately the book is out of print now, but I remember approving all the color proofs. On their third or fourth go around, I said it was great, but they still went two more rounds with some of the images. They did an impeccable job with the printing. Peter did the editing of the book. He gathered quotes from Ansel Adams, John Muir and others, which they matched up with my images and boom, the book was done that fast.
Continued in the blog post, “Interview Of Gary Crabbe Part 3.”