Continuing my series of interviews with creative artists and photographers, I posed a few questions to my friend Marc Adamus. Before meeting Marc a couple of years ago, I remember being intensely curious. While his exquisite photography is recognized by many, I knew very little of the man behind the camera. Marc does not share much of himself in public forums other than through his work. His images, however, speak loud and clear on his behalf. In fact, few people I know can express their love for the wild as eloquently and passionately through images as Marc. What I realized upon spending time with him was that I did, in fact, know more about him than I thought. Living in a cynical world dominated by incessant self promotion, I was just too skeptical to believe what the images were telling me. I often think that the greatest hurdle to successful creative photography is the ability to bridge the gap between one’s emotions and psyche, and their work; successfully channeling feelings and thoughts into a visual experience. For Marc, it seems, there is no such gap at all. His work walks a fine line of balance and tension among great forces, literal and metaphorical. It is as dramatic as it is subtle; as bold as it is gentle; turbulent and powerful, yet also speaks of love and yearning. What I learned, to my great delight, is that the same can be said of the artist behind it. Marc celebrates beauty with an intensity that few can even muster. And not just simple feel-good beauty; some of his images can only be described as achingly beautiful; punch-you-in-the-gut-and-force-your-eyes-open beautiful. His unapologetic and unambiguous creations had drawn a lot of attention; in the forms of great praise from most and cowardly slander from some. Like all great art, there is no staying indifferent in the presence of Marc’s images.
There’s no denying that your work evokes strong emotional responses from viewers. To what degree are your own emotions and relationship with the subjects reflected in it?
I think the relationship I have with my subjects has to be an open-minded one if I am to be effective in observing them. Photography is all about being a great observer. I have to be in a state of mind that allows me keep both my mind and eyes open and listen to what the landscape is saying. When I am able to really listen to the landscape my images tend to be the most unique and/or evocative renderings I make. If I allow myself to become stressed, distracted or not interested in what the place is saying to me it generally results in images that are less expressive, perhaps more formula-based or routine in nature. I believe being in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate your subjects and listen to them has been a key part of the vast majority of what I consider to be my most powerful images emotionally.
I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with you in person, though, for many, your online persona is something of an enigma. Unlike so many others in the field, you don’t spend much time on social sites and don’t market yourself very aggressively. In many ways, you seem to leave it to your images to do the talking for you. Is this a deliberate choice? And, for those who are curious to know something about the man behind the images, how would you describe yourself?
It is indeed a deliberate choice, but I am not naturally a self-promoter and shy away from a lot of social situations. I have a small circle of friends and can’t imagine wanting to embrace any sort of social networking. That is why, perhaps, I am an artist and let some of my public expressions come in the form of photography. I have no desire to be an open book to just everyone out there. I feel awkward describing myself when the people who meet me are going to form their own opinions anyway. I feel awkward even looking like a photographer when I’m in the field, and usually don’t. When I’m in the field I need to give full attention to my subjects. Throughout the rest of my life I need to have something of an inner peace, which I find I cannot obtain through constant self-promotion.
I suspect most people associate your name with powerful grand scenes, rich in color, drama and impressive feats of light and land. Still, you also have a rich portfolio of more subtle intimate work, as well as black and white. What determines your approach to interpreting a scene and to what degree is it decided by personal factors (mood, state of mind etc.) at a given moment rather than the characteristics of the scene itself?
I have been a fan of interesting weather all my life and my love for being out in rare, adverse or dramatic conditions has shaped everything I do. There’s nothing else that makes me feel so in awe of the power of nature than being a part storms, winds, cold and impressive shows of weather around me. With dramatic weather often comes dramatic skies and light, so they have always been a big part of my photography. Also, I enjoy the technical challenges associated with capturing these moments and bringing them back in a way that puts my viewers there. It makes me feel as if I have formed something of a bond with amazing forces outside of my control.
I always know which images I will want to render as B&W because I identify what aspects make a B&W stronger for me. A high-contrast scene or a scene where color is not adding anything aesthetically is going to be a B&W. I can see it both ways and there is rarely any internal debate as to which I will use. I will say that over the years I’ve gravitated a little more towards color, simply because I’ve learned how to gain more control over the technical difficulties of processing a color medium effectively. I find B&W easier to control technically in many ways but often more limiting in conveying the visual aspects as I would like to.
Intimate and small-scale scenes are also determined by the characteristics of the scene itself, as any photograph is, but it’s harder to formulate a specific type of approach that yields success as consistently as I can do with wide angles. Therefore, I am more selective with the small scenes. With small-scale images, there isn’t a type of lens that usually dictates certain aspects of composition the way wide-angles do, for example. Also, I am not a part of an intimate scene the way I am a vast landscape. I find the intimate scenes challenging to capture because I often feel like an outsider looking in, rather than being contained within something all around me. With intimate scenes I am less likely to realize the potential for a photograph until the exact moment I am viewing it; where as with a big landscape the potential is usually obvious to me for some time before the picture is taken. Therefore, the times I have had success rendering effective images from small scenes have often been the times I have been moving very slowly, paying very careful attention.
You spend a great deal of time working with students and clients. Your teaching approach may be a bit unorthodox in the sense that you don’t just cover material but actually travel with your students and work with them in the field, sometimes under challenging conditions. What are some of the creative lessons you hope students take away from your workshops and tours?
The most important lesson that many of my students will learn from me is that spontaneity yields opportunities. It’s something I see a lot of folks struggle with, likely because other aspects of their lives are so structured. Those who plan out every aspect of their trips in advance, usually those staying at hotels the whole while, aren’t going to be able to react to the landscape the way someone with an open mind and schedule is going to be able to. Lots of workshops out there teach students the artistic and technical fundamentals that go into the creation of strong photographs. I want to cover these aspects as I know them, but more than that I want to teach my students to truly embrace nature and to see the opportunities, not the limitations out there. In other words, I’m not one to take someone to a training facility the whole time. I take them right out to where the action is, so to speak, and take it from there. That’s what I love, so that’s the only way I can teach.
Even though I’m not the most social person you’ll meet, I love teaching because it gives me an opportunity to share things with people that are very special and very necessary in my own life and, I’d like to believe, their lives as well. I’ve been leading people on adventures in the wilderness since I was 15 and we’d skip school to hike routes I thought looked interesting. I ran a ‘hike of the week’ for free through a local outdoor shop I worked at years ago because I wanted to. My interest in guiding and getting people more familiar with the outdoors has been a natural addition to my career in photography and people will become much more aware of what goes on behind the obtaining of those pictures by learning from me.
As a follow-up to the previous question: your images have a very distinctive (and often imitated) look to them, some owed to unique conditions in the field but also, to a large extent, to your own interpretation and methods both in the field and in the studio. What aspects of your work do you feel comfortable teaching and sharing vs. the things you feel should be left up to each artist to learn for themselves?
I don’t think there’s any one aspect of photographic process I would be resistant to share with people who have an open mind about learning, but I must say I’ve been particularly resistant to teaching Photoshop simply because my techniques are so unique that they’re very hard for anyone who is already ingrained in the system, in their own methods, to alter what they are doing on such a fundamental level My style does not always mesh with other styles. My style is a highly visual approach that requires one to have a naturally accurate eye for developing light, contrasts, etc. You might not be able to take a class on Photoshop from me and then build upon what you learned elsewhere on the technical level because it doesn’t fit into anyone else’s system. My process in the digital darkroom is not just a little different from what most people have seen before. I’ve talked to renowned experts in Photoshop who have told me they’ve never seen anyone before or since do things even close to the way I do, and that’s actually intimidating for me going into a teaching environment. That all said, I’m coming around to it and doing more of it these days. It is art after all, and there should be unique ways of doing things.
I would say that the highest level an artist can reach is to exude creativity, originality and innovation in their work, regardless of medium, in a way that is expressive of the artist and evocative to the viewer. We all probably start doing things by mimicking others, and that’s fine. It’s a good way to learn. But at some point, I feel those that don’t evolve past that copycat approach get bored with photography or whatever other endeavor they are undertaking. The key to long-lasting enjoyment and success in the art is to keep innovating but never lose your soul in the process. That’s what I teach people. I can show you how to photograph like I do but eventually, you have to find it for yourself or you’re just going to get bored.
The last couple of years brought some significant changes to your life, including becoming a parent. Do you feel your work and your approach have evolved or changed as a result?
No, I don’t feel my work or approach has changed. I stress this is not to take anything away from my son or other parents who have had their lives broadly changed by aspects of family life. I love my partner dearly and our son is a ceaseless wonder for me, but I cannot honestly say it has changed anything about my approach to wilderness or the photography of it. My experiences in the wild have been the fundamental thing my entire life has revolved around and always will be. It is my passion, my religion and the core of my being to have these experiences in nature and I feel very much as eager to get out there on the next trip as I always have, and do so regularly. As a photographer and wilderness adventure enthusiast, I am always trying to find ways to progress, innovate, see new things and challenge myself but I can’t conclude any of this comes as a result of what happens during my life at home. I do hope to share many of my travels with my son as he grows older.
Modern art is said to have done away with beauty, often criticizing it for being idealized, indulgent or even cliche’. If you were given a chance to take some of these critics into your world, share some of your experiences with them and provide them with insight into your art, what would you say to them?
I would ask them what it is that inspires them to get out into nature.
Spending as much time in the wild as you do, you were undoubtedly privileged to experience some profound moments of inspiration and discovery. Are there any that stand out in your mind that you may share with the readers? As in the story behind the image.
I find inspiration and discovery most every time I venture out on a trip. It’s always a sort of recharging experience for my soul. There are so many particularly moving experiences that stand out over the years it would be hard to isolate one. This past spring I and a couple good friends were 3 full days on foot completely off trails into the depths of the Olympic rain forests. The sheer distance and isolation we felt added magnitudes to the experience of being there. That day, we first were traversing steep hillsides above the river then fording the icy blue glacial water many times. We had encountered several bears already and numerous herds of Elk. Ospreys called out to us. The river curved its way through a steep landscape above the flood plains adorned with hanging glaciers and peaks perpetually lost in the clouds. Rain started to fall. All of it allowed us the smallest taste of what our ancestors must have felt being that much closer to the cycles that rules the natural world, away from the comforts and conveniences of home. It was a time, like so many others I have had, where my desire to do photography could only serve as a stimulant to the imagination, an artistic expression of my experience as much as the specific subjects at hand. Maybe this is why I don’t prefer to look at my photography as pure visual documentation. No one could ever see my picture and know from it exactly what it was like to be there, and I knew that.
We crossed the river one more time at the edge of a sprawling old-growth acreage of Maple, Cedar and Sitka trees. We left the flood-plain, crawling up a bank onto a vibrant mossy carpet nearly a foot thick that disappeared into the forest. It was unlikely there was another person within days of us and the life we felt all around felt more and more like home. The forest here, like so many we had seen, was so immaculately maintained by the grazing of herds of Elk it was park-like in appearance. We marveled at tassels of moss drapery hanging from the Maples, the stately Cedars wider than all three of us could come close to reaching around and the meandering pools and streams fused together of pristine water passing through. Lost in the immersion of the experience, we waded right into the water itself up to our waists and simply waited there, staring up through the trees, listening. We came across a patch of Trilliums under several large Cedars next to a spring cascading off a hillside, marking the wall of the small valley we were in. For anyone who has never felt the energy held within a place, the visual beauty of it would still have been amazing. It was the energy, however, that was completely overwhelming. It was like returning to a long-lost home, a paradise that contained the essence of who we are and being there was the only thing that was important at that moment.
You were able to make a name for yourself and build a unique business model in an industry that is crowded and competitive and where several established models already exist. Where do you see yourself going from here? And, if you could offer any advice, lessons, or even warnings to someone wishing to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?
I have only ever known how to be myself. I spent much of my life resisting any sort of formal or institutionalized teaching. I have developed my own vision and my own ways to do most everything in life, incurring hardship along the way but ultimately succeeding on some levels by finding ways to share my vision with the world around me. My business in photography and guiding people to the amazing places I have enjoyed has come naturally to me because the vast majority of people are inspired by what I’m doing and would like to share in it. I never expected such a thing to happen, but I have embraced that it has in a way that allows me to support a family and proceed along in life more or less how I choose. The next trip always beckons me and perhaps I will take the advice of so many around me and move more towards exploring distant lands around the world as well. Something deep inside tells me I’d be just as happy exploring just the Olympics the rest of my life too though.
The only advice I can offer to people is to be yourself and see where it takes you. The business of nature photography is indeed as crowded and competitive as any in the world, so if you choose to try to enter it, it can be easy to get lost along the way. I can see how it would be easy for most to turn a passion into a great burden trying to make any sort of living doing this. I think that’s the biggest danger. It takes tremendous patience and creativity to fuse business and art in a way that is sustainable and it really depends a lot on the individual’s goals, state of mind and position in life. In the vast majority of cases I see those trying to do so end up loosing their passion for the art and moving on.
In the decades and centuries to come, what do you hope will be your legacy and how would you like to be remembered?
It is not of any matter to me. It is entirely for others to decide. I wish to simply live my life and share what I love with those I love.
To see more of Marc’s work, visit his web site.