Candid Conversations: John Barclay

John Barclay

John Barclay
Photography Educator
Bucks County, PA




A few years ago, in an attempt to find my way in the world of photography, I checked out a local photography club. While that was a bust, and not worth the telling, I did learn about this very cool software called Topaz. Fast forward a year or two when work was slow and I had some extra time I signed up for a webinar to learn how to use the software. The instructor of the webinar was none other than John Barclay. I was so taken by the way he taught the webinar I immediately checked out his website, got on his mailing list and liked his Facebook page. On a monthly basis I would look at his list of workshops and tours and wonder if I could ever gather the courage (along with time and money) to participate in one. And then the stars aligned and I was off to PEEC for a week to take photos of leaves. 

This was a life-changing event. I am not sure how or why but during that one week my six years of school all came together. For the very first time I felt that I was taking “real” photographs. I have John to thank for that. He has a way about him. (I think there is a song in that!) It would take far too many blog posts for me to further explain the gift he has given me (and keeps on giving me); I hope that through this conversation it will shed some light on this man who is a great teacher, and one of the most decent human beings I have had the pleasure of knowing. John is someone I am proud to call my mentor. 

His photography was first influenced by his father who was responsible for photographing bombing missions during WWII and the Korean War. (He was actually part of Joseph Heller’s squadron of the famous book Catch 22.) At a very young age, John was intrigued by the medium format negatives he saw laying around the house. Not just the cool subject matter but also the negative itself. And then one lucky day he found a darkroom set up at the local dump and brought it home. His dad built a darkroom around the new found equipment. He loved spending that time in the darkroom honing his photography skills. (And it was a great place to bring the girls!)

As John tells it, the real magic happened after he was married for a few years; his very smart wife, thinking he’d been a bit too grumpy, bought him a camera for Christmas with a note that said “You need to have some balance in your life and I want you to get back to photography.” Like me, he followed up with a workshop at PEEC under the tutelage of HIS mentor the late Nancy Rotenberg. It’s funny how cyclical life can be.

Salt Flats - Death Valley, CA (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography? 
It was my father’s collection of photography from his time in the military and the 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ negatives that I found. I would look at them and think, “What are these? They look backwards. What do you do with them?” And then I learned how you have to develop them and use an enlarger to print them. My first camera was a Kodak instamatic with 126 film.  And those flash cubes! Those were great. The first camera I purchased was a Mamiya C330. A twin lens reflex medium format camera. I saved up and bought it brand spankin’ new when I was 17 years old.  

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
It’s to document and share the creation that exists in front of us. I am just in awe of what is there for us to enjoy and capture with a camera. To me, as a Christian, I see the world in a certain way.  I not only see that it was created for our good but that we are to be good stewards of these gifts. So I MUST photograph to remember and preserve those memories as well as share that beauty and majesty with others. 

As a side note, in the workshop that I co-lead in Hawaii on the Island of Molokai, we have discussions about why we photograph and I blathered on about how I don’t need anybody’s feedback, it’s not important, and I photograph for me because it feeds my soul. One gal had an answer that was really poignant and it caused me to shift my thinking.  She said, “You know, I must share. I have to share. Because I think it’s important to share all of this that I am seeing. Not in a way to get a response from it. Not in a way to get likes from Facebook but just to share the beauty I am blessed to see and be part of."  So that’s where I am too. Not only does it feed my soul but I think it’s important to share what we are being fed and let that feed others too. 

Molokai, Hawaii (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

Why photography as a medium?
This will come from my own fears, uncertainties and doubts. My “FUD.” Because I don’t feel I have another creative capability. I don’t feel I can draw. Never mind paint. And the next closest thing I can do to be artistic would be with a camera.  That’s my creative outlet.  The camera becomes my creative muse. 

You are a musician. How does that creative outlet differ? 
I feel that I am much more creative with a camera.  While I have written some songs, probably a dozen that I would share, that’s a dozen songs in 25 or 30 years versus the opportunity to go make photographs. While they are both creative pursuits the music is not nearly as creative because of how difficult it is to produce yet another song. Music is the thing I go to so that I can calm myself. When I’m having that difficult day the guitar is in my office and I will use that to get re-centered.  So while it is creative, for me it is not nearly as creative as photography. 

Fonthill Castle - Doylestown, PA (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

Is there any one subject that you shoot that gets you into the zone more than others? 
I used to consider myself a landscape photographer. People would ask me what type of photographer I was and I would always say, “a landscape photographer.” Now it’s a very different answer. When people ask me, “What kind of photographer are you, John?” My response is, “I’m a photographer.” Period. 

I would agree that it’s unusual or certainly more difficult to be a photographer of many things, because it is really hard to master just one thing. It’s challenging to be just a landscape photographer. It’s a challenge to become a great wedding photographer. It’s a challenge to become a wonderful portrait photographer. I used to say I would never photograph people and now I absolutely adore the opportunity to be in Cuba and photograph and connect with those people. In that I find great joy. I never thought I would be interested in photographing buildings, inside or outside, but you put me in front of a Gehry building and I just go crazy. It’s a blast. 

You talk about getting in a zone, those types of situations get me giggly-happy as I am prone to say. At the same time put me in New Zealand or Tuscany or the Palouse and these are places I feel so blessed and privileged to go to. And then all of the stars align, if you will, and I am presented with wonderful light, subject matter to photograph, and people to be with, it’s exhilarating, It’s wonderful. So I guess there is no particular subject. I am open to whatever is presented to me, whatever turns my head.  

Pablo, Trinidad Cuba (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

What was the shift where you allowed yourself to explore outside of Landscape photography? 
Easy. It was all of that “FUD” again. Those fears, uncertainties and doubts that I tend to talk about in my lectures all the time. And the reason I talk about them a lot is because it’s my biography. It’s who I am. It was my fear and my inabilities and my doubts about whether I could do anything beyond taking a picture of a tree. So for years I thought “I am a landscape photographer. That is all I can possibly do,” and the self-talk was “I could never be a people photographer. That’s really hard.” 

If you remember in the “Dream – Believe – Create” lecture I talk about going to that Gehry building. It took me four years to build up the courage to go shoot a stinking building because I was so afraid of what to do. The shift was realizing that it’s just photography. It doesn’t matter what kind of photography it is. Be open to whatever is presented to you and just do that. Do whatever feels right. Now I am open to whatever it might be. Flowers, people, travel, or architecture. Whatever turns my head I will do my best to capture in a way that makes sense. 

Experience Music Project -  Seattle, WA (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

How do you keep it fresh? 
That’s a good question. I don’t have a good answer for that off the top of my head. The only thing that comes to mind is to say again that I leave myself open. If I’m simply driving around rather than saying “I am going to do this project about something” I will tend to be more open to whatever turns my head. 

What brought you to the teaching aspect of your work (workshops, webinars and tours) and what is so compelling about it? 
Nancy Rotenberg, back in 2006, called me and said, “I am no longer going to be teaching the Pocono Environmental Education Center workshops. (PEEC) They asked me who we should get for a replacement. I chose you, John.” To which I responded, “Nancy, I’ve never taught anything in my lifetime and I’m not even a good photographer!” and she said. “John, you are a born teacher, you don’t know it yet, and you are a fine photographer.” I said,  “No, I don’t want to do this.” To which she responded, “Well, that’s too bad because I already told them that you would.” [laughter] That’s exactly how it happened. 

I went on my first workshop. I had six people show up and I was scared to death, but quickly realized that Nancy, who was one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever met in my life, was absolutely correct. I adore teaching and what I love about teaching is helping others to realize their potential and to understand what it feels like to have those “a-ha moments.” I live for that. 

Belvedere - San Quirico,  Italy (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

It’s such great joy to help encourage and motivate other people to understand that they too have this artistic talent and capability inside them. Even more so with those that think they don’t. Because it’s my belief that everybody does. They just need to be loved and nurtured and encouraged to find it. 

I don’t have any formal training, but I have always wanted to help people. I asked Nancy to give me some pearls of wisdom.  She said, “John, they’re not hiring you to be the best photographer. That’s not even important. What they are paying you for is to be their coach. To encourage them and to love them and to give them a kick in the butt when needed.  You know, give them a gentle kick in the butt, push them in the right direction, and tell them they can. That’s what they are paying for.” She’s right! That’s our job as teachers. 

So whether it be a webinar, a free video on my website, whether it be teaching in the field . . .truly the best part is not the financial part. The best part is to see people continue on to be wonderful photographers filled with the same joy that I receive doing this crazy thing we do, called photography. That’s why I do it.  It feeds my soul to see others find so much joy in their photography!

Owl Creek Pass, Colorado (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

What do you do on those days where you just don’t have it? Either when you are photographing or when you are teaching? 
In the case where I am out photographing and it’s just not working and I’m not feeling it I’ve learned to give myself permission to be okay with that. I give myself permission to just be and not worry about having to create anything in the moment because there is nothing worse than trying to force a photograph to happen. It just won’t work. The biggest gift I have given to myself is the ability to say “It’s just not working today.” At that moment, guess what happens? When I give myself permission and I put the gear away and I just relax and enjoy the moment? Often, about an hour later, I have to grab my camera and make a photograph. So I don’t just frump and grump around and say “gosh I suck. I’m terrible.” That’s self-defeating behavior. Rather, it’s okay. Once I relax and clear my head it will all be good. 

Obviously, when you are in the teaching mode, you don’t have a choice. People are paying you money to bring them to the right place at the right time. So what do I do? As Dan’s [editors note: Dan Sniffin is John’s touring partner.] mother use to say when he was grumbling about, “Well, Dan, you know you bring your good time with ya.” [laughter] So seriously, I get up and there is that one person who is driving me nuts and I think it’s going to be a tough day, I stop and say “Hey John, you bring your good time with ya. Get out and have a good time.” That’s what I do.  Oh and of course if Dan is there, I don’t have a choice, he says, "John, get over it."  

You know I just thought of one other thing that Nancy Rotenberg said to me. “John, recognize that these people are paying a lot of money and giving themselves a present. It’s your job to do the best that you can do to make it the best present they have ever given themselves.”  I’m thinking that these folks have spent an awful lot of money to be here. They could have gone on a Caribbean cruise. They could have done a lot of things but they have chosen to spend their hard earned money to come here. It’s my responsibility to do by best for them.

Mesquite Flat Dune Abstract - Death Valley CA (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer? (The taking pictures part… not the making money part.)
It’s always going to come back to the fears, uncertainties and doubts about my capability. It is the common thread and theme in my life. I think it’s the human condition as well. We ALL have fears, uncertainties and doubts. If somebody calls me up and says “Hey, I need you to take pictures of my family for a Christmas card.” Man I am going to freeze. “Oh no! What do I do? How do I handle the situation? Do I use strobes? Do I not use strobes? I don’t know how to use a flash.” The biggest obstacle is always the fear of my inabilities to do a good job with something new that might be thrown my way. 

What do you find is the biggest challenge facing professional photographers today?
One of the obstacles for people teaching workshops is to help people understand that there is no better place to learn than being side by side with others. Online resources are valuable and good to augment learning but nothing replaces that experience of being in the field.  The other thing that is a challenge is that everybody has a camera nowadays and everybody thinks they are a photographer.  And then quickly think they can lead people to do photography. 

The competitive nature of doing photography workshops and tours and such has increased. There are a million people out there doing it now versus when I started doing it seriously back in 2006. A few things have affected that. A digital camera which gives immediate feedback as opposed to film where you have to wait for results. That has had a big influence on how many people can learn photography and how quickly they can learn photography. But at the same time everybody thinks they can be a wedding photographer, or whatever type of photographer, because they now own a camera and can take pictures too.  

Klotz Silk Mill - Lonaconing, MD (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse? 
Nancy Rotenberg was far and away the biggest influence in my photography and unfortunately is no longer with us. She passed of cancer at 63 young years old. She was my mentor. Then there was that first influence, like many who consider themselves a landscape photographer, Ansel Adams. He was that guy we all revered and held in high esteem. He was the one who I was introduced to first and who got me very excited to do black and white photography. My Dad bought me his books as soon as I showed interest.

In todays environment there are two guys that will always come to the forefront of my mind and they are Cole Thompson and Chuck Kimmerle. I adore their work. I think they are modern masters along the same peer level of an Ansel Adams but in our day. I think they have pioneered their art and are thinkers as well. 

There are a couple of other people that I would add to that list. Guy Tal who is a brilliant writer, a deep thinker about photography and is also a great photographer. I can’t leave out David duChemin. He too is a deep thinker, thinking beyond the rules, and getting in touch with the way we are feeling about subject and photographs. And then Sarah Marino. I saw her images one day on the 500px website and was blown away.  Since then, we have become friends.  She is not only a brilliant photographer, she is a great writer.  She too has much to say about photography and I look forward to her inspiring blog posts. Those are some of the people who inspire me. 

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be? 
Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t feel the need to be perfect. All of those things get in the way. Be open to whatever it is that moves you and photograph it.  And don’t be critical. I was always so self-critical and having to perfect everything and that all got in the way of just being open to the experience. It’s much easier to photograph now because I don’t worry so much about what other people think. . 

Boxer - Philadelphia, PA (Photo Credit: John Barclay)

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White? – Black and White
9. Film or Digital? – Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom? – Digital Darkroom
7. Objects or People? – Objects 
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Pretty Landscapes
5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Root Canal
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Point and shoot? – Point and Shoot, well I’d rather be kitted out but I’m too old now and it weighs way too much!
3. Commercial or Fine Art? – Fine Art (whatever that means)
2. Tell me about the one that got away. – My nature is to say there are none that got away because if I didn’t get it that’s okay. I have had situations where I didn’t get the photograph but I sure got an insanely wonderful memory.  None of them got away because I was there and I experienced it. 
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – My best image is my next image. It’s a constant pursuit. There is never an end. That’s part of what I love about photography— the next best image is right around the corner and I don’t know what it’s going to be but I am going to be open, doggone it, and I’m gonna get it. 

The Parting Shot

“Stop worrying about what other people think about your work and go photograph for the joy of it. Stop worrying about getting the accolades of others. Just worry about having fun with your camera.  Creating. That’s what you need to do.”

Glacial Lake - Mount Cook area New Zealand (Photo Credit: John Barclay)