What Would Chuck Do?

Last week I posted about my trip to the Bethlehem Steel Stacks in which I hinted about a conversation that I had whilst shooting and that I would soon unravel the mystery.  Without any further ado, here is the gist of that conversation.

Scene: Smoke stacks walk way. Chock-a-block with tripods and photography enthusiasts. As I grab my bag and gear to re-locate I hear one of the enthusiasts, we’ll call him Herb, say:

Herb: “I wish someone would just come over and pull out all of these trees. They are getting in the way!”

Me: “Really? That’s the best part!”

Herb: “But they are in the way!”

Me: “But they tell a great story. The organic leafy things that are not only growing but also thriving amidst the man made pile of rust. It’s wonderful!”

Herb: “But I see all of this in Black and White.”

Me: “Me too!!!”

Herb: “But how are you going to make that work in Black and White?”

Me: “How do you NOT make it work in Black and White?”

As I said in my last piece I came home to look at my shots and it was as Herb foresaw—I did not make it work in Black and White. Actually, I did not make it work period. Not be deterred, I know in my heart-of-hearts that I was correct in that conversation. The fact that I did not make my current images work did not mean that it couldn’t work in the future. It certainly did not mean I wouldn’t make it work in Black and White. I did what any self-respecting photographer would do in such a situation: I called Chuck Kimmerle!

Having explained the situation to Chuck I sent him a few sample images. (Please note: I know these images are not good; I am willing to show a few duds in order to get some very good points across. Also, I am certain that even Ansel Adams tossed a few negatives into the recycle bin. Yes, I know I’m not Ansel Adams. You get the point.)

The bad example image I sent. 

Another example I sent. 

Below is a portion of my conversation with Chuck regarding the duds you see posted here:

Me: Thank you for doing this. It was such an interesting little conundrum that I had to ask what you would do in this situation. Actually, that’s wrong. You would have never gotten into this situation. Now that I’ve done it, is there any way to rectify this?

Chuck: Well I looked at the first picture you sent and looked on your blog at the other pictures where you avoided the leaves. And I’ll be honest; leaves with man-made stuff are always a bit tough because when you look at the leaves they always look so bright. But in reality their overall luminosity is probably not much brighter than the stuff around it. It’s just that the yellow color has a solution of being brighter.  If you took readings on it you would probably find that the leaves are the same color. 

Now there are two ways to do it. One is like the second way (Like you did on the photos you already posted to your blog) where you get tight enough to avoid the leaves. On one of the pictures you sent the leaves were in there as in, “I can’t avoid them so I may as well put them in a little corner down here.” And to me when confronted with these wonderful designs, and there are things that ruin the design, you can avoid it or you embrace the hell out of it. 

Me: As I was walking around I found it fascinating to have all of this organic stuff amongst the man made decay and I liked that. There is a little whimsy or a little something in there. I don’t know if it is because of the color contrast. If that is the case then how does that relay to black and white. But, to your point, if it’s a design thing and it goes to black and white it ruins the whole design focus.

Chuck: Well, the first picture I noticed really wasn’t about the design because if you look at the top there are a lot of doo-hickies that have nothing to do with the design. Same with the bottom and then there’s the leaves. Some of your tighter stuff had to do with design. And when you are confronted with this juxtaposition of this man made order and nature’s cacophony you really can’t do a lot with design unless the design is super super strong and you can juxtapose the two. But that’s all you can do anyway.  Your first picture you include it more as a scenic picture. It didn’t really work because it’s just too much you don’t’ know where to look. 

So here it is. If you want to include it you can’t just include a piece. You have to really really commit to it. Maybe the way to look at it is that your picture isn’t the man made elements your picture is the tree or the growth in nature within an artificial environment. If you look at it that way then the tree, or nature, becomes more of the subject and the man-made stuff becomes the extra or the second half of the juxtaposition. It’s really hard when your mind is dead set on “I really love this man made stuff but how do I deal with it with the stuff in the way.” All of a sudden, then, you are thinking of the natural part as being a negative entity and it’s going to influence you, and not in a good way, of how you create the picture. 

The second set of pictures [in the blog post] were all about the man made stuff, but nothing that I saw was about the growth. 

When you are dealing with that [what you need to do] is to shoot wider and put things in a greater context. You could have shot wider and shown all the great man-made stuff with this small forest or woods growing in there and turn it into mother nature taking over man sort of thing. But, again, that’s when you are really embracing the trees to the point where they almost become the focal point. 

Me: I was right in that I CAN include them, but was wrong in the way I was delivering the punch. 

Chuck: Ya, I think what you were trying to do was to still shoot the design and not ignore the tree. When people look at the pictures they think “I don’t see a design here, the tree is just in the way.” And it’s hard to know what you were trying to come up with. Make sense?

Me: Yes. I think I need to go back. . .

The conversation then turned to fundamentals in Photoshop and I’m not going to go into that here. There is this thing called the Internet full of information on that front. So, here are the critical points I got out of this conversation:

1)    It’s not about whether it’s Black and White, Color, or Cyanotype. It’s about the composition and the narrative. (And the point of view. Don’t forget your point of view.)
2)    The luminosity of the green is going to be the same as the man made parts. Even though my eye distinguishes these as two different color elements when I go to process in black and white they will be similar tones. But that’s not a bad thing! I can make choices when I start to process. (NOTE: I could make these same choices if I was Ansel Adams working in a traditional darkroom or if I were Chuck Kimmerle working in a digital darkroom.)
3)    There are many ways to look at a scene. You can look at it graphically or you can look at it scenically or you can look at it upside down if you want. Make sure you know your point of view. 
4)    Let me repeat. All roads lead back to good composition and understanding the narrative before you even click the shutter. Sometimes it pays to think first and then shoot.

Chuck left me with one last comment that I think was very telling. 

“The guy you were talking to . . . I believe his biggest problem, and I see this a lot from people, is he went in with pre-conceived expectations. Before he went in, in his mind, saw these wonderful man made structures. And then when he saw the trees he froze. Because in his mind he had already figured out what he wanted to do. What I recommend people do is to go in saying ‘I’ll get what I can get.’ That way when you are confronted with trees you aren’t going to say, ‘Damn. They are in my way.’ You’ll say, ‘How can I use those?’  If you go in with closed minds that is a big deal. “

And there it is. Thank you for joining me in photography 101 with Chuck Kimmerle! Next time we will discuss the proper positioning of Bison. [inside joke] Actually, next time I hope to be posting some Mother Nature images from Bethlehem Steel! I need to get back there soon. Any takers? Carla?

Candid Conversations: Chuck Kimmerle

Chuck Kimmerle

Chuck Kimmerle
Professional Landscape Photographer
Casper, Wyoming



This interview thing is very new to me so I expect to miss a few things now and then. I could have kicked myself when I realized I missed asking my next interviewee the most important question: "Why do you work exclusively in Black and White?" Thank goodness for follow-up questions, because his response is key to how he—pardon the pun—rolls:

I have always been more receptive to shapes, forms and textures than to color. I don't know why. I just seem to find more meaning in those attributes. Also, color photography is a more restrictive genre as we are usually bound by the realities of color: blue sky, green grass (unless you live in California), etc. Black and white photography, being inherently abstract (the world is not made of grays) allows much greater latitude to, for lack of a better word, interpret a scene and present a unique image. 

As you can tell from his response, Chuck Kimmerle is not only thoughtful in his approach to photography; he is also cunning in his approach to humor. I knew I liked him for a reason. (It has nothing to do with the fact that we were both born in Minnesota and carry a bit of that certain “Midwest charm” everywhere we go, of course!) 

While his current situation is working as a Black and White landscape photographer in Casper Wyoming, his journey has had a few interesting twists and turns. When he went to college and had to pick a major Chuck decided that a degree in Photographic Engineering Technology was the way to go. (For those of you not “in the know” this is the science of film and the science of paper. Chuck has forgotten more about film and paper emulsion and photo sensitometry and photochemistry than most people will ever learn.) For the most part he was making the practical (chicken) choice in his major so he would have something to fall back on should the photography route not work out. So he picked a career that is now obsolete.  (Good back up, Chuck!)

As it turns out he never needed that back up and as you will see the world of photographic images is much better for it.

Elk Carcass In Fog, Glendo Reservoir, WY (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

The Conversation

What is your first memory of photography? 
[Laughter] One of my favorites! When I was about 3 or 4 years old we were at a family picnic and I had my grandmas brownie box camera. The old kind where you look straight down and you see this really distorted picture. And I was told under no circumstances am I to press that button. NO circumstances. So, I went underneath the picnic table and pressed the button. Well, a louder click you have never heard. Because instantly I was snatched up, scolded, and spanked—and that is my very first memory of photography. If you want something a little less juvenile I can provide that. (Editors note: Knowing Chuck it is my feeling that there could not be a more perfect story.) Okay, so that was more of a random memory. But what really got me into photography, for whatever reason, I wanted a camera for high school graduation, and I had my heart set on this god awful little cassette camera. It took tiny little negatives but it was so cool. My dad, thankfully, got me a more sensible camera. After high school I went into the army infantry and was stationed in Germany. I ended up taking a lot of pictures and I guess you could say I caught the bug there. And then I realized I liked the pictures but I wanted more meaning out of them. I wanted them to be different. So I started working on it.

Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom? 
Nothing specifically. When I was in the army and getting pictures of the Alps and pretty German towns all the pictures did was remind me that I visited there. I wanted the pictures to do more than act as a memory aid.  Because of the way I was shooting them I was the only one who gave a crap about them. I wanted to share an experience as opposed to making a postcard. Achieving this goal has been a lifelong process. There was only one real “Ah-ha!” moment in my entire photographic career. When I was working in newspapers I was very much a serious photojournalist. But I kept seeing people doing these abstract pictures that today I take for granted. I would have loved to be able to photograph that way but nothing was really in my mind.  After two years of working in journalism I saw this backlit construction scaffold with stacks of bricks and one person walking back and forth.  And all of a sudden it all clicked. The whole thing about design and abstract. The picture was not about the subject it was about more than that and I think that was the first real fine art photograph that I made.  It sounds so idiotic now because it was so easy, but when you have a certain mindset sometimes it’s really hard to break out. 

Scaffolding, St. Cloud Times (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

Is there a relationship between Fine Art and Photojournalism?
That was always the big question in journalism. Are you a journalist first or are you an artist first? And the thing is there is no real right answer because if you only did artistic photos you aren’t really working in journalism. You aren’t informing your audience. Or if you are only doing straight journalism you are going to be boring people to death. So there is a fine line all journalists walk. And they always say in newspapers that photographs are not enhanced embellished or faked in any way. But any time a picture is made you are excluding 90% of what the photographer can see with their own eye. The photographer is focusing in on something and is already interpreting the scene. The fact that a human being is making choices about what to photograph already means that the photo is being manipulated. We are not machines. 

Why photography as a medium? 
With photography one of the things I really respond to is that you have to be there. Painters and sculptures will go out and take a picture and bring it back and paint it or sculpt the subject.  Musicians may get inspired and write down a couple of notes and finish it later. With photography there is no phoning it in. You have to be there. I have to be in front of the tire or in front of the trash or the mountain or whatever I’m photographing. It’s an experience when you are looking at the final image and you know that is what you were seeing in your minds eye when you were visualizing your final product. I’m not saying that I see in black and white or that I can pre-visualize everything, but you know there is a certain connection between the experience and the final product that you don’t get in any other medium. 

Fence Post and Hill During Ground Blizzard, Shirley Basin, WY (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

Is there any one subject that you shoot that gets you into the zone more than others?
Not really. I consider myself a reactionary photographer. I don’t really have a set agenda or subject matter. I know some photographers that have a set subject like the Mojave Desert or the Colorado Plateau. I don’t really have that. I can photograph buildings or mountains.  I react to what I see no matter what it is. Although I will say that the rural plains are where I am most at home.  

How do you prepare yourself for an assignment or personal project? 
I don’t really prepare too much. I like the whole experience to be very organic.  So I don’t do a whole lot of planning. I keep my camera gear organized and in the bag. And if I grab the bag and tripod I have everything I need. I will look and do basic research of what the area has to offer. But I limit my google image search. I purposely avoid seeing what other people have done. To me there is a subconscious undo influence that I don’t want to have. The danger of that is I may head out to do an assignment or whatever it is and come back with this horribly cliché picture that I did not realize was cliché. That has happened a few times but at least it was something that I found. And even if it’s been found a thousand times I had that experience of finding it for myself. And that to me is the best part of photography. Especially landscape photography. It’s the art of exploration and discovery. We are like little Lewis & Clarks of cameras.  And that is the best part for me.  To find something out of the blue and in possibly the most innocuous place and to say, “Oh Crap!” Those are the times when you turn the car around so fast that your head spins and you’re so excited you’re fumbling with your gear. That’s what I live for. Those feelings. 

Closed Door, Coal Mountain, WY  (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

How do you keep it fresh? 
I think everyone who is serious feels that. It’s a natural part of any real creative process. I think you just keep at it. It’s a frustration everyone has and you just have to get over it and move on. I think the biggest problem for someone who does photography for a long time is actually being derivative of himself. I have a certain style. My pictures are simple and balanced. Things are centered. Sometimes I come back and look at my work and I see where I have forced something into that mold that should not have been and I could have done it better. But subconsciously I must have said that isn’t a “Chuck picture” if you don’t do it that way. I am very conscious of that and I have to make sure that everything I do is for a reason. 

What do you do on those days where you just don’t have it? 
I rarely walk away. One of the important things is to get the first picture done. I do a lot of exploratory work. And if I’m out and I don’t come up with a picture after an hour I will just stop at the first non-boring thing I find and make a photograph to get it out of the way. Prime the pump if you will.  Get that first one done and almost every time I have found the next ones come a lot easier. It’s just a matter of putting yourself in that mode and sometimes you just have to hear the click of the shutter to do that. 

Trees and Tetons, Grand Teton National Park (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

What do you find is your biggest challenge as a photographer? (The taking pictures part… not the making money part.)
I think getting out as much as I would like is always a challenge. Everyone has chores. Even Ansell Adams had to do the dishes once or twice. [Laughter] Which is a great thing to think about. Once you realize that it makes things easier. I think it’s easy to make up excuses not to go out. “I have to mow the lawn.” “I’m not feeling up to it." As physically undemanding as photography can be it is exhausting. Even if you are only doing it from a car that amount of creative effort you put in is mentally draining. 

Do you have a set schedule for your shooting?
I don’t go out every day. I don’t really go out every week, but I try. I work local for the most part. I do destinations like everyone else, but most of my work is done in day trips or short overnights. There is a lot of desk-work.  For instance my new website that was just launched took hundreds of hours to produce, because I am not very good at coding. Then there are prints and getting ready for exhibits. The more you photograph the more desk-work there is. So there is no real set schedule. I get up some days and tell my wife I’m just going out with a camera. I am really, really, REALLY lucky to have a wife who is super supportive. As a landscape photographer you have to be gone for so long. If you are a commercial photographer you might be gone for half a day or a few days tops. When you are doing landscape type of work you can be gone for many weeks at a time. 

White Fence, North Dakota (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

What do you find is the biggest challenge facing professional photographers today?
Around here it’s getting people to appreciate B&W photography. I get asked all the time, “Do you have this in color?” Photography is not the easiest sell anyway. Sometimes I think if I would just print on velvet I would have an easier time making the sale. Right now people can go out and get decent technical quality pictures with just a cell phone. It’s easy for people to think they are good because they mistake artistic or esthetic depth with a pretty technical photo. What we have had is a dumbing down of photography in general. There is so much inane chaff online. Photography is no longer something people consider special. So I might show someone a picture and hear, “Yeah, I have one just like that.” People will say that and look at my work and think, “Why should I pay for his when I can do exactly the same thing?” [Editors note: I can promise you it is NOT exactly the same thing!] But for people who like doing workshops there are more people than ever who want education, who want to get better, so that’s good for a photographer’s business. 

Who inspires you? Who or what is your muse? 
There is a writer. Robert Adams. He is also an amazing photographer. He has a lot of books, but there are two in particular. One is called Beauty in Photography. And the other one is, Why people Photograph.  I don’t use the term seminal very often when I am speaking about books, but these are seminal. He is an amazing writer and a great photographer. He is pretty much a master. Reading his work inspires me a lot because I feel like he gets me. I read him and I find myself saying “Yes! Exactly!” He’s a former English professor who discovered photography. He’s so eloquent in the way he writes. 

That inspires me a lot, as does Edward Weston. Of all the people out there I get the most inspiration from him. He wasn’t just a photographer.  Photography wasn’t just what he did, it was his life. He was someone who was receptive to photographing anything, from a portrait to a toilet, and he would be perfectly happy. To him it was about  the photograph -- not just about subject. I think the biggest mistake that people make is they put way too much emphasis on what they are photographing, what is in front of the camera, and that isn’t really important at all. What is important is what you make of it. 

Shelter Belt #3, Minnesota (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

If you could give the young you some advice what would it be? 
Stop following the typical photographic rules. Young photographers are given the same set of rules. I wish I had broken them more often. More importantly stop worrying about what people think of your work. I would have grown more as a young photographer if I weren’t so dependent on acceptance. I wish I had taken more artistic chances even as a photojournalist. Still staying within the ethics of photojournalism but not be quite so safe. Tough to do when you are working for someone else.  I just wish I had taken a few more chances. 

What question have you always wanted someone to ask you (with an answer that is printable) or do you have any parting thoughts? 
I’m a Sagittarius, I like long walks . . .[Laughter] My biggest piece of advice is to stop worrying about getting acceptance, stop worrying about people liking your work. What happens when you are worried about people liking your work is you wind up going to destinations that have been photographed a lot because you know there is a high probability of coming back with something that is going to make your friends or your photo club go “Ooooooo.” If you stop searching for the “Oooooo” I think you are going to have a better chance of growing. One of the questions I get asked most often is, “How do I take my photography to the next level?” or “How do I find more meaning in my work?” and the only thing I can say is stop worrying about what other people think and what other people are doing and just take pictures that mean something to you. 

Solar System On A Rope, Buxton, ND (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)

The Questionnaire

10. Color or Black and White?  --- Black and White
9. Film or Digital? --- Digital
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom? --- Digital
7. Objects or People? --- Objects
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? --- Urban Jungle 
5. Weddings or Root Canal? --- Root Canal
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Holga? --- Everything on my back like a sherpa
3. Commercial or Fine Art? – Fine Art
2. Tell me about the one that got away.  ----- I was in Yellowstone photographing some wildlife. Pretty scenic and had some wildlife. It was a scene that I had to give a crack at. Some people saw me, stopped their car, and let their kids run out in front of me and scared everything away. The parents were totally clueless.  “This is a park we can do whatever we want”. The best pictures you will ever take are the ones you didn’t get. In your mind they are so much better. 
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. ---- I really don’t have one. I don’t have any expectations. 

The Parting Shot: 

"My career has been a slow build and I think that’s the best way to do it.  It’s something you work at and that’s why it’s important that you don’t compare yourself to anyone but your younger self."

Lone Boat, Stehekin, WA (Photo Credit: Chuck Kimmerle)