It all started with a trip to Yellowstone National Park in Montana/Wyoming, where I was staying during a student exchange. When we visited this magnificent area I was blown away by nature and the many miracles all around me (geysers blowing off steam, bison walking right through hot spring areas and coyotes searching for food in the great valleys). It was 2002 and all I had with me was a 1.3MP digital compact camera with a very limited focal range and an even more limited personal photographic skill set. Consequently, whatever I saw and then captured on the sensor never looked like the real scene in front of me.
Upon my return to Germany, I borrowed my dad’s old fully manual Minolta SRT-303b SLR camera along with three lenses (28mm, 50mm, and 135mm) and started to experiment on how to really capture my vision onto film. Nature seemed like a great place to experiment, since there was an abundance of subjects, so a friend (who was also interested in photography) and I ventured out into the forests whenever we got the chance and played with long exposures, shallow depth of field, polarizing filters and so on. It was the time spent out in nature that really got me hooked on the complexity of ecosystems and the many treasures that are hidden all around us- we just need to see them. Over time my seeing evolved and I learned to anticipate how a real-life scene would look through the lens with a shallower depth of field, a certain shutter speed and just in general the settings I could pick on the camera. The camera had evolved from being a tool for creating an image of nature into a tool for creating an interpretation of nature.
Your photography is a definition of the wildlife art, capturing in a minimalist, intimate, yet complex at the same time, the way nature creates a symbiosis with the wild animal. How do you manage to capture the balance between them?
S: A lot of people ask me how I create my images, but unfortunately I do not have a recipe for a good photograph. I am purely driven by instinct and by my sense of aesthetics.
In the early days of my photography, I stuck to rules like the rule of thirds or the concept of negative space and I feel like these guidelines have helped me a great deal to develop my own style. Nowadays the question I like to ask myself before taking a picture is „What fascinates you about the scene in front of you?” or „Why do you want to photograph this?”. The answers can be as easy as „I like the way the lines lead through the frame” or „I like the speckle of color the subject adds to an otherwise monochrome surrounding”.
The impression of intimacy is likely to come from my admiration towards my subject. I always find things about my subjects that amaze me – like a repetition of patterns, a variety of colors, the sheer beauty of an animal or an extraordinary piece of behavior. I believe that if you really sympathize with your subject and truly care about it, the intimacy in your photographs will come automatically. In this respect, minimalism is simply a technique to set the stage for a subject and to not include things which would take away from it.
“A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”, the influential American documentary photographer and photojournalist Dorothea Lange liked to say. How did you learn how “to see without a camera” and develop your own style?
S: Whenever I pick up a camera in order to photograph a scene in front of me, my mind has already created a preview image of what the scene will look like as soon as I look through the viewfinder. The precision with which this vision and reality coincide is a measure of how far my learning process has come. That being said, I think the only way to really learn how to see without a camera is by using it as much as possible since it will teach you how your settings and actions on the camera will translate into an image. After a while, you will be able to turn your vision into reality (reality being the photograph) and you will be able to share your vision with others through these images. Also, looking at the work of others is a great way to develop your vision and to learn how cameras can see when operated by another set of hands.
For myself, the camera has changed the way I look at the world forever and it has helped me to see aesthetics in even the smallest of things. I can find beauty in a puddle or in an arrangement of stones – things which can be seen everywhere but are often overlooked by most people. Photography has enriched my life in so many ways and even without a camera in my hands I am constantly seeing compositions and potential photographs. Sometimes I feel that I can improve my photography without actually pressing the shutter but just by visualizing a scene in my mind and imagining what it would look like through a viewfinder. Consequently, my own style is just a deduction of my sense for aesthetics and my admiration towards the many compositions of nature.
A few years ago you wrote this for naturescapes.net: ”Antarctica has been my photographic dream. Together with a group of eight other people I have lived here for an uninterrupted period of 14 months, nine of which we were completely isolated and only reachable via satellite communication.”(”My year in Antarctica”) What does this time spent in there meant for you(especially, from a photographic perspective)?
S: Antarctica is the greatest place I have ever been to in my entire life. It is nature in its purest form – beautiful and unforgiving. I have always been drawn to places that dwarf humans and which show, that we are simply guests on this planet and not its owners. In this respect, my first year in Antarctica was a unique opportunity to spend a lot of time in such a place, which one would otherwise only be able to visit for a few weeks. Also in terms of my personal development, Antarctica showed me how little a person actually needs aside from a warm bed and food to be happy. All the belongings I took with me during my first winter in Atka Bay fit into two Zarges boxes.
From a photographic perspective staying in Antarctica for over a year gave me the chance to observe and document the life cycle of one of the most charismatic species on Earth, the emperor penguins. Never before had I worked on a single photographic topic for such an extended amount of time in such a remote and inspiring place. I photographed animals before and I also had some success in nature photography competitions, but I believe that Antarctica advanced my photography immensely. The landscape around Atka Bay is very flat and aside from a few icebergs, there are not many features to be included in photographs. Consequently one has to be creative and really make use of light and weather in order to create images that show a variety of subjects.
Last but not least, having the opportunity to photograph the emperors for an entire year and also during the Antarctic winter enabled me to create a portfolio with a lot of niche images, which are rather unique and go far beyond the typical Antarctica summer photos from the peninsula. I do not want to sound unappreciative of these images though as they made me want to go to Antarctica in the first place, but photographing on this continent during polar winter is a different story and much harder work than most people might imagine.
Your photographic project from Antarctica, about emperor penguins, presented us a hidden world, dominated by beauty and rules, though unwritten yet followed by the animal species living there. How did you accommodate to that extreme climate, far away from any human settlements, surrounded by a myriad of white, harsh wind, and very cold temperatures?
S: Well, first and foremost by wearing appropriate clothing ;). Seriously, we were equipped with great polar overalls, boots, and mittens, that kept us warm for some time, but no matter how many layers of clothing you are wearing there will be a point when you will start feeling cold eventually. The amount of time needed for the cold to break through, however, gets shifted and it is really remarkable how well the human body is able to adapt to cold climates. In the middle of winter, when we were experiencing temperatures of -44°C and below we had gotten to a point that whenever the thermometer rose to temperatures around -30°C we would be speaking of „warm” days. Still, seeing the emperor penguins facing the harshest winds and coldest temperatures every minute of every hour of every day boggles the mind. Whenever we would return to base in order to escape storms or other dangerous weather conditions the penguins would remain on the sea ice making the best of every situation, sometimes even without having eaten in months.
In terms of surviving in Antarctica humans are no match at all to these majestic birds, so most of the time we accommodated to the extreme climate by trying to avoid the VERY extremes. A certain amount of pain is unavoidable when working in Antarctica though and not wanting to leave the sea ice whenever a gust of wind hits your face is essential. Especially during winter when your entire face gets covered in ice and you cannot fully open your eyes anymore since little icicles act as hooks interlocking your eyelashes, the overall feeling in your body cannot be described as pleasant anymore. There were days when my entire body would be sore from having had to shiver from the cold on the previous day and there are so many more things that make your life harder when its cold. I do not want to sound like I am complaining though – spending a lot of time outside in these conditions always was a conscious choice and in the end always worth it. I took my best photos in conditions in which most people would have stayed inside.
You managed to capture the silhouettes of the emperor penguins in a very artistic way, and we can imagine that such a photographic activity was not an easy one. What can you tell us about the life of these animals?
S: They live a life of dedication and sacrifice in order to inhabit a niche, which no other animal on Earth can inhabit. In exchange, they get a habitat free of land predators where they can mate and breed and raise their young. What seems to be a fair trade-off, however, is only half as good a deal as many people might think. While there are no direct predators during winter time when the birds breed, weather can be seen as the main threat to their life. Unforgiving storms at the coldest of temperatures take the lives of young emperors, adult emperors, and even unborn emperors when eggs fall from the feet of a breeding bird.
Aside from these cruel scenarios, the birds lead a very special and inspiring life. They are serially monogamous, which means that two emperor penguins mate for one breeding cycle and stay faithful to each other during that time. Once the female has laid the egg she will pass it to the male who will then incubate the egg for over 60 days, while the female will return to sea in order to feed. When the chick finally hatches the male will not have eaten in over four months and will have lost much of his body weight – still, he manages to regurgitate a first meal for the small and vulnerable chick to keep it alive until its mother comes back and the roles reverse. It’s a very complex and dangerous upbringing of the chick since there are many things which can go wrong. If one of the parents does not return from the sea it could wipe out the entire family – the parent which does not come back from feeding in the ocean, the other parent which is too weak to reach the ocean after having waited for so long and the chick which will starve to death, because it is not getting fed.
Looking at the colony as a whole, emperor penguins have developed remarkable group based survival strategies like huddling, which shows that they can function as a superorganism, keeping each other warm even if there is no family-based relation amongst them. There are many aspects of their life which are utterly astounding and many types of behaviors which make following their lifecycle for an entire year a very rewarding experience.
What are your feelings when you are out there shooting nature in all its splendor?
S: Especially in Antarctica, it was always a feeling of gratitude. I am aware of the fact, that not very many people get the chance to experience what I have experienced and even less people get the chance to make this journey twice like I did.
However, aside from gratitude I also felt a lot of pressure from myself. Wintering in Antarctica is not a decision that one should take lightly as it means that you will have to abandon your loved ones for the entire time of your stay. During winter time it is not possible to reach or leave the continent and hence no visits from friends or trips back home are possible. Consequently, spending a year in Antarctica does not only mean that you’ll be investing a year of your own life into the project but also a year of your partner’s and/or your family’s life. I am lucky enough to have a wife who will always support me in making my dreams come true, but when she allowed me to go to Antarctica and winter for a second time in 2017 I also started to feel the burden of making every minute of my stay count – after all I’d be investing a year of both of our lives into this trip. However, the pressure I felt to use my time wisely and effectively also motivated me to go beyond the obvious shot and to create a portfolio of images which would be unique and novel to the photographic community.
Ansel Adams said that “a great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed”. I’m sure you care a lot about all your photos, and you go back to admire many of them just to get a sense of the emotions captured in them. Can you please share with us the story behind one of these photos?
S: I have very fond memories of a photo from Antarctica, that I have called „group hug”. It shows a so-called creche, which is basically a miniature huddle of emperor penguin chicks. It was my birthday in 2012 and my wish for the day was, that my fellow winterers and I would go onto the sea-ice for sunrise which was around 3am at that time of the year. It was a clear and cold day with almost no wind but bitterly cold anyway. After the sun had risen and we had spent some time with the emperor penguin colony I saw a group of penguins in the shadow of an iceberg that was acting very busy. When I approached them I could see that some of the emperor penguin chicks were huddling together in order to stay warm and it was the cutest thing I had ever seen. Contrary to how huddles work if they are formed by adult penguins though, this huddle was much more dynamic and unorganized. Obviously, the warmest and nicest place of a huddle is in its center where the birds get warmed from each side. As a consequence, all the young chicks were trying to get as close to the center as possible by ducking down and pushing themselves deeper into the group. Their urge to get to the warm center became so strong, that some of them even ran towards the creche and boldly leaped into the middle of it, crowd surfing on their peers in the process.
There were no hard feelings as everybody was still learning and it was the most wonderful and innocent behavior to watch. When I took my photo I wanted to fill the entire frame with chicks to show the coziness and cuteness of this sight. Suddenly one of the chicks lifted its head and looked right at me, which was the perfect moment to take the shot. I still smile every time I look at the image.
The life of nature and wildlife photographer is not easy at all but is healthy for the mind and soul. What advice would you give to those who want to start on this path, as well as to those who have already embarked on this journey?
S: One thing which I have learned over the years that I have been trying to gain traction in the field is, that the path which leads to success is very individual and different for all of us. Never let yourself be discouraged, because you are not advancing as fast as someone else or if you are not heading into the same direction as your idol.
Photography is utterly personal and subjective and if you truly care about what you do, you WILL have success eventually. I believe patience is the greatest virtue that one can have when pursuing a career in nature photography. It took me over ten years to get recognized by the community, but I kept doing what I loved and composing images in the way that I liked and that excited ME.
If you were to choose a single quality within yourself that helped you be who you are now, what would that be?
S: I think one quality, which has helped me a lot in my photographic life is enthusiasm. Everything in nature amazes me and even if I had disappointments in photography competitions, pitching a story to a magazine, etc., I have always continued my journey for the sake of being out in nature and experiencing and sharing its wonders. By sharing my images and stories from the field I am trying to give something back to nature and encourage others to go out, to explore and to care about nature themselves.
A message for the readers of “Drumeți și drumeții”.
S: This planet is a gift to mankind and we need to start treating it like that. People like you can make a difference!
© text: Andreea Popescu, Stefan Christmann
© foto: Stefan Christmann