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Interview with Joseph Holmes


Joseph Holmes is a landscape photographer from California, and a pioneer in fine art print making. Visit his website here. You can also read about him on Wikipedia here.


PetaPixel: Could you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?

Joseph Holmes: I live in California and had an early introduction to some of its best natural beauty. Since high school, I’ve been dedicated to making the best body of landscape photographs that I can, with my efforts having been mainly aimed at color work. I spend a lot of time studying imaging processes and tools in order to be sure that I know the best methods to apply to my work, and therefore find myself in a position to offer teaching in advanced methods to other photographers. I write articles to assist other photographers which appear on my own web site, josephholmes.com, and in magazines, and I do teaching in one-on-one sessions and in occasional workshops. I also have invented a number of imaging techniques, including my favorite method for controlling the amount of color in an RGB imaging process. This is explained on the profiles pages of my web site. Making fine prints for sale has been a big part of my work for many years. I’ve published three books and many calendars and posters of my work too.

PP: How did you get started in photography?

JH: I learned from a book that photography could be something much deeper than merely making pictures of things. I also learned that these pictures could inform people of the sacred places of the Earth and the importance of protecting the wholeness of nature’s creations from the rising tide of our own impacts upon them. And finally, I learned from that same book that I had the ability to do this job well.

Hills, San Benito County, California  1986

PP: How old were you when you came across that inspirational book?

JH: I was 16 when I saw the book. It was a paperback copy of the Sierra Club Exhibit Format book, “Gentle Wilderness: The Sierra Nevada,” with photographs by Richard Kauffman and text from John Muir’s “My First Summer in the Sierra.” It was designed by my friend David R. Brower and/or his son Ken. I got to know Richard many years later. I had always hoped to run into him backpacking somewhere, but, more predictably I suppose, I first met him at Dave Brower’s 70th birthday party at the office of Friends of the Earth in San Francisco. I also met Governor Jerry Brown there too, in a rather humorous encounter. It was 1982.

PP: What was your first camera?

JH: The very first was literally a Kodak Brownie camera, with which I exposed just one roll of B&W film when I was 5 years old. The first one I used after encountering the inspirational book mentioned above was a $20 Kodak Pony camera, which used 828 format film, which is like 35 mm film but without the sprocket holes, so the frames are a bit larger and closer to 4×5 in shape. I always used Kodachrome 25. By the time I got the next camera as a high school graduation gift, a Minolta Autocord twin-lens-reflex medium-format camera, I already knew I wanted to work with a 4×5 Linhof Technika. The Linhof was fantastically compact and therefore sufficiently portable for my kind of work, and still rich with controls for tilt focus and perspective control, and so on. The second summer after I bought my first Technika, in 1971, I carried it during all 500 miles of backpacking that I did in 14 weeks, while doing part of a survey of the Yosemite backcountry for the National Park Service. That outfit weighed a mere 11 pounds and had just one lens and three film holders. The outfit would eventually grow to more like 50 pounds.

The elegant mud, Escalante, Utah  1979

PP: What equipment do you use now?

JH: Since the fall of 2006 I have been using digital capture. My current outfit is a Phase One (Mamiya AFD 3) camera body with a group of Mamiya lenses, carefully hand-chosen for quality, with a Phase One P45+ back. It’s quite a departure from the Linhof, but the resulting quality is, on average, higher even with respect to detail, and much higher with respect to color accuracy in the raw capture. It’s also much faster and allows for a very large number of exposures, which in turn makes it feasible to use stitching and focus blending to get different aspect ratios (height to width ratios), much more detail, and essentially any amount of depth of field needed. It’s very different, and now my pictures are frequently unique in shape, due to the stitching. The increased dynamic range and color quality make it practical to include lots of bright sky with darker foreground elements and retain superb quality in the highlights as well as strong, open shadows. This system goes well beyond what was possible with chemical B&W using every possible Zone System method, and it does so in color, which is inherently far more complicated. It’s been a long time coming.

PP: How do you decide what or where to shoot?

JH: I figure out where to make pictures by learning about the appearance of landscapes, mostly from other people’s pictures, but sometimes just by going there. Sometimes travels are arranged by friends who want to raft a particular river or see a particular place. I’ve always taken notice of the potential of various places to give me what I’m looking for and filed them away for a time when I see forces aligning to make it right to visit that place. Most interestingly, I usually find things in a landscape that I’ve never seen hinted at in other people’s pictures.

Another thing that struck me once I started to travel a lot outside of central California, was that no two landscapes are the same. I had imagined that there would be substantial regions where things were a certain way — a certain mixture of vegetation, geomorphological features, and weather. But as I’ve traveled, I’ve seen that this mixture is infinitely variable and that the patterns make each place unique. There are still places that look enough alike that I can’t always tell a place from one picture of it, but I’ve gotten quite good at identifying the location of scenes from North America and often the rest of the world. Some places have had very few pictures of them published (the Andes, the mountains of Kazhakstan, parts of Ukraine, etc.), and I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing amazing images of these places which were able to come as surprises.

Redwoods, Del Norte Coast, California  1990

PP: How much film do you carry with you on a typical outing?

JH: These days I carry compact flash cards and a laptop and a couple of small hard drives as backups. Flash memory capacity has grown to be so great that one can make thousands of exposures on a single trip, whereas a very heavy shooting schedule on prior trips with 4×5 film might result in 500 exposures in a couple of weeks. Compact flash is great. Backups and previewing still need to get better.

PP: Mac or PC? What programs do you use?

JH: I’ve never relied on Windows machines for any work to speak of, except software testing. I don’t see why anybody would choose to subject themselves to PCs or would willingly contribute financially to Microsoft any more than necessary, given their marked propensity to engage in anti-competitive behavior. The big market share and the build-it-yourself features are compelling, but Apple really has it together these days especially. My new Mac Pro is quite stunning. Over the next few years, the applications I use for imaging will grow to take advantage of multiple cores and virtual cores and the upcoming 64-bit OS, and so become a great deal faster even than they are today, with no change in hardware. Photoshop lags on technological advances, usually by about four years, and has therefore usually been painfully slow and awkward for my work. I’ve at least managed to squeeze a lot more speed out of CS4 for Mac with large files by using my new, dual-Intel E SSD RAID 0 array, described in this article.

For many years, from about 1995 through 2006, I relied primarily on Live Picture for image edits, which made working on large files possible and practical many years ahead of Photoshop, because it’s speed was generally independent of file size. I also like Helicon Focus (see my article about my work with the developer here), and both Photomerge (in Photoshop CS3 or CS4) and PTGui Pro for stitching. ColorThink is great for learning about color management-related issues, largely by displaying gamuts of devices based on their ICC profiles, and by displaying the colors of an image as points in 3D space by opening a very down-sampled TIFF (use Nearest Neighbor to scale down to roughly 100 x 100 pixels or a little bigger).

Mac OS 10.6 is going to be quite remarkable and I feel very good about depending on it and its successors for many years to come.

Sacred datura, Escalante, Utah  1976

PP: What is the best advice you could give to an aspiring landscape photographer?

JH: Once I asked Dave Bohn, the guy who produced Glacier Bay, the Land and the Silence, one of the other Sierra Club Exhibit Format books, ‘What should I do to get my work published?’, to which he replied ‘Do good work’. I thought, duh, why did I ask? As far as deciding to be a landscape photographer, just keep it keenly in mind that a very large number of people are interested in landscape photography these days, but the size of the professional niche for it is extremely small. Consider how many original prints of fine landscape photographs you have personally purchased, and you can begin to understand this. Therefore do not assume that you can make a living doing this unless you can outdo the many fanatics who are already trying to do it. Either with hard work, or with good work, or with better marketing.

Making great photographs can be unbelievably difficult. But since the mechanisms of photography have become easier lately, the quality and quantity of work produced have both gone up. It’s gotten so that when I go to any of the most iconic landscape views to make pictures during optimal times of the year, the number of tripods set up can be mind-boggling. In one famous spot, I counted 58 tripods waiting for the sunrise. Until a few years ago, the number would have been somewhere between zero and one.

Mist on the Potomac, Fort Washington, Maryland  1999

PP: What are the biggest challenges you face as a professional photographer?

JH: It’s very difficult to get all the work done that I need to get done. I spend a great deal of time in preparation. Much of that preparation has involved making tools either from scratch or in collaboration with companies of varying size in the imaging industry. Sometimes these efforts have lasted several years. My first darkroom was a dye-transfer printing lab, and I spent five years building and equipping it, on a budget. For the next color printing method, Cibachrome II, I spent three and a half years building a very fine, additive lamphouse for my Durst 5×7/8×10 enlarger, so that my Cibas would have more satisfying color than was otherwise possible (great blues and greens), and it worked. Better in fact than I ever imagined it might. It has 1500 parts and 1,000 electrical connections, half of which I soldered myself. It has over 120 precision-fabricated sheet metal parts, mostly hard black anodized. It’s a work of art and it made a much larger improvement in my Cibachromes than I had guessed it might. But now it’s a paperweight fit for a photography museum. The advance to the current level of color imaging over the last 40 years has been vast and upending and costly. Starting off now makes things much easier, but the same is true for the others who are thinking the same thing.

There are many challenges. It’s hard to say which are the biggest, but I’d probably have to say the burden of the technologies of photography. At least during my time to date. From now on it would be less, but still a major burden. The tools are expensive, if you want to do first-class work with the finest image detail. If single frames from a 12 to 24 MP full-frame DSLR are sufficient to please you (say, prints up to 16 x 24 or so), then life is pretty easy. Comparatively.

The next big challenge is probably to impose the discipline on yourself necessary to get the work done right. But that will be for naught if you don’t see well.

Alpenglow, Yosemite, California  1994

PP: What are some common mistakes you see photographers making?

JH: One of my favorite Anselisms is the notion of making sharp pictures of fuzzy concepts. One could describe that as being the most common mistake of any photographer who doesn’t do strong work.

PP: What is something you wish you had known when you first became a professional photographer?

JH: Nothing that I can think of. Aside from how to save the world from the thrashing its getting from the human enterprise. If we don’t learn how to live in harmony, as they say, with the Earth, and do so very soon, it’ll pretty much be over. What’s left of the biosphere is already a shadow of what it was a couple of centuries ago, and the explosion is still accelerating. Unfortunately, there are enough people who don’t know, don’t understand, and couldn’t care less, who are working to stifle efforts to save what’s left, that our chances of success are not good. Unless we all decide to put our shoulders to the task and overwhelm the fundamentalists with our efforts, we’re going to loose most of what’s left of creation, and very soon.

Our constitution holds the key to living in harmony not only with ourselves but with the living planet. Read just the preamble carefully. Fewer than 200 million human beings enjoying a high standard of living might be able to make things last for millennia or longer. We’re rapidly approaching 7,000 million total, and high-tech living is spreading rapidly.

We The People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Take particular note of “…and our Posterity”. How can we secure the Blessings of Liberty to our Posterity if we use them all up for ourselves? Clearly, this most beautiful paragraph ever written is saying, among other things, that it’s unconstitutional not to live sustainably — whatever that should require.

Trees in fog, Minarets Wilderness, California  1983

PP: Who are your favorite photographers, both historical and contemporary?

JH: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Brett Weston, Cole Weston, Richard Kauffman, Joel Meyerowitz, Charles Cramer, Huntington Witherill, and who am I forgetting?

More than that, it was the Beatles and John in particular who were the greatest inspiration to live as an artist, frankly. And several of the painters have been powerful influences: van Gogh, Monet, O’Keefe, and Thomas Moran.

PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed by PetaPixel?

JH: I really couldn’t say, at the moment. Maybe it’s just too close to the end of a long day.

PP: Any final words of encouragement or wisdom you would like to share with PetaPixel readers?

JH: I should suggest that a finely crafted picture carries an implicit message — that the photographer cares about what was in front of the lens. In one way or another at least. And that if you work hard enough, you may be able to effect a positive change in our collective awareness of something that we might otherwise never see.