Large format photography is not an easy thing to do. A lot of practice, skill, and thought go into the making of a single image. Alex Burke is an artist that does extraordinary work with large format photography. He enjoys the craft, the travelling involved, and the outcome. He should. The view alone is nothing short of breathtaking.
Hello, Alex! Welcome back to the Lomography Magazine. Please tell us a bit about yourself.
Hello, everyone! Thanks for having me. I’m a landscape photographer from the plains of Colorado who specializes in using large format film to capture some of the less common scenes of the American West. I’ve been using 4x5” film for just over a decade after introducing myself to the format at the age of 22. Currently I’m writing from the deserts of Southern California just outside of Death Valley, as I enjoy taking extended trips by any means - be it traveling around by van as I am now or on foot in the back country.
How would you define photography? What's your favorite thing about it?
Photography can be whatever you want to make of it, which is really why I find the entire spectrum of it so enjoyable. You can capture light onto a photosensitive surface in the most rudimentary fashion such as a pinhole camera, or you can have all the fanciest whizbangs on the latest digital camera. So long as you’re having fun creating images that's all that matters. Every minute I’m out there creating images the time slips away because it’s always an enjoyable experience to find a compelling scene and make it come to life on a large sheet of film.
Let's talk a bit about your work -- how would you describe your photographic style/approach?
A good portion of my work could be considered as traditional western landscape photography in the sense that I’m trying to distill the chaos of natural scenes into something beautiful. I have also taken the route of adventure to create these images just as the men of old days did, though we have it a lot easier now as we don’t have to develop wet plates in a nearby river shortly after shooting to get our results. I would like to say that I’ve built upon those traditional works with more modern compositions but still using a medium that requires an eye for good light as it can’t just be made later on in post processing.
Part of my approach is a focus on the more remote landscapes, rarely do I chase after the common “icons” that we see all the time. Of course the internet is still a very valuable research tool to find out the existence of new locations, but oftentimes before a trip I will actually avoid looking at photos of the area so that I don’t have any preconceptions of compositions in mind and therefore have to use my own person judgment to create fresh images.
Who or what would you say was the biggest influence in your work?
I would like to say that the biggest influence in my work is nature itself and the desire to see more and more wild places. As far as people go, I think that another Colorado photographer by the name of John Fielder was an early inspiration to me. He made his rise to local fame in the 80s and 90s as a guy who backpacks all over the mountains of Colorado and captures its beauty on 4x5 film. He’s also written many books on various photographic subjects, but I remember reading one of his books on landscape photography when I was just getting started. I think it’s fair to say that he was an influential figure in getting me to shoot large format.
Your landscape photographs are just amazing. What made you pursue that area of photography?
Again, I would have to say it mostly has to do with getting outdoors and seeing more. There will always be that never-ending itch to see new places and capture them to my best ability on film. It’s also exciting that there will never be the “perfect” landscape image in my mind, there will always be the challenge to create something better. This mentality makes it continually interesting to return to old places as well as seek out the new. There will always be a better - or at least very different - image available.
What is it about large-format photography that pushes you to create images?
The limitations of the format can be a powerful creative tool. It is a conscious effort to go out and shoot anything with large format. First, there’s the actual bulk of the entire system, then there’s the uncertainties inherent with shooting film in general. After many years you get a good idea of what your results will look like, but still there’s always that moment when you finish an epic sunset session and you start to run the whole thing through your head. Was 8 seconds at f32 really the right exposure? Did I account for that warming filter?... Oh yeah of course I did. And so on. The fact is you’ll never know exactly what you shot until you see the film later. This often forces me to move on which can be a good thing. After taking my one or two shots of a scene during the good light, there’s nothing else I can do to change what happened and it’s time to find the next composition - worry about the results later!
What are the challenges and rewards of shooting nature and landscapes?
I’ll start with the rewards. For me it’s been a great way to travel, always pushing me to see more. I get to wander around the western half of the country on a whim, shooting exactly the scenes that I want to shoot. I’ve been able to backpack into wild places that the majority of people will likely not see with their eyes. All of these things have happened as a result of my burning passion for landscape photography.
There certainly can be some challenges as well. There’s times where I feel that I’ve traveled the furthest from home only to create images that are mediocre. This can be due to adverse shooting conditions or a lack of understanding when it comes to a new landscape. This will always be an area for improvement for likely any landscape photographer. For those trying to make a living on landscape photography, nearly all will have their biggest challenges trying to find the right client base, types of products or services to sell, and coming up with effective marketing strategies. And if you manage to get that figured out the next challenge is to properly balance time for business with time for creating new images.
Any memorable trips or photos you've taken? Please share them with our readers.
Absolutely! Most of my favorite experiences revolve around the moments where I’ve found true and complete solitude. Not just the type where you’re alone for a few hours, but the feeling of knowing for days that there’s no one within miles of you. A recent time that comes to mind is when I went to the Canadian Rockies late last September. I backpacked solo into the Tonquin Valley after a heavy early season snow. On my way in I crossed paths with a group of three people on the way out and they confirmed that the vehicles at the trail head were theirs, meaning it was just me in the massive mountain valley.
After continuing on the 20km hike over a pass with knee-deep snow, I was exhausted and didn’t make camp until well after dark. But for the next three full days I had that valley to myself. The silence was intense, with only the occasional noise of rocks and ice tumbling down a mountain cliff during the morning thaw and evening freeze. I had plenty of time to just think and reflect as the days stretched on. During one of the mornings there was a wild sunrise that I was able to capture near my campsite as the sun just lit the tips of the Rampart Range. That sunrise can be seen in the image “Rampart Range Sunrise”
Another scene that comes to mind is “Rainbow Over the Aspen” taken during one of my long road trips through Colorado in the autumn. It was just one of those times where everything came together and I was glad to have set my camera up during a storm in hopes of some good light. I didn’t know a rainbow that strong would appear but it’s always worth getting a little wet to find out.
If you could shoot anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
The first place that pops into my head at this time is Patagonia in Southern South America. That landscape has captivated my imagination for years, but I would also want to take my time to explore the rest of the region and not just the famous parks. That said, it’s not all about the top destination. I’m just as happy creating images in my home state of Colorado. There’s something to be said about shooting a familiar landscape, the intimate knowledge that can only come from years of exploring the local scenery can work to make the strongest images.
Who are the artists that you follow on a regular basis? (If there are any.)
I try not to spend too much time staring at the small screen, but Justin Nambiar on IG is a heck of a good large format photographer. His wilderness scenes are so well executed and like me, he enjoys straying far from the beaten path.
As far as more renowned photographers go, I strongly enjoy the works of Edward Burtynsky. After seeing my images of the Oil and Gas industry of my local landscape, and a fan of mine pointed him out to me. I was immediately entranced by his images of manufactured landscapes, particularly his ship breaking images and the mining tailings. I was able to see his prints in person in a museum two years ago and it was worth the trip!
Another guy is Murray Fredericks. His images of almost nothing on huge film are truly incredible.
What was the most memorable advice you've been given in your career as an artist?
Well since you mentioned the word career that has me thinking about the business side of things. Early on in my print-selling career in a conversation about print size, another photographer said the old phrase “go big or go home.” It really holds true in the world of selling prints in the fashion that I wanted to and also makes the most sense since I use large format film. While it takes a lot of risk to choose a handful of images to spend big money on making huge prints, the payoff down the road can be great.
Does gear matter when it comes to putting out creative content?
No, absolutely not. I mean, you have to have some sort of method to capture an image but that’s all the gear you really need. There’s people making incredible and extremely creative images using pinhole cameras that don’t even have lenses. Just shoot with what works for you and makes you happy, better gear will never bring out a stroke of creativity.
What's your favorite song/movie/book? Why?
Song - I’m more of an album guy as that’s the best way to appreciate a work of music. That said, the album Meddle by Pink Floyd is an outstanding listening experience. On a more modern note, Random Access Memories by Daft Punk is one of the most masterfully put-together albums I’ve ever heard.
Movie - There Will Be Blood immediately comes to mind for its incredible cinematography and passionate acting.
Book - Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. This book gives you a glimpse of what life looked like for a park ranger of a remote desert monument, back when rangers were a bunch of men with long beards who walked around barefoot in the red dirt of Utah. He writes of nature in such a matter-of-fact way, reminding us that the earth doesn’t care about our personal existence in the least.
How does a perfect day look like for Alex Burke?
Any day where I get to place something in front of my camera makes me happy. Ideally I’d wake up somewhere in the wild to an awesome sunrise where all the elements just worked out perfectly, then spend the day relaxing in that same valley. Making camp coffee and breakfast, scouting out new locations for sunset, and then finally shooting at the end of the day. After all that it’s time to warm up in the sleeping bag, read for a bit, then call it a night.
What's next for you?
My immediate goal for 2018 is more back country Colorado images so I have a few places in mind that I’m working on plans for. Beyond that, I’m getting the itch to travel out of the country somewhere further. I like to see how my art show season pans out (late spring through autumn), then I’ll have to plan a trip perhaps to the southern hemisphere.
Any last words for our readers?
I think it’s exciting to see what appears to be a resurgence in film usage among the younger photographers. From the types of questions I get through my website and blog, it’s quite apparent that many people are getting into film for the first time and it’s fun to help people along on that journey when I can. I hope the interest continues for many more years!