An Interview with Jim Austin MA., A.C.E: Keeping an Open Mind’s Eye

Photo of Colorado Climbers
Copyright © Jim Austin 2010. All rights reserved.

Colorado Climbers

Q. When did you first know that photography was going to be in your future? Do you remember the very first photo taken that got those creative juices flowing, and then what course did you follow to gain your knowledge? A bit of background if you would…

A. Yes, I would be happy to. Photography has been a passion since I was 15 years old. While climbing Torres Peak in the Colorado Rockies with friends, I took a photograph of them silhouetted against a snow-covered 14,000 foot peak. This picture, shot on Kodachrome and Kodacolor, and the training in the high school darkroom fired my imagination. College was also an intense learning experience, with photo classes at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. We had a lot of fun with processing our own slide film and doing Kodak projector slide shows.

Later on, I got involved with the Denver Photo Society and was President for 2 years. The society added to my knowledge base by providing honest feedback about what a good photograph was, and even better, how to collaborate with other photographers and their visions.

All the acquired training and knowledge led me to starting my own photography portrait studio in Colorado, USA, along with event photograph commercial work.
Photo of Three Rodeo Generations
Copyright © Jim Austin 2010. All rights reserved.

Three Rodeo Generations

Q. Because photography and writing are two distinctly different disciplines, when was writing included in your repertoire?

A. Writing for photography began in 1995 when I accepted a position teaching digital photography. The faculty of the Industrial Design department of Metro State College in Denver wanted a design/Photoshop instructor, and in the process of teaching college students, I discovered that writing about the why’s and how’s of creating images appealed to me. In my 40’s, I started to keep a journal of notes of everything photo related and they grew into articles and books, like Photopia: Seeing Far and Wild.

Q. Did you have mentors or photographers and writers that influenced and encouraged you along the way? Who inspires you today?

A. I was fortunate to have excellent teachers and my friends inspire me the most. Today I’m listening to a history of photography podcast by Jeff is a professor of photography at the College of Dupaige in Glen Ellen, Illinois.

My inspiration comes daily from meeting creative folk from all fields–friends in my camera club, musicians, and others. For me, beautiful digital imaging is closest to free flowing jazz and spiritual poetry, so I listen to music a lot and look at how painters use color and space. My photography mentors are John Paul Caponigro, the master printer; Andrew Davidhazy, a photography professor at R.I.T.; David Muench, Walker Evans, James Neeley, Cindy Sherman, David DuChemin, Steve Simon, Franz Lanting, and Sebastio Salgado. The publications of Scott Kelby and Derrick Story have been valuable too, along with my father and brother.

Q. When did you say to yourself, “I am a professional photographer and writer!”?

A. That’s a tough one, hmm. I think it’s more about loving your subject matter than about being a photographer or writer. I don’t think about being a professional–I get interested in a subject, capture the photos, write, and then find a market. There are flexible boundaries today between amateur and pro. What counts for me is a passion for the subject matter itself, not so much whether it’s explored in writing or in photography. I can get really involved in photographing a two-inch long moth (laughs)!

Q. Change can be difficult for humans to grasp! When digital photography came into play, did you hold on to the old film camera for a length of time or jump right into this new form of photography with openness and excitement?

A. Like many of us, I was using film and Polaroid SX-70 for sandwiching, montage, layering, and altering the image, so when digital came out I jumped into it at the starting line. I sold the Olympus OM-2 film camera and got an early digital Kodak. So, yeah, I was open to the flexibility of digital imaging to see new visions. Now, like a lot of us, I try to keep up with the rapid changes in software. I think it’s important to keep up with the changes, because in ten years, all of our tools, software and methods in photography will have changed again.

Q. What changed for you conceptually when you changed from film to digital?

A. That’s a really good question. How I thought about nature photography changed completely as I started thinking in layers and thinking about light with digital thinking instead of film. With early digital, I was taking three frames at different exposures. To get the whites right, I would cut and paste the best exposed parts into a master image, before layers, and before extended dynamic range was invented by Greg Ward. Now it’s easy to extend dynamic range, for instance, with Lightroom and a Photomatix plug-in, getting results we could only dream about ten years ago.

Also, both aesthetics and printing have changed. Our main output now is to the screen, not the print anymore, and the monitor has different requirements. Digital let us print more fluidly and learn about inks, so my thoughts on what makes a fine print completely changed with digital.

The main change is that I spend more time thinking and planning the image, because without that, digital traps you into thinking that more exposures are better and that seldom is true for me.


Photo of St. Mary's Church where John F. Kennedy Married Jacqueline Bouvier
Copyright © Jim Austin 2010. All rights reserved.

St. Mary’s Church where John F. Kennedy Married Jacqueline Bouvier

Q. You are an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop. Does this play a major role in how you take and work with your photos? And since there has always been controversy over digitally manipulated photographs, could you tell us your thoughts around the subject?

A. No, the key for me was not Photoshop or the Photoshop training, but becoming truly passionate about how I approach a subject, portrait, or situation. That’s the thing that works for photographing, and it’s what I have for teaching photography, too.

The controversy about manipulated photographs goes back even before 1839 when Daguerre made photography practical, through those hundreds of years when the camera obscura was used by painters. Today, I think photographers can and should have boundaries in which altering the image is not done. For example, photography schools should teach the ethics of photojournalism–an area where we can trust that press photographs have not been altered. For advertising and stock, it is called “art“, not manipulation.

We tend to think that photographs are reality. Not so. They are a slice, a reflection, a glimpse of how one photographer sees, and are totally subjective. When I was President of the Denver Photo Society club, my way to adapting to the digital image manipulation controversy was to set up areas for creative digital art–our club then was made up of film photographers passionate about film artists who called their product straight photography, and digital folk like myself who called it digital imaging. I thought it was important for each group to compete where they could express their strengths. For example, I started an area of competition where nature photographers could place their entries in competition with other, un-manipulated images that were not sharpened, cropped or enhanced.

Photography has rarely develop standards for manipulated images, but news photographers might have to do so now. We must become better at describing what changes we make to the image, so the general public can know what they are. This is important both for news photographers and artists. Right now, as photographers, we must pay more attention to the subject and why we are photographing, because we’re way over-focused on the digital how-to part of the process. We need to focus more on the subject matter, on the character of the photographer and on becoming better human beings, because the camera points both ways.

Photo of Craig Hill Village Blacksmith, Mystic, Connecticut
Copyright © Jim Austin 2010. All rights reserved.

Craig Hill Village Blacksmith, Mystic, Connecticut

Q. When you look at your current photographs, how have they changed from your early years in photography—style, design, subjects…?

A. I hope more of them are in focus (laughing)! I’m more relaxed in my portrait style, put more emphasis on good lighting and on the relationship I have with the people I photograph. Currently, I photograph some subjects that require extended dynamic range (HDR), so I try to have the image appear “natural”–by the standards of 2010, anyway. I’m traveling continually now, so my travel images are more purposeful. I still do scenic photography, but I hope with a slightly better sense of composition and light.

Q. What were some of the major turning points throughout your career?

A. Living abroad–I lived in Japan, Sweden and the Bahamas. While in Japan (as a teenager), I did ceramics and photography and for the first time, met living artists who worked full time on their art. That was inspiring.

Back in the US, a turning point was managing a digital portrait studio in my home, which helped me learn a little about workflow, customer service, and pro portrait lighting. Teaching digital photography at the college level was a turning point too, because the joy of doing that spurred me to teach online for Apogee Photo Magazine.

Q. You are an adventure photographer and writer and you literally live on a boat, so I would say that life for you would be a daily adventure. How did this decision come about and what keeps you living this life style? Is it the ultimate in play and adventure all rolled into one?

A. Living and cruising on a catamaran was a turning point (laughs). When the boat isn’t rocking, some of the pictures are sharp (more laughter). Seriously though, you said adventure, and yes, sailing full time is a day to day adventure. Sailing gives you the opportunity to photograph in good light. We pixel addicts are always talking about great light, and from the deck of sailboat there is great light all around everyday because the boat is open to the horizon 360 degrees. You wake up, go on deck and there is luminous light from cloud and ocean all around.

Taking pictures can be an adventure anywhere you live. It’s what you personally make it. You can see with new eyes anywhere, because that’s inside of you.

Photo of Alligator Country
Copyright © Jim Austin 2010. All rights reserved.

Alligator Country

My move to the Salty Paws, a sailing catamaran, evolved slowly about fifteen years ago, and it’s opened up a world of adventure photography. Selling my land home and the car and moving to live aboard a 40-foot long boat changed how I live and how I see, so it changed how I make pictures too. On a boat you are not hooked up to the power grid, so for instance, I can’t use a microwave oven because all the boat’s power comes from solar and wind and a microwave wastes too much energy. I don’t watch TV anymore, partly because I’d have to burn carbon based fuel for the power, and also because the real show outside, in the light of the sea, is so much more fascinating to me.

I’m more aware of weather, safety, and navigating to new locations. Things happen at sea that are terrifying one day and blissful the next–just like on land, but on land your home doesn’t move around with the wind and waves.

Living between four walls in a city, I had a romantic view of boating life. The reality of living aboard is that, for photography, logistics are just as important as any global workflow, but the variables of wind, storms, and weather take some practice to get used to. It’s always changing, and because your home is always moving in elements beyond your control, it makes you a lot more aware of weather. It helps me to think of adjusting my sails instead of trying to control the wind.

by Marla Meier

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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