Oak Alley, Louisiana
Lewis Kemper is an extraordinary landscape and wildlife photographer, educator and featured Canon Ambassador of Light member. He received a BA in Fine Art Photography from the George Washington University in 1976 before heading out west to Yosemite National Park, where he lived for 11 years. Working for 2 years at the Ansel Adams Gallery allowed Kemper to meet and learn from some of the greatest photographers of our time and that experience was influential in the development of his own photographic career.
For over 30 years, his photographic travels have taken him to 47 North American states and parklands.
Join Noella Ballenger as she takes some time to find out more about how Lewis pursued his successful career in the art of photography.
How did you get started with photography? Did you know you wanted to pursue it as a career from the moment you picked up a camera?
I got started in high school while taking a year-long class that was divided between photography and astronomy. It must have been a good class because I make my living through photography and I own a telescope! I have remained in touch with my teacher and one of the greatest highlights in my career happened when he was able to attend one of my presentations.
I did get hooked right away and I decided to pursue photography in college with the goal of making it a career.
National Park in Alaska
Was it working in the beautiful surroundings of Yosemite and the Ansel Adams Gallery that drew you towards developing your skills in landscape photography?
Even in high school I leaned towards landscape photography, and in college I frequently left the confines of Washington DC to go into the more scenic locations of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia to photograph my assignments. But living and working in Yosemite really solidified my interest and passion for landscape photography.
American River, Sacramento, California
Were the photographers at the gallery mentors or were there others? How did they help and inspire you during the early years?
In high school my teacher introduced me to the works of the great masters, which included Ansel Adams, Ernst Haas and Paul Caponigro. The cool part… I got to meet all of them while I was working at the gallery!
In college I was introduced to some of the Sierra Club photographers. Philip Hyde was one such photographer. Not only did I meet him when working at the gallery, but was honored to teach one of my first workshops with him. He became both a mentor and friend for the remainder of his life.
It was also encouraged when I got to show my portfolio to Ruth Bernhard. She looked up at me and said, “You should be a photographer!”
I also got to work with two great photographers and friends, Jeff Nixon and William Neill. Both influenced and pushed me to become better at my art.
Cypress Trees, Louisiana
Tell us about the photograph that you felt “jump started” your career as a photographer? When did “the break” come for you – when you became well-known? Can you share those pivotal moments?
Hmm… tough one! I think the photo that got me the most recognition in my earlier years is a picture of El Capitan in winter. It was used in several publications, from magazines to calendars to cards. I also released a self-published poster that sold thousands at Yosemite Park.
My biggest break came with the start of Outdoor Photographer magazine. I had an image that had been published in a Sierra Club calendar and that same year Outdoor Photographer was starting up. They wrote every photographer in the calendars and told of the start of the magazine and asked for story ideas. I had just had “The Yosemite Photographer’s Handbook” published by the park concessioner and I felt like I could write, so I put together a proposal package with article ideas, tear sheets, a copy of the handbook, and more, and sent it off to Outdoor Photographer. A month had passed and I had not heard a word. Since I was driving from Yosemite to a scheduled event in San Diego some months later, I realized I would be passing Los Angeles and the offices of the magazine, so I called to see if I could schedule an appointment. They complied. I remember being ushered into the editor’s, Steve Werner’s, office (which to me seemed huge). Here I was, a young 23 year old, showing him my portfolio and the previously sent proposal package. He liked what he saw and assigned me two of my articles. Once the assignments were made, I asked, “Can I ask you something?” He said, “Yes”. So I said, “I sent you all the same information months ago but I never heard anything. Now you have assigned me two of the articles. What was the difference?” He replied, “See that pile over there?” I turned and saw two stacks from floor to ceiling of envelopes and boxes that photographers had sent in response to his call for ideas. He said, “Your stuff is probably in there somewhere, I just haven’t had time to go through it all!” It was then I learned the value of a face to face meeting!
After those two articles more were assigned to me. Within a few months I became a contributing editor the magazine. That was my big break!
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Do you have any favorite locations to photograph?
I always say it is the last place I was! But my favorites are Yosemite, Alaska (all of it!), Iceland, and the American River in Sacramento
Do you have a favorite lens for creating landscape images and, for those starting out, what equipment would you recommend?
I have two favorites, depending on whether I am doing the broad landscape or more intimate details. For the broad landscape I love my 24-105mm, and for the intimate details, my 100-400mm. For those starting out I would recommend a good wide angle zoom. Buy the best glass you can afford because it will make a difference!
Ash Cave, Hocking Hills, Ohio
How has your technique or style changed over the years?
I would say the biggest change to my landscape photography is due to digital and the ability to create HDR (High Dynamic Range) images. I am no longer confined by the limits of my materials to capture the dynamic range of the scene before my eyes and I can capture everything I see!
Autumn in Iceland
What do you believe are the keys to successful, dynamic landscape images?
To me it is first and foremost – Light. Then it is a good composition. I always say I am photographing light and hoping to find a good subject to go along with the light.
El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California
You are well known for your educational programs. If your audience could walk away with only one thing, what would that be?
There are no secrets to “good” photography. It is just paying attention to light, color and composition.
With the advent of the digital darkroom and its’ myriad of tweaking capabilities, do you feel the basic fundamentals of photography and design are being lost?
Not as much compositional design, because you can really only crop or clone so much! But what I feel is slipping is the basics of exposure and camera fundamentals because you can fix exposure and create color so easily in the digital darkroom.
Lake in Montana
If you were to mentor an aspiring photographer, what words of wisdom would you share with them? How would you encourage them to grow and become the best they can be?
Be true to your passion! These days it is not so easy to make a good living from landscape and more artistic photography. Either be prepared for a lot of hard work and lean times or realize you can be passionate about your photography and not be a failure if you need to find another means of support.
Always push yourself to expand and grow. Be bold enough to try new things and to perfect those aspects of the craft that help you express your feelings and love.
And for you, Lewis Kemper, what comes next? Where will your footsteps lead you next and what new adventures do you anticipate?
Of course I can never be sure, but that’s part of the fun! I have recently purchased a quadcopter to allow me to do some aerial photography and video to incorporate into my programs. I have always wanted to fly a glider and photograph, so maybe this is a first step! I enjoy international travel and would like to pursue some new destinations. The adventure always continues!
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Interview with Noella Ballenger
Photos: © 2014 Lewis Kemper. All Rights Reserved.