Nathan McCreery: Landscape Photographer Interview

landscape photographer interview

“Maple Leaves and Trees, Clear Creek, Zion Canyon”; It had snowed in the night and every rock surface was glistening. I was attracted to the scene by the juxtaposition of the leaves on the gravel bar and the brilliant maples on the opposite stream bank. Exposure: 25 seconds, f-stop: 32, with UV-15 filter.

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan McCreery, a professional landscape photographer based in Clovis, New Mexico. He is well known for creating exquisite photographs of the American West. He is often one of the most popular members on the photography network.

How would you describe your photographic style?

I would describe my photographic style as the “classic landscape”. I have been influenced, very heavily, by the work of Edward Weston, Morley Baer, Philip Hyde, Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, and of course Ansel Adams. One of my goals, in the photographic realm is to be a master printer.

At one time I wanted to be a master printer both in black and white and color, since I really admire the work of Eliot Porter. Eliot was one of the absolute masters of the dye transfer process, just as Adams was a master of the black and white print. Digital changed all that.

With the advent of digital media, the materials needed to print my own Cibachromes (later changed to Ilfochrome) have become very difficult to obtain. With that change I have completely changed direction in my photographic work and I work very little in color. Almost all of my work is in black and white now, although occasionally I do expose a piece of color film.

How did you first get into photography?

When I was in art school, to be a graphic designer, I was required to take a course in photography. When I saw the first photograph appear, as if by magic, I was instantly hooked. Shortly after that friends learned I had a camera, and sort of knew how to use it, they began asking me to make photographs for them. By the time I graduated from art school I had an established clientele.

Where do you get your creative inspiration from?

The way I usually work is to park my truck at a likely location, strap on my backpack, gather my tripod and go for a walk. I look for patterns and materials that are visually interesting to me. When I find something that catches my attention I then begin the process of seeing how it will fit into a composition. If I find something that will be the main subject of my photograph and then find supporting elements that will reinforce the main material, and they can be built into a composition I will set my tripod, and then get out my camera, attach a lens and begin the process of refining my visual ideas until I arrive at a final solution.

nathan mccreery photography

“The Old Man of the Sea” I was staying in Neah Bay, Washington. This sea stack had a bunch of brown pelicans on it that were waiting out a storm blowing off the Strait of Juan de Fuca in a gale of about 50 miles per hour. The wind was so strong it blew my tripod over before the camera was attached. I had to hold the tripod down with one hand while attaching the lens etc with the other hand. There was a very stormy sky, however the wind was blowing the clouds so quickly that they show up on the original neg. as a blur. I have a masking system that I use, in the darkroom, that allows me to combine two, or more, images seamlessly into one, so I added a sky back to the image that I had done several years earlier. All of this is done with no Photoshop.

Needless to say this is not a “run and gun” proposition. Everything is very deliberate and disciplined. I have a hard time that Michelangelo got up the day before the work on the Cistine chapel began and said, …”ummmm, think I’ll paint on the ceiling tomorrow, maybe I ought to figure out some compositions”. While it is true that in photography we must be able to respond spontaneously I also believe that photographic master works are the result of careful planning. It has been said that genius is what happens when careful preparation meets opportunity.

What is typically in your camera bag?

I typically carry a Toyo 45A, a Schneider 47XL, 65mm Grandagon, 90mm Sinaron-S, 150mm Sinaron-S, 210mm Sironar-S and 300mm Rodagon lens. If you will note, all of the lenses, except the 47XL, are made by Rodenstock. I believe them to be the very finest lenses ever made. They are all much sharper than the film I put behind them. There will also be an assortment of filters, such as a yellow, dark orange, red and green, as well as a UV15 and polarizer, several cable releases, lens cleaning tissue and fluid, a flashlight and level as well as some protein bars. My tripod is either a Velbon 530 or 630 with a Linhoff quick release device.

What are you looking forward to purchasing next?

My ideal would be a square digital back for my Hasselblads, but those are at least $10,000.00 so the chances are that won’t happen. Other than that I have hardly any equipment lusts.

class landscape photo

“Under a Big Sky” This is a young couple that I have done work for since they were five years old. They had been married about a year and asked me to come to their ranch and photograph them on horses. Fortunately we had a huge thunderstorm building to the west of our location. This was done with a Fuji S3 camera and a Nikon 18-55 lens.

Did you have any formal training in photography?

Yes! After my art school teaching I have been fortunate to have been trained by several master photographers. Several were either assistants to Adams or worked in his workshop programs. I have always sought out people that were at the very top in their fields in photography, to train me. It is an amazing thing to me that many times the very finest people in their fields are very accessible to interested beginners who are willing to ask questions and incorporate the principles the masters are teaching. I have been in several workshop settings with some of the worlds most accomplished photographers when an opinionated workshop attendee actually tried to “correct” the master. It is very annoying.

Do you post-process your photos?

Post processing is an interesting term. We used to call it darkroom work, and yes! I do gobs of darkroom work, and computer work. I use the computer to do my color processing now, and the conventional darkroom for my black and white film processing and printing. The only software I use is gray matter, in the darkroom, and Photoshop in the computer.

How do you approach printing? What is your process?

In black and white, the first thing I do after the film has been processed is to make a contact proof of each negative. Typically I then scan each neg. and create a file for that image. Often I will do some preliminary work with the negative on the computer to get a “feel” for the information the negative wants to give me, then go to the darkroom and begin printing. I am very old school. By that I mean that I have a number of techniques I have developed in the darkroom that allow me to arrive at a print that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying to me. Some of these are contrast masking, dodge masking, Potassium ferracyanide reduction and others. I find that most often the negative almost tells me what I should do in printing as long as I follow a very careful regimen. My wife tells me that my personality type changes completely when I am in the darkroom

What has been your favorite photo location?

That’s a difficult question to pin down. Usually it’s wherever it is that I happened to work last. The location I return to most often is the area around Page, Arizona and the mountains above Pagosa Springs and Estes Park, Colorado. My last location to work in is a place I hadn’t been to for 30 years and it’s amazing; Valle Vidal, New Mexico.

black and white landscape photo

“Inside the Corkscrew” One of the most well known locations on the Colorado Plateau, just east of Page, Arizona. There are dozens, probably hundreds of these little slot canyons that are adjacent to Lake Powell. In this photograph the camera is looking almost straight up. One of the phenomena attached to using film is called “reciprocity departure”. As an exposure gets longer than one second, film stops responding to light in a normal manner, so that when an exposure time is long it actually requires a longer exposure to achieve the same results. For instance, if the meter tells me the exposure should be 15 seconds, the actual exposure will have to be 25 seconds to get the same results. This exposure was about 90 minutes due to reciprocity departure. I don’t know if the digital has the same response to long exposures as film. The contrast range of the image was 15 stops so the film processing time had to be reduced greatly to hold detail from highlight to shadow.

What lies ahead for you?

I am 62. I want to spend the next 60 years in the American West, specifically the Rocky Mountains and the Desert Southwest. I am currently about 35-40% complete on a project called “Rio Pecos; Requiem for a Wild River”. In it I am doing a fine art documentary project on the Pecos river from its genesis in the mountains of New Mexico to its terminus at the Rio Grande River just south of Langtry, texas. I’ve been on that one for about ten years and expect to wrap it up in the next two years. Hopefully I’ll get a book deal out for it.

What tips or advice do you have for other aspiring photographers?

There is no substitute for knowledge and good technique. Instead of buying a new lens the photographer would be more well served going to a workshop with an established pro whose work they admire. Be yourself! Don’t look for Ansel’s tripod holes. The only one who can be you is you, and that’s the only thing you’ll ever be really good at. People ask me why I use film and hand print when digital is so much faster. For me, creating art isn’t about speed or convenience. It’s about making in image that is self expressive, which is the essence of art. For me it’s important that my art pieces be personally produced by me. They should have my DNA on them, and as long as the materials are available I’ll keep it that way.

nathan mccreery interview

“The Watchman and the Virgin”. The Watchman is the mountain structure downstream to the left. The river is called the “Virgin River”. The locals say she’s a Virgin because she’s frigid and has no offspring. This photograph was made one day in late fall just as the sun was on the western horizon.

river landscape photo

“Horseshoe Bend on the Rio Chama” The Rio Chama’s head waters are on a pass just above Chama, New Mexico. I have photographed this spot numerous times and hadn’t gotten an image I was satisfied with. My wife and I were driving back from spending ten days in the mountains above Pagosa Springs, Colorado and in places the low lying clouds were so low and thick that it was difficult to drive safely. We came over a ridge just south of Ghost Ranch and moved under the cloud bank that allowed me to get this image.

To see more of Nathan’s work, please visit his profile or photo gallery.

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2 responses to “Nathan McCreery: Landscape Photographer Interview”

  1. Daniel O. Tubbs, Jr. says:

    Wonderful article. This is a great look into the mind of a master photographer. Anyone interested in photography should read this interview.

  2. Mia Rose says:

    What a wonderful article. This is almost like a landscape workshop in itself. Thank you for the quality information so freely shared.

    Warm wishes,
    Mia Rose

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