Interview with Jim Griggs
One thing I’ve been wanting to start for awhile now with my blog is a series of interviews of photographers who have inspired me in some way. When I first got really serious about photography one thing I did that really helped me become a better photographer was to study the work of other nature photographers. I did this by collecting as many landscape and nature photography books that I could. Often I would wish that I could ask a photographer about a certain photo I had seen in a book.
With the explosion of websites such as Flickr, Facebook, and Google+ it is easy to find work by other photographers to learn from and be inspired by. And thanks to the ability to communicate easily over the internet it is now possible for me to not only find photos that inspire me, but to actually ask the photographers about them!
I’ve also discovered that there are a tremendous amount of talented photographers working in (or that have worked in) Kansas. I’m constantly delighted by the great landscape and nature photography I see being produced from Kansas photographers. So I hope these interviews will help provide some educational material and also to showcase the artistic talent we have in the state. With that I’ll get started with the first interview…
My first ‘victim’ is Jim Griggs. Jim has produced some amazing work not only in Kansas but all over the world. One of Jim’s recent photographs that really caught my attention was a shot from a trip to Tanzania.
(click on any photo in this post to enlarge it)
There is a mystical quality to this photo that I just love. One thing I really like about a photograph is when it makes me want to be there. This is one of those photos. It seems like it would be great to spend some time walking through the trees in this photo. For some more info on this photograph, I ask Jim some specific questions about it:
Scott: What was the situation when this photo was made?
Jim: Just departing the lodge and 2000 feet below me was this amazing scene, almost like a Japanese screen print.
Scott: Where were you when you made it?
Jim: The trees are in what is called the Lerai Forest in Ngrongoro Crater, part of the Serengeti Ecosystem but a very special part I might add.
Scott: What caught your eye about this particular scene?
Jim: The light was so ethereal and the fog was hugging the ground and there were shadows from the yellow-bark acacia trees softly cast onto the fog.
Scott: What do you hope the viewer gets from this photo?
Jim: I think most of the comments I have received about the image basically can be summed up by “Is this real?”
Scott: How did you go about making this particular photo?
Jim: I used my old Canon 20D and 100-400L IS lens for this image.
Scott: Any unusual challenges in getting this shot?
Jim: The Canon 20D was not very good with noise so I limited myself to ISO 400. As you know, we rarely carry tripods in Tanzania as they would never work in the vehicles and fully 99% of what we shoot is from the vehicles with bean bags. I had to brace on the railing along the walkway and try to steady the shot at 400mm. I know I was turning blue holding my breath. Interestingly, several people from our group walked by and asked what I saw; “An elephant? A lion? A rhino?” I kept saying no just the scenery. LOOK! Most just glanced and walked on. People on their first trip to Africa are so fixed on the wildlife they stop seeing the beauty around them. On our trips we have to keep reminding the first-timers to shoot scenics as well as wildlife.
Jim brings up a good point about taking the time to really look at a scene and to “see” it for what it is. I know often I get preconceived ideas of what I want to photograph that I miss other opportunities or get upset when mother nature doesn’t provide what I wanted (how dare the world not cater to my every whim!).
I also wanted to get Jim’s thoughts on some more general photography questions:
Scott: How did you get started in photography?
Jim: My senior year in high school I bought the most basic of 35mm cameras from a sailor at the Houston Bus Terminal. I gave him $7 for it. I needed to get a handheld meter as well but it cost more than the camera! I shot over 200 slides on a trip to Colorado with the thing and was amazed at the quality. In college, I needed money so I worked for the University newspaper in the darkroom developing film and making prints which we then drum scanned to plastic for the printing presses. Once you work in a darkroom it is all over! I was hooked. After graduation I scrimped and saved and bought my first SLR and a 28mm lens. In a few months I bought a 200mm lens. That was all I had, two lenses, at opposite ends of the focal range. We, my wife and I, went to a regional go kart race and shot B&W. Went back to our apartment, developed the film and made 8 x 10 prints. I think we were up until about 4 AM making those prints. That was a Saturday night. Went back to the track on Sunday for the finals. It was a rain out so we sold images at $8 each. I think we made $300! I was making $830 a month as an Engineer at Texas Instruments. That put the hooks in deep.
Scott: So why do you make photographs?
Jim: I used to try and make images that I thought would sell. That lasted about 10 years, shooting the iconic images, wagon wheels and flowers, the stuff I don’t really care for now. For many years now I just shoot what I like and what inspires me. If it sells, great! If not, well, at least I am happy with it. Turns out there are a few people who like the stuff I like and I sell a few things now and then. (Laughing).
Scott: What drives you to press the shutter button on a camera at particular moment?
Jim: One thing that really gets me going is great composition. I spent about a year reading and studying the masters of art, but mainly the photographers. I saw what works and I analyzed the heck out of it, where is the light coming from? How much DOF is there? Did they use a telephoto lens? Wide angle? Arrangement of items in the structure of the image is so important. I drew lines on the pages I would tear out of magazines to see the spatial locations of key elements. Knowing how things are arranged in a photo is a BIG deal to making it happen.
Scott: What do you hope people take from your photography in general?
Jim: In general, I hope they get the burn and desire to save some of what’s left of this beautiful planet for future generations. Since about 1975 I have been using my photographs to promote conservation. The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club have used my images as have other conservation organizations. I try to do a little educating on issues and problems when I talk to groups about my photos. I also like to take people out on trips, workshops. It is easier to get excited about saving something if you have experienced it first hand.
Scott: How did you learn photography?
Jim: I am still learning actually. I had a few rudimentary classes way back and working under pressure for a deadline for the school newspaper put me at the forefront of learning! I studied under a magazine photographer named Bob Smith, not kidding, who was an excellent instructor. I use some of his techniques today when teaching. I also took a class from a guy named Ron Bruner who influenced me a lot as well. In 1978 I bought a book titled, “Wilderness Photography” by Boyd Norton. We were living in New Jersey at the time. Boyd lived in Colorado somewhere but I told my wife I had a goal of meeting Boyd someday. A year later we were transferred to Denver. Amazingly Boyd’s wife worked in the research library across the hall from my office. I made it a point to meet her and then Boyd. I went to one of his workshops in the early 80’s. It was expensive! I remember wondering if I could save up enough to go to another of his workshops. About three weeks after the workshop, Boyd called me and wanted to hire me to be an instructor at his workshops! I spent eleven years as one of his instructors with clients such as Smithsonian Tours out of Washington, DC. After moving around a bit and ending up in Kansas, I met Jim Richardson. He asked me to assist him on his tall grass prairie story for National Geographic. Working with Jim was another step for me in seeing how the major pros work.
Scott: What do you think were the key points when you first got started that helped you learn?
Jim: Learning the difference between a well exposed negative and a poorly exposed negative was a key for me. Working in the darkroom and seeing how easy it was to print with good exposure versus struggling with crappy negatives taught me the importance of understanding what light meters are telling us as photographers. Of course I have some extremely well exposed images of crappy subjects so you know there is more to it than exposure! Learning to see and simplify the image was tough at first. Now it is second nature. Boyd loved having me at his workshops because that is what I taught. I would take over a participants camera and tripod, set up a shot and let them look thru the viewfinder of their own equipment at my composition. It is the best way to learn to see photographically. Experimentation helps as well. I tried all kinds of things with film and kept good notes. There are always happy accidents. Back with film we always wondered what we did if we didn’t have notes to tell us. Today with digital, you can look at the EXIF data and see the settings and learn from that.
Scott: What piece of advice would you give the photographers getting started today?
Jim: Learn the basics like the back of your hand! Know what is important in a shot, DOF or what shutter speed you want and WHY! Understand what your meter is saying. Don’t just blindly let it do what it wants. I would bet that fully 90% of the images taken today by photographers are done in some simplified automatic setting. My feeling is that the automatic modes will work about 95% of the time and the other 5% are what you see in magazines. Boyd stopped doing domestic workshops primarily because people would show up and say they didn’t need to learn about f/stops and shutter speeds because they had automatic cameras.
Scott: What is the one critical thing new photographers should try to remember?
Jim: Would I hang this on my wall? Don’t ask for a critic from your mom. In her eyes, you never did anything wrong. Ask your peers or better yet, get a working professional to critique your photos. Avoid contests. These are usually some company trying to build up some stock to sell or use your images for free. I also avoided club competitions. Not that they are bad but the tendency is to have a few people who dominate winning the ribbons and that drives off the newbies who are the lifeblood of any organization. For composition improvement, do what I did. If you like a photo you see in a magazine, analyze the heck out of it. Try to put yourself in the photographers shoes. What lens was he using? What settings were on the camera/lens? Light direction? Intensity? These are the major concerns. There are some tricks that the great artists use or have used to make their paintings or drawings great. Study those. I love to darken the edges slightly and keep the viewers eyes within the bounds of the image. Oh wait! You asked for one thing. Well there I go preaching again.
Scott: What photographers have influenced your work and inspired you?
Jim: That is a big list! Ansel Adams was very influential for me in understanding exposure. I never met him sadly but read his series of books. He was too much of a technician for me. I never did like shooting with 4 X 5. Just too cumbersome and slow but… …looking at images upside down on the ground glass lets you see composition without the clutter of looking at the subjects. Besides Bob Smith and Ron Bruner, obviously Boyd Norton was a huge influence on my photography. As President of the Great Plains Nature Photographers I have met many great people, Art Wolfe, George Lepp, Mike Forsberg, Joel Sartore, the late Bill Silliker, Jr. who stayed at my house for several days and went shooting with us for a couple of days. Jim Richardson changed a lot of my thinking. I could probably go on for a long time. Of course there are guys I have never formally met on Flickr and Facebook who influence what I like to shoot and have offered loads of inspiration.
Scott: What do you enjoy about photographing Kansas?
Jim: At the workshop I attended with Boyd Norton, he had as an assistant, Les Line, Editor of Audubon Magazine at the time. I was living in Colorado and not anxious to move. After the week with Les, he flat out told me that if I didn’t live in Colorado he would give me an assignment. Les kept saying he is inundated with images from Colorado, Yosemite, the iconic places in North America. He said, “If you lived in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, out in the plains, I would give you an assignment today! There is so much going on out there and no photographers.” I made it a point to not get too excited about the iconic places anymore. Sure they are beautiful but I no longer need “slap you in the face scenery” to enjoy shooting. Additionally, I sat next to a young National Geographic photographer once flying from Jacksonville to Denver with a stop in Oklahoma City. He told, “The big difference between those of us shooting for National Geographic and a really good amateur like yourself is that you can and do take great photos in Colorado. I am getting off this flight in Oklahoma City and in two months I am going to make it look great.” Unfortunately I can’t remember his name but that changed me as well.
Scott: What is the biggest challenge in photographing Kansas?
Jim: Expectations! Once you have been to the majestic locations in the west, Kansas seems to have been left out. Once you throw off those expectations and dig down deep, there is plenty here. It just takes more work and better eyes. Jim Brandenberg, Joel Sartore, Mike Forsberg and Jim Richardson all shoot for National Geographic and all live in the central plains. Joel summed it very well when he told me that Nat Geo figures if you can shoot great images here, you can shoot anywhere. Turn that around. People who can shoot great images in Colorado or the Oregon Coast are usually screwed when they come here to shoot. Most of them are lost. I was in a vehicle in Serengeti with a Colorado professional photographer once, shooting zebra. I turned the camera vertical and included a big vista of the sky and clouds above the zebra. She looked at my LCD and said, “Wow! How did you know to do that?” I answered, “You don’t live in Kansas, do you?” Of course, I wish we had more public lands in Kansas. We are woefully short on accessible land here.
Scott: You’ve photographed at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge numerous times and helped arrange tours that provide great opportunities for photographers and at the same time help provide exposure and donations for the refuge. Tell us about how that relationship got started.
Jim: 18 years ago I moved to Kansas. I was here about three weeks when I learned about the refuge. I went out there and shot some decent elk photos from the road where the public is allowed. I made some prints of the elk and took them out to the visitor center and gave them to the people who run the center. They sold them and raised several hundred dollars in the process. Next time I was out there, Owen who does most of the leg work, saw me and asked if I had my cameras with me which I did. He said, “Grab them and hop in the truck with me, I will get you up close to the elk”. I keep donating stuff to them. They sell postcards in the gift shop. Most of them I took and had printed at Vistaprint fairly cheaply, just donated them to them as a tax write-off.
Scott: You have done some recent trips to Tanzania, what were some of the challenges of photographing there? The rewards?
Jim: Boyd started going to East Africa in the early 80’s. He tried to get me to go along several times. I really wasn’t interested and didn’t have the money anyway. In 1998 he came to Kansas for the first time. He lives in the mountains in Colorado. I took him to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve to show him the place I helped get started. I had donated images to the National Parks Conservation Association who pushed for the place to become a National Park. I was proud of my involvement. Boyd and I walked a trail. Somewhere out in the middle of the prairie he asked, “Do you like this place?” I answered, “Well, I am sure you don’t understand being from Colorado, but yes, I love it.” He said, “You would love Serengeti. It looks just like this.” The next year we were getting ready for our first trip to Tanzania. The challenges of shooting in Tanzania? Getting enough sleep! We leave the lodge or camp about 5:45 every morning. We are out all day shooting, usually 30-40 gigs of images, back about 6:30 in the evening. Sometime in between 6:30pm and 5:00am the next morning we have to eat, shower, download and back up all the images and charge any batteries that are low and get a little sleep. Not sure why but I sleep better there than anyplace I have been. The vehicles have 12v outlets all over the place and I carry a small inverter just in case but… …you get the picture. The rewards? Lets put it this way, every year we say this is our last trip there, too expensive, but when it comes down to it, there is NO PLACE on earth I have seen or read about to compare with Serengeti, no place. The money? We can’t eat it and it is not going to do us any good when we are dead so we go again, LOL. I own a farm in Oklahoma where I could live really cheaply so if the money gets tight which I don’t think it will, we can always move there and live.
Scott: You will be leading a photo tour back to Tanzania in the near future, can you tell us about the details?
Jim: The trip is about 10 days on the ground in Tanzania with visits to Tarangire National Park for a couple of days then on to Ngorongoro Crater, a magical place if there is such a thing. Then we move on to Serengeti National Park for the remainder of the time. We use a tour company that is locally owned and is staffed by the most amazing driver/guides. These guys are all highly educated, know the wildlife, the fauna, the dirt even. They are used to driving and guiding for professional photographers and they put us in the right places with the best backgrounds, the best positions. It is nothing short of amazing. Tanzania is also a life changing event, at least it was for my wife and I. The people there are so happy and love having you visit their country. They have nothing, no real possessions. Every trip we have left most of our clothes there as well as any unused batteries, shoes, anything of value that we can easily replace. On the first trip, we actually left so much in tips, we only had $12 between us to get home. We had left the car away from the airport and were going to need a cab to go get our car! I borrowed $20 from one of our friends on the trip while we were in Amsterdam headed back! The first month back in Kansas we hauled three pick up loads of stuff to Goodwill. Things are of little significance to us anymore. I want my camera gear, my computers (where do you draw the line between cameras and computers these days?) and my photos to remind me of the trips. Just so you know I am also setting up a trip to the Galapagos Islands. It is usually about 60% the cost of a trip to Tanzania and very exciting to visit. Nothing is close to finalized on the Galapagos trip so no details. For information on the Tanzania trip go to www.mondove.com and SIGN UP! My big fear is that the Chinese influence in Tanzania and Kenya will destroy the Serengeti ecosystem. Right now there are plans for a road and railroad across the middle of Serengeti NP. The Chinese need some raw materials on the other side of the park. A road and or railroad would totally disrupt the wildebeest migration and we would likely lose a few hundred thousand wildebeest. The other hazard is that with paved roads, good roads, poaching goes up. A good escape road allows poachers to strike and get out. the game parks in South Africa have excellent roads and they lost about 1.3 rhinos a day last year. The orientals want the rhino horn as an aphrodisiac. Such waste. Ivory is also a huge collectors item in China right now, a way for the rich Chinese to show off their wealth. In parks where there are roads, good roads, the elephants are being killed just for the ivory. I am a contributor to Serengeti Watch, an organization fighting the roads in the ecosystem legally through the East African court system.
Scott: What role do you feel that there is for photography to help with conservation efforts and bring exposure to causes important to a photographer?
Jim: As I mentioned earlier, without conservation there will not be anything to photograph in the future unless you want to shoot street scenes or industrial farms. We all need to be doing our part to make locals aware of situations that threaten our wild and semi-wild places.
Scott: Anything else you would like to add?
Jim: I can say this, there is a lot of noise going on about adding video to still cameras. I am all for it. I really wanted to be a film maker. Back when I was getting started 16mm film cost about $100 a minute to shoot. That I could not afford so I stayed with still images. Now with DV it is a whole new game. I am shooting more video now than ever. I see the future being dominated by video. I envision the day when magazines and newspapers will be delivered to a device (not your mailbox or porch) and still photos may still be alive but a video clip seems much more appropriate. Most of my pro friends are shooting video clips as they feel this will be the next “stock” business.
I’m going to wrap up this interview by including some more of Jim’s photos below. I’d like to thank Jim for agreeing to do this interview. I hope everyone gets as much from this as I did. I’ve had the pleasure of shooting with Jim a few times now and it is always a good time.
Thank You Jim!