An Interview with Photographer and Craft & Vision Author Stuart Sipahigil

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Thanks for reading! Andrew.



Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil made a big impact with the release of Close to Home – Finding Great Photos in your own Backyard on Craft & Vision. The theme of revitalising your photography by learning to make photos close to where you live, rather than thinking you have to go to exciting or exotic locations, seems to have resonated with photographers struggling with the issue of finding interesting subjects to photograph.

Stuart is relatively new to digital photography – he bought his first digital camera in January 2008. To get from being a digital newbie to writing for Craft & Vision in less than three years is an impressive feat, and just shows what can be done if you have the talent and put the work in. It’s an inspirational story, and I asked Stuart to share some of his thoughts on his photographic journey.

Close to Home

Craft and Vision have kindly set up a voucher code that gives you a 20% discount on the PDF version of Close to Home. Simply enter ‘HOMENZ1’ at the checkout. The code expires at midnight on April 1st, 2011.

Interview

How would you describe your creative vision – what themes are you trying to explore in your work?

I’d say right now my vision is rather eclectic and experimental. I’m really interested in many types of photography and photographic subjects. For many years, I’ve found myself mostly drawn to outdoor photography—landscapes, especially – so I’d say that a large part of my work is an attempt to add my voice to those showing the beauty and wonder of nature. I’m fascinated by the variations of light and colour in nature and my favourite photographs are those where the photographer has managed to show me something I might not have seen otherwise.

I try to do the same thing. For me, photography is the art of seeing things differently and then using the camera to pry them out for others to see. Sometimes that’s using light and colour; sometimes it’s using shapes and lines. I try to use these elements to convey what it is I want to show you with a particular photograph.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently looking at the “why” of my photography, too. I’ve been reading stuff by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Michael Freeman, and Bruce Barnbaum, all about the deeper meanings of photography: as an art form, as a tool of social reform and, again, as a way to simply show the world differently. As a result, I’m asking myself questions. Why am I doing this? What is it I want to say to others with my photography? What *is* the point for me to make photographs?

As I understand it you’ve only recently got back into photography. You seem to have come a long way considering you bought your first digital camera in January 2008. How have you coped with the transition to digital photography? What have been the defining moments in your development as a photographer over the last three years?

I did take quite a break from photography from the late 1980s until around 2003, essentially while my son was growing up. I didn’t completely abandon it, because I took many photographs of him along the way — too many, I’m sure he’d say. I also dabbled a little in video during that time, too. But I wasn’t as focused on photography as I was for the ten years between college and when my son was born.

The Nikon D40 I bought in early 2008 was my first digital SLR, but I’d had a few other simple point and shoot digital cameras before that. The biggest thing about digital photography for me, though, was when I got a copy of Apple’s Aperture software. I was thrilled at the control I now had over post-processing that I could never get with film.

When I first started making photographs, I studied things like the Zone System and other methods to get the best negative and print I could, but it was always a struggle for me to translate what I saw with what I could make in the darkroom. With digital “negatives” and Aperture/Lightroom post-processing (I’ve since switched to Lightroom), I have a level of control I only dreamed of in my film days. I don’t spend a ton of time doing post-processing, partly because film taught me to do the best I can to get it right in the camera, but I love the ability I have now to make subtle adjustments to an image—and to throw those changes away if they’re not working and start again. That, to me, is the best thing about digital: you can practice and experiment to your heart’s content and get better at the craft so much faster than with film. I still love the lessons film can teach, though, and I think the smart photographer learns from both.

In the last three years, there have been a few events that moved me further along my photographic journey. I’d say the first one was reading Within the Frame by David duChemin. David is all about the “why” of photography and his book came along at the perfect time for me. I was getting familiar with digital, both shooting and post-processing, and I’d read many books about the “how” of digital photography, but this book made me really start to think about what I was trying to do and say with it.

The second one would be when I went to Italy in the spring of 2010 with David and Jeffrey Chapman for a photographic workshop. Not only was I able to connect with David personally, I was fortunate enough to find myself in a small group of like-minded photographers, who were also looking for the same answers I was—folks like Eli Reinholdtsen, Marco Ryan, and Jeffrey Fielding. As a group, we clicked immediately, and I think we learned quite a bit from each other; perhaps as much as we did from David and Jeffrey. Most of all, it taught me that photography can take ten people who are perfect strangers and turn them into fast friends in only a week.

Finally, in the summer of 2010, my wife convinced me to exhibit some of my photographs at a jazz and art festival at a local winery. For $30, I set up a small table and hoped I wouldn’t look too foolish. I ended up selling nine prints and got invited to show at a local gallery. It got me past that nagging self-doubt and inspired me to pursue photography even more seriously. (I wrote a blog post about it for Sabrina Henry, as part of a series of guest posts on her blog about success). It also gave me the motivation to write Close to Home.

Of course, the publication of Close to Home has been a watershed event in my life, both as a photographer and as a person. It’s amazing and extremely gratifying to hear people telling me they found the book to be helpful and inspiring, which was what I had hoped for.

Who are your three favourite photographers and why do you like them?

Right now, I’d say John Sexton, John Shaw, and Steve McCurry. John Sexton has taken Ansel Adams’ mantle and filled it well. His work is simply beautiful in both art and craft, and I think in some ways he’s surpassed Adams. I’m still a huge fan of Ansel’s, but I really like where John has gone with black and white large format photography. His prints are astounding in their tonality and range of light.

John Shaw was an early influence for me and I still look to him for inspiration. His landscape and wildlife photographs are exceptionally well-crafted and beautiful, and I learned a lot about photography from his books. I still own most of them. I was able to attend a weekend seminar with John last year and it was very cool to hear about his work and his stories from the field. I discover a photograph of his that was very close to one I made and we shared a chuckle over it. Nice to meet your heroes.

After reading Within the Frame and traveling to Italy with David duChemin, I became more interested in travel and humanitarian photography. For me, Steve McCurry exemplifies the kind of photographer I would want to be if I pursued that particular type of photography. Of course, he’s famous for the “Afghan Girl” photograph, but I also like many of the photographs in his books, and I follow his blog posts religiously. His compassion for those who are not as fortunate and his desire to tell the stories that not everyone sees on the nightly news are both quite admirable to me.

You have a lot of beautiful photos. But if you had to pick one as your favourite, which would it be – and why?

Like many photographers who are constantly looking to get better, I’d dodge the question and say that “the next one” is always going to be my favourite image. But if you pinned me down, I think it’s “Painted River,” a photograph I made in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has an abstract, almost Impressionist look to it, which is exactly what I was trying to do when I made it. The reflection of the fall colors, along with the many small ripples and eddies in the water, give it a painterly feel that I really like.

Painted River by Stuart Sipahigil

Close to Home: Where did the idea for the eBook come from? Talk us through the process you went through – from gestation to publication.

The idea of finding good photographs near where you live has been something I’ve lived with for a long time. I live in rural Indiana, a place not necessarily known for finding beautiful, majestic scenery, so I had to find ways to see good photographs in places where most people would overlook. I think the photographer who originally influenced me the most about this was John Shaw. Several of his most popular photographs came from fields and meadows near his home in Michigan, and his work encouraged me to do the same. I thought that if he could find such great photographs close by, I could to.

But the “spark,” if you will, to write Close to Home came from a comment on a web site called Faded & Blurred. Jeffrey Saddoris, who runs the site, had asked his readers to provide questions to David duChemin (there he is *again*) for an upcoming podcast interview. One commenter wrote that where she lived was so boring compared to the many places around the world that David had visited, so what could she do to make good photographs at home, especially if she couldn’t travel? I read that and thought. “I’ve heard this question so many times. I need to find a way to tell her (and others) that you don’t have to travel far to find great photographs.”

This happened to coincide with the success I’d had at the jazz and art festival, so perhaps giddy with that success, I emailed David with a proposal for a Craft & Vision ebook about finding great photographs close to home. He thought it was worthwhile to pursue it and asked me to send him an outline of the book. I did, and he agreed to publish it on Craft & Vision. He asked me to send him drafts along the way, and eventually we got to the book as you know it. I also provided layouts for the book, even though Craft & Vision has an on-staff designer, simply because I had experience with it. We wrapped everything up in mid-October and rolled it out on October 28th.

The central theme in your eBook is to encourage photographers to look for subject matter close to where they live. But, like many photographers, I suspect you also like to travel and take photos. How does your approach to photography differ when you are away from home? What lessons does this teach us about photography?

One of the reasons photographing close to home can be so worthwhile is that you can turn your familiarity with a place into an asset, and show others things they might not see if they’re only there for a short while. When you travel, you become that “other” person—the one who’s only there for a short while. In order to dig deeper while you’re there, you have to limit the scope of what you photograph. Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what you want to do, to photograph *everything* in this new place, and it’s very difficult to ignore the fifteen “cool” things to shoot and focus on one of them.

Any more, I try to do a little research about a place before I go there, to decide what are the two or three things I want to focus on—and do my best to ignore the rest. For example, I was able to visit San Juan, Puerto Rico recently, but I only had a few hours in a single day when I could shoot. I decided I wanted to focus on Old San Juan and the people there and spent the time I had in the streets and squares of the city. It’s a little unnerving to go somewhere you’ve never been and wander off by yourself, but as my friend and fellow photographer Ray Ketcham says, you should to turn fear into curiosity.

In the book, I talk about how your subject is not your photograph, and I think that is useful to remember when you travel. There are so many photographs out there that have been taken over and over again in the same places, with the same lens, and sometimes in the same tripod holes as other photographers who have come before you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t make them — I recently did the exact thing in Yosemite — but that you should acknowledge that you’re making them simply for that reason. Then go out and find the photographs very few people have seen, maybe even one no one has.

With the publication of ‘Close to Home’ you’ve become a published writer. What are the key lessons you learnt from the process of writing the eBook? What advice would you give someone who would like to write something similar?

I think the biggest thing I learned from the process is that it’s a lot more work than I ever thought it would be. If you’re going to publish a teaching book, rather than a portfolio, you’ve got to really understand your own motivations and ideas behind your work, and how others could apply those same lessons—then wrap it all up in something that’s readable and useful. It’s a much harder thing to do than it seems on the surface. It took me three months of pretty steady work to get a first draft I felt was worthy to send to David. I wrote mostly in the evening and on weekends, since I make my living with another career, and even sent a draft or two out to a few friends to get some feedback. I also did my own book design and layouts, since I’ve had experience doing that. When everything finally came together, I sent a PDF of the final layout/text to David and Corwin Hiebert at Craft & Vision for final feedback, made some minor updates, and it was ready to go. Again, it was quite an effort; more than I initially thought.

Something I have been rather surprised at, though, has been the reception to the book. I’ve received a lot of tweets, Facebook posts and email from folks who have told me it was the “kick in the pants” they needed to get out and start shooting again. That kind of feedback is special to me because it’s exactly why I wrote the book; to help struggling photographers be inspired by what’s right in front of them, rather than wishing they could be someplace else.

As a one-time published author, I would take any advice I have with a huge grain of salt, but if I did have any advice for other hopeful photography writers, it’s what I was just talking about: know why you are writing and how it can help others. Figure out who you’re talking to and what they are looking for from you. It can’t be only about you; it has to make a connection with someone for it to truly be valuable.

Any more eBooks planned for the future? If so, can you drop a hint at this stage to the topic?

Yep, I’ve got a couple more ideas that I’m working on right now, one in particular that’s a follow-up to Close to Home. It’s still very early in the writing, though. Let’s just say it’s still focused on finding more ways to improve your photography, particularly with limited time and budget.

Any plans to write a photography book? What would you like to write about?

I would love to write and publish a traditional print book, so if there are any publishers reading this, call me, okay? Seriously, I have thought about it quite a bit. It seems to be a natural follow on to the ebook(s). I’m very interested in the whole “amateur” vs. “pro” uh… discussion(!) and I’d like to perhaps provide a little common ground for all of us as photographers. As I learned in Italy, we have so much to learn from each other that it’s a shame to worry so much about our differences. I’d like to help bridge that gap if I can.

Photo Gallery

These photos are all taken from Close to Home:

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Stuart Sipahigil photo from Close to Home

Links

Close to Home eBook on Craft & Vision

(Don’t forget to enter ‘HOMENZ1’ at the checkout to get the discount. The code expires at midnight on April 1st, 2011.)

Stuart’s blog The Light Without

Stuart on Facebook

Stuart on Twitter

Stuart’s other interviews:

Faded and Blurred

Colortrails

Faded and Blurred have interviewed several Craft & Vision authors. Check the podcasts out here:

Andrew S Gibson (yes, that’s me)

Corwin Hiebert

David duChemin

My interviews with other Craft & Vision authors:

Take a look at these interviews with other Craft & Vision authors (made before Craft & Vision existed):

Mitchell Kanashkevich

David duChemin

All photos copyright Stuart Sipahigil. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

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3 Responses to “An Interview with Photographer and Craft & Vision Author Stuart Sipahigil”

  1. Preeti says:

    I’ve been meaning to get and read this ever since it came out. Can’t wait.
    I’m having an issue with the code however – it keeps saying it’s invalid.

  2. Andrew says:

    Hi Preeti, thanks for the heads up, we’re looking into it. Update: It’s working now – valid until 1st April.

  3. Love the picture at the top. Great colours and awesome composition!

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