Long Exposure Photography Interview #22: Nathan Wirth

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Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

This article is part of a series of interviews with long exposure photographers to celebrate the release of my ebook Slow. You can keep track of the interviews by clicking on the Long Exposure Photography Interviews link under Categories in the right-hand sidebar.


Nathan Wirth is a self-taught photographer from San Francisco. His images have a haunting beauty and are influenced by his love of poetry and art. He also runs a photography ezine called Slices of Silence where you can read more interviews with long exposure photographers.

Nathan is also organising an event for photographers in the San Francisco Bay area in early January 2013. Scroll down to the end of the interview for more details.


How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?

I am after two very specific things: silence and solitude. I suppose to some that it must sound somewhat ridiculous that a person might believe he is able to photograph silence, but this is precisely what I am interested in expressing. I suppose, in much the same way that many composers draw connections between silence and music, I am looking to express silence through imagery by preserving a slice of a moment.

I believe it was Debussy that once said, “Music is the silence between the notes.” In a certain sense, I want to capture the silence between the waves, the wind, the chatter of seagulls, etc. A long exposure allows me to gather many seconds, even minutes, of a passage of time and squeeze them into one thin, observable slice or what one might call a kind of frozen silence. Again — I can certainly understand why this might seem like poetic nonsense to some, but these are the kinds of things I am pondering in my work (even if they are not immediately obvious or acceptable to those that might pause to look at one of my images).

Solitude, I suppose, comes naturally from this pursuit, but this is also due, in part, to the fact that I prefer to go out to photograph by myself and to find places where I am completely alone with the elements. I enjoy the opportunity to hang out with other photographers, but I find that I rarely end up with any images that I can use from those outings because my whole photographic experience and vision is inextricably bound to the silence I explore while happily lost in my solitude.

There is something about being alone and disconnected from my life and left alone to my thoughts and whims for those hours that helps me to see better, to truly see what I am interested in photographing.

However, at the same time, my photos are, of course, simply just pictures of rocks or trees or piers or bridges or me standing in the middle of stuff. In fact, one can easily conclude that this is all that they really are. But I like to think that my images also invite a willing and interested viewer to join my curiosity and wonder about the marvellous fact of existence, the fact that existence even is.

I have a BA and an MA in English literature from San Francisco State University, and much of my education was focused on studying poetry, which I think plays an important role in how I compose and choose my subjects. I am, first and foremost, interested in capturing the moment, the subject, and, secondly, creating a mood that one can experience that subject in, one that is both the subject itself and whatever the mood expresses about that subject (which is, ultimately, left to the viewer).

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Name three photographers you like and why.

Michael Kenna: I have been studying his work for years, but rarely do I ever try to imitate anything he has done (nor do I think I could even if I wanted to). I think the label of photography master is overused, unnecessary, and often meaningless — but I would certainly be willing to apply such high praise to Kenna.

I am completely drawn to his wonderful use of tone, grain, mood, and drama. I often turn to three of his books, in particular, for inspiration: Japan, Huangshan, and Hokkaido, all three of which capture a certain spirit, a certain gentleness, a certain essence of the ‘scapes he is working with (be it snow-scapes, seascapes, misty mountain-scapes or other subjects).

I think most long exposure photographers are attracted to both Kenna and Michael Levin’s photography. I certainly have the utmost respect and admiration for Levin’s work; after all, his skills are serious, very serious, but, for my tastes, his images are more engaging due to how technically perfect and otherworldly they are rather than any heightened sense of or attention to place or spirit.

Kenna’s work is, of course, also technically perfect, but his images are, for my tastes and aesthetic desires, infused with so much more spirit, drama and soul than Levin’s work. It is that mood that I try to express in my own work and part of why Kenna has been such an important inspiration to me.

Caspar David Friedrich: I’m going to cheat and include a painter because many painters have played a very important role in how I have developed my vision. I suppose many people feel that a camera is supposed to recreate, as closely as possible, what you see – but this has never been my goal. I use my eyes to experience the moment and my memory to selectively recall what I had enjoyed seeing the most in those moments.

For me, the camera and, later, processing serves other purposes. Landscape painters have traditionally captured the essence of place with brush strokes and dapples of colour and contrasts, and I try to express my vision of a seascape with brush strokes and dapples of whites and blacks and greys by dodging and burning my images until I have found the tones I am looking for (often infusing a subtle tint of yellow into the overall contrasts of blacks, white and greys).

Friedrich expressed the sublimity of nature in his paintings and this is something I am after in my work. I must add, however, that I am not just speaking of simple inspiration or reverence for a benign or beneficent presence in nature. The original meaning of the word sublime lost most of its bite in the twentieth century.

In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth recounts climbing the Simplon Pass in the Swiss Alps. When he describes the crags and waterfalls he encounters, he does not do so with a spiritually-infused perspective of nature as a benign force, a perspective that is so commonly found in most of our modern nature writing; rather, he speaks of it with a sense of awe that borders terror and fear and the respect that is owed to such a power.

That quality of understanding nature is essential to me. Even if my images should happen to evoke a fleeting kind of peacefulness and serenity, in no way do I deny the sheer power and indifference of nature, her seeming violence and destruction and her constant renewal (much of which comes into existence as a direct result of that violence and destruction). Friedrich and other 19th century painters of the sublime (including the wonderful school of Hudson River painters in the United States) captured both the beauty and that sheer awesomeness of nature– and that is what I am also looking to express.

Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, perhaps his most famous and easily recognisable painting, has played an essential role in how I envision my own self portraits of a lone figure staring out into a seascape or landscape. There is a beauty and an awesomeness expressed in Friedrich’s image. One sees the lone figure in that painting looking out into the clouds covering the crags of the mountaintops that he is standing above and sees the respect and awe.

I try to infuse my self portraits with a similar awe for the environment being contemplated, an awe that engages a sense of peace, thought and solitude, but one that is always aware of the chaos and indifference inherent to nature.

George Oppen: I am going to cheat again and include a poet. One might think I am completely out of touch for including a poet in a discussion about photography, but poetry plays an inextricable role in how I compose and shape the vision that I have been cultivating. Poetry, at least the poetry I enjoy reading, is certainly a medium that expresses itself in metaphor and music, but it is also firmly grounded in an attention to the thing or things themselves. In other words, the well-tuned poet sees things as they are first and foremost, and whatever interpretation one might unravel from a poem’s rich ambiguities, those possibilities are best discovered by first understanding what those things are.

In this sense, the things that I most often photograph— water, rocks, piers, bridges, myself, a buddha statue, beaches, clouds, docks, trees — are grounded in my very real experience of them as well as the place where they are found, but I also hope that they might express certain colourings, emotions and other possibilities.

I tend to visit the same places over and over again always looking for a new way to capture them, to reveal them, so I can share my sense of wonder, my sense of how astonished I am that these things even are. In that same spirit, I guess I am also trying to be a photographer of place, just as many poets try to be a poet of place. My place? Those places where the landscapes of the San Francisco Bay Area meet the sea.

“In his poem “World, World—,” George Oppen writes that

“The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on.”

Oppen’s words bring to light one of the driving questions of ontology: what does it mean to be? However, his concerns are not grounded in the individual, in the self; rather, they illuminate what he feels is a far greater mystery: the fact that we are at all. Indeed, Oppen’s words recognise how utterly astonishing it is that there is anything at all — an astonishment that inevitably works its way into not only what I choose to photograph, but also how I photograph it.

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?

I used to have a neat and convenient answer to this, but the truth now is that I cannot even begin to imagine taking photos without trying to find ways to work with long exposure. It is, simply, what I do. In some senses it is little more than a photographic parlour trick, a gimmick gone, perhaps, too far, but I am consistently drawn to its tempting allure, to its tonal possibilities, to the way that it seems to produce a kind of glow not found in “real time” exposures.

It seems that, recently, many critics have grown weary of the technique and are now deeming it a cliché. Perhaps this is so – especially the “Michael Levin Zebrato look” of stark contrasts expressed in minimal compositions dominated by dark skies and milky white waters. It seems like everyone is giving it a try.

That said – I do not think the long exposure seascape is dead. Such critiques, even if I disagree with them, invite all of us to delve further, to dig out new interpretations and to look for more creative ways to integrate this curious method of freezing passing seconds and/or minutes of time into whatever vision we wish to express in a single image (or series of images).

Why black and white? What’s the appeal?

I want to say that I work with black and white because it is the totally and completely superior medium in which to express mood and drama, but I don’t think that that is really true; however, I must be honest and say that colour photography holds only a minimal interest for me. I see the world in colour everyday … and while I certainly enjoy a sunset drenched seascape, I prefer actually seeing a sunset in person than viewing images of them no matter how intoxicating and eye catching a photographer’s interpretation of the colour may be.

Besides, nature has a far more reasonable and awe inspiring sense of colour than any camera and/or Photoshop mastery can capture. I want to interpret nature and I want to see how others interpret nature … and the contrasts, middle greys, stark blacks and deep whites of monochrome photography express this for my tastes much more effectively and engagingly than colour.

I prefer the way painters interpret and mix colour. I guess, for me, colour feels more organic in the hands of a talented painter and his or her brush – perhaps because the painter, like the kind of photographer I am drawn to, is an interpreter not a recorder.

That said – I have managed a few moody, colour photographs that I like, but even those images, for me at least, don’t effectively express the silence, solitude and inherent mystery of existence that I want to explore. This is, of course, purely a matter of personal taste. There are so many photographers who use colour effectively and beautifully – but even the finest hues masterfully slathered across an image do not move me in the same way as the evocative draw of the beautiful tones found in the best monochrome images.

There is a ‘dark’ feel to some of your photos? Is this deliberate? What attracts you to this look?

This is a very interesting question for me to consider because I am not certain whether you mean darker in tone or darker in emotion – or, perhaps, both. If we are speaking of contrasts and tones, then I can easily say that I have always been drawn to darker contrasts – especially since one can express much deeper tones with those starker blacks and whites.

In fact, I felt this way about black and white photography well before I ever started working on my own images. I love the mood, the drama, the feel of low key contrasts and tones. That said – I have recently been moving more towards middle greys and lighter contrasts so that I can explore different ways to express the moodiness that interests me. I really don’t see myself as a technically accomplished photographer (not that I don’t have a good sense of what am I doing); instead, I think, my strengths are best realised through the moods and contrasts and tones that I express in my images.

If we are thinking about a darker feel or emotion, then I find this a more difficult question to answer. I am reminded of the traveler that stops to watch the woods fill up with snow in Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” He remarks that the woods are “lovely, dark and deep.”

What I find most interesting about this line is that due to that placement of the comma, we are invited to ponder the darkness and the deepness of the loveliness, which is far more compelling than considering the woods as (a) lovely, (b) dark, and (c) deep. Indeed, how should we ponder a loveliness that is dark and deep? It feels almost paradoxical.

Then again, this makes perfect sense because there is a dark allure, a deep attraction, to loveliness, and, possibly, to art in general. So, perhaps, in the folds of my imagery, I am expressing, on some level, that darkness and that deepness that might well be inextricably bound, on some level, to the very experience of engaging art, of engaging beauty and, certainly, in the creation, reaction and expression of whatever is being expressed or realised.

There is a sense of space in your images. And time, solitude, loneliness, silence. Are these conscious themes you are trying to express in your work?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes to space, time, solitude, and silence, but a very emphatic no to loneliness – though I can certainly see how some come away with that feeling; quite a few people, in fact, have said that they felt my images, especially my self portraits, were both beautiful and lonely (even haunting at times).

On the one hand, this surprises me because I have no sense of this when I create an image nor do I have any intention of expressing it. My own desire for solitude, to be utterly alone with my thoughts, has nothing to do with loneliness. I yearn for moments, even hours, of solitude. In my vision, the lone figure or the “eye behind the camera that has selected a rock, a pier, a bridge, a tree, or an open space” is lost in contemplation with no concern whatsoever for any connection to others precisely because that is the state he wishes to be in at that time.

These moments are personal, meditative, an expression of letting go of all the difficulties of suburban existence in order to find peace away from all the noise and media. Nature, in a sense, is its own music and I try to capture the silence between those notes and tones found in moments of solitude (whatever that might actually mean). Moreover, one might think of these images as moments where the lone figure or you, the viewer, has paused to listen to the silence. Naturally, once I let an image free, it is no longer mine to shape or interpret, so I gladly yield to the feelings and views of those who take the time to look at them.

On the other hand, however, I am not surprised that some see loneliness in my images because humans yearn for contact with other humans and often feel sad, left out, and even empty inside when they cannot make that contact – so I certainly understand how an image of a solitary figure or the complete absence of human presence can easily be perceived as a kind of loneliness, an expression of that inherent sadness that comes from feeling alone (especially since the majority of all the photos that have ever been taken were meant to preserve the moments, friends, and loved ones that we wish to remember).

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

There are a lot of seascapes in your portfolio. What is the attraction of the sea for you as a subject? What is your favourite place to take long exposure photos?

On the one hand, this is a very easy question to answer. I photograph the sea because I am drawn to the sea. It’s really, on many levels, as simple as that. In fact, I have been drawn to it since childhood. I was born and raised in San Francisco and lived there all of my life until moving across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County a couple of years ago, so I have always lived next to it and it has always been part of my general consciousness.

On the other hand, this is a difficult question to answer because all of the other possible reasons for why I am drawn to it are also tied to my ruminations about spirituality, philosophy, poetry and art. These are questions and ponderings that I have no answer to. All I have is the constant that I seem to be continuously drawn to considering these questions knowing full well they have no answers.

Photographically speaking, the sea and sky are the perfect foil for building a visual relationship between negative space and the objects that I wish to photograph (be it rocks, a pier, a bridge, my buddha statue or me). I am also able to find countless ways to play with the minimal elements strewn along the shoreline of any beach that I walk along.

If you had asked me what my favourite place to take long exposure photos was a couple of years ago, I would have said the ruins of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco, but after moving to Marin County a couple of years ago, it has, undoubtedly, become Drake’s Beach, which is located in the Point Reyes National Seashore.

More than 75% of the photos that I have taken over the past couple of years have been from this beach. For a while now, I have been drawn to returning to the same places and subjects to explore them as deeply and thoroughly as possible – and this beach not only offers me that opportunity but also fulfils my desire to be as alone as possible when working on my images — and, indeed, many times I am the only person on the beach (or one of only a few).

I am also drawn to this beach because of my unending fascination with witnessing how much the landscape of the beach changes as the tides and rains and winds deposit and remove the sands, a constant flux that buries and unearths the many rocks that are strewn along the shoreline. During parts of the year, nearly every rock – and sometimes every rock – along the shoreline is buried under the sand – and other times the shoreline looks as if nature had scattered handful after handful of rocks across it as if a child leaving behind a trail of toys he or she is no longer interested in playing with. Even though I am clearly not one, I feel much like a naturalist who comes each week to record every minute change in the shoreline.

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

You also have a lot of architectural photos. How does photographing buildings differ from the landscape? In what ways is it similar?

Buildings are just very, very, very large rocks. I am, of course, only joking … well in part. I photograph buildings as if they are large rocks jutting in to the sky. I don’t really have the same knack for lines or angles or the necessary technical prowess to fully draw out every crevice and curve or tonal quality like Joel Tjintjelaar or Julia Anna Gospodarou, my two favourite long exposure architecture photographers, so I rely on whatever drama I can produce from the relationship between sky and jutting concrete.

My approach has mostly been to focus on the buildings reaching, slicing, grabbing for the sky. I prefer photographing seascapes, in part, because of the relative silence and solitude I can find there, the financial district of San Francisco, in so many ways, being the polar opposite experience. In the hustle and bustle of downtown San Francisco, I am often surrounded by droves of people chattering away on cell phones; endless streams of cars, busses and large trucks; and the unpleasant smell of exhaust in place of the fresh air of the sea that I usually prefer. Yet … even in those chaotic moments, by reducing these giant slabs of concrete into lone figures that reach for the heavens, I am still looking to express that same silence and solitude I try to express in my seascapes.

You include yourself in some of your long exposure images. Can you tell us a little more about this theme? Why do you do this – what effect are you trying to achieve?

If I am being honest, the very first time I tried a self portrait I did it because that particular evening there was nothing else to frame in the shot other than the sea itself … so I decided to see if I could stand still for thirty seconds during a long exposure. I was quite pleased that I could. And it brought a whole new level of experience to the both actual act of taking a photo and the vision that I am trying to cultivate in my work. Almost every time I go out to take photos, I set up and compose at least a few self portraits. As I try to stand as still as a stone, staring out or down at the sea, I often lose myself in the rhythms and swirls of seawater as it flows in and out, the light bouncing off the water, the foam and light dancing in step with one another. It is really quite exhilarating.

In 2011, I began a series of self portraits that I called “An Atheist Confronts God.” I was fascinated by the title because for me it expressed a tension between faith and reason – so much so that the “atheist” in each image confronted and still, ultimately, denied the apparent presence of a God (represented by the light in each image).

However, all the atheists who visited my work automatically thought I was an atheist (or a believer that need to be chastised for having a belief), and all of the believers thought I was saying that the atheist had no choice but to believe in God when faced with the radiant light (or that I was an atheist that needed to confront the obvious proof of God in my own images). But … I was not expressing a religious stance; rather, I was expressing the beauty and intrigue of a paradox … the disparity of a non-believer confronting that which he does not believe in even if it is present.

For me, this opened up so many interesting ways to ponder faith and reason, but for so many others each image became a battleground for whether God exists or not. A good friend of mine insisted that the title was far too gimmicky, that I was forcing meaning into images that required no meaning, so I dropped the idea. I had to agree with him because I had no agenda – and my gimmick made it seem like I did (even though it was never my intention).

That said … there are, for me, still remnants of that theme in my self portraits …a radiance that seems to suggest a presence, an other in a cold, indifferent world of chaos that is both beautiful and somewhat terrifying. However, my primary vision is still solitude, still silence, still an exploration of the sublime, still a meditation of sorts on Oppen’s claim that the mystery of existence is not found in the self or why we are here, but that we are at all.

These are also just simply images of me standing in front of stuff that I am looking at.

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

You also use a statue of a buddha in some of your images. Where did this idea come from?

I occasionally dance with the moods, thoughts and meditations of Zen … though I by no means practice. Zen thought appeals to me in the same way that poetry does. I am more interested in the questions and possibilities that are pondered in koans and poems than I am in finding any concrete answers to such questions.

Recently, I have been particularly interested in the writings of Dogen … so, as a natural extension of these interests, I have been looking for ways to photograph connections between Zen and its considerations of nature. The statue I use is a gift from my father, who, due to our seemingly irreconcilable differences, I did not speak to for nearly 15 years. When we began to speak again, one of the first gifts he gave me was this buddha statue, so I suppose, as a result, there is an extra special meaning infused into these photos (though it is a very personal one that can really only be perceived by me).

I am also drawn to Zen calligraphy. I am fascinated by the intricacy and delicacy of the characters floating in the white space of the page they are inked on to. Alok Hsu Kwang-han explains that “It’s a form arising directly out of formlessness.” In that spirit, I try to integrate that delicacy, that moment of creation, into my images — the sea, the buddha, the rocks and the light becoming the characters in sparse and minimal landscapes further defined and expressed by the negative space of the image.


A Slice of Silence: the photography of Nathan Wirth

Slices of Silence: a photography ezine:

Slices of Time

Nathan is planning the following event: Slices of Time: A Weekend of Photography in the San Francisco Bay area January 4-6, 2013. The event focuses on long exposure and monochrome photography but all cameras and styles are welcome.  Each day there are free photowalks for anybody who is interested. One day will be dedicated to architecture and the other two to landscapes and seascapes. It’s an opportunity to spend time with and learn from some fine long exposure photographers.

The best way to keep up to date about the photowalk (and find out who is going) is to follow Nathan on Google+. You can read the original post about the photowalk here.

Photo gallery

Here are some more of Nathan’s photos:

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth

Long exposure photography by Nathan Wirth


Slow: The Magic of Long Exposure Photography ebook by Andrew S. Gibson

If you’d like to learn more about long exposure photography, my ebook Slow takes you through the creative possibilities of using slow shutter speeds, from blurring motion with a shutter speed of 1/30 second all the way to long exposure techniques using shutter speeds of five minutes or longer.


All photos in this interview are protected by copyright. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

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10 Responses to “Long Exposure Photography Interview #22: Nathan Wirth”

  1. Sergios says:

    Great work & interview!

  2. Superb in depth interview Nathan,
    I really enjoyed that, and it was great to get to know you better as a person and also to get to know the Fine Art Photographer that you are.

  3. David Frutos says:

    Amazing long interview, Nathan!!!
    You are one of my favourites artist about fina art.

  4. Nathan Wirth says:

    Thank you Sergios and Michael.

  5. Nathan Wirth says:

    Thanks, David!

  6. Michael says:

    I share your sentiments about poetry and photography … but you knew that … great interview … Cheers!

  7. Nathan Wirth says:

    Thanks, Michael!

  8. Stephen Cairns says:

    Wonderful interview Nathan. When a talented photographer can speak articulately about their art it is a pleasure to read. I’m sure to be back again for another reading.

  9. Nathan Wirth says:

    Thanks so much for your very kind words, Stephen. I really appreciate them.

  10. […] Would you like to read an interview with me in which I go on and on about my thoughts on photography?  If yes, go here. […]

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