So happy to open up my new series of interviews with inspirational photographers from around the globe with the work of Paul Kowalski! Paul is a professional landscape photographer based in New South Wales, Australia. He is a master of wide-format, large-scale photography capturing the shapes, colors, lights, and moods of breathtaking Australian locations exclusively on medium format film. His work, as you are about to see, shows us how landscape photography can be art, passion, craft, and celebration of nature at the same time. Let’s find out more about the story behind his photographic journey.
GM: What was your first encounter with photography? What made you start as a landscape photographer?
PW: I have always been interested in creating. Photography for me really began when I was around 9 years old on my grandparents’ farm. I had been given a Ricoh Instamatic 35mm camera and really had no idea what I was doing. It was just fun to try and capture the lightning in the storms of the area at night in Spring. No results were ever achieved really but it is my first real memory of trying to chase photographs.
I really dabbled in photography here and there form that point, until I started to get a little more serious in 2003. A rather life-changing event caused me to assess things differently. I started to travel locally more and with more time out there came a higher appreciation for the natural landscape and its many moods. I somehow wanted to capture what I was experiencing, so that I could enjoy and study it for longer. I was spending a lot of time outdoors and the simplicity and beauty of it all really had a strong effect on me. In that same year, my mother in-law brought me a Pentax 35mm SLR with a Sigma lens, on a trip that she undertook to Singapore. I was really wrapped and was now able to start to undertake more of the photography I wanted when I was out there.
Appreciate what the dream is for you in photography. Once you have done that, then follow that dream and chase it down but be sure to give the craft some time.
The work I was creating with my Pentax was fairly mediocre but at the time that was irrelevant to me, I was just enjoying the experience. Photography started to become this catalyst, this reason to get out there and stop, the landscape demands it. It became a way to appreciate my surroundings and be a part of the bigger cycle of life. I was shooting a lot of 35mm film back then and I was learning a lot.
It was at a point in late 2006 that I purchased my dedicated panoramic film camera, it was a game changer for me. A few weeks later, my wife and I undertook our first ever really dedicated photography trip and it was really eye-opening and cemented the fact that this was the road I wanted to take, as a professional landscape photographer.
GM: Most of your photographs are captured using medium format film. Is there a story behind shooting on film? What is it that makes it better for you?
PW: I talk about film with a lot of people and the conversation often veers to why I continue to use it.
There are many aspects around why I still use film but a few worth noting. Once I got to that point in my photography in late 2016 I realized that I needed to upgrade my gear and go much bigger. This was to allow me to produce really big, impressionable prints with amazing clarity. I purchased a medium format landscape camera, a Fotoman 617, for this very reason. I knew the results from this set up would have amazing reproduction qualities with such a huge film capture, at six centimeters high by seventeen centimeters long.
Now more than ever, reproduction is one of the main qualities I continue to strive for and film allows me to continue to achieve that with my work. Often I am printing my photographs for clients at really large sizes, sometimes up to four meters; the film capture and the overall size allows me to create that finish from a single photograph. It is a special thing. Often when customers are visiting our gallery they are really taken by the dimension, clarity and color reproduction on display. I am certain that film is important to that end result.
The other point worth noting here is more important than almost anything else in my photography and is purely based on the way I approach my photography with film. Film slows me down and it forces me to really prepare and assess a location. Because I use film I don’t take a lot of photographs, maybe three at a single location at the most, often I only capture one. These days I don’t feel I need to take any more than that to represent a scene but I do need to make sure that everything is where I feel it should be in the scene before pressing the shutter, this can take a lot of time. I need to know when that special moment is and utilize the photograph at that exact point. I am restricted to film, it adds risk and challenges in my work and that keeps my skill and fulfillment levels high.
I will continue to use film for as long as I can buy it and get it processed. Hopefully, that end day never comes.
GM: What is your favorite photo location? How do you choose the location for your projects?
PW: This is tough to answer but I would have to say it is either the alpine regions of Australia or some of the coastline. I love the snow because it is realistically like another world. Often I will snowshoe out onto some of the main snow-covered ranges locally and camp and the things you see are really unique. The light in the snow is also pretty amazing, with a ground covering that reflects a lot of the available light it really makes sense to be out there with my camera. By far my favorite subject in the snow to capture is snow gums, with their twisted yet very colorful trunks and limbs. Mix that with some mist and a deep cover of snow and I am in my element.
The coastline of Australia is ridiculously expansive and I have been able to get to know quite a lot of it over the years. There is nothing quite like arriving at a location on the coast, with rough seas and an amazing sunrise or sunset. I find myself capturing water now more than ever before, I am drawn to its purity, movement, and reflective characteristics.
Choosing locations is a very prepared undertaking. Often I am online checking spots and what might be available in the local area I plan to visit, this can occur months before even leaving for a trip. Then it is a case of venturing there to really meet the landscape and get an idea of where I can stand and if there are any real photographs available. This may be dependant on where the sun will rise or set, what the tides are doing, what the weather is doing in general and what time of year it is.
From a composition perspective, locations have to contain a strong hero, something that really gives a reason to be there. I then proceed to try and build a photograph around that main element in a balanced, methodical way. Often I can spend time just trying to find the ‘shot’, moving a meter this way, half a meter that way. All in the aim to return at the right time and know where I will be standing and then to hold on for the ride, waiting for that opportune, special moment.
GM: What camera gear do you currently use? Do you have a favorite camera or format? What additional equipment do you take with you on a shooting day?
PW: I still use my Fotoman 617 film camera exclusively for all of my landscape photography work, there is nothing else I would rather be standing behind. This camera uses a fixed 90mm Schneider lens (equivalent to around 14mm lenses in digital cameras) and it never comes off the camera. The format I am able to achieve, true panoramic at a three to one ratio straight out of the camera is just sublime to me still. I seem to see the world that way now and can’t see that changing. I love the compositions I am able to achieve with this setup. Being able to be quite close to the ‘Hero’ of the photograph, but at the same time being able to fit other items in that surround that ‘Hero’ due to the wide angle view, is really what I want to represent when I am out there.
On a trip I will generally take two tripods, a few filters such as a couple of Neutral Density Graduated items and a Circular Polariser, two light meters just in case, a Canon 5D Mark ii with a fixed 50mm canon lens for stills, time-lapse and video production projects that I frequently create to support the business and to keep sponsors happy. I also carry a Canon 50D for backup for the 5D Mark ii, a laptop with external hard drive to store the digital supportive work, plenty of Fuji Velvia film, a fridge to store the film in and I think that is it. I don’t generally carry excessive amounts of gear with me when I am actually undertaking my photography, usually just the Fotoman, light meter, tripod, my filters and some film.
The really amazing photography happens when I have time to stop, understand and wait.
GM: How important is post-processing to your work? Is there an editing software you prefer using?
PW: Post-processing is important to me but I take a very minimal approach by trying to easily match on screen what I see on the lightbox in my color transparency film. Often I will sit my lightbox next to my main screen and will place my film upon it so I can compare my digital scanned results on screen with the physical film result on the lightbox. I high resolution scan all of my film, for back up reasons but also so it can be printed. I generally use Photoshop to edit my photographs and I have been using it for many years. I like the finesse that you can achieve with this software, you can find a relevant way to edit your images and stick to that single process. Often I will be undertaking minor contrast, histogram, and saturation adjustments during this process but that is generally as far as I like to take it.
GM: If you could choose three words to define your photographic style, what would those be?
GM: Where do you find inspiration besides nature? Could you name a few photographers that you consider influential for your style?
PW: I find inspiration in many handcrafted things that have been created with skills that have taken many years to perfect, such as amazing woodwork or flawless car restoration/modification. I also find inspiration in strong people, people who achieve great things against all the odds.
I have certainly connected with a lot of other photographers work over the years. To name a few:
- Peter Dombrovski‘s minimal approach and vision really caught my attention many years ago, and the fact that he used film really allowed me to relate to his journey. The fact that he would venture into the Tasmanian wilderness and take one, single photograph of a location is a point that really resonates with me.
- Charlie Waite – I really appreciate his philosophy around the fact that a photograph is not really complete until it is printed. I also appreciate the simplicity, use of lines and the light captured in his work.
- Christian Fletcher – I have a great appreciation for the panoramic work of Christian but also the boundaries that he keeps pushing, such as his beautiful aerial work.
- Murray Fredericks – I was very taken by the first documentary that I watched from Murray titled ‘Salt’. I really responded to the photographs he created over many years of re-visiting Lake Eyre, Australia’s largest lake. I also connect with his project style, creating a body of work to represent a time and place.
- Don McCullen – I have been in awe of his ability to tell a story with his war photography, often it was hard-hitting but really showed the emotion and power that a photograph can create.
GM: If you could start again as a photographer is there anything you would do differently? Are there any other types of photography you’d like to explore more?
PW: If I had this option I probably would have bought my Fotoman earlier and started my gallery sooner. I did manage to work in many facets of the industry when I was younger and trying to support myself, but it was always landscape that inspired me the most and it continues to. There have been many lessons learned along the way, I now say to myself, use only the best possible gear you can get and then print and frame it in the best possible way.
GM: What would you say to a photography enthusiast at the beginning of his/ her journey?
PW: I actually get asked this question from time to time. I really think that if you can produce beautiful work with the gear that you currently have then you will eventually succeed. I think it is very important to appreciate the area within photography that you are really motivated about, what inspires you to keep pushing and getting out there.
Appreciate what the dream is for you in photography.
Once you have done that, then follow that dream and chase it down but be sure to give the craft some time. Print your work as much as possible but print it well, keep striving to show that final printed step that perhaps we are not as used to in this digital age. The results must also be good, I feel it is important to really strive for amazing results and grow and keep evolving.
GM: Can you tell us a bit about your future projects?
PW: There is generally always plenty going on in our photography business. The below are a couple of the main projects that we are working on in the future.
This is a project that I continue to undertake. I started this project in February of 2016 and it was simply created out of the need to go to a lot of the places I had previously photographed poorly when I was younger or visited as a child. There is so much around where I live to photograph but I am often too busy or off in another state behind the lens. This project encompasses locations that are no more than three hours from my home, there is so much to take in, alpine regions, coastline, autumn colors, rivers, and much more. We intend to complete this project by the end of 2018 and to support it with a video documenting the journey, a book and a release of some fantastic new photographs of the local region.
This has been a big project for us and continues to move forward as we visit different parts of Australia over the years. This project started in March of 2014 with ‘Western Horizon’ when my family and I traveled west for three and a half months to take photographs. This was the realization of a dream for me. In 2016 the second instalment titled ‘Northern Horizon’ unfolded where my family and I traveled for four and a half months to the northern regions of Australia. It was an epic trip. We have showcased the results in our gallery after each trip to share the experience and photographs.
The next instalment of this project will occur in March of this year, 2018, where we will travel to Tasmania for six weeks to undertake ‘Southern Horizon’ and we can’t wait to hit the road. The really amazing photography happens when I have time to stop, understand and wait.
‘Horizons Coffee Table Book’
I am currently working on a new Coffee Table Book, aptly titled ‘Horizons’, which details the first two trips mentioned above. Currently, the book is 160 pages and tells a lot of the detail around our travels, the issues and successes we had along the way.
Many thanks to Paul for a rewarding interview! Discover more of his incredible work and projects by visiting his website or gallery (even better if you have the chance). You can find him on Facebook and Instagram as well.