Osceola Refetoff: Beauty and Awe of the California Desert

Osceola Refetoff is a Los Angeles-based photographer.  A Chicago native with Danish, Bulgarian and Canadian roots, Osceola is a master filmmaker and photographer. Osceola’s first love was film making which he studied at Duke University and then at New York University’s Graduate Film Program. Over time, Osceola’s talent for visual storytelling gravitated towards photography. His works reflect his passion for humanity and its impact  it has on the world. These days Osceola’s focus is on the vast American West, including the magnificent California desert and the communities who used to inhabit there. In collaboration with historian Christopher Langley,  Osceola created “High & Dry,” a wonderful blog of stories and images that detail the stark landscape and communities in the California desert. His works from his vast desert series are on exhibit at the Porch Gallery in Ojai through the end of March. This week Osceola talks to atlas about his start in photography, why the California desert appeals to him, and why it is important to document the natural beauty and stories of desert life.

How did you first get into photography?

I do not have one of those heart-warming stories where I got a camera at age five and knew I wanted to be a photographer. Mostly as a kid, I was into blowing things up and generally causing trouble. It was not until much later – in my twenties – that I got interested in photography, and even then there was not a sudden “ah ha!” moment. At some point, I was living in New York City and found myself carrying around a couple of small cameras at all times — one with color film and one with black & white.

You brilliantly capture a wide range of images — people, landscape, nature, objects — that show all aspects of our humanity. What is it about our humanity that draws you in as a photographer?

I am fascinated by people and I enjoy observing and revealing their personalities, usually with their permission and at their best. However, much of my desert work is about the absence of people. Not straight-up nature shots, but humanity defined by the traces they leave behind. I am particularly interested in what desert ruins might have to say about who we are today as a society, and how that may be different from peoples of the past.

If you look at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it seems like everyone is posting photos and identifying themselves as a photographer. How do you create images that sets yours apart from all the rest?

I am active on social media. I love being able to connect with a larger audience, far away. And although I do a lot of work that is experimental in nature – pinhole photography, infrared photography, long exposures – my general approach to photography is pretty traditional. To stand out in this crazy-cluttered environment, you simply have to shoot really well. For instance, I have a series “Armchair in the Sky” that I capture from the windows of commercial airplanes. When I started photographing the series on film twenty years ago, you did not see those kind of images very often. Now, everyone is shooting out airplane windows with their phones. If I want my images to stand out against the millions of airplane shots that are posted online, they better be really very good. So far I must have made a couple thousand exposures. After twenty years, I finally started exhibiting the series last July, and to date I have uploaded about twenty images to my website. So start with a specific vision, pursue that vision over the long haul, edit the results with ruthless determination, and print only the very best with a mindful, cohesive aesthetic. Personally, I like that there are so many “photographers” out there today. It keeps me on my game.

Tell us a bit more about these stunning and beautiful desert images you have entitled “Ozymandias.” You have a masterful eye for light and style. What inspired you to capture these desert images?

Ozymandias” is the name of one of my black & white desert portfolios featuring the remnants of human existence strewn about in the California desert. I generally carry at least two or three cameras with me when I travel by car in the desert. Some images lend themselves to black & white exposures, and for these, I generally shoot infrared – either digital or film. The main reason for working in b&w is that, in the absence of color, all the emphasis is on form and composition. As an additional benefit, infrared makes the skies very dark, and the clouds (when there are clouds) are very pronounced. Generally, landscape photographers have a hard time making good images in the middle of the day, so they tend to favor “magic hour” light and shadow. Well, that leaves a lot of day on the table! I love “good” light too, but for me, the desert experience is much about the sun directly overhead. Black & white photography not only feels like the right medium to portray many of my subjects, but it also allows me to work all day long, capturing the relentless intensity of the midday desert sun.

Your passion about the desert led you to start a blog called “High & Dry” about California’s deserts and those who reside there. What inspired you to start this blog? What do you hope to accomplish with this blog?

I had been thinking for some time about collaborating with a writer because of the unique power that words and images have when they are presented in tandem. I was familiar with the work of James Agee/Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor when I met writer/historian Christopher Langley in Lone Pine, CA while working on a motion picture project. First and foremost, the purpose of our collaboration is to present cool and interesting stories about the California desert, illustrated with quality photographs. We are interested in the history of the desert, particularly in relation to human activity past and present. We are also documenting the massive transformation underway with the development of industrial-scale renewable energy facilities. Our hope is that familiarizing people with the history and natural beauty of the desert will encourage them to consider the future of this long-undervalued land resource. The project gets re-syndicated in a variety of media – local desert publications, glossy magazines, scholarly journals, and KCET’s “Artbound” – so we are able to reach a large audience from all walks of life.

You chose to photograph these images in black & white which gives them a radiant aesthetic quality. Why did you select black & white over color?

I love both color and black & white. Some subjects are suitable to both mediums, but others are distinctly better in either color or b&w. Because I shoot 99% of my b&w work in infrared, I have to make my decision on site, determining by the nature of the subject, which representation better suits what I want to express. In the desert, I usually photograph from a tripod, so sometimes I will make a similar exposure with both a color and a b&w camera.

Are there any photographers who have influenced you?

I came to photography later in life. Early on I was much more interested in filmmaking, eventually getting an MFA in film production from NYU. All through my late teens and twenties, when I was not in production, I would see ten or more features a week in theater. So my compositional style and my interest in visual narrative was heavily influenced by the great mis-en-scene directors I admire – Lange, Welles, Kubrick, Melville, etc. So today, I find myself interested in the meticulous framing of compositions in depth, I like to explore temporal as well as visual space in my stills, and I am obsessed with creating visual effects in-camera. I go to art presentations of all kinds – many of them! And I find that I’m as likely to be inspired by a painter or the lighting design of a stage production than I am by a photography exhibit.

If you could go on a photo shoot with any photographer (living or deceased), who would it be?

I only became interested in photography very late in the game long after I had developed what I consider my own visual style. I think I would enjoy hanging out with Man Ray or perhaps a late night out on the town with Brassaï.

If you could give one piece of advice for a novice photographer, what would it be?

I would tell him or her to buy a printer. The images we see on backlit displays have significant limitations. They cannot adequately convey the full artistic potential of photography at its best. I have seen too many images on my computer that translate to disappointing prints. And images “in the ether” favor graphic, hit-you-over-the-head compositions, rather than subtle, more nuanced work. Printing your work will help you understand how to make better exposures, and seeing the photographs as physical documents will, over time, help you evaluate which of your images may truly be excellent, and which will only get a bunch of likes on Instagram. You will know you are getting somewhere when your prints starting looking much better than your images on the screen. For a while, you may find that the opposite is true. Keep at it. For me at least, printing is hard work. I do not do fancy stuff, mostly traditional darkroom adjustments, not what comes to mind when people typically think of “photoshop.”  But I have only had time to print a small percentage of the images on my website, which are the ones I have exhibited. These images look far better than they did before I spent a couple of days working on them, experimenting with different papers, exposures, color balance, etc. As Ansel Adams said, “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.”

Thanks for being our photographer of the week, Osceola!

For more information about Osceola, visit his website. For more information about “High & Dry,” visit his blog.  For more information about Osceola’s current photography exhibit at Porch Gallery, visit the gallery’s website. All images © Osceola Refetoff.

Tom Jacobi: Sacred Places

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Tom Jacobi is a Germany-based photographer.  He discovered photography when he was a teenager when he received his first camera as a gift. Before then, he had no interest at all in photography. However, since then, he developed a deep passion for this art form and has never looked back. Six years later, Tom was tapped to be a staff photographer for the highly renowned Stern Magazine  for which he shot images from around the world for nearly a decade. He then focused on freelance work as he delved into commercial, fashion and advertising.  His three-year project, “Where God Resides,” took Tom to sacred places around the world and resulted in a photo book. This week Tom speaks to atlas about his current project Grey Matters and how he traveled across six continents to capture these stunning images which are found in his latest photo book of the same name. (Editor’s Note: As we approach Christmas, we wanted to revisit one of our favorite features this week on Tom’s spectacular series. Enjoy!)

How did you first become interested in photography?

Tom Jacobi: When I was fifteen years old, a friend of my mother gave me his old camera as a present. Until then I had absolutely no interest in photography. However, being a Capricorn and practical at the same time, I thought: “Well, now I have a camera, I might as well use it.“ So I just started taking pictures like every beginner: the cat straying through the garden, my sister eating cake, and much to many underexposed sunsets.

What kind of camera and equipment do you use?

I started with an old Rolleiflex. My first serious camera was a Nikon, I stayed with that brand for many years before I changed over to Canon when they came out with their radical new concept in the 80s. In addition, I got myself a large format Linhof Technika, a Mamiya 6×7 and a Mamiya 645. All of these cameras were analogue. I sold my complete equipment when I became art director at Stern magazine. These days I use Pentax 645Z and Sony.

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Your Grey Matters project is a collection of images that you shot during your travels over six continents. How did the Grey Matters first come about? 

In February 2014, I traveled by ship to the Antarctic with some friends. It was a dream come true. I had seen and read so much about the Antarctic and was at last on my way to that inhospitable place so often referred to as the “blue-white continent.” Reality, however, proved rather different. That icy continent was indeed blue-white — the color of serviettes in a Bavarian beer cellar — but only when the sun gained the upper hand. Most of the time, though, a permanently changing cloud cover ensured the Antarctic presented itself in all possible shades of grey. Yet it wasn’t at all dreary; it was simply beautiful. No color was screaming for attention or calling out: “Hey, you over there, look at me!” That grey landscape radiated unbelievable energy and meditative calm. I was at one with everything around me. This new project saw daylight in the grey light of the Antarctic. When I got back home, I started my research. For days, nights, and weeks on end I roved around websites I had never imagined existed, not even in my wildest dreams.

I also delved deeply into the color grey. Seeing colors is actually a minor miracle. They are nothing more than reflected light absorbed by the cones of our retinas and then individually compiled in our brain — our grey matter, you might say.

Over a period of two years the work on this book took my wife, Katharina, and me to some very remote corners of the earth. We discovered archaic landscapes which had been shaped by nature over thousands of years and yet are timeless, even modern. When they slowly slide into the darkness of night and re-emerge at dawn from the realm of shadows, those landscapes seem like mystical enactments from some other world. No cocoon of color dulls the experience of the essential. The colorless energy of these places is breathtaking and humbling and touches us at the point from which we come — the twilight.

Among the locations you captured for Grey Matters, which location intrigued you the most? Why?

It’s funny. I get asked this question over and over again. My answer is quite simple: I can not give you one. All the places I visited have their individual strength and atmosphere. I have very dear memories to each one of them. There simply isn’t one location which stands out.

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Did you encounter any challenges shooting this project?

Absolutely. It was a very physical project. Many of the places I visited were not easy to reach. We climbed mountains breathlessly, cursed the hard desert floors we slept on, and ran for our lives, so it seemed, from a massive storm cell in New Mexico. On one occasion, in a deserted steppe, Katharina was wondering where the human-like noise was coming from until she spotted a hostile rattlesnake hissing at her feet.

One Icelandic winter, I made my way to a lonely waterfall on my own. I was well equipped but had not thought of bringing crampons. The ground was so icy I must have fallen over at least two dozen times and ended up going most of the way on all fours. A route that should have taken one hour took four and the next morning I was black and blue as if Thor and Odin had used me as a puck in their divine game of ice hockey. They made amends the following summer when I lost five kilos despite the magnificent food in Iceland. With 24 hours of daylight in midsummer, sleep became an overrated luxury for this particular photographer.

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CWC Gallery in Berlin is currently exhibiting Grey Matters. What do you hope your viewers will take away from this work?

From time to time, I give guided tours through the exhibition and I usually tell the visitors the following message: find an image you really like, try to blend out the surroundings, and you will find yourself at peace. If that happens, I am quite content. I once observed a girl standing in front of an image and she was crying. I dared to ask why she was so touched. Her answer was simple: because the images transport a feeling how our planet must have been when it was totally at peace with itself — before the human being arrived and changed everything. It was my turn then to be touched.

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You also spent some time at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai for your “Where God Resides” project. What was it like spending time at the monastery?

Wonderful and very spiritual. I was a guest at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. The work on my project Where God Resides had brought me to this rocky wasteland. In the grey light of dawn some two dozen monks were scurrying along the passageways and across courtyards to their devotions in the candle-lit basilica. The soft glow of those candles drove out the darkness and bathed the sacred walls of Christendom’s oldest monastery in golden light.

Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Tom!

To order Tom’s latest photo book Grey Matters, click here. For more information about Tom, visit his website.  All images © Tom Jacobi.

Lee Nordbye: Exploring the New Frontier

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Lee Nordbye is a landscape and astral photographer based in Alberta, Canada. A gifted photographer, Lee has a masterful eye for capturing stunning and beautiful nature scenes that look like paintings you might find in the top museums in the world. After some time dabbling in freelance photography work, Lee recently began a new chapter in his career and launched his own photography business where he will delight and devote full-time to creating magnificent images that will undoubtedly inspire us for years to come. This week Lee speaks to atlas about the launch of his exciting new business, his trips this summer in Canada and Greenland, and what projects he is working on next.

Since we last featured your beautiful work in the summer, where have you been photographing recently? 

Lee Nordbye: I spent the summer exploring the Canadian Rockies near home, the Yukon in June, and Greenland in September.  It is always great to explore the mountains at my doorstep, but I have to say exploring two amazing northern frontiers was the highlight for me this summer. In the Yukon, I was amazed by the variety of landscapes.  Within a four hour drive of our home base, we got to see and document seascapes, deserts, and of course rugged mountains.  As for Greenland, let’s just say I am still piecing together my mind that was blown away. Being witness to the out-of-this-world scenery — whether it was amazing aurora lights shows over icebergs, pastel heavenly sunrises and sunsets or coastlines that were straight out of the movie Lord of the Rings — was truly a privilege.  Being able to document it with a camera alongside great friends was the proverbial icing on the cake.  I am already starting to plan my next trip which I hope to be four to six weeks long in 2018.

Congrats on launching your photography business. What inspired you to take the plunge?

Thank you very much.  It is with a lot of nervous excitement that I set out on this new stage of my career.  In terms of the inspiration to take the plunge, it is coming from the heart in that photography a passion of mine.  Life dealt me a new set of cards in the spring when I lost my job in the oil industry.  I jokingly say that perhaps one of the reasons I lost my job is because somehow my boss knew that at times I would sit in my office staring out the window wishing I was in the mountains capturing those special moments.  I truly believe that things happen for a reason and often those reasons turn out for the positive.  So here I am now trying to make a living by pursing a life passion.

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Is it easy or difficult to switch gears from being a freelance photographer without a formal photography business to now launching your own business?

The short answer is no; it is not easy.  The longer answer is photography is an extraordinarily tough business to become successful in regardless of whether you have formal training or not.  The digital age has made it a highly competitive industry and difficult to make a living.  The successful photographers are those that are about hard work and have a willingness to learn from their mistakes vs. relying on their creative talent.  Photographers need talent, but if you do not work your butt off and want to improve, you will not be very successful.

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If you look on social media like Twitter and Instagram, the number of people identifying themselves as photographers keeps expanding. How do you make yourself and your work stand out from the rest?

The holy grail of the photography business is finding your unique perspective in photography.  As you point out, unique perspectives are becoming as hard to find as the Holy Grail with the big increase in photographers.   I am not sure my artistic vision journey is much different than others.  It starts with focusing on me and what I am passionate about.  It is about exploring different ideas and focusing on those that bring the most excitement to me.  Secondary to this, I spend time on social media looking at other people’s photography to look for inspiration, not replication.  I follow photographers in many different genres because often inspiration comes from something on the other end of the spectrum.  My ultimate goal is that one day people will look at a photo without even knowing who took it and say “Hey, that is a great photo from Lee Nordbye.”

What are you excited the most about running your own business?

The ability to wake up every day and doing something that I am super passionate about.  To enjoy the moments like I did this morning with my very first client where they got excited to capture family photos in the famous Alpen glow. To hear the client at the end of shoot say I had so much fun this despite the 5:30 am wake up call.  To share special moments like this one, that I have had the privilege to experience in the past, with my customers is super exciting.

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Aside from your new business, are you working on any new projects?

To follow up from your earlier question, I set a goal this year to capture five unique perspectives on some of the iconic locations in the national parks.  I have three to five to date.  Before the end of the year, I need to finish this goal.  The funny thing is when I set this goal, I had a number of planned shots in mind but so far the three I have captured were inspired “in the moment.” It is great to get those planned shots, but the spur of the moment inspirations are very gratifying.

You are a father of two. Have your children caught the photography bug?

My oldest son goes through stages where he enjoys taking photos.  We have given him our very first point and shoot digital camera to work with.  However, currently he and his brother have the standard young person bug —  computer games.  I am hoping to reignite the bug next summer when we go on hikes together.

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Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Lee!

For more information about Lee, visit his website.  All images © Lee Nordbye.