Mike Rebholz: Beauty and Splendor in the Midwest

Mike Rebholz is a professional photographer from Madison, Wisconsin. A life-long photographer, Mike studied at the Milwaukee Center for Photography and has been an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. One of the seeds that may have sown Mike’s passion for photography is when, during this youth, he used his lawn mowing money to buy a roll of film for his camera and an old apron developing tank from the local store. He makes photographs across various genres with significant time spent in architecture and advertising. Mike’s work has been published in numerous architecture, advertising, and design journals and has been exhibited in galleries in Palm Springs and Chicago.  This week Mike speaks to atlas about how he turned photography into a full-time career and how he captures the quiet and beauty of the gorgeous landscape around Wisconsin, Michigan and the Midwest. (Editor’s Note: Enjoy one of our favorite features this week from Mike Rebholz!)

How did you first become interested in photography?

Mike Rebholz: My parent had an ancient Kodak twin lens camera when I was a kid (age 9-10) and I was fascinated by the device and that you could look down at the thing and see in front of you. My connection to photography as a process was pretty tangential at that point, I was more interested in the change in view point and the condensing of the world into the little square of the viewfinder. The following year my folks bought me a little 127 Brownie camera I think so I would leave their camera alone. I fooled around with it and took a rolls worth of pictures and left it alone. It was definitely not as cool as the twin lens as a device. The following year I was in junior high school. At the end of the spring semester, my general science teacher did a section on photography. There were thirty kids in a class and we all went to the front of the room and took a picture of our lab partners on the same 36 exposure roll of 35mm film. The teacher put up blackout curtains and doused the light and developed the film on the teachers’ lab bench with all thirty of us sitting there in the dark.

In the next class, the film was dry and we all went to the front of the class. Under my teacher’s supervision, we made a contact print of the image we had made of our partner. Like many others before me, I saw that image come up in the tray of developer and I was hooked. School let out for the summer and I traded in my lawn mowing money for a roll of 127 film for my camera, a Tri-Chem pack from Kodak and an old apron developing tank from the local discount store. I shot and followed the developing instructions in my folks’ bathroom and that is how I became interested in photography.

Are you self-taught or do you have a formal education in photography?

Both, which is my idea of the best way to be educated. I taught myself, I went to school and I went to work for a couple of professional photographers — all of which leads to a fuller understanding of photography than following only one path.

Your landscape images, particularly the black and white images, are beautiful and striking. Can you tell us a little bit more about each of these images?

The photograph at the very top is of a large series from a place I go to every year (funny how it seems many of my landscape photographs seem to involve a ritual). On the last weekend of October, we rent a cabin that sits on the southern shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I never know what I will be presented with when I get there. The weather can be fine and mild or a roaring gale; the only constant is the lake though even the shore is in a constant state of flux. It was made right outside the back door of the cabin during a gale where the winds were steady at about 40 mph. The light was grim and unforgiving as the lake itself. I chose this spot because the trees implied the shelter of being just inland of the beach but still showed the unrepentant fury of the lake and the sky. The darkness of the photograph is a reflection of the conditions and my mood on that morning just at the break of day.

This image is one I made on a late fall day long after corn harvest was over. I was driving home from shooting a job and went by this field and recognized it from my youth. I am speaking of a metaphorical memory not an actual memory. The field and the light reminded me of my grandfather’s fields that I would see when we made the journey back to the farm around the holidays. His farm was the first place where I recognized how rooted people can become in their place and how the land reflects the person and vice versa. He and I would walk the field and my nose would fill with the smell of mold and dirt and cold rain and it was an entire transformation from the lush waving rustle of summer corn. It surprised me that one place could be two things.

I wanted to make a photograph that invoked a sense of tension, an awareness of temporary as a condition. The dark of the foreground and the roiling of the clouds and the mystery of the band of trees broken by the long view up the middle worked for me. I deliberately made a very formal photograph knowing the structure would heighten the sense of tension and foreboding that I was looking to describe.

This photo is one of my New Year’s Day photographs. Every year on New Year’s Day for the past thirty-five years I have gotten up and gone photographing to make sure I start the year right. I have almost always gone out into the country around Madison and made a landscape photograph. I like having images that mark the changes in where I live and how my photography has changed over the years. It was made on one of those mid-winter mornings where looks can be deceiving. Beautiful sky that had the look of early spring and a bitter wind that spoke of winter through my jacket. This was one of two photographs I made that day and both were about the meeting of the frozen land and the beauty of the sky. As I think about it, all of the New Year’s photographs are about beauty and I think they are all a reflection of how beautiful I think being alive to see another year is.

This is one of the few images I have made that expressly reflects my complicated relationship with religion and because at the time I made it I was thinking of that and of my childhood. We were driving cross country so I could attend Review Santa Fe. We were going the long way around on a series of class B highways so I could be exposed to whatever came along. In western Nebraska, the sky lowered and it looked like tornado weather when we went past this isolated church. The combination of the object, the light and the fearful conditions meant I had to get out of the car and wade through the long grass in the ditch to make a photograph that at the time I thought talked about the potent and what I perceive to be not altogether benign influence of organized religion. It was also about memories of violent weather in rural southern Illinois where I went as a child and experienced big storm sweeping across the corn fields, storms that imprinted themselves on me and that I carry around with me to this day.

This image is another of the series from Lake Superior though this was made from the visits we make to the same place in late summer. I woke this morning after a big rain storm and went down to the beach to see that it had been entirely reconfigured over night. I knew as the trees thrashed in the night that that would be the case when I got up at dawn so I was ready to take my camera and my cup of coffee down to the water.

You shoot across many genres (i.e., architectural, landscape, people, etc.). Which genre is your favorite and why?

I have no particular favorite genre. I photograph what is close to me and what means the most to me at the time. Sometimes I am passing through a place and the architecture is what tells the story I perceive about that place, at other times it is the shape of the place and work in landscape mode, and at other times a portrait is the only way to express what I know.

You photograph in both color and black & white. Do you prefer one over the other?

I have no preference which comes of having grown up with black and white and at a certain point consciously deciding that I wanted to understand how color works. At this point, I choose the rendition that I feel most accurately reflects what I am trying to express in the individual photograph.

How did you turn photography into a full-time career?

While I was in art college, I was approached by a graphic design firm about doing photography for one of their clients that needed some signs photographed. Eventually, the design firm hired me as a staff photographer. Time passed and I grew tired of photographing three ring binders full of graphic standards manuals for insurance companies and I decided to go out on my own. That is pretty much the course of my life. I spent the early years as an architectural photographer, segued into advertising, and eventually came back to architecture.

How do you see your work evolving over the next three to five years?

A tough question, how does one know where one will go with their art? Exploration is the process and that implies navigating without a chart.

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

For more information about Mike, visit his website.  All images © Mike Rebholz.

Mike Sakas: Telling Stories in Tajikistan

Mike Sakas is an American photographer currently living and working in Hong Kong. Initially inspired by the National Geographic magazines he read, Mike is a talented photographer who likes to think outside the box. He is passionate about telling stories and making connections with people, places, and moments and that passion clearly comes through his photography.  The magnificent images featured in today’s post were taken by Mike while he was teaching a photography/story-telling workshop in Gorno Badakhshan region of Tajikistan.  This week Mike speaks to atlas about how he got started in photography and how he stays in the present while photographing. (Editor’s Note: We are revisiting one of our favorite features this week, including this one from the talented Mike Sakas. Enjoy!)

How did you first get interested in photography? How long have you been shooting?

Mike Sakas: I am sure I got into photography the way that nearly everybody else in the planet has for the last hundred years: by looking at the magazine with the yellow box on the cover.  Boy, I want to shoot for those guys.  When I was little, my grandmother bought me a set of twelve hardcover books put out by that magazine and I am sure to this day that those were the first books I ever read cover to cover.  Ever since then I have taken in images wherever I can find them and my life has always been about discovering things and seeing/experiencing new things.  I also blame that yellow box for that.

Are you self-taught or do you have a formal education in photography?

I have been photographing for about ten years now.  I have the standard informal education of many of the greatest photographers: I was an assistant.  It is funny actually now that I say that because I almost said I was self taught but to say that would be to completely deny all of the wonderful people who have played a HUGE role in my photography education.  To this day, I have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for the guy who first took me in and set me on the path: Todd Langley from Denver. When I finally decided I was going to own up to the dream of being a photographer, I mentioned it to a friend of mine who was a friend of Todd’s.  We chatted for a couple of minutes and he invited me over to his place the following week for a test shoot.  That day, he taught me how to load medium and large format cameras and sent me down a path I never imagined I could be on.  I went on to volunteer for a local photography workshop/non-profit for a while and I learned from a ton of people there.  Then, one day I applied for the course assistant position at the Santa Fe Workshops. That summer was probably the single most intense period of learning in my life. The funniest part of all was that I did not shoot a single frame after the first week of the summer.  We were so busy every day.  But when I got home, I took a picture of my one year old niece and when I looked at the first frame I had shot in eight weeks, I was stunned.  I did not even recognize my own photography anymore; it had transcended. Since that time, I have been learning by assisting and talking with my peers. So I can say I am “self-taught.”

You capture images across different genres (people, street, landscape, documentary). What do you personally enjoy shooting the most and why?

I love photographing (and by proxy having) experiences.  I think this world and this life is pretty amazing especially the stuff that is full of emotion or that has an incorporeal charge to it.  To pin it down, I guess you could say that human interaction or just plain humanity is where I start and that comprises the bulk of my subject matter. Even an image of a landscape devoid of any people is still about human interaction because there was somebody there, seeing it, experiencing it — me.

I think I use photography in two main ways. First, I use it as a tool to investigate my subject matter in much the same way a scientist would use a microscope to examine a tiny part of a huge organism.  It is a vehicle for looking at or experiencing a thing in a different but very intentional way.  Second, photography is a mode of reflection or contemplation of a subject similar to a written journal.  In a way it is a method for interfacing with an experience from a kind of detachment — in certain ways —  that is paradoxically hyper focused and engaged in other ways.

Are there any photographers who inspire you? If so, who?

My list of personal favorites and influences are changing nearly every day.  If you browse 500px, Imgur, or Google images, you will see so many images that are truly breathtaking.  World Press photo awards, Communication Arts, Sony World Photography awards, FOAM, ICP, or PDN 30 will be chock full of amazing new inspired photographs from all over the world by people you have never heard of.  A little intimidating sometimes but also invigorating.

For me, I have always had an interest in classic photography, fashion, and portraiture but my tastes are not that narrow. I will look at just about anything for inspiration or beauty.  I could list for you the typical influences or artists whose work I appreciate or love.   Nowadays I go on an internet binge (like I referenced above) and will create a folder of bookmark links to images that I find instructional or inspirational to me now and I will look at them for a few weeks or months and then I will scrap those images and look for more.

Your Tajikistan images are spectacular both in composition and style. Truly stunning work. Can you tell us a bit more about this project? What motivated you to travel to Tajikistan? How did this project come about?

Thanks! The experience was so amazing and the landscape was truly overwhelming that I hoped I could capture one-tenth the splendor of my time there.  The trip actually happened because of a series of workshops I assist in teaching all over the world.  We go to developing nations (mostly) and teach high school aged students photography and storytelling. On our first trip to Tajikistan, I was able to get a close friend of mine, Tony Czech, to join the team and we decided that if we were going all the way to Tajikistan that we definitely had to take a few days to go off and explore the country.  Our first major goal was to find and ride a yak.  Aside from that, we were planning to do a reccy for the motorcycle trip we were both dreaming of.  So we spent a week after our workshop was finished, hired a truck and one of the students to be our translator, and off we went.  We were not huge guidebook people and were hoping to find some way off track so we just stopped and asked people along the way.  After our scout trip we decided that someday, somehow, we were going to come back here and ride motorcycles through this magnificent, ancient, and rugged landscape.  As fate would have it, our team was invited back to neighboring Khazakhstan only a few months later to do another workshop.  Tony wasn’t available to come along on this one as he was on assignment in BC shooting a mountain expedition, so I asked another buddy and amazing shooter Kevin Vu if he wanted a crack at it.  He said yes and that’s the astronaut looking guy in the photos. For us, the trip was about the adventure and the adventure was in the landscape, the logistics, roads/riding and the people.

What do you hope your viewers will get from your photography?

Maybe this is not the “right” thing to say, but I honestly do not think too much about what other people will get from my images.  When I am in a place and photographing, I am striving to accomplish two things. First, that I be present and aware of what I am looking at and to take in every visceral detail possible. Second, that I can capture as many of those details in a visual representation as possible — what something smells like or feels like or what it sounds like. When it is all done and I am home editing and sharing the images, I hope desperately that viewers will get a sense of that when they look at my images. However, like I said, when I am out shooting I just try to stay as keenly present as possible.

Are you working on any projects?

About a dozen.  A documentary short film, two guidebooks, an adventure trip, a new series of workshops, and a new baby daughter. Of course, she has already accounted for the single largest thematic body of work in my photographic career.  I do have an ongoing personal project called passion.and.flow which is my homage to the people who are dedicated to their “one thing” and the state of being one enters into when one is fully engaged in their passion.  You can find it on Instagram @passion.and.flow

You have traveled and photographed all over the world. What is your perfect adventure?

We used to do this thing every summer at a buddy’s family cabin outside of Buffalo.  A bunch of photographers, musicians, designers, dancers, models, and painters would come together for a week or two and we’d have “Art Camp.” We called it Thunderfest and it was essentially a group of people sleeping out in the fields and woods around the cabin making photographs, barbequing, swimming in the pond, building bonfires, exploring, and sharing stories. The work that came out of that week or two was always transformational for us and it was such a great time of creative adventure. My perfect adventure would probably be something like that but more grown up. Have six to eight of my favorite friends — all creative types — to go somewhere that is beautiful and exciting, and to spend a couple weeks living with vigor, creating work, and having adventures.  A week living in a cave?  Cool. Traveling by pickup or Tuk-Tuk through the jungle? Sweet.  An abandoned house on a deserted beach?  Great.  So long as we had space, freedom, adventure out the door, and maybe a little bit of whiskey.

Do you have any advice for an aspiring photographer?

I do not know about advice but I tell myself this a lot.  The only difference between you and the guys doing what you want to someday be doing is that they are doing it.  By that I mean, don’t focus on being the big magazine or agency star photographer photographing whatever they are photographing.  Go out and photograph what really gets you pumped.  Go make the work you dream about making regardless of whether or not someone is paying you for it.  Want to shoot adventures? Go on an adventure. Concerts? Go see some and find a way to shoot them.  Anything.  If you go out and photograph your brains out, eventually somebody will recognize your work and the money and success will follow — so long as you share.  In the worst case scenario, you do not make a ton of money as a photographer, you’ve still had a great time, and created images that are important to you.

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

For more information about Mike, visit his website.  All images © Mike Sakas.

Steven Gnam: Nature In All Its Gorgeous Beauty

Steven Gnam is a professional landscape, wildlife, and adventure photographer in the Pacific Northwest. Steven has a gift for capturing stunning and striking images which have been published all across the country. His works have been featured by a long list of commercial, editorial, and non-profit clients, including Patagonia, National Geographic, and Sierra Magazine. Steven is also the author of “Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” a beautiful large-format photography book on the majestic Rocky Mountains. Steven talks to atlas about how he first got into photography and what goes into his creative process when he is making these breathtaking images. (Editor’s Note: We are showcasing one of our previous features from one of our favorite photographers, Steven Gnam. Enjoy!)

How did you first get started in photography?

Steven Gnam: I have some early memories of playing around with cameras when I was in middle school.  My earliest photo may have been of a rabbit in the woods. I continued to experiment with cameras all throughout high school and began to imagine doing it as a profession.  I would set up wildlife blinds (or hides) and sit in them for hours watching animals and photographing them.  During this time I was also painting and drawing but realized photography gave me the freedom to move around and be a participant in the scenes/situations I was photographing over those art forms.  I started selling photos to magazines in high school and continued to get work into college.  In college, I was mostly photographing (using slide film still) as I climbed in the mountains, rafted, and explored within a half days drive of Missoula, Montana.

You shoot across many genres of photography and you shoot well in all of them. How would you characterize your work? Do you have a favorite genre?

Thank you.  In today’s world it often seems best to specialize in one genre, but I really enjoy the different kinds of photography, learning about various issues and people, and using the best tools/skill sets to tell their stories.  I think it is possible to be very competent in many disciplines of photography without sacrificing quality –- it just takes time.  I have the privilege of doing this full time so I can devote time to learning new skills and experimenting.

I do shoot outdoor adventures but I don’t think of my self as an “outdoor adventure” photographer.  I make photographs of landscapes, people, architecture, underwater scenes, wildlife, etc. but I don’t identify with only one kind of subject matter or style of shooting.  I guess much of my creative process comes from being fluid and willing to be interested in new things and to be open to shoot new subjects.  I will always gravitate towards wildlife and nature stories but would like to work on some cultural stories too.

What do you look for in terms of composition? What is a typical day like for you on a shoot?

It really depends if I am on an assignment and have a story, an angle, or a subject to cover or if I am just out on a nature walk with no agenda.  Anytime I have an assignment I will do my best to read up on the subject, pour over maps, and assess what I need to do to make good images.  Often when I work outside, I have to deal with whatever the conditions are like and not have the ability to reschedule.  I like this as weather — from bluebird skies to below-zero blizzard conditions — all have something unique to offer you as an artist.

Given the amazing images you have captured, you obviously shoot in conditions that are unpredictable. What it the craziest thing you have had to do on a shoot?

Well, there are a bunch of crazy stories, but recently I was on a 600 mile run, the Crown Traverse, photographing two friends who are North Face ultra-running athletes.  During the expedition, we were traveling largely off trail through the mountains using ridge lines to move quickly through the terrain.  On a section of ridge in Canada it became very steep and rocky so we had to rock climb in our running shoes.  In the shade it was snow and ice so it required a unique blend of alpine and rock climbing to get through it.  While focusing on the terrain and being careful not to dislodge rocks or fall, I was also making photographs of my friends as they climbed the knife ridge.  It was a situation I (we) did not plan on getting into but one where I felt comfortable enough to take photographs during it.

Are you working on any new projects?

I have been working on a project for the past 5 years that I am close to wrapping up which I can not disclose yet! It is a very exciting and important story.  One can check my updates about it on my website/Instagram. After this project, I will begin work on another multi-year story and fill in the gaps with editorial and commercial assignments.

For more information about Steven and to order his beautiful photography book, “Crown of the Continent: The Wildest Rockies,” visit his website.  All images © Steven Gnam.