This month on Art of the Blur, we talk to Sam Stapleton. Sam has been wowing us with his beautiful flowers in ice imagery and much more for the last few months. Here. he talks to us about what he sees, how he interprets what he sees and gives us an insight into his work.
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AotB: Hi Sam, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a native of East Tennessee where I was born and where, except for one year of college in Florida, I’ve lived my entire life. The most remarkable thing about my life is its unremarkableness. Being born white and male and heterosexual to a middle class, college-educated parents gave me a huge advantage and sheer luck seems to have taken care of the rest. Through little credit to myself, I’ve experienced a truly blessed life, free from any of the usual traumas (divorce, major illness, the untimely death of a loved one, financial insecurity, etc.) that plague most of humanity.
Thirty three years ago I married the only woman I’ve ever loved and we’re still together, sharing an office where we work daily, sitting at desks facing one another. I was fortunate to retire a bit early from my job in healthcare finance (I’m a CPA) and am now comfortably situated so that I can pursue my passion for fine art photography while spending quality time with my family which includes two daughters in their 20’s. It just doesn’t get any better than this so I try to appreciate my life and to share some of my good fortune when I see others in need.
AotB: How did you first develop an interest in photography?
I remember the first picture I ever took. It was a photo of the smoke plume from the Tennessee Eastman chemical plant explosion in 1960 which I could see from my backyard. It was the most dramatic moment of my young life (16 people died, one of them being my neighbor) and I felt a need to capture this historic moment with my dad’s totally manual 35mm rangefinder. He had shown me the aperture and shutter controls but my understanding of them was non-existent so I chose settings based on a 9-year-old’s concept of what looked like “good” numbers and fired away. Surprisingly, the images were clearly recognizable as a dark smudge of something on a white sky over a black foreground. Now, 50+ years later, I think I’ve gotten somewhat better. At least I know what an aperture is.
AotB: What kind of photography is your favorite?
I love any photography that shows me the world in a new way. I can appreciate any image for its technical perfection, but the imagery that most affects me is imagery that is insightful and revelatory.
AotB: What type of camera do you shoot with and why?
I use a Canon 5D Mark lll full-frame digital SLR. I’ve dabbled in both medium and large format but don’t feel that these are the best tools for creative exploration and are better suited to shooting situations in which the expected output is known in advance. I’ve also built a number of pinhole cameras and even turned my Dodge Caravan into a pinhole camera, but that was all for fun. For serious, creative photography almost any digital camera that allows manual control of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is sufficient. I have a strong personal preference for a camera which displays 100% of the capture area because I tend to crop very tightly and I like to know exactly what I’m capturing.
AotB: Is there something you always ask yourself or think just before you push the button.
Long before I get to the button pushing stage, I always ask myself, “Is there any reason NOT to take this picture?” Too often something catches my eye, but if I can’t quickly pinpoint it, then the effort of unloading my camera bag and setting up my tripod can become a deterrent. It’s easy to pass by a potential image because it’s just too much trouble, particularly if you aren’t certain that a good image really exists and a better one isn’t waiting for you just around the corner. But knowing that something in the scene attracted my attention and that this exact circumstance will likely never exist again, I always ask myself “Why not?” before moving on.
AotB: Do you ever collaborate with other photographers?
Collaboration has been the most rewarding aspect of my photographic career which began in earnest in 1983 when I teamed with my future wife (Patricia Hudson) to illustrate a book (Inns of the Southern Mountains) as well as many of the magazine articles that she subsequently authored. The birth of our first daughter in 1988 put my budding photo career on hold for the better part of two decades and by the time that my pending retirement allowed me the time to resurrect my photography, social media had surfaced and become the dominant means of communicating and interfacing with people who shared similar interests.
It was on G+ a few years ago that I met Roxanne Bouché Overton and discovered a shared affinity for all things photographic. Roxanne is a versatile photographer who I discovered had done some wonderful street photography. One of her posts in this genre was of a man sitting in a chair on a sidewalk with an empty chair beside him. I read the comments of others before voicing my own thoughts and noted that everyone saw exactly the same thing – the man appeared lonely and the empty chair suggested either a friend who had not yet arrived or a lost spouse who would never arrive.
As I have a compulsive need for originality, I could not simply repeat these sentiments and so gave it a few moments’ thought before posting a comment from the point of view of the empty chair. Something along the lines of “Hey, who is that old guy and why is he sitting on my friend? We come here every day and nothing like this has ever happened before.” Chairs have short memories.
I enjoyed this whimsical effort so much that I wrote Roxanne to ask if she would share a portfolio of her street photography that I might illustrate each image with a brief story, and from that outreach was born our book, “100 Words”. It took the better part of two years and five hundred email exchanges for us to select the photos, write their accompanying stories (exactly 100 words each) and finally to release the book to publication. Such a long and intense process has cemented a friendship I expect to carry with me for the remainder of my life.
AotB: What is your favorite photograph that you have ever taken?
I have two favorite photographs. The first is actually an entire roll of Ektachrome slide film that I shot at a ZZ Top concert in the 70s. The pictures were, for the most part, horribly exposed. The shutter speed was too slow to stop movement and the highlights were blown out. But the vibrant colors and sense of energy excited me and propelled me on a five-year pursuit of concert photography which in turn required me to learn the mechanics of color film developing and printing in my homemade darkroom. This single roll of film solidified my commitment to a lifetime pursuit of photography as an art form.
My other favourite photo is titled “Iris 129_6326”. This was my first successful frozen flower image and thus the image which gave birth to my Stilled Life portfolio which remains my most successful body of work to date.
AotB: If you had to choose one lens, which one would it be and why?
If I had to shoot with only one lens, it would be Canon’s 18-400mm EF-LS, f2.8 lens. At only 12 ounces and with a minimum focus of 10 inches at 400mm, it would be a bargain at twice its listed price of . Unfortunately, Canon doesn’t actually make this lens in spite of my repeated demands that they do so.
In lieu of that, I really like my 70-200mm, f2.8 in spite of its outweighing the rest of my gear combined. It’s sharp and beautifully bright and suits my landscape style of picking out intimate details at a distance.
AotB: Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph?
No, but there are a number of photographers who I would like to photograph me in their own unique style. I would like to compile their images, along with my writing, into a book titled “Other-self Portraits” which would be an exploration of my other selves as viewed by these chosen photographers. I believe it would be both a humbling and a learning opportunity to experience the creative process from the other side of the lens.
AotB: Tell us about something you’re still learning.
I’m still learning to see images. For me, photography is about isolation. I look at a larger scene to find the smaller image contained within it. I isolate my image by cropping everything that doesn’t contribute positively to the core composition. But I learn different ways of seeing from other photographers.
For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment isolates his images in an instant of time rather than in space while Jerry Downs isolates relationships in his imagery.
“Learning to see images in different ways is, I think, the greatest challenge in photography”
AotB: What would you say to someone just starting out in photography?
I would tell them to know themselves and to know what their goals and aspirations are. Is your primary goal to use photography to express yourself creatively or is it to earn a living from photography? While these are not mutually exclusive aspirations, it makes a huge difference which one is primary, and your satisfaction with your work will be dependent upon understanding this.
If you would pursue photography even if you never made a dollar from it, then you are an artist and probably need to find a regular day job to support your creative urges. On the other hand, if photography is your chosen career path and the expected source of your daily income, then you need to approach it like any other job with the understanding that your art must always take a back seat to the client’s needs. Know and expect that you will spend more time in marketing, self-promotion, image processing and organization, bookkeeping and a hundred other non-creative tasks than in the actual process of shooting images.
AotB: What is your perspective on the world and on life.
Like many creative persons, I consider myself a liberal and am not ashamed of the “L” word. My wife and I have been regularly involved in social justice issues for the entirety of our 35-year relationship. Although my photography has sometimes been used in the support of these causes, I see very little overlap in the dailyness of my photographic and social justice pursuits.
However, I would say that my photography has given me a deeper appreciation for nature and for the interconnectedness of all life, though it’s hard to say which came first – did my love of nature and beauty lead me to photography or did photography open my eyes to an appreciation of nature? In the end, it’s probably a self-perpetuating loop of each supporting and enhancing the other.
AotB: What would you like to be doing in 5 years?
Thanks for sharing your work, time and thoughts with us, Sam. I certainly enjoyed it and it was great to find out a little about the person behind the pictures. I often think these back stories add an extra dimension, sometimes even a missing link when viewing someone’s work.
If anyone else would like to share their thoughts on photography/art/life with the members, feel free to contact us here. If you’d like to ask Sam something or just leave a comment, you can do so below.
Thanks for reading this far.