Garret Suhrie loves leaving civilization behind and finding an uncharted land for taking breathtaking images that are solely starlit in pitch black odd hours. His passion for night-time photography has taken him to amazing landscapes and perilous locations where tremendous patience coupled with technology gifts us those fantastic and impeccable shots. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Garret Suhrie is now a full-time photographer – one of those very few artists who started off as painters. This interview of him features best of his ‘nocturnal landscapes’, nightscapes, and travel pictures:
I had a pretty average small town Pennsylvania upbringing. As I was always interested in art specifically painting, I went to Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, with painting as my major. My hobbies and interests were always artistic. During school, through a few semesters abroad, my love of travel overtook me, and photography seemed like a much better medium to hit the road with. Since then, I’ve been doing whatever I can to survive with a camera in my hands. I spent a few years as studio manager and retoucher for David LaChapelle, which was an amazing education and experience. Learned more there in a year or two that college ever taught me!
I started painting young, and that was the focus of my artistic endeavors all the way through college. I got interested in photography when I realized that if I left the shutter open I could paint with light. Painting was a huge influence on my photography in a number of ways. Going to art school studio arts really informed my use of light, my sense of color, my eye for composition, and probably most importantly, years of art history classes to inspire and educate about art as a whole. And later on, retouching and post-production was my bread and butter, painting and drawing were the best education I could have asked for, as retouching was basically just painting with pixels. The technical stuff was pretty easy to pick up, but I could never have been as good and successful as I was without my knowledge and experience as a studio artist.
The number of shots I take on average depends on my environment. I recently spent a month traveling in Iceland, I shot 47 rolls of 220, and 15,000 digital images, but you can’t turn around without seeing a shot in that country!
How would you define your key area (fine art photography or travel photography) and how did you arrive at it? What kinds of images do you like taking most?
I guess I’d say a mixture of the two, I make fine art travel photography. Got to there by starting off a fine artist, and falling in love with travel! While in collage, I did semesters in Tokyo and Rome, and my wanderlust never died. Since then, I’ve notched 33 countries on my belt, and don’t see any sign of slowing down! And as much as I love travel and experiencing new places (the travel portraits), I think my heart is still with my nocturnal landscapes. Its kind of my meditation, to go out in the middle of the night, and spend hours patiently waiting and light painting. Its so serene and really brings me peace of mind.
I shoot a Nikon D800 for digital, Mamiya 67ii or Hasselblad 500c for analog. As for my favorite setting, bulb!! My workflow isn’t anything interesting, probably pretty typical. I scan negatives on Epson 700 flatbed. I don’t do a lot of Photoshop, I try and get my lighting right in camera, as film’s a pain in ass to edit. Usually just some color correction and a curve or two, not a lot of post. I spent years retouching for LaChapelle, spending 12 hours a day at the computer, I don’t want to do that again, I like spending my life in the field, not in front of a screen.
I have an array of lighting tools: some really powerful flashlights, a speed light, a marine searchlight mounted on my car. And of course my favorite lighting tool, the Moon! As for how I do it, just time, practice and a bit of creativity. About my locations, the last few years I’ve just picked and country, grabbed my gear and figure it out as I go. Traveling shouldn’t be a hassle, so I go at my own pace. Last year, I flew into Thailand, found a cheap motorcycle, and toured all over South-east Asia for four months, and got some of the best images in my portfolio. There’s just so many amazing places in the world, I’ve made it my job to try and see them all!
My dream locations… well Africa is next for me, going in January next year. After that, I don’t know, always wanted to see the Amazon, Galapagos, and Patagonia, so probably a South American adventure. Oh yeah, and Antarctica, so will probably get on a boat for bit once I make it down south.
Choosing a favorite would be impossible but I’ll tell you a story from a recent adventure I had. I went to some ice caves in Washington’s Cascade range, and fell in love with that scene, and knew I needed to find more. Three month later, I was on a plane to Iceland, to wander around some glaciers and find more ice caves. I was in Vatnajökull National park exploring a massive ice cave I found when I heard a sound as loud as thunder and as quick as a rubber band snap. I grabbed my gear and ran for it, not 2 minutes after exiting, a massive section of the roof collapsed. The wind from the implosion threw me off my feet, it was quite an experience. The moral of the story I suppose would be to not wander around glaciers on warm days when the sun is shining.
I’ve published one book, a catalog for an exhibition I had in Germany a few years back, with a great essay from an amazing art historian, and am currently working on a book of my Iceland adventure which I captured 500+ worthwhile images. As for clients and achievements, I’ve had some great successes over the years. Many exhibitions in LA and abroad with some great galleries. I’ve also been acquired by a few impressive art collections, including Daimler, AEG Worldwide and Smithsonian. Maybach / Mercedes also gave me an award / exhibition and allowed for me to shoot Europe for a few months. Last year I was Professional Photographer Magazine’s Photographer of the Year which was a great honor. So yeah, don’t want to go on too long, so suffice to say, I’m happy with where my career is taking me and glad I’m not the only one who likes my work!
I’m getting more into motion lately. Both time lapses and films. I’m shooting a movie this summer, a two month adventure crossing America, and super excited for that project. I always felt that the moving image was going to be a natural evolution for my eye, happy to finally be exploring it.
Tell us what do your think about contemporary photography and your place therein right now:
There’s so many great artists making so much amazing work, I can’t even begin to keep up! My only gripe with a lot of contemporary photography I see is the overly saturated HDR style shots that are so ubiquitous across the internet these days. I’ve bordered on doing a few myself, but taking it too far is a fine line. To each their own, but it just doesn’t sit well with my sense of aesthetic. As for my portfolio, it’s so tough to assess oneself, but if you twist my arm I’d have to say, I love my work! Wouldn’t make it if I wasn’t proud of it! I’ve been shooting (mainly by moonlight) for 10 years now, and have had many personal successes in developing my own style and aesthetic, and am thrilled with the images I’ve been able to capture over the years.
My inspirations run the gamut. Photographically, I love anything Group f.64, Robert ParkeHarrison, Salgado, Michael Kenna. A lot of my influences come from art history, most notably Impressionism and German Romanticism.
As for future plans and ambitions, I already mentioned the indie film this summer called “As We Know It”, where I’ll be filming across America for two months, after that, off to Africa for a gig I can’t mention just yet, and to find a few adventures. Other than that, I’ve had the NatGeo dream a long time, good to start small, right? Also, I’m currently seeking representation. I’ve been funding my own travels and making my money on the backend for 5 years now, it would be nice to be paid to travel.
It’s not about the gear, it’s about your eye. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting an iPhone or a PhaseOne back, be creative and inventive and make work that speaks to you. Shoot what you know but don’t be afraid to get outside your comfort zone, growing never comes easy.