In October of 2006, I was exploring the eastern part of Glacier National Park in Montana with some good photographer friends: Nick Fucci, formerly of Alaska but then of Big Fork, Montana, and Andrew VonBank, staff photographer for the Minnesota House of Representatives. It was early morning, and we were passing through an area that had burned in a serious fire earlier in the year. Old, stalwart trees stood still, blackened and marred by the fierce fires of early summer. Their darkness was amplified by the thick fog that hovered among the blackened trees, swirling around and enhancing a mood of death and despair. Yet, despite the bleakness of the scene, patches of green, new life were coming up, literally from the ashes of the standing, dead forest.
We were drawn to the starkness of the tall, black silhouettes in the fog, the lush green coming up from charred tree remains. So, we stopped and scrambled around for a bit, capturing our own visions. As we prepared to leave, we came upon another photographer. What instantly caught my attention was that he was using the new, 30 megapixel digital medium format camera from Hasselblad. I was sporting my new Nikon D200, which only had 10.2 megapixels, but cost $29,000 less than the Hasselblad.
After chatting with the photographer for a little while, we learned that he was Australian and that his name was Peter Lik. I had never heard of him before, and he didn’t act as if we should know who he was. Soon, the three of us headed on our merry way, continuing further into the park.
Once we made it through the fog, we realized that we would still have to deal with low-hanging clouds. We would not be able to get any broad, scenic photos as we had imagined. But, changing and unpredictable weather is all part of the landscape photography game. It challenges the photographer to visualize beyond the preconceived photo and look for what opportunities are present.
One of the things that caught our eye was a row of golden trees along the shore of Saint Mary Lake, standing on the edge of a field of grasses. We spent a while working our own compositions, examining how the colors and low clouds worked to create a certain mood for the scene. After a while, our Aussie friend Peter came by with his Fuji 617 camera (a type of panoramic medium format camera), inspired by the same row of trees we had found.
Talking with him some more, we learned that his compact flash card had crashed and he had lost the images he was capturing earlier with his digital Hasselblad. Fortunately, we all had good experience with software designed to recover images under such circumstances, and shared website information with Peter for downloading that software. As a thank you, he went to his traveling vehicle – a pickup truck with a camper top – and pulled out three of his books. He signed each one, and gave each of us a different book. I thought it was a rather generous expression, and was pleased to have met him. One of the things he shared with us was that he had just opened a new gallery in Honolulu, at the cost of $3 million. “But, I’ll make that back in three years,” he added. Whoa, I thought. A multimillion dollar nature photographer?
Once I made it back to where I had access to the Internet, I looked up Peter Lik online. I found out he was practically a rock star of landscape photography, sporting galleries in Australia, Hawaii, and Las Vegas, and fielding clients of all sorts of varieties. Over the years, I would occasionally hear more about him. Then, with the advent of Facebook, I started to follow his work a little more closely. This last winter, his show “From the Edge,” a half-hour photography show on the Weather Channel, debuted. Unfortunate choice for a name, though, as Art Wolfe was already three seasons into this “Travels to the Edge” television show on PBS. I prefer Peter’s original name for the series, “100 Miles from Nowhere.”
When Michelle and I were in Maui in January, I made it a point for us to visit Peter’s gallery in Lahaina. We were wowed by the interior of the gallery and the presentation of the photography. At first, the images looked like they were printed on some translucent material and backlit. But, as the assistant gallery manager explained to us, it was printed on a new special type of Fuji paper and traditionally lit. The paper merely reflected the light in such a way that it made the image glow. We spent about fifteen minutes with the assistant manager, during which time he told us all about the type of paper used, the one-of-a-kind frame created exclusively in Italy for Peter, and the prices that Peter can command for his limited edition prints. One example he cited was a limited edition print of only eight prints, where each sold for $250,000, selling out in a week. Unknown to us at that time, Peter had just sold his first limited edition print of one, entitled “One,” for $1 million. Michelle, bless her bias for she is my wife, strongly suggested that my photography was just as good as Peter’s. Obviously, one of Peter’s strengths lies in his marketing and sales crew.
We thought it odd that his salespeople would speak only of the type of product used in creating the prints, in how much money Peter’s prints sell for. No discussion or mention of Peter’s photographic philosophy, his approach to photography, how a particular image was captured; nothing on the creative process. Quite a bit different story from the approach taken by Ansel Adams, who stressed these things above all others when talking about his photography. But Ansel Adams lived in a very different photographic world. I think it was easier for him to stand out and make a strong name for himself with the strength of his craft and the power of his advocacy for conserving wild places. In the modern age, marketing and sales are crucial; you can take the best images in the world but it won’t matter for making a living if you don’t have a strong marketing effort in place.
There are great images, and there is image. As Andre Agassi used to say in his Canon Rebel commercials, “Image is everything.” Peter has obviously taken great pride to work on developing his own image for marketing purposes. It is an image that has grown to make him incredibly successful. But the perceptions that go with such a “rock star”-like personality tend to breed disdain among some other high-end photographers. Is it a little jealousy? Perhaps. I prefer not to think of such things, but rather think of the Peter Lik I encountered in Glacier National Park, the photographer out in the field, creating images, and chatting with other photographers. There is no doubt that Peter creates stunning images, and has managed to successfully share his vision with a lot of people. As a photographer, I can only hope for as much. Being very successful financially at doing it would certainly be a nice bonus.