TJ Thorne is an American landscape photographer with a deep connection to nature. In this interview, TJ talks about the importance of photographing for yourself rather than pleasing a crowd, how nature and photography has been therapeutic for him and much, much more.
Thank you, TJ, for taking the time to give such an in-depth and deep interview.
Can you tell us a little about who you are and how you got started with photography?
Thanks for the opportunity Christian! I’m honored for the opportunity and amazed that people might want to hear about me and my thoughts.
My name is TJ Thorne and I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, USA based out of Portland Oregon. I’ve always had an interest in photography and it really started to take hold in my high school years.
I was drawn in by the simplicity of the medium and how that simplicity created a challenge in having to fit the offered world, my thoughts, and stories into a little frame. I originally shot anything that interested me, which at that time was mostly punk bands, street scenes, and food (I was in the culinary industry).
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2001 my relationship with nature deepened with the abundant, accessible, and diverse landscapes and my camera joined me on my hikes. As time went on my hikes started to become less about the elevation gain and mileage and more about the photos.
In 2012 I realized that there was a whole genre and community of photography dedicated to photographing nature landscapes and soon after I created what I consider to be my first landscape photo called Kiwanda Solstice. I threw myself into the deep end of landscape photography and here I am.
How has nature and photography played part in shaping the person you are today?
I’ve always had a deep relationship with nature. Growing up, my time was primarily spent outside. Instead of watching television and playing video games I was riding dirt bikes, swinging on vines in the forest, climbing trees, snowboarding, swimming, and generally just roaming around outside.
In 2001, when I decided to leave everything I’d ever known to move to Oregon, a place where I knew no one, had never been, and where I didn’t have a job, my decision was based on the accessible nature and the fact that there was year-round snowboarding.
For my whole life, nature has played a huge part so I couldn’t help but feel compelled to photograph it. It’s always been there for me when I needed it most and it’s where I feel most at ease, centered, and rejuvenated. In fact, I’m answering these questions as I sit on the rim of Crater Lake because for the first time in a while I feel like I can finally think clearly and let my stream of consciousness flow uninhibited.
I appreciate these moments where I can get away from life and focus on living. But it goes much deeper than that because nature kept me safe during my battle with alcoholism. Instead of drinking, I went hiking. I knew that as long as I was in nature, I was safe. Maybe not ok… but safe.
Photography during those hikes helped keep my mind wrestled to the ground and in tune with what was around me, giving me a deep sense of gratitude that I was out experiencing that moment in a profound way instead of making poor decisions.
That whole process of fighting my demons and having nature to help in the process really increased my dependency on it and I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for nature and photography.
You’re not one who releases tons of images each year. Can you take us through your creative journey and tell us what it is that you look for in an image?
Honestly, I’ve been trying to figure that out for a while. I do know that if there’s anything that makes me uncomfortable with an image, I won’t release it.
I’m a very firm believer in quality over quantity and I can be pretty picky about it but it more comes down to connection. I have to feel connected to the image and it might sound weird but it’s almost as if my images tell me when to process them. Certain images will just start speaking to me. I think it has to do with what I’m going through at the time and how that image or the process of taking it aligns with those emotions, and sometimes a longing for the specific time and place that it was made.
Rarely ever do I process an image just because I think it’s a pretty picture, and I think that’s important. I’ve done that before and those images always stick out to me when I review my portfolio and they never stay a part of it for very long. I’ve also noticed more and more that what I go to nature to find is what’s showing up in my images: simplicity.
I feel the majority of my work, especially my most recent, is very simple. It might consist of some designs or patterns in nature, or if it’s a more grand scene, very simple in the elements that are present.
It’s encouraging to realize that my work is representative of my subjective connection with nature and now that I’m conscious to it I feel that I can continue to explore that aspect and create in a more satisfying way.
It seems like you have a deep connection to nature and that this has sparked your love for photography. How important do you believe it is for a landscape photographer to love the outdoors, not just the results?
That’s a difficult question to answer, especially without offending someone. So what follows is a broad generalization:
I’m certainly not here to judge anyone’s motivation for photographing nature but I feel that there is a distinct difference in the work of the photographers at those opposite ends of the spectrum.
People who aren’t in love with nature and who are results driven may be able to produce a pretty picture, but the vast majority of their portfolio lacks originality, depth, emotion, and progress in their vision. Since there is no emotional investment in the subject they’re shooting there’s a creative disconnect that comes across in their photographs.
I believe in order to produce meaningful work, that your subject needs to hold meaning for you, otherwise it’s just a pretty picture. As a consumer, I am not moved by pretty pictures and they don’t grab my interest. I find that I’m inspired and moved by the photography of people who are able to communicate their experience in their work, tell stories, and/or create personal images.
In the words of a photographer I greatly admire, the difference is in making images ABOUT things and not images OF things. Personally, I create my most meaningful images when I make photography a secondary focus.
For a while, my motivation switched from going into nature and having photographs happen to going out to photograph and having nature happen, if that makes sense. That approach resulted in some of my most unsatisfying work and as soon as I realized that my motivation had shifted more towards results, I changed my mindset.
Nowadays I’m back on track and I don’t photograph unless I feel compelled to, not unless something about the experience is truly elevating my soul to the point where I feel the need to capture it in a bottle so that I can relive that experience down the road. It’s much more satisfying and for me, there’s no point in photographing it unless I’m feeling that way about it.
So I just go out into nature and I remove my expectations for photography. I rarely look at the weather and I don’t plan shots. I just go and know that if I’m truly connected to my environment that I’ll notice something that begs me to photograph it and then I explore that element.
But that’s just me. I’m not saying that people who plan and are results driven AREN’T in love with nature as there’s certainly a gray area.
If there’s one generalized criticism that I have about people who don’t care about nature and are results driven it’s that those are usually the people disrespecting the land and the others around them. We live in a time where more and more it’s about proof of the experience and not the experience itself (see also: selfie sticks, Instagram).
I’ve often sat at places and watched people literally arrive, walk up to the seemingly x-marked spot on the landscape, get their photo taken, and leave.. not spending even five minutes appreciating the landscape or the moment.
I even saw a dude on a trail that contained several waterfalls running from waterfall to waterfall, quickly setting up his camera on a self timer, running to stand in front of the waterfall in a stance of deep thought, run back to his camera and move on to the next falls to do the same thing. I don’t understand that mentality but it’s certainly pervasive and has become more and more so in recent times.
On a summer weekend, you can’t even find a parking spot at some of the local waterfalls. It’s treated more like a public swimming pool with clothing, beer/water bottles, toilet paper, shoes, and tons of other things left in the wake of the crowds. Granted these aren’t photographers but that mentality is present in the industry and I wish it weren’t.
Who and what inspires you to keep creating and exploring?
While I am moved and inspired by the work of others, my creative drive comes from within. I have a very real NEED for nature and the way it elevates my spirit causes a compulsion to photograph those things.
Again, it’s the simple things: the way the light shimmers on the water, leaves flickering in the light, backlit moss, last kisses of light on leaves, water movement, the sounds, the smells, the waterfall mist on my cheeks, the feeling of water permeating my socks, the shadows dancing across the landscape. These are just some of the things that I hone in on in order to fill my soul and I want to capture them to experience that moment much more profoundly.
I get lost in my viewfinder, sometimes for hours, completely forgetting and detaching from what’s going on around me. It’s only the thing that I’m photographing and myself in existence. So it’s not something that is externally influenced.
I didn’t get into photography because I wanted to do something artistic or because I wanted to create something or because I wanted to inspire people. It was because I felt like I had to.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just getting started with landscape photography?
Always shoot for yourself and strive for that goal of making photos about things instead of making photos of things. Even if you don’t know exactly how to yet, continue with that goal.
Don’t get caught up in the popular locations, the trends, or the gear. Think about WHY you photograph and WHAT it is about nature that you enjoy and work on finding ways to photograph those things in a visually pleasing way.
It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fast, and it’s not going to be without frustrations. Through it all just stay true to your path and eventually, as you hone in on your voice and become more proficient in your skills, your images will start to become unique and personal because they will be in tune with YOUR uniqueness as an individual and that results in a much more satisfying journey.
The more you worry about what people are going to think of your images the more your images are going to say about them than they will about you. Just go and appreciate the opportunity to see the things you’re seeing, be grateful for their existence, and the rest will fall in line.