I’m excited to present this months ‘Photographer of the Month’, William Neill. William is an American landscape photographer who’s been in the industry since the 1980s. He’s published several books and is perhaps most known for his exceptional portfolio from Yosemite. Keep reading to learn more about his photographic journey:
First of all, thank you for taking the time to do this. Could you start by telling us a little about who you are and how you got started with photography?
I am a landscape photographer concerned with conveying the deep, spiritual beauty I see and feel in nature. A resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977, the reason I photograph is to experience the beauty of nature, of wild places. I explore the essential elements of rock and tree, of cloud and rushing water to capture the magic and mystery of the landscape. The images I enjoy making most are ones that rely on my perception and emotional response rather than the spectacle of the scene. I enjoy isolating the details of a scene, often to the point of abstraction. By creating photographs where the content or orientation is not obvious, an intimate and enigmatic feeling can come through. I would rather make an image that asks a question than one that answers one, one that intrigues and arouses curiosity in the viewer.
My earliest childhood memories of outdoor adventures are of roaming the hills behind our home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not yet bulldozed and subdivided, my dog and I explored the nearby grass-covered hills and seasonal creeks. Occasional weekend trips led our family to the nearby rugged coastal beaches or the trails of the Santa Cruz mountains. During summer vacations, we often spent a week or two in the great national parks of the west such as Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Sequoia, and Yosemite. One summer, we visited Glacier, Banff and Jasper National Parks, returning home via Vancouver and then followed Highway One down the Pacific coastline. These family road trips sparked my love of nature, especially of our National Parks.
As someone who’s been in the industry for decades, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen the industry go through and what have you done to adapt to it?
I think that the biggest change is the vastly larger number of photographers trying to sell their work. It was very competitive even when I started, and stock sales were a major source of income for many of us. Many photographers new to the business are unaware of industry standards for pricing their work and have severely undercut the value of photography in the marketplace. On the positive side, the reach of the internet and social media allows more photographers more exposure. In the old days, there were “curators,” magazine and book editors, art directors for ad agencies or stock houses, that screened what was seen by the public.
I have always had diverse sources of income that include: teaching workshops; selling fine art prints to private collectors or art consultants selling my photographs to display in healthcare facilities or other corporate art; or book and poster royalties. This diversity helps me deal with my highly variable income flow. I used to teach many workshops when I started in the 1980s and 1990s, and now I am teaching more again.
As with many other photogs, I’ve adopted the use of a blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr to connect with other photographers, nature lovers, and potential clients. I also teach students one-to-one in Yosemite in Yosemite National Park, sharing my 42 years of experience photographing there. During our sessions work on topics such as Composition, Quality of Light, Emotional Content, Theme Development, Post-processing, Impressionistic Photography Techniques.
You’ve been writing the “On Landscape” column for Outdoor Photography since 1997. What are your goals with this column, and what inspires you to keep writing more than ten years later?
My essays for Outdoor Photographer are geared towards the creative, aesthetic side of landscape and nature photography. I write about my experiences discovering my subjects and how I go about capturing a unique image. I mention my technical approaches but focus on helping photographers with their seeing, on transforming an inspiring scene into a powerful composition. The process of experiencing nature fully and seeing the beauty that surrounds us every day is always a foundation of what I write about, perhaps more so than the final image.
Most of us can learn the technical details of capturing a well-exposed and sharp landscape scene, but it is much more challenging to develop a personal vision that conveys our response to what we see and FEEL. My goal is to help with that process, often through examples of my own ongoing journey to share my love of the natural environment.
How has being a resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977 shaped you as a landscape photographer?
To answer your question, allow me to quote from my most recent retrospective book:
“In 1977, I moved to Yosemite National Park at the age of twenty-three. One year after graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in Environmental Conservation, I had decided to pursue my passion for landscape photography in the Sierra Nevada. I have now completed forty-two years living in the Yosemite area and photographing this famous National Park. Encouraged by Ansel Adams and other mentors to pursue a unique point of view, I have attempted to pierce through the abundant clichéd views that appear at nearly every turnout, to convey my vision of the park.
Living here has been an inspirational education, a mentorship taught by the landscape itself. When I managed to slow down to see clearly and listen carefully, I was able to learn many lessons about this landscape – it’s light, its seasons. I learned from missed opportunities, like arriving too late for the best morning light. I discovered that, in spite of well-planned timing, I did not find exceptional light or inspiration. Other times, I experienced magical light and weather when least prepared for it. I found awe and delight in Yosemite’s grand and famous landscapes, but most often, I connected to its more intimate details most deeply.
What I’ve learned is that Yosemite, beyond its role as a nature preserve and place of recreation, is a sanctuary for the spirit. Millions of visitors love this place, for a wide variety of reasons. For whatever reason people visit here, they feel good here; they feel the restorative effects of wild nature even if briefly.
When I first read these words by John Muir, the resonance inside of me was deep and profound: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” Few other words had ever rung so true to my experiences in these mountains. I came to see these mountains, inspired like so many by the images of Ansel Adams and the words of John Muir, and stayed.
Preserves of nature, whether Yosemite or your neighborhood park, can provide a sense of protection from outside forces, much as do the walls of a church or temple. From within these protected walls, the peacefulness and beauty bring comfort and calm to me. Given this sense of sanctuary, my creative energies have been given the freedom to express what I feel, to reveal the connection between my spirit and the beauty of Creation. The lessons of Yosemite can be seen within all of my photographs, no matter the subject or location.”
Having lived in the Yosemite NP area for so long I can only imagine the amount of time you’ve spent photographing there. What’s your approach to still finding new and fresh perspectives or scenes to photograph there?
Having been here so long, I can be highly selective about when and where I photograph. When you get to know a landscape, you can read the weather and understand better where to be when. I have learned how to avoid clichés and see the place with my own vision. Learning this lesson in Yosemite has helped me tremendously when photographing other locations. Yosemite has given me belief in myself as an artist.
You’ve published several books through your career, William Neill – Photographer, a Retrospective being the latest. What goes into creating these books?
My path for finding book projects has been a long and winding one. My good fortune has been gained through a combination of luck, timing, networking, and hard work, all based on a deep belief in myself and my photography. My first book, The Sense of Wonder, where I illustrated the writing of environmentalist Rachel Carson, came about several years after showing my work to a well-known book designer. Each subsequence book came about through that first book’s success. With my earlier books, the publisher chose the theme, and I provide the artwork to illustrate or complement the author’s words. My Yosemite, Landscapes of the Spirit and Retrospective books were my ideas, and on which I collaborated with the publishers.
Creating books involves that many components work together. One key element is to follow one’s passion and to build thematic bodies of work that revolve around those passions. Another part is to be proactive about showing your portfolio to the right people, such as editors, curators and anyone who might lead you towards a book deal. Build your reputation on showing your highest, most consistent quality in your photographs, and on being a person who is easy to deal with and understands the collaborative process of publishing.
Do you have any new books in the works?
I do have a new book I’m working on now, which is a collection of essays about favorite images and my creative process in creating them. Another book is in the conceptual stage.
You’ve stated that photography is a meditative activity for you. Can you walk us through some of your process of exploring and photographing a location?
Much of what I photograph these days are local subjects. The meditative aspect of finding new images comes from the daily practice of seeing the beauty around me. When will the plum blossoms outside my office be ready for me? When will it rain of them so I can photograph them with water drops all over? Since I am near Yosemite, I’ll check weather conditions for a coming snowstorm, or check in with friends to learn how the dogwood blooms are coming along or when autumn color is peaking.
Although I do try to plan my field trips for the best seasonal timing or the most dramatic weather, I rarely previsualize and plan to make specific images, preferring to let the environment and conditions such as lighting lead me to inspiration. I am so constantly amazed by nature that I always find inspiration whether I’m looking for it or not. I try to be more of a receptor for what might come my way rather than an aggressor for capturing some preconceived idea for an image.
In a recent blog post, Protecting Place, you talk about the impact our images can have on delicate landscapes. With, for example, Social Media spotlighting many of these locations, do you think we as photographers should be more careful with sharing sensitive information about the locations we photograph?
This is a touchy subject for many of us. We love our landscapes and want to protect them. In order to protect the few wild and quiet places left, the public and governments must see their value. Historically, using beautiful landscape photographs have helped convince the powers that be to regulate and protect their use. We needed to strike a fine balance between protecting places and loving a place to death.
The popularity of social media and mobile phone/cameras has changed everything. Places that often appear on Instagram become inundated with photographers want their shot. So yes, we must be very careful to protect sensitive locations. The business side comes strongly into play since we feed the popularity of a place by showing and selling photographs from these famous locations. Organizations such as Nature First and NANPA are working hard on educating photographers about the environmental ethics of our profession, at least here in the U.S.
What are your top three tips for someone who’s just getting started with nature photography?
Photograph What Inspires you the most, not what might sell the best. Work on well-focused themes about which you are the most passionate.
Experiment to find creative ways of seeing. Stretch your vision. Try alternative approaches, angles, locations, lenses, post-processing.
Explore a place in-depth, for many years in many seasons. It’s the most likely way you will rise above.