As I’m writing this another year has come to its end and, despite still living in uncertain times, it’s been a noteworthy one in terms of photography. It appears that artistic growth has been on a different level.
This has made my job of selecting a Photographer of the Year challenging. There are so many names that deserve this title. But there’s one name that I kept coming back to: Sandra Bartocha.
I’ve enjoyed her work for years now and she’s one of the few artists who regularly leave me speechless when sharing new work. If you aren’t yet familiar with her, the selection of images accompanying this interview will show you why.
In this interview, Sandra gives us an insight into her artistic vision and shares with us the journey she’s on.
Start by telling us a little about who you are and how you got started with photography.
My name is Sandra Bartocha and I have been working as a freelance nature photographer in Northern Germany since 2008. I work mainly on long-term projects, and home and my emotional closeness to it play a major role.
I think that my interest in photography has been sparked early. Cameras and the darkroom, photographers, and journalists were omnipresent in my childhood. I also grew up in East Germany, where culture and art were very important, so I visited countless photo exhibitions early on and encountered different genres of photography.
How, if any, has having a photojournalist as a father impacted your direction within photography?
It was rather the opposite, a long process of emancipation 😉
My father had a strong dominance in photographic subjects, and he loved people, who were also central to his work as a journalist. In this respect, my love of nature and thus of rather inanimate subjects was a constant point of discussion. But fundamentally, of course, he was a catalyst in that he allowed me to experiment with his camera equipment that was no longer in use and in that photography was always present in our home.
Talk us through some of your mindset when moving away from “the grand landscapes” to focus on more intimate and abstract work.
These days, “Intimate Landscapes” are practically state-of-the-art.
For me, it has been the case for quite a long time that I have tended to lose myself in the details rather than devote myself to the grand landscapes. I believe that a truly great image of a grand landscape is very difficult to achieve. It takes an awful lot, a stunning backdrop, a unique perspective, and fantastic conditions and light. For unique images that are not easily interchangeable, you really must put your heart, soul, and effort into it as a photographer.
This said I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I got bored with extremely unmotivated and simple, often-seen, and similar landscape images very early on. Especially when they could have been taken by just any photographer out there. Of course, I can appreciate a simple and beautiful image. I can stand in front of it in awe but if it doesn’t tell me anything about the author, his connection to the place, or a continuous story, then it is a very short moment of joy. It doesn’t stay in my head because there’s no memory or emotion attached to it.
I have a passion for nature and the landscape too, but in a different way. For me, it is not about having taken the longest hike or having explored the most remote valley, but about being more aware of my immediate surroundings and photographing things whose non-obvious beauty fascinates me.
My aim is to create work, that is part of a larger body of work and is exciting to me. The camera and the lens take over the role of my eyes because the limitation of the technology is my chance to take pictures beyond the visible. I exclude to discover beauty in the most mundane things and very often it is the combination of subjects with light and movement that excites me most.
What does “creativity” mean for you?
In a way, we are all creative as soon as we pick up a camera. I do think though that we tend to misuse the term very often for images that are not straight out of the camera but in some way manipulated technically.
ICM and double exposures and out-of-focus images. I don’t think so. They are not creative; they are just different. All those are mere techniques that might help you find a vision, they can help unlock creativity, but just using them for everything, doesn’t make you a creative person.
For me, it’s more the underlying idea of creating images with a very personal and maybe new perspective on how a story of a subject or of something is told. Ideally with a unique approach and a little naive and out-of-the-box thinking.
Tell us about why you like putting music together with your photography and how this helps convey more emotion.
I guess I am just shamelessly using the ability of music to create emotion by itself. Usually, music doesn’t need images to convey a mood. We all listen to music at different times of life and at different times of day to make us happy, melancholic, sad, or just ecstatic. So, I am just using music to increase the potential of my images and videos to get really deep into peoples’ heads. 🙂
Where do you seek inspiration and what keeps you motivated to continue creating new work?
Creating new work is an urge inside me. So as long as I’m able to see things, I’ll follow. And I’m very much an aesthete. In everything that surrounds me, I seek beauty. Inspiration is everywhere, I love art and conceptual photography, I visit a lot of exhibitions, browse through catalogs and books of classic and modern artists. And still, I love a lot of things that are still not inside me. I can only create images that are a collective memory of everything I’ve learned, seen, and digested in life.
Can you tell us a little about your books “LYS” and “Rhythm of Nature”, and the process of creating these?
Both books are self-published but have very different approaches. My aim is generally, that a book needs to be more than a collection of nice images. It must compete with brilliant retina displays; therefore, the choice of paper is vital. I love the tactile quality of thick and matt paper, which almost gives the impression you are turning pages of fine art prints. They also need to create a story with great sequencing, not built on repetition or on just showcasing your best work. Instead, it needs to create a flow that the viewer can follow along with and really start experiencing an intentional way of seeing. A photo book is really an art form to tell stories beyond the chronological super short-lived Instagram stream.
RHYTHM OF NATURE has been an ongoing project for many years; it focuses on the nature around my home and is very personal. LYS was a project intended to go beyond what I usually do. I teamed up with my good friend Werner Bollmann to create a concept around a photography project about Scandinavia that would include everything from landscapes, plants, and wildlife. A real portrait. After a week of brainstorming, we traveled for 4 years to photograph the different biomes. It is a tribute to the Nordic light, from the bright Danish woodlands and pastures in the south to the blue glaciers of Spitsbergen, from the storm-battered coast of Norway in the west to the quiet Finnish forests in the east. The result is a very personal and emotional journey North, that doesn’t depict the classic views that everyone knows, but rather tries to capture the essence of the landscapes.
Essence and the notion of home, the change of seasons, the growth and decay, and the simple beauty of everyday magic is also the idea behind RHYTHM OF NATURE. It is the quintessential result of my work from the past 16 years, my more abstract and whimsical work. The two years of covid really have worked as a catalyst to create this latest book, as I had all the time in the world to fill missing gaps and work on the layout and texts. Self-publishing is very nice, but it also comes with some hurdles as you are completely responsible for everything, editing, prepress, building sales websites, marketing & distribution. But the results are always worth it as classic publishing houses would never dare to create such individual books.
How, if any, is the creative process of creating images specifically for a project, such as your books, different than going out to just “capture the moment”?
The way of creating images for a book or long-term project lets you focus on certain ideas specifically; it opens your eyes to subjects or concepts you might have overlooked otherwise when just going out being inspired by what’s there. It does mean sacrificing sometimes very beautiful scenes that could make a great image but the reward for what you get instead is so much more worth it.
Since I’ve started to work on books it is very hard for me to just shoot randomly because I want to create meaningful work that somehow fits into my project ideas – otherwise, they just remain lifeless “nice” images of something that I’m not very emotionally attached to.
How do you separate your commercial vision and self-expression when you are in the field, or do they blend together?
It is getting easier and easier with time. The reason is that I’m much less dependent on classic commercial work than I have been in previous years. I used to create the classic shots first and when I had taken them, allowed myself to get more personal and intimate. But sometimes I was so focused on that typical calendar and postcard shots that I completely missed bringing home something more individual.
Until I noticed that I’m not even very good at selling those as I didn’t deliberately focus on building a client base and I didn’t spend enough time on really creating the most amazing commercial work. So I decided to focus almost solely on creating my personal work and in the end, this is the work that festivals invite me for as a speaker, and customers like to buy those as prints and books.
You’ve previously said that you like getting the image as close to the finished product as possible already in the camera. How big a role does post-processing play in your work?
Almost none. I should start watching some tutorials. 😉
When I hear people talking about all those layer-blending techniques and whatever I can not really follow up. I’m a dinosaur when it comes to processing. I work with Nikon in vivid mode, my motivation in nature is based on seeing a great result on my screen as it drives me to go further. I expose as best as I can to preserve highlights and shadows in one frame, so there’s no need to sit for hours in front of the computer to finish my image. I then convert in Nikon View into a 16-bit Tiff and go further into Photoshop to maybe do some levels, shadows & highlights, and dust removal.
Tell us a little about GDT and your involvement with it. How has this type of work helped build your career as a photographer?
Well, I have been engaged in leading groups all my life, from being a school and class speaker to leading a scout group and a photo club and then, when I was 27 I was asked if I would like to be part of the board of the GDT (German Society for Nature Photography), So I’ve been vice president since and apart of being a lot of work it also allowed me to shape concepts and introduce ideas for a larger audience. I’m heavily involved with the “European Wildlife Photographer of the Year” competition, rules, jury, layout of the exhibition and catalog, the photo festival, the member magazine and more. It takes a lot of my free time and it’s mostly a voluntary job.
I do believe though, that engagement is part of creating a network, and the work that you do will always reflect on you in the end. I have met people along the way that have helped me on building visibility as a photographer. But I must say, it’s never the position as such, it’s engagement and work and you need to be a good photographer as well. 😉
What are your top 3 tips for someone who’s just getting started with nature photography?
- Be an avid observer and be sensitive about what is around you; try to learn everything about the natural world. It’s not just a beautiful stage for your images but a fascinating world that needs to be treated with respect and care.
- Connect to other people and work in teams. Combined strengths are always better to create a bigger picture.
- Stay always true to yourself and your vision instead of following or copying others or following trends.
What is next for Sandra Bartocha?
I will continue to work on stories and photo books that are very personal to me, creating exciting exhibitions, because nothing beats a large print … and which may come as a surprise – I would also like to extend my documentary & photojournalistic work.
Additionally, I really like helping other photographers realize their books, creating concepts and editing is just an absolute joy.
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Editors Note: I want to give a big thanks to Sandra for taking the time to answer these questions and giving us an insight into her thoughts and creative vision. Make sure to visit her Instagram, website and Lys Publishing to enjoy more of Sandra’s stunning work. I highly recommend picking up a copy of her books while they’re still available.
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Don’t forget to check out the previews Photographer of the Year interviews and learn more about these talented photographers: