Justin Black: Connecting Photos of the Natural World with the Human Spirit

JB_Bio_JCB8775 image Justin Black has been a professional photographer since 1995. He served as Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), and was General Manager and Curator of Galen Rowell's Mountain Light Photography for 7 years.


Since 1999, Justin has created inspiring educational photographic experiences for more than a thousand passionate photographers, most recently as the co-founder of Visionary Wild during early 2011. It offers serious amateurs and professionals world-class workshops in photographically challenging and exotic locations around the globe. The 2012 workshop schedule is available at visionarywild.com.



What event or experience first attracted you to photography?


As a little kid, I was always attracted to the gadgetry of my Dad’s camera, but my interest in actually making photos came when I took a communications class called “Media Arts,” as an elective during 7th grade. The class was in essence a scheme to assemble a slave labor force to produce the yearbook, but I learned a great deal about the media, journalism, photography and the darkroom. When I saw the contact sheet from my first roll of 35mm Tri-X black & white film emerging in the developer tray, apparently by magic, I was completely hooked. All through high school I was “the guy with the camera.”


When did you know that you wanted to pursue a photography career?


During high school, my dream was to become a professional photographer, though for some reason I considered it unrealistic and irresponsible. I certainly didn’t have much focus in terms of what sort of photography I wanted to pursue, which I think is critically important to anyone evaluating the potential of a career behind the camera.


Did you receive any formal photography education? Where? Degree earned?


I mentioned that I didn’t consider photography a responsible career choice. I’d been active in my high school’s Model United Nations program and thought I found diplomacy interesting, so I enrolled at George Washington University in my hometown of Washington, DC to study at the Elliott School of International Affairs. I enjoyed the curriculum, though it wasn’t the stuff of my dreams. I think the idea of international travel appealed to me more than a career as a diplomat. George Washington had a small, but excellent, photography program, so second semester freshman year I took Photo, as a humanities elective. It proved addictive.


JB_cenote_250 image During my final portfolio review, my Photo II professor looked at my prints and stroked his beard for what seemed like an eternity. His brow was furrowed and he said nothing...not a word. Finally, he said, “Justin, what’s your major?” I told him it was international affairs. He responded, “Not anymore.” That was all the endorsement and “permission” I needed to switch majors and pour myself into photography. The GWU Photo Department was led by a fine art landscape photographer named Jerry Lake – a natural teacher who was far more generous with his time and commitment to his students than we had any right to expect. We were a very tight-knit and mutually supportive group of students and instructors; and it was a phenomenal place to learn how to take control of the medium. Like most fine art programs, however, it wasn’t a great place to learn how to make a living at photography. That came later, through paying my dues in the industry.

Were you influenced by a famous photographer’s style? Who?


My most important influences have been Galen Rowell and Jack Dykinga, though I have always spent much time looking at the work of many different photographers and painters; so I suppose I’ve drawn inspiration and influence from many different sources. The visual imagery conjured by good poetry and prose has also contributed.


Galen’s work inspired my imagination and creativity from the moment I discovered his classic book, Mountain Light, and his column in Outdoor Photographer magazine during the mid-1980s. I found his emphasis on catching ephemeral light and natural phenomena in Earth’s wildest places to be very compelling – it made me want to go to work and shoot. During 1999, at age 25, I had the honor of going to work for Galen handling marketing and licensing of his image collection. Even though the pay was lousy, I was in photography heaven, particularly when he asked me to assist him during his photo workshops. I worked with Galen for the three years prior to his death and we became good friends. He was probably the hardest working, most driven person I’ve ever met, and one of the fittest. He was incredibly well read and quite an intellect too. He made a big impression on me in many ways and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to know him.


I’ve since had the privilege of teaching photo workshops with some of my greatest photographic heroes, including Jack Dykinga, John Shaw, Jeff Foott, Pat O’Hara, Frans Lanting, Nevada Weir, David Muench, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Carr Clifton and Macduff Everton. Each of them has influenced me, though Dykinga has become a particularly good friend and mentor. He’s had a tremendous influence on my work during the last seven years or so.


There are many other photographers whose work inspires me: Minor White, Eliot Porter, Paul Strand, Michael Kenna, Edward Burtynsky, Ernst Haas, Karen Kasmauski, George Steinmetz...The list goes on and on.


JB_FirstLight_250 image Do you specialize in a specific type of photography? Why?


My specialty is landscape, though I’m a nature photography generalist. My work includes wildlife and macro work, and I often have a personal black & white project going on the side with an abstract theme.


How many years have you been a professional in this field?


Seventeen years, since I signed my first stock agency contract. The industry has been turned on its head since then.


What was your most memorable photography assignment/job/project?


That’s always a tough one, so my stock response is usually that my last shoot was the best ever. That said, I guess it would be an assignment I shot during 2010 for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in a cypress swamp called Dragon Run on the Middle Peninsula of Virginia. Despite being surrounded by active agriculture, this place had been maintained in a fairly pristine state with a healthy forest buffer, and TNC worked with local landowners to cobble together a Manhattan-sized conservancy to protect the watershed, since it’s an important fish spawning ground and one of the only unpolluted sources feeding the Chesapeake Bay. The only way to access the swamp is in a kayak; and I spent four days exploring it on my own. The place is primeval. Once you leave one of the few access points, you’re in another world – a time warp that could be hundreds, or thousands, of years in the past. There are 55 species of fish, a great number of water birds and bald eagles, old-growth cypress and an amazing diversity of aquatic plants and insects. It was amazing to be in a place that looked as Captain John Smith would have seen it during 1607, and is just a few hundred meters from the modern world. Plus, it’s always nice to photograph a conservation success story.


How would you describe your specific style?


I’m deeply interested in the interconnectedness of the natural world and the way it calls to the human spirit. I realized when I was a kid that as much beauty can be found in the polished stones of a streambed as can be found in a grand vista, and it seems to me that awareness of the various scales of nature promotes deeper visual engagement with the landscape, the ecology of our planet, and even the broader universe. It’s all part of the same continuum.


I tend to try to capture the sense of movement and depth inherent in every merging of earth, atmosphere and water; and I like to develop a strong sense of intimacy with the subject. Texture is often important to develop a sense of the tactile qualities of nature. I sometimes push the image into abstraction.


In which major publications have your images been published?


National Geographic Adventure, Sunset, American Photo, Outdoor Photographer, Sierra, Via, The Nature Conservancy, Rock & Ice...The list is long.


Have you published any books: photography or instructional? Titles and years?


I’ve overseen the publication of a number of photography books, though I have yet to publish a monograph or “how-to” book of my own. Several of my photographs appear in the books Our National Parks: America’s Natural Heritage (Earth In Focus Editions, 2010) and Fresh Water: The Essence of Life (ILCP 2010). The latter was a publishing project, which I managed when I was executive director of the International League of Conservation Photographers. We won an Independent Publisher of the Year award for that book.


Which photography awards have you received?


I have to admit that I am terrible about entering contests or major photo industry competitions. I suppose that it can be helpful to develop credibility and recognition, but I’ve always thought that the photographs should serve that function on their own. People don’t need to be told that they ought to think a photographer’s work is good just because he or she has won an award. The last time I entered a photo competition was a graduate-level photo exhibit at my university’s art gallery, and I won.


JB_YoungLakes_250 image Which photo of yours is your all-time favorite?


It’s hard to choose favorites. There’s certainly a small group of images that I would consider my best work, though I like each for different reasons. Also, my interests and goals for my work are always evolving, so I tend to be more engaged with recent work. If I had to pick one favorite image, then it is a picture of a cloud catching reddish first light over the Owens River near Bishop, California, with yellow rabbit brush blooming in the foreground. I feel that all the elements of the composition work well together to capture the mood of peaceful pre-dawn solitude and the essence of the Owens Valley. I’m very proud of that picture.


Where have your photographs been exhibited? Please list a few future exhibitions, with dates.


My work is continuously displayed at The G2 Gallery in Venice, California.


Do you conduct photography workshops: names, future dates? Please describe for what level of photographer.


Yes, I’ve been organizing and leading photo workshops and tours for more than a decade. During that time, I’ve taught more than 60 sessions and approximately 1,000 participants. My photo workshops and expeditions company, Visionary Wild, offers an exciting range of mentorship experiences for passionate photographers at the intermediate to advanced level. We aim to exceed expectations, and we are very proud of the fact that this is routinely noted in client feedback. Many clients have told me that the photo workshops I’ve organized have been the best they’ve ever attended. That means a great deal to me, since it indicates that we are actually making a meaningful contribution to our clients’ photographic development.


The instructors with whom I work – John Shaw, Jack Dykinga, Karen Kasmauski, Annie Griffiths and Daniel Beltrá, among others – are at the top of the profession, and are chosen not only for their photographic talent and expertise, but also for their demonstrated effectiveness and generosity as teachers. We work in some of the most beautiful and compelling locations on Earth, throughout the American West and at international destinations that offer superb landscape, wildlife and cultural opportunities. For the convenience of our clients and to promote a great group dynamic, our programs are inclusive packages of single-occupancy lodging, all meals and beverages, though we do pro-rate fees based on double occupancy or if a participant doesn’t need lodging.


Upcoming workshops and international trips during 2012 include Olympic National Park, Iceland, Tuscany, the Sonoma Coast, Zion National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Burma and the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. A great deal of information is available on our Web site at http://visionarywild.com and we can be reached at [email protected] or 202-558-9596.


What is most amateur photographers’ #1 mistake?


Focusing on gear rather than concept and purpose. Of course, good gear and technique makes a difference, but as Ansel Adams said, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Ansel was right on the money. I’ve seen the greenest beginners in a workshop make tremendously compelling images that blew away the technically perfect pictures produced by more experienced classmates. This is because the photographer had a clear and intriguing concept in mind, and his or her creativity wasn’t encumbered with the doctrines of orthodox photographic technique. Sure, the depth of field might not have been ideal and the composition might have benefited from some minor tweaks, but it didn’t matter – the picture worked its magic anyway. It’s important to have a goal, a purpose in mind, when one is photographing.


With what brand name equipment do you shoot: Camera, lens, etc?


I’ve been a Nikon user since 1999, presently shooting with a D3X, D3S, D700 and D7000, and all Nikon lenses. I’ll be trading the D3X and D3S for the D4 and D800e soon. Between 1997 and 2009, much of my landscape work was made with a K.B. Canham DLC45 4x5 metal field camera, which I loved. I discovered, however, that by using a Nikon D3X and Photoshop image stitching techniques, I could actually outperform the 4x5 film, and have a much more flexible system in the bargain. I was loyal to the film medium for a long time, but the declining quality control in both manufacture and processing became frustrating; and, in the meantime, digital became so much better.


Do you shoot video and create multimedia presentations?


I’ve always been so intrigued by the unique qualities of the still photograph that I have never shot much video. Some good friends of mine, who specialize in time-lapse, cinematography and multimedia production, are threatening to shackle and kidnap me, and force me to take a crash course. On the other hand, my wife, Lena, is becoming a very capable multimedia editor. She never ceases to amaze me.


Of course, some of the things that are being done with DSLRs these days are amazing. Corey Rich’s work on the Nikon D4 promotional video is very, very good indeed.


What is the most important lesson you learned during your career?


There are four:  

  1. Keep your promises and don’t make promises you can’t keep.

  2. Always do your best to exceed expectations.

  3. During fee negotiations for assignments or stock licensing, make sure you never leave money on the table because no one will ever pay you a bonus for a job well done.

  4. Be true to your passions.


What advice would you share with aspiring professional photographers?


Know yourself, become educated and empower yourself with knowledge. One has to be clever, creative, talented, insightful, hardworking and more to make a decent living as a photographer these days. I’m always inclined to tell someone who is considering a career as a photographer to run to another field as fast as possible. It has always seemed to me that the most successful photographers are those who feel like it isn’t a matter of weighing pros and cons and career options; it’s simply who they are and they “just do it.”


That said, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what is truly important to you in life. Make sure your lifestyle expectations mesh with the career you are considering.


Do research, talk to people who work in the industry and try to develop a good understanding of the path you want to follow. Try to identify a photographic specialty that is the best possible fit for your passions, interests and personality.


Obtain a solid education, preferably with a degree in a field that will either serve as the foundation of a good fallback career or that will complement your photographic specialty. For instance, I would advise anyone who wants to be a nature photographer to earn a degree in biology or ecology than an MFA in photography. Learn to write too, as photographers, who are also good writers, have a significant advantage. The same goes for public speaking skills. Business and marketing courses are very useful too, since many photographers fail due to a lack of business skills.


Remember that professional photography is 95% profession and 5% photography. You’re starting a business, so make a proper business plan and first-year budget, and stick to them. Understand that you are a brand, so you need to define what qualities your brand represents, and then “be it.”



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Portrait Photo taken by Lena Black