After many years of taking photos of nature for personal pleasure, Gavin John recently decided to give up his day job to pursue nature photography as a full-blown career.
Growing up in suburban London, John developed a thirst for wilderness adventure that continued to develop after relocating to Melbourne at the turn of the millennium. He has hiked in a wide variety of locations over the years, while simultaneously honing his photographic skills.
A traditionalist, John always frames his shots in the field, leaving the image untouched and un-cropped in an age of post-processing.
In the lead up to his first exhibition, dubbed ‘Terra Incognita’, we interviewed John to discover more about his life, craft and aspirations.
Gavin, how has your passion for nature photography developed over the years?
Throughout the nineties I travelled with a point and shoot automatic camera, enjoying the experience more than worrying about taking great shots.
In 2000 I did some ice climbing in the Fox Glacier region of NZ. We crossed a trickle of water on the way up. A thunderstorm hit later in the day and we hiked out quickly. By then the stream had morphed into a raging river which, naturally, I stumbled over into on the way back. I survived, my trusty little camera didn’t.
The manufacturer had upgraded the model by then and I found that the new model didn’t give me the control over the zoom I was after. It was not a smooth motion but a jerky stuttering action. This frustrated me no end on a trip through Chobe National Park through to Victoria Falls in 2001 as I couldn’t frame the shots as I would have liked.
It then registered with me that perhaps I was a budding amateur photographer, so I invested in an SLR and taught myself the basics and continued to develop my skills from there. I developed my prowess from a few books on photography purchased when first starting out, and have really just drawn inspiration from other photographers’ and artists’ work.
I talked an old school mate into hiking to Everest base camp with me in October 2002. Neither of us had done anything remotely like it at that time. During that period the Maoist insurgents were creating havoc in the Khumbu region. When we arrived to meet the local Nepalese guide we had arranged to hike with, he explained that everyone else had cancelled due to the troubles, so we had quite an exclusive survey of the region. In fact we had a guide, a sherpa and a porter just for the two of us. The hike went without a hitch and I cut my teeth on SLR and slide film photography on this trip, learning a lot about exposing correctly for extreme lighting conditions, often using a bum bag of film which never left my side.
What triggered your decision to leave a steady job in IT to go full-time in photography?
I have been full time in IT for 20 years, but it has really only ever been to pay the bills and fund my adventures to national parks and areas of natural beauty. Really I just want to travel, photograph, read about things that interest me and play my guitar badly. The IT job frustrated all of this and phrases such as ‘life is too short’ and ‘better to have tried and failed then to never have tried at all’ burned in hard on my psyche.
Many things in my life coincided in late 2015, which made it the perfect time to chase the dream of being a full time travel and landscape photographer. Hence arranging my debut exhibition and from here on who knows where it could lead. Hopefully not back to crawling under desks plugging in network cables again!
Have any of your images been picked up, displayed or published over the years?
My images currently only adorn the living spaces of friends and family as I have never actively sought sales or publicity. I wrote a website to showcase my work but haven’t promoted it as yet. My mum is my biggest fan and has so many of my shots up that you could consider Terra Incognita to be my second exhibition!
My aunt had one of my shots printed up large on canvas a few years back and the printer said it was the best thing anyone had ever requested they print. That was glowing feedback and it put a smile on my dial which has still yet to fully disappear.
One time I did a tiger safari in Ranthambhore National Park in India and I showed the shots to a friend who ran a St Kilda pizza place at the time. He insisted on putting the images up. They hung there for months looking quite out of place in a traditional Italian restaurant.
As of 2016, my aim is to get my work out there and be one of those people that is actually featured in Wild magazine, and not simply an avid reader.
What’s the most exciting adventure you’ve been on?
As you can imagine I’ve had a few scrapes and close encounters with land and creature alike. A comical one in 2007 involved me falling behind my guide and two hiking mates when ascending to a viewpoint of Cerro Torre in Torres del Paine National Park. As a photographer you are always at the back of group due to constant stops to grab a shot. On this day I totally lost them and ended up scaling halfway up the side of cliff only to see my team on the cliff opposite. That cost me a lot of time and some unforgettably painful leg cramps scrambling down and double timing up the boulders to catch them up. My legs were shot for the next few days hiking.
A particularly close encounter came in 2006 when a friend and I did a hike to see the celebrated Wave at Coyote Buttes in Arizona. Those who have visited this off-the-beaten-path, private location will know how hard it is to secure a hiking permit for this area. Only a few are given out each day to the folks that turn up early enough at the station.
The day we had allocated in our road trip of the South West National Parks of the Colorado Plateau dedicated to seeing ‘The Wave’ it was thundering down overnight and all morning. We drove out to the trail head before dawn in torrential rain and understandably were the only ones there. We grabbed a pass and debated if we should hike in or not. The rain eased for a bit and my nervous energy started to build like the electricity in the air. I declared, it’s now or never. So we hiked in, the clouds cleared and we had The Wave to ourselves in glorious sunshine for an hour. Stupidly we sat down straight away and took a lunch break before indulging in photographing the feature. But then a huge thunderhead-loaded system came in and we had to hike out quick. Fortunately, I took a few photos before the cracks of lightning kicked off.
I recall looking over my shoulder as lightning hit the ground behind us as we paced out. It was really quite alarming and we debated ditching our tripods (for fear of them acting as lightning rods). That’s when we came across two lost hikers trying to find The Wave and who seemed very out of their depth as the trail is not marked or signposted. We talked them out of going in due to the flash flooding that would soon submerge the area and guided them out.
Any other ‘hairy’ situations while out on your own?
A few years back I was working interstate just outside of Hobart so as always on such occasions I took a couple of days leave to spend time in that magnificent part of the world.
One morning I headed out to do some solo hiking in Tasman National Park. Clearly nobody had been through the trail I had picked for a while as it was quite overgrown. I spent a lot of time bashing through scrub and on a couple of occasions lost the trail. By midday I’d reached the coastline and enjoyed the solitude while munching down my usual vegemite sandwich. Vegemite sandwiches do not get ruined while being smashed around in your backpack, so I swear by them.
I turned to head back and within a few minutes lost my footing and felt my ankle go. I wondered how much damage was done and that feeling of being the only person out on a trail miles from help sunk in. I always complete the sign-in intention book at trail heads and when solo hiking usually leave a note on my rental car dashboard stating my name, the date, hotel and identify the trail I’m taking. However, this provides little comfort those few seconds after a fall as you assess your damage. Fortunately the ankle was not too bad, so I unpacked my hiking poles and got myself back home to the Fox and Hound Inn for a rewarding ale or two well before closing.
What’s unique about your brand of nature photography?
I concentrate hard to frame my images as I would like them out there in the field, rather than be lazy and think I’ll capture the general scene and make a compelling photograph from it later. It helps me maintain a sense of purity and respect for the art form. When I look back at the effort pioneering landscape photographers like Vittorio Sella had to go through shooting on glass it feels a bit like cheating to crop photographs back in the comfort of your study. Hence I refuse crop my images when post processing.
I also like to play with scale and abstraction. People often remark that they do not know if a shot is a close up detail or an aerial showing a wide expanse of territory. Or I like to find compositions that are mirrored elsewhere. For example, did you know that a black and white, portrait profile composition of Uluru can be made to look exactly like the jagged edge of Nuptse (one of the flanking mountains in the Everest massif) when framed a certain way? I love seeing these dualities in nature and find myself more and more shooting photographs with a long term vision of matching up incongruent images captured many miles and years apart.
Do you have any particular goals or aspirations for your budding career?
Priority number one is working out how I’m going to pay my next gas bill now that I’m no longer earning. However, after the exhibition I intend to start planning trips to some dream locations, then work out ways to fund it. Three areas I have been researching for potential trips are the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia and also one day I hope to venture to far northern Greenland up around the Arctic Circle to photograph the nothingness and wildlife there.
Gavin John’s inaugural exhibition will be showing from the 23rd to the 26th of February at Smart Artz Gallery in South Melbourne. Entry is free.