An Interview with Jan Bell

Jan Bell

Jan Bell

 

Nathan: I’d like to try something a little different and begin by asking you why you chose these images for this interview. How do you think they represent your evolution as a photographer?

Factory Butte (c) Jan Bell

Factory Butte (c) Jan Bell

Jan: My professional career had its roots in a commercial photo studio, where I learned the importance of detail. A thirty year career with PBS followed, where I served as a director of design. There I had the luxury of working on projects that educated and enlightened the mind.

Rather than presenting a chronological overview of my work, I have chosen to present my progress over the past 10 years. It was exactly ten years ago that I enrolled in a week-long workshop at the Ansel Adams Center. The course was titled “Digital Printing for the Fine Art Photographer,” and it was taught by Charlie Cramer. It shed a new light on the evolution of my work. It wasn’t so much the images that were presented that week, or the techniques that were shown; but more an enlightening. I started looking at images in a new way, with a more critical eye. I began to realize the importance of each step of the process. I feel that every crossroad in one’s life, each personal contact, brings with it an opportunity to evolve. This workshop obviously started an evolution that continues today and has impacted my work.

Up to that point, the driving force of my work was the art fair market. My goal was to create a mix of images that would appeal to a cross section of people. I needed the income from the sale of that work, otherwise I could not continue the process. Therefore, I shot a potpourri of images. The money generated from the sales at outdoor art fairs paid for additional multi-week photo treks as well as equipment, printing supplies and framing materials – expensive items, as we all know. The early years were an exhilarating time, although I wouldn’t categorize the work that I was producing as fine art; but thankfully it sold!

Trees in Morning Fog (c) Jan Bell

Trees in Morning Fog (c) Jan Bell

Nathan: If you had to think of one photographer, one painter, and one musician (or composer / group) that has had the most significant influence on your work, who would they be?

Jan: Generally speaking, the work of Group f/64 has had a major influence in my photography. But the one photographer that has impacted my work the most is Ansel Adams. It was his work that first caught my eye as a young boy. Ansel’s images of the West revealed a world that I had never seen. Those big, grand landscapes sparked a curiosity that has stuck with me throughout my life. His love of nature combined seamlessly with his artistic work, in much the same way as they converge in my life. I feel fortunate that I am able to integrate a love of nature with my love of photography.

Ansel once said “I hope that my work will encourage self expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us.” That’s exactly what has done for me. In 2010. I was honored to receive the grand prize award in an Ansel Adams Competition, sponsored by the Ansel Adams Gallery. Moving forward an additional six years (2016), the photo was donated by Harold and Margaret Bond to the Toledo Museum of Art. That is my first photo to be included in a permanent museum collection. Hopefully more will follow.

I don’t really feel that I’ve been influenced by a painter. But Georgia O’Keeffe’s colorful, abstracted images speak volumes to me. I have a copy of her painting Back of Marie’s No. 4 hanging in my studio. It isn’t one of her more iconic images, but it’s one that I find inspirational. The undulating folds of those mountains remind me of the rolling mountains that lure me (photographically) to California.

Music is a tough one since my musical tastes run all over the place, from Linkin Park to Bach, Erik Satie, Paul Desmond, Coyote Oldman, Pat Metheny, Diana Krall, and a whole lot of ambient artists. But if I had to choose one musician that has had an influence on my work, I’d say it’s Coyote Oldman. The simple Native American flute takes my mind to places that I love in the southwest. I have often listened to his music while traveling the southwest. The simplicity of his songs align to the simplicity that I like to convey in my images.

Towering Stone Fins (c) Jan Bell

Towering Stone Fins (c) Jan Bell

Nathan: A lot of photographers drop the term “fine art” next to their name. What do you think fine art means? Is there such a thing or is it just a label?

Jan: Upfront I’d like to state that art is subjective by nature. One person may classify a person’s creation as art, the next may say that it’s rubbish. Is “fine art” different than “art?” Probably not. Personally I use the term as a marketing tool; to instill a feeling, or emotion, in the viewer’s mind. Millions of photos are shot every day; almost everyone has a camera on their person at all times. People see hundreds of photos on a daily basis – newspapers, billboards, magazines, etc. A Google search revealed that 350 million photos are uploaded daily to Facebook. Obviously it’s tough to set one’s work apart from the next. So I feel that the term “fine art” helps in that regard.

Historically speaking, photographs were not valued as art by the art world. A slow progression occurred in the later half of the last century. Galleries began to accept the fact that photos can be, and many times are, art. Ansel Adams’s work had a major influence in this transition.

Nathan: I’ve personally spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about where inspiration and creativity come from. Where do you think such things come from and how has your pursuit of photography been influenced and driven by them?

Jan: I have to say, I’ve never really thought about where my inspirations come from, although I often think about my life and how I fit into the world. So in some odd way, maybe the two thoughts converge.

I guess that I’m simply inspired by observing the world around me. In the beginning of my photographic journey, I wanted to photograph the iconic American landscapes. Unfortunately that’s the dream of many photographers. And because of that, those images have become pretty cliche.

I get pumped by looking at what other photographers have done, and continue to do. Additionally, I’m a book junkie; specifically portfolio books. I’m love to pass time looking though the pages of a book. I don’t know if it’s possible to determine how all this affects one’s work. But I would venture to say it has a profound affect on it.

While many of my photo treks have spanned several weeks, I feel that I never spent enough time in any one location to gain an understanding of it – I photographed in haste. In recent years, that has changed. Maybe it’s a natural process of maturing. But I feel more connected to the land since I’ve slowed this process. I simply allow the landscape to communicate what it has to reveal. It’s the beauty of the land that is the ultimate inspiration.

Dune Waves (c) Jan Bell

Dune Waves (c) Jan Bell

Nathan: Do you listen to music while you process your photos?

Jan: In years past, I listened to music all the time. Now I prefer a quiet environment. Our house is adjacent to a nature preserve. So I listen to the sounds coming out of the woods. I love watching birds, and enjoy their melodic songs. When I decide to play tunes, it’s typically quiet material. Ironically I like electronic/techno/house music too … it’s good for mundane tasks such as matting and framing.

Nathan: Why black and white?

As Andri Cauldwell (an American photographer) once stated, “To see in color is a delight for the eye, but to see in black and white is delight for the soul.”

I often equate (some) color landscapes to postcards. While that may be unfair, it’s my emotional response to color. In a world filled with color, and printers capable of printing millions of tones, I often ask myself why I prefer black and white. Black and white heralds back to the very beginning of photography; so in that sense, it’s timeless. I suppose it’s the simplicity of various shades of blacks that appeal to me. It represents the world in a different way than what our eyes see. With a lack of color in an image, it’s imperative that a photographer tells his/her story though composition, textures, movement, light, and most of all emotion.

Nathan: I’d like to hear about how you approach finding the best tone for your images– as well as how you “harness” the contrasts in your images.

Jan: Black and white photos have very few properties that ultimately convey one’s vision. As I said, light, texture, composition come to mind, as well as good subject matter. Generally speaking, I like to shoot in soft light. Under those conditions, the sky becomes an enormous soft box so to speak. I’ve been known to sit out multiple days with blue skies and sunshine while I wait for overcast skies.

Once I return to my studio, I set about creating the mood of a photo. While most landscape photographers use Lightroom, I work solely in Photoshop, using an array of tools. I learned early on to set gray levels. Doing so spreads the tones of an image across all 255 levels of gray. While I use that technique a majority of the time, it doesn’t work for all images.

I’m a heavy user of curves, used in combination with masks, to control tonality in specific areas of an image. Curves allow me to lighten or darken areas within the frame. Essentially I feel as though I’m painting with light. I darken down the edges of the frame most of the time. This tends to draw the eye to the center of the frame.

Eroding Sandstone (c) Jan Bell

Eroding Sandstone (c) Jan Bell

Nathan: What are your thoughts about sharing your images on social media? Do you ever wonder about the value, or lack thereof, of releasing your images into a world of likes and faves?

Jan: If I had a million bucks, I’d hire a marketing firm to do this. But I don’t, nor do I have much interest in making it happen. My website, and a professional Facebook page (as well as a personal page) is my only association with social media. I use Constant Contact as my email marketing platform, sending out offers and alerting my customer base to upcoming shows.

Social media seems like such a momentary affair. All one can hope for is a second or two from most of its viewers. What value should be placed on that? I’ve never had a customer say that they were moved to make a purchase based on the fact that they saw my image on Facebook. That said, I do post new images periodically on Facebook to get the public’s reaction.

Nathan: What are your most favorite places and subjects to photograph? Do you prefer to revisit the same places and subjects or do you prefer looking for new places to explore (or perhaps a little of both)?

Jan: As I said, I love the west, but feel that I’ve only brushed the surface. There’s a vast amount of landscape waiting to be explored. Closer home, I feel an close attachment to Lake Superior. It’s an unspoiled, remote place. Photographing there during off seasons is sheer joy. Last fall I was there the first two weeks of October. I saw only one other person – a backpacker. Pretty amazing, considering it’s a 385,000 acre wilderness.

Nathan: Is there any particular place and / or subject you would lie to visit or pursue?

Jan: The Lofoten Islands in Norway has always been in the back of my head. While I’d love to shoot there, the idea of traveling internationally with gear no longer appeals to me.

Nathan: What do you do when you run out of ideas and inspiration (or do you never run out of ideas and inspiration)?

Jan: It seems that there’s always a transition that takes me off in a new direction. So that hasn’t been a problem thus far. Fingers crossed.

Morning Fog on Rabbit Blanket Pond (c) Jan Bell

Morning Fog on Rabbit Blanket Pond (c) Jan Bell

Nathan: Okay, now for a few informal and fun questions.  What is your favorite word?

Jan: EXPLORE

Nathan: What is your least favorite word?

Jan: CONFORM

Nathan: Coffee or tea? Wine or beer?

Jan: Definitely coffee … big coffee snob. I love coffee, and drink way too much, although my blend is half decaf. We’re fortunate to have a roasting company in our town. Once a month (give or take a few days), I order three pounds of coffee. It’s delivered to the door for a fraction of the cost of retail. I brew a medium/bold cup! Espresso is good, as is a nice capp.

Only IPA beers, especially double or triple IPAs. If I don’t see a good IPA on a menu, I will opt for a glass of water. Other beers just aren’t an option!

Nathan: Off the top of your head, right now, without thinking about it, what is the first image– which is not one of yours– that comes to mind? Why do you think that image was the first one you thought of? What do you like or not like about it?

Jan: Nick Brandt’s photos. But specifically, the photo on the cover of his book “On This Earth, A Shadow Falls.” I have to say, I’ve never been moved by animal photography until I saw Nick’s work. The images aren’t mere snapshots of creatures; they are intimate portraits. I love the tonality, texture, (and often times) the symmetry of the images. This particular image exhibits all of those qualities.  See the image –> click here.

I looked into purchasing one of Nick’s photos; unfortunately they are out of my price range. With that said, my family surprised me with the book “On This Earth, A Shadow Falls” for my last birthday. On more than one occasion I’ve found a quiet corner of my studio and lost myself in the imagery.

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Explore More of Jan’s Work: website | facebook page

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Several Images with Notes from Jan

Distant Island (c) Jan Bell

Distant Island (c) Jan Bell:   This photo exemplifies a fusion of many elements that comprise my work. It was shot at Lake Superior; an area that I feel a personal connection to and have visited for the past three decades. The distant island lures the viewer’s eye into the distance, taking them to a quiet space. Ironically I shot the composition from a different angle, thinking that I didn’t’ want the small island in the frame. What a mistake in thinking that was! I’ve toyed with symmetrical compositions throughout my career as a graphic artist. And this composition is definitely a study in symmetry, although, the foreground adds a hint of asymmetry. Additionally, the foreground rock adds a textural quality to an otherwise soft landscape. This gives the eye something to study, as well as anchoring the photo. A long exposure time renders the water in much the same manner as the clouds. Because of this, there is a blending of the two elements, with no distraction of waves, etc. I’ve darkened the edges of the frame to further draw the eye to the distant island.

 

Joshua Tree (c) Jan Bell: Much like Distant Island, Joshua Tree is a study in symmetry. Here the textures of the joshua tree play against the textures of the distant mountain. But unlike the island in Distant Island, the foreground of this image is where the action takes place. The textures of that (almost) symmetrical tree give the eye a lot to explore. Everything radiates out from the center. Ironically I shot this composition from a lower angle, thinking that I might omit the distant mountain range. And as was the case with Distant Island, I realized that the background element is necessary for spatial interest. I wanted the Joshua tree to ‘pop’ in this photo, so I darkened only the background of the image.

Joshua Tree (c) Jan Bell:  Much like Distant Island, Joshua Tree is a study in symmetry. Here the textures of the Joshua tree play against the textures of the distant mountain. But unlike the island in Distant Island, the foreground of this image is where the action takes place. The textures of that (almost) symmetrical tree give the eye a lot to explore. Everything radiates out from the center.
Ironically I shot this composition from a lower angle, thinking that I might omit the distant mountain range. And as was the case with Distant Island, I realized that the background element is necessary for spatial interest.  I wanted the Joshua tree to ‘pop’ in this photo, so I darkened only the background of the image.

 

Bowling Sand in Dunes: This is an early piece, but one that still captures my eye. It was photographed on my first visit to Death Valley. On that visit I learned quickly about navigating sand dunes. It’s exhausting work, and can be quite challenging to a photographer when the wind is blowing. While I love the ‘thought’ of shooting in Death Valley, it’s an environment that doesn’t necessarily enthrall me while I’m there. But once I’m home, I yearn to return – a strange dichotomy – one that seems to reoccur in various aspects of my life. The photo is a study in curves, textures and light – a simple mix, but one that hopefully conveys a strong statement. The resulting images from my first visit worked well in these dark tones. The backgrounds were darkened to almost a black tone to emphasize the shapes and textures of the dunes. I want nothing to compete with that. Ironically the photos that were taken on subsequent visits were rendered more light in tonality (eg: Quiet Space and Undulating Dunes).

Bowling Sand in Dunes (c) Jan Bell: This is an early piece, but one that still captures my eye. It was photographed on my first visit to Death Valley. On that visit I learned quickly about navigating sand dunes. It’s exhausting work, and can be quite challenging to a photographer when the wind is blowing. While I love the ‘thought’ of shooting in Death Valley, it’s an environment that doesn’t necessarily enthrall me while I’m there. But once I’m home, I yearn to return – a strange dichotomy – one that seems to reoccur in various aspects of my life.
The photo is a study in curves, textures and light – a simple mix, but one that hopefully conveys a strong statement. The resulting images from my first visit worked well in these dark tones. The backgrounds were darkened to almost a black tone to emphasize the shapes and textures of the dunes. I want nothing to compete with that. Ironically the photos that were taken on subsequent visits were rendered more light in tonality (egQuiet Space and Undulating Dunes).

 

Sensual Curves (c) Jan Bell: This image is about texture and design – two of my favorites. Typically I do not photograph on bright sunny days. But since I had hiked for a couple of hours to reach the location with about 28 pounds on my back, I was prepared to make a full day of it. Fortunately the rock in this area was not reflecting any specular highlights (as wet rock does). So I set out to find interesting compositions and enjoy an afternoon of shooting. Going against all convention, this composition divides the frame diagonally from corner to corner; but I feel that it works. There are so many flowing lines that counter the harsh diagonal line. While many photographers think in terms of rules, I do not, although I’m sure that ‘rules’ were implanted in my brain during four years of design training. Regardless, I look at a composition from an aesthetic point of view. I ask myself whether it feels good to me on a gut level? Is it free of unnecessary clutter, etc.? I added a slight vignette to draw the eye into the frame. I darkened down the sky, while masking the rock, so as not to distract from its flowing lines. I love their play of light against dark. The lines lead the viewer’s eye into, and through, the composition. There is no scale or any point of reference for that matter. Therefore the photo is simply a study of texture, form, the play of light, as well as composition.

Sensual Curves (c) Jan Bell: This image is about texture and design – two of my favorites. Typically I do not photograph on bright sunny days. But since I had hiked for a couple of hours to reach the location with about 28 pounds on my back, I was prepared to make a full day of it. Fortunately the rock in this area was not reflecting any specular highlights (as wet rock does). So I set out to find interesting compositions and enjoy an afternoon of shooting. Going against all convention, this composition divides the frame diagonally from corner to corner; but I feel that it works. There are so many flowing lines that counter the harsh diagonal line. While many photographers think in terms of rules, I do not, although I’m sure that ‘rules’ were implanted in my brain during four years of design training. Regardless, I look at a composition from an aesthetic point of view. I ask myself whether it feels good to me on a gut level? Is it free of unnecessary clutter, etc.? I added a slight vignette to draw the eye into the frame. I darkened down the sky, while masking the rock, so as not to distract from its flowing lines. I love their play of light against dark. The lines lead the viewer’s eye into, and through, the composition. There is no scale or any point of reference for that matter. Therefore the photo is simply a study of texture, form, the play of light, as well as composition.

A Gallery of Images

 

Agave (c) Jan BellBunchberry Leaves (c) Jan BellDistant Dunes (c) Jan BellUndulating Dunes (c) Jan BellQuiet Space (c) Jan BellEvening Falls on Superior (c) Jan BellTurbulent River in Narrow Canyon (c) Jan BellDrifting Clouds Over Superior (c) Jan BellLuminous Skies (c) Jan BellFlowing Water (c) Jan BellRocks Extending Seaward (c) Jan BellTwilight at Point Reyes (c) Jan BellFortress (c) Jan BellPassage (c) Jan BellSpiraling Down (c) Jan Bell

All images on this page– unless otherwise noted– are protected by copyright and may not be used  for any purpose without Jan Bell’s permission.
The text on this page is protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without Jan Bell or Nathan Wirth‘s permission