For this week’s instalment of “The Creative Journey”, I’m excited to feature Erin Babnik. Erin is a full-time landscape photographer with home bases in both California and Slovenia. I’ve always been drawn to the connection, passion, and depth Erin displays in her images and writing. On top of her impressive imagery, she also teaches photography workshops and is a member of the Photo Cascadia team. Make sure you visit Erin’s website and Facebook page to view more of her work!
It’s clear that you approach your photography career with a very passionate and energetic drive, splitting time between two continents and constantly exploring amazing areas in the wilderness. Looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions you had about pursuing photography full-time compared to how you view and value it now?
Probably the biggest misconception I had was that being a full-time landscape photographer would allow me to focus more on creative growth. While previously I had been a working photographer for many years, photography was then a secondary source of income, which gave me a lot of creative freedom. These days, as a full-time photographer, I have a huge range of responsibilities and concerns that threaten to distract me and to lure me in directions that run against the grain of my creative inclinations. I will never be the type of photographer who can put business first and be happy with creative compromise, so I am constantly making financially imprudent decisions in an effort to retain artistic integrity—the stereotypical artist dilemma, of course. While that approach may sound noble, it’s actually highly stressful and precarious. When artistic inclinations are at odds with sustaining a business, the looming threat is having to throw in the towel and give up the dream. So far I’m balancing it all well enough, but I definitely underestimated the pressures that business concerns would introduce into my life. I think it is that passion and energy that you mention that keeps me going and determined to make it all work somehow.
What were some of the early struggles you faced in your career, do they still exist today, and how have you managed or dealt with them over the years?
There are two areas of concern that have always existed for me in my career as a landscape photographer, and they probably always will to some extent. Those are the problems of balancing quality against quantity in my output and of having an emphasis that largely excludes popular views of accessible locations. These issues have been both a boon and a detriment to my career.
To be more specific, I have what may be the smallest portfolio of any photographer who has ever enjoyed the kind of success that I have. I released six photos in 2014, seven in 2015, and am unlikely to have more than a dozen released this year. This low output is due in part to a certain stubbornness in my photographic style, which tends to involve an especially deliberate and selective approach in the field, combined with a similar approach to post-processing. Compounding matters is my history of having spent inordinate amounts of time exploring relatively remote locations and looking for scenes that could speak to me on a personal level, free from the baggage that tends to come with famous views. These explorations typically involve a lot of research time, a lot of travel, and a lot of time out hiking. While I love the process of exploration and discovery, it is not the most productive use of time photographically.
Nonetheless, my tiny portfolio has served me remarkably well for its size, probably because of the distinctiveness that resulted from these unusual tendencies. The downside is that I could have much greater reach on social media if I had more ‘content’ and that limitation may be costing me some professional opportunities.
Inconsistency and self-doubt seem to be two of the biggest road blocks stopping people from reaching their true potential. Have you ever suffered from those, and if so, how do you push through the periods of time where you’re lacking creative or emotional drive?
Oh, absolutely, I do wrangle with those problems, to the extent that they seem almost cyclical. The one constant about creativity is its spasmodic nature, at least for me. It comes in fits and starts, and its peaks do not always coincide with opportunities to cast all else aside and make the most of them. Sometimes I will feel incredibly inspired, full of ideas and energy, eager to get to work on something, but I’ll be stuck in a car on a long drive or in some such limiting situation. Then other times I will have a nice block of time for image processing or for writing, and I will feel mentally drained and completely at sea with my ideas.
I have found that there are only three ways to move forward when I’m in creative limbo: take baby steps towards inertia, switch my focus from output to input, or else take a break.
Sometimes I have success with the strategy of doing something very small, anything at all, to move forward on a creative project. If I can get warmed up, pave the way to the next stage by doing something playful or by doing some of the grunt work first, then usually I can get some inertia going. If that approach fails, then I might try feeding my head for a while: do some reading, look at art, listen to podcasts, etc. If the sparks of creativity are still not flying, then it’s time to do something else: get some exercise, do some mindless work, or just recreate. Sometimes the mind simply needs to shut off for a while and regain its strength.
Your images display a very confident and refined style. At this point in your career, how satisfied are you with your creative vision and is it something that you think will change over the years?
I am enjoying a strong sense of self in my creative process these days. I know what I like and feel pretty well directed by my own sensibilities, to the point where it causes me some internal struggle because I see myself drifting towards more personally indulgent images. I know very well how to produce photographs with popular appeal, images that are charming, inviting, relatable, immersive, and punchy. I certainly have created my share of images along those lines, but a lot of my recent work presents scenes that speak quietly, are somewhat esoteric, or that may even seem a bit foreboding: sandstorms, blizzards, barren high alpine environments, alien desert landscapes, etc. They tend to be fairly ambitious undertakings too, both difficult to shoot and to process, so it’s not like I’m taking the path of least resistance and trying to convince myself that it’s a creative direction—far from it. It may not be the most marketable approach, but what I’m doing brings me a lot of personal satisfaction, so I’ll probably keep on doing it.
As an outdoor photographer, what are some of the ways that your connection with the wilderness influences the decisions you make while creating your images? How do you make sure that the process doesn’t kill the experience?
Oddly enough, that is one problem that I do not seem to have for the most part. If anything, I have the reverse problem, where my connection with the wilderness interferes with the photography process, not the other way around. I have a strong explorational drive that really comes out in me when I’m in nature, and it sometimes compels me to wander off into areas that fascinate me for reasons that are not necessarily aesthetic. Occasionally one of these detours pays off with a fortunate discovery and a good photograph, but very often it just costs me time that I could have spent more productively. I’m not entirely immune to having my outdoor experiences compromised, however; it is becoming more rare, but sometimes I do have some very high expectations crushed by unfortunate conditions. When that happens, I just remind myself that creativity is a playful process and that I need to switch off the expectations and remember to play.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your images of the wilderness? Or in other words, why do you create?
I’m fascinated by the capacity of images to be contemplative and conversational, to indicate something profound and yet nebulous. I don’t claim that my photographs always rise to that level, but where they seem to come close is where I get excited.
The wilderness to me is an especially expressive place because its abstract qualities give it a certain metaphorical power.
Natural elements can suggest a huge variety of human conditions, interactions, and emotions, all with a wonderful open-ended-ness. In that regard, pictures can be a lot like poetry, allowing me to express myself without having to be declarative about it. So essentially my photographs are attempts to communicate, and nature provides me with a beautiful vocabulary of sorts.
Your images showcase a wide range of diverse locations from multiple continents. At the time of this interview, you mentioned to me that you’re travelling to Italy for the summer to lead workshops. What motivates you to explore new areas and has travelling affected how you approach your craft?
I have never known any other kind of lifestyle; traveling a lot and exploring new areas is just the way that life has always been for me. My father’s career brought my family to a new city almost every year of my childhood until I was in the fourth grade. Then we moved again right before I graduated from high school, and I have since lived in another dozen cities in three states and two countries. Consequently, new areas to me are like boxes are to cats—I have an almost instinctual urge to get in there and check it out. The effect that this lifestyle has on my photography is quite pronounced, as I tend to feature views and locations that are not familiar to most people, and I often struggle to find my voice when I’m faced with a view that I didn’t discover through my own explorations.
Last year you were named to the Photo Cascadia team. How big of an influence are your peers when it comes to inspiration and creative drive. Do you find that your style and vision have ever been influenced by other people’s work?
Being invited to the Photo Cascadia team has been the highlight of my career so far. The other team members were my photographic heroes from the very beginning of my specialization in landscape photography, so they have provided me with a lot of inspiration and motivation over the years. I don’t think of it as “influence” in the literal sense of that word, however. I recently wrote an article about this topic in which I invoked art historian Michael Baxandall, quoting his ideas in an effort to explain the difference between the concepts of influence and inspiration: basically, that one implies a lack of choice, while the other acknowledges the accumulative nature of creativity. In short, no artist exists in a vacuum, and we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Ultimately, personal style and vision develop out of a process of absorbing and responding to sources of inspiration, so I think it is important to embrace these sources wholeheartedly.
Nowadays, social media is without a doubt the platform that most photographers share their work on. Unfortunately, it seems like the desire for acceptance and recognition can have such a huge impact on photographers and the direction they take while creating their images. What are your thoughts on authenticity and do you think it is important for people to embrace their own creative vision?
My answer to this question relates closely to the last one. Yes, I think that it is very important for artists to embrace their own creative vision, and it is also important to embrace sources of inspiration, as opposed to thinking of them as contaminants in the creative process. There is no such thing as purity in art, and anyone who obsesses over the idea of ‘uniqueness’ is placing the emphasis on what to avoid (namely, everything that has already been done) rather than on what to pursue.
Therefore, social media and the trends that it engenders can be good for artistic development. Some photographers will closely copy other photographer’s images because they saw them on social media and were inspired by them, but those who are really committed to their art will internalize those sources and build upon them as they move forward. Where social media really becomes a problem is when it convinces people that their work has little value simply because they are not getting as much validation as other photographers are.
Success on social media comes from a variety of factors, many of which have nothing whatever to do with creative merit, so it can be quite frustrating and demoralizing for artists.
Nobody produces their best work when they are convinced that they’re incapable of it, which I see as a much bigger problem than the effects of overwhelming inspiration that might lead to derivative photographs.
What is the biggest leap outside of your comfort zone you’ve ever taken, and how do you push yourself to consistently move forward both creatively and in business?
I suppose that the biggest leap that I’ve made outside my comfort zone was when I attended the PhotoPlus Expo last year. The idea of venturing into a situation that was pure business networking was completely foreign to me, and I did it only because I thought of it as eating my vegetables—something that I really ought to do, even though I wouldn’t enjoy it. To my surprise, it turned out to be a huge amount of fun in addition to being a very worthwhile expense of time for my business interests.
That experience is related to my approach to pushing myself forward creatively and in business—through a commitment to the idea of synergy. Interacting with and collaborating with other photographers has been immensely helpful to my creative development and to growing my business. My involvement with the Photo Cascadia team is a perfect example, but also my habit of working with co-leaders for teaching workshops. It’s a strength-in-numbers approach that keeps me feeling more connected and creative by preventing the stagnation that can come from too much isolation.
It’s often easy for people to get tunnel vision when it comes to photography and the pursuit of becoming “successful”. Unfortunately, this can often lead to them ignoring all of the other amazing benefits that come from being a photographer. If you had to pick one thing that photography has provided you with that you consider the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
The greatest reward for me is having an outlet for combining everything that I most love to do. This profession is the complete package for me, allowing me to be creative, to spend quality time in nature, to teach what I love, to travel a lot, to meet interesting people, and to write about it all. No single one of these benefits would be wholly satisfying on its own, but having them all knit together in my life is immensely rewarding.
Pursuing a passion can easily consume a person, leaving them feeling like they don’t have enough hours in a day to accomplish their next goal. How do you balance your photography career with the other areas of your life and how important is that balance?
I wish I could say that I have a good answer to the problem of finding balance. Landscape photography is a very time-consuming occupation, requiring a lot of travel and long days in the office between trips. I spend more time traveling than I spend at home each year, and I rarely take time out for activities that have nothing to do with photography. Even when I try to take some time off, I find it difficult to switch off both my phone and my thoughts about work. One of my few purely recreational outlets is sailing, and even when I’m out enjoying a great day under sail, I’m frequently jotting down ideas for articles or photos as they come to me, answering messages, and taking calls. Nonetheless, I truly do enjoy my work, at least the parts of it that are creative or exciting, so the imbalance isn’t all bad.
Here at Image & Rhythm, we’re all about showcasing like-minded people with the goal of inspiring others to chase their dreams and become more successful photographers. Who would you like to see us interview next and why?
I can think of a lot of photographers who are doing inspiring work and are quite successful, but one in particular comes to mind who really seems to have figured out how to achieve a good level of balance in his life, and that would be Sean Bagshaw. He really serves as a role model to me in this regard because he somehow manages to be very productive, to stay his own course, and to have a rewarding and successful career plus a happy family life. And above all, he has one of the most infectiously positive attitudes of anyone I know, which may in fact be one of his secrets to success.