For this week’s edition of The Creative Journey, I’m excited to be featuring Mark Metternich. Mark is a full-time professional photographer based out of the Western United States. His work showcases incredible moments in nature that are captured with an immense amount of skill and creativity. I’ve been following Mark’s work for a number of years now and have always been impressed by his willingness to help teach others and his creative drive. Make sure you check out Mark’s website and Facebook page to keep up to date with his travels and images! I want to say a huge thanks to Mark for taking the time to share his story.
Looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions that you had about being a professional photographer compared to how you view and value it now?
Generally no. By and large, it has been what I imagined it would be. The only thing that may be a little bit different than I expected is that I now realize how hard my greatest mentors—those professionals that inspired me—had to work, and how smart they are. Anyone who follows my work knows that I bring up Marc Adamus a lot in these interviews. Part of his persona has been hidden and there has maybe been a bit of mystery behind the man due to him not participating in social media. But as I have pushed forward as a photographer, adventuring radically, photographing out of my rig almost 300 days a year, dealing with isolation and learning a ton about being a businessman, I have also had the chance to learn and peer into how hard my mentors have had to work to get to where they have gotten!
It’s very apparent that you’ve worked extremely hard to get to where you’re at today. What were some of the early struggles you faced in your career, do they still exist, and how have you managed or dealt with them over the years?
That is a good question. I have gone through severe struggles that have really tested me over the last 13+ years. Many of which most reasonable people would have given up. The first one that comes to mind is poverty. For over half of the years that I was attempting to get my business off the ground, I did what most others have to do and that is to scrape and struggle to financially afford to go out and photograph more and more. I worked two jobs. I worked three jobs. I went through a complete bankruptcy. I lost all my camera gear in the bankruptcy. I went through times where my wife lost her job. I lost everything I owned including my house, condo, and RV! That same year I even lost my beloved dog to a tragedy, and my wife left me for six months! Now, I know to keep a positive image of success we are not supposed to tell people about these tough and sometimes harsh realities; in life, and also in business, we are told to only put our best foot forward, exemplifying the image of super success. But I esteem transparency and being a more “salt of the earth” type of person, so I don’t mind talking about it, especially if it encourages someone else! I have always related to the sort of “blood and guts” approach to passion; a sort of blue collar, underdog, relentless determination type of approach. And if people do not know what pains, losses, and struggles one have gone through to get to where they are, then this dogged determination really makes no sense.
You mentioned in a previous interview that after a recent divorce, photography was your relief from the pain of loneliness. This lead to you spending over 7 months on the road in 2015, photographing and teaching while living out of your car. Did you ever imagine that photography would play such an important role in your life in helping you overcome difficult times?
Actually no. Prior to these big losses, setbacks, and tragedies I was an optimist and actually esteemed being one. Today, I am not an optimist nor a pessimist. Maturity and wisdom have taught me to be a realist! I never saw these big hits coming and never saw myself escaping to nature for a time of personal healing and coping. I always saw myself married to my wife forever and everything moving onward and upward. I always saw my dog alive and eventually dying of old age.
I hoped for easy, even miraculous opportunities to open wide for me. But those things, as optimal as they were in my head, were simply not a reality of human living.
And when harsh realities hit anyone, a person can be disillusioned for a little while, until they get their grounding back. My grounding is my personal faith in God. No matter what the world tells me, no matter what I tell myself, I believe in a certain positivity of a preferred future. I know I’m being a little bit vague here but I believe some people may understand what I am referring to. No matter what happens, all will be well.
Has that, or any other experience over the years changed the way that you value photography?
Honestly, I don’t think so. My dad—an avid alpinist mountaineer and nature advocate who is also a man of faith—instilled in me a profound appreciation and sheer awe for the beauty of creation from a very young age. I know different people may have different interpretations of what it all means, but for me, this beauty I’m referring to has always had a profound influence on every aspect of my life. In fact, if I never pick up the camera again, my relationship to nature, in terms of how it affects my life, will never change. I believe it sings a song—a love song even—that all but the most hardened can hear. Most hear it, but not everyone understands what it sings. And I believe if we are privileged enough get healed and humbled and become more like children, and potentially grow younger of heart, it (the song of nature) has the potential of speaking to us in profound ways.
Inconsistency and self-doubt seem to be two of the biggest roadblocks 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 both creative and emotional drive?
Honestly, I have had no problem with consistency because my passion for landscape photography has been so immense from the get-go. In fact, I’ve seen many people come and go over the years—sort of “flash in the pans”—and as I have watched this, I have always had the attitude that I did not want that quick type of “glory” for myself. I would much rather push forward with a “steady on” approach. Another way to put it would be much like the tortoise versus the hare story. The only inconsistency that I have struggled with has been forcing myself to do those things that I don’t want to do.
If anyone is going to work for themselves they have to train themselves to embrace the things that they least want to do, in the list of things they need to do!
I would not say I have been grossly inconsistent in doing the things I don’t want to do, but I’m human and struggle is inherent in our experience. So, just like anyone, I’ve had to force myself to do certain things. I always quote Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on this. He bluntly says: “Embrace the grind, lower your shoulder, keep pushing though that mutherfuc*er, change will come!” That mantra is literally written on my wall in my office, bedroom, and bathroom!
When it comes to self-doubt, I may contradict myself here. When I started photography, I had none. Maybe I should have? And maybe a few people thought of me to be arrogant in my natural belief in myself or mistook my passion and excitement for ego. For many years, I have strongly believed that I have been doing something that is rooted in my natural gifting in this world. In other words, as one great spiritual mentor of mine once said: “God has given everyone something they can do, that no one else can do, and he has left NO ONE out!” I believe photography to be one of those natural giftings I have been given to further my life.
But having said that, I have also had ample self-doubt in my internal dialogue almost daily, in respect of actually being able to continue to make a growing living for my future. To a large degree, I think this goes with the territory of doing art for a living and not knowing where the market is heading. There is simply an inherent instability in this career. I have had many dark nights of the soul, and I am sure that I will continue to have them occasionally, but as I work hard and get smarter slowly, and as I recognize how personal insecurity can affect my personality, I believe I will continue to develop a maturity in confidence. In other words, you don’t really know how it’s going to work until you do it for a while, and eventually, you learn that you can do it if you work hard enough and smart enough.
How do you push through the periods of time where you’re lacking both creative and emotional drive?
That is a difficult question. Again referring back to Marc Adamus, I remember on a certain photography forum him talking about something to the extent of sometimes having difficult years for creative inspiration. At the time, I didn’t know what that meant as I was always passionately inspired. But sometimes, the sheer volume of work, and constantly flirting with burnout and physical fatigue, massive traveling, too much isolation, coupled with personal grief and other challenges, can affect your creativity. Sometimes I’ve wondered if others have struggled with this. I remember talking to my friend (and awesome photographer) Ryan Dyar about this and his answer was “all the time!” 🙂 Maybe I misinterpreted what he was telling me but I believe what he was saying was that he also struggled with a lack of inspiration or even laziness often. When I heard that, it made me realize that it is normal. We need to do everything we can to protect ourselves in our environments to foster creativity, but sometimes it just may not be there. In those times, it may be a good idea to simply take a break from being too hard on oneself. Every time I have taken a break, even a short one, I have come back with a fury of passion and creativity. So, if I were to guess, I probably don’t struggle as much as some others do in this area.
It’s easy to look at other photographers who are successful or popular and think that everything came easy for them, when really, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
That is for sure! And we cannot know the cost until we walk that road for some real length of time.
What is one failure or major challenge you’ve had in your professional career, and how important do you think they’ve been when it comes to growth?
I can think of many failures! I think my first failure was over aggressive competitiveness. I am by nature a fighter or warrior type of personality—I probably would’ve made a great athlete—so I came out of the gate swinging, and I certainly made some gross mistakes along the way. I continue to make mistakes but today I usually catch them faster than before. One thing that was really important for me to learn, and I now know this at a gut level, is that I am not competing with anyone, period, end of story! The only person I am competing with, and should be competing with, is myself.
What I have learned, especially in the last five or six years, is a biblical concept “give and you will receive.” What I’m getting at is that being friends with and generous to others is always the superior way. I have never been much for politics, but I now believe the more we genuinely give to others the better every aspect of our lives become. As an example, if I feel competitive with another photographer and I’m always trying to outdo them, they will likely pick up on that and it is doubtful that they will ever want to be an encouragement for help to myself. But if I have a more generous giving spirit, genuinely like other people, and don’t let competitiveness get in the way, that opens up the doors to many important opportunities. As one literal example, Marc Adamus has been very generous to me over the years in terms of referring people to my services. I know that I was trying to be competitive with his work on certain forums over the years, and I am glad he did not judge me for my over-aggressiveness when he very well could have. And some people will. Today in my business I often get clients who say they were referred to me by Mark and that he “speaks highly of me.” So you see, just this one example of many I could mention has taught me not to compete with other photographers but just be competitive with myself. Because honestly, we are all in this together and there is more than enough room for all of us to do well.
Nowadays, social media and 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’s important for people to embrace their own creative vision, even if it may not be what’s most popular to the general public?
That is such a good question and I probably have feelings that are too strong on the matter. And I may error on those feelings. To me, this thirst for attention is sometimes a bit nauseating. I mean really, very few people actually do this professionally, so sometimes I cannot understand why some people work so desperately hard for something as mere as attention! I actually feel uncomfortable with attention most of the time. But if you look at my online persona it may very well not look that way. The reason is, publicity (or public attention) is what pays my bills and allows me to eat. It is the very foundation of my business. So, for the professional, it is a necessary evil if you will. I have to embrace it, but I do not feed off of it, and if I knew a way to continue making a living and avoid it I would.
As far as letting it drive our photography, I also see too many people allowing that. There are many fads that I could have jumped on and ridden hard but I just could not get my heart to compromise what my true passions have been. I know that if I had ridden, or was willing to ride those fads in landscape photography like some others do, I very likely would have benefited financially from them, as much as others have. But in a loose interpretation, that saying in the Bible “what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world yet lose their soul” comes to mind. I don’t see it as a black-and-white thing; I see it as small compromises eating away at the integrity of our spirit. Again, everyone has to do their own self-evaluation so I’m not talking about this judgmentally or judging any specific photographers—their life is theirs and mine is mine. But very early on, before anyone was getting popular for specific fads, like hyper milky way shots, including a human figure in a photo, photographing specific shots that other photographers had made popular, or faking skies and pawning them off as reality, for the very most part I have avoided these. I don’t know why, but I generally utterly disdain fads.
I believe the reason I have been able to avoid most of this is because of something Ken Duncan (Australia’s premier panorama landscape photographer) taught me many years ago. He said, “good art always sells!” I believe that integrity in art will always have a market. One time I asked legendary photographer Christopher Burkett (who has sold his photos for over $10,000 a piece) about marketing. His reply shocked me! He said, “I really don’t know much about marketing. I’ve always just let my photos speak for themselves.” This is a guy who just did what he did with as much integrity as he could possibly muster (legendary integrity) and people simply see that in his work.
Was there a point earlier in your career where you felt like you weren’t completely confident or sure about your creative direction? If so, is that something that you think will constantly change throughout your career?
The short answer is no. I have always been a little bit obsessed with things and for the most part that near obsession has driven my creativity even up until this point. A lot of people ask me why I don’t have more mountains in my portfolio or why I don’t have this or that in my portfolio… the answer is: because, for the most part, I just let the things that really grab a hold of my heart lead and drive me to photograph. It’s rare for me to go out and get a photograph that I am taking only because I know other people will like it. Trust me, I do not believe that is a bad thing to do. I esteem service to humanity as one of the highest things we can ever do as human beings. So if we do something for other people, there is certainly nothing wrong with that, especially if it is in the spirit; a genuine service is always right in my eyes. If I can take a photo that will bless other people, and forget myself and desires, that selflessness is a good thing in my opinion. But so far in my career I’ve been able to focus on what interests my heart the most and I have let that drive the vast majority of my work.
Many of your images are of amazing, sometimes hard to reach locations, with dramatic light and dynamic weather. They’re images that immediately impress, yet possess an incredible amount of depth and subtitles. What do you think influenced your direction in regards to the creative approach you take with your images?
Maybe having a few screws loose! LOL. But more seriously, I would say mainly my influences. And also, again, going into my competitiveness and sometimes letting the industry influence me a little bit. But more so, I would say the excitement and sort of “thrill of the chase.” Speaking about my influences, I have always been consistently looking at other people’s work and for whatever reason, certain images speak to me on the subconscious level. I think I love to experience the power and awesomeness of the forces of nature which I see more often in the dramatic but also sometimes in the subtle. Honestly, that is a very tough question to answer. Part of it is a mystery to me.
As an outdoor photographer, what are some of the ways that 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?
This is another great question and something that we struggle with all the time as photographers, especially ones who are trying to make a living with their art. I just posted a small video clip about it on my Facebook page. We can get so preoccupied trying to get the photo that we become oblivious to the experience of the wonder of nature all around us; the very thing that drove me to become a photographer in the first place. I think that the process does kill the experience quite often when we’re super determined and focused on getting photos. So, very simply, I just have to remind myself to stop and look sometimes. Or maybe go out without the camera from time to time. I’ve noticed this on all of my workshops with clients; some are so preoccupied with taking photos that they don’t stop and actually look, observe, and deeply appreciate their surroundings. I always try to teach others to stop and just look for a while. My dad said the same thing when he was a mountain climbing guide. “Peak baggers” he calls them. For us, “photo baggers.”
I know I’m answering the second question first and the first question last, but as far as how the connection with the wilderness influences the decisions I make while creating my images, this is not something I analyze. I just go out and shoot, and I think sometimes you end up developing a confidence to do so by just roaming around with your camera in hand, and an LCD for feedback; just exploring like a kid in a candy store. Explore, explore, explore! Whatever fascinates the individual will lead them. It always amazes me on my workshops how all my clients will see things so very differently, and most of the time they’re things that no one else will see.
It’s quite obvious that you enjoy teaching others and currently do so through online training, video tutorials, and location workshops. Where did this interest in helping people come from and how important do you think it is that photographers support each other as much as possible?
Honestly, I think I was a natural born teacher. I have this picture that is usually on the wall behind my computer of myself when I was about six years old teaching my brother who was about three years old how to properly pet a goat! LOL. You can see in the photo how I am correcting him and showing him how it needs to be done properly! LOL. Maybe someone told me at a very young age there was a proper way to do things? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just genetic. But as I’ve learned things that I’ve been excited about in my life, I have always enjoyed sharing and teaching them. That is what teaching really is.
In my teens and early twenties, I loved fitness, nutrition, and bodybuilding. I was working a boring blue-collar job and was encouraged by my girlfriend at the time to become a personal trainer. This was a big jump for me. I was quite nervous about that prospect, but I knew I could make good money and have a very flexible schedule, so, I took the job and very quickly I realized it was easy to teach. Fitness was something that I was passionate about, studied hard, and loved. So, when I began to get serious about photography and started showing my work online, people immediately began to email me asking if I would be willing to take them out and show them how to do what I do. It amazed me that people would want to give me money to do this! At first, I worried a little bit about ruining the enjoyment of photographing by turning it into a profession. But as I began to do workshops and offer teaching services, I found out that this passion had a very high threshold for burnout resistance!
As far as the importance of supporting each other as photographers, I am now at a place in my life where this is an extremely important thing to me. As I mentioned earlier in this interview, I believe in generosity and a giving spirit. I know other photographers believe that, but I also see a lot of them struggling with it. I am often generous to other photographers who are not, or never will be generous to me. I often make mention of photographers and their services or hit the “like” button on their photos in certain social media circles, and it never becomes reciprocal! But that is totally okay with me. I don’t do it to get anything from them, I do it because it is simply right. They are on their own learning and growth curve, so I do not judge the people that don’t do the same for me. I believe in the ancient adage, “give and you will receive.” It is simply a superior ethic.
The fact is, it’s not what we get in life, it is what we give that will really matter in the end!
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?
Man, that’s a tough question, and this is the deepest interview that I have ever done! You’re really making me have to think here.
I love to travel, I love people, and I love nature. So, my job is traveling, seeing ridiculous amounts of beauty that most people in the world will never see, and meeting all kinds of amazing people, many of which have become great friends. I also love how this has dramatically expanded my overall worldview. To name some places I have been to for photography: Australia, Canada, Africa, Egypt, Israel, Argentina, Chile, and all over the great United States. This has had a natural effect on the development of my understanding of the world and it has also changed my personality.
It’s funny, I left home after high school and never came back (I’m talking about where I was raised), but at the moment, now 20 years later, I am living here temporarily. It amazes me when I run into some of my old friends, how many of them are almost identical to who they were in high school. I’m not judging them for the simple life, in fact, that kind of life has great benefits, but I do not relate to it. I barely resemble who I was in high school, and I’m very glad for that. I have a very expanded worldview. I also have a developed spirituality that has come from seeing a larger portion of the world and humanity. Those are some very incredible benefits that come from being a photographer / guide and a very good reason why I will keep working hard to continue to be one. I appreciate the question allowing me to reflect and remember the benefits that sometimes I can take for granted.
Pursuing a passion can easily consume a person, leaving them feeling like there are not 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?
Honestly, to a large degree, but not completely, I lack balance (I chuckle as a make that statement!). I have been asked the following question by several upcoming professional photographers: “How have you made a living in a career that most people cannot?” My reply has often been “I over work!” Sorry, but it just comes with the territory. When I was married, I worked very hard to create a balance with all of my responsibilities, and at that time, I worked more in the area of teaching Skype online instruction and Video Tutorials so I could be home a lot. Some could assume that my career may have been to blame for my divorce, but I don’t believe so. When I found myself in that situation, I had to adapt, learn, and grow. Because my heart was so broken (and is still in the process of healing) I simply embraced the work I am passionate about with an extra fervor. That has been helpful for me.
Currently, I do not have a dog (living with me), I do not have kids, and I do not have a wife. I’m 48 years old and am living by the decisions I have made. I’m in a position where I have to fully embrace my work for my life to move forward. But having said that, my long stretches of living in isolation have been sometimes very painful for me, so I have come to have a heightened appreciation for every one of my friends, family, and most social occasions. Even though my life may be a bit imbalanced with the demands of my business, the benefit that I get out of it is a much-heightened appreciation or gratitude for the simple things, like relationships, that previously I may have taken for granted.
To be honest, I’m not convinced that a perfectly balanced life is possible with this career, and anyone reading this interview that may be considering a career as a landscape photographer needs to weigh this truth carefully.
A very smart man in history once taught that it was folly to build a house without first counting the cost, or to put oneself to the plow, but then look back.
What is the best advice you can give anyone looking to pursue photography full time?
I will say the same thing I tell everyone who inquires of me about this question. You better have an iron clad dogged determination, relentless work ethic, real passion, and a long haul mentality; a really long haul mentality to your overall approach because most often your goals will not be achieved in the time frames that you think you might be able to achieve them and the mountain will likely be a lot taller and a lot bigger than you initially imagined it to be! So that person needs to dig really deep and see if they have it because it is not all fun and games.
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?
Well, it may be very difficult to get him but I always loved interviews with Mark Adamus. No one I am aware of today more embodies the relentless dogged determination and pioneering in this genre. Aside from him, some of my favorite photographers, in no particular order would be:
Ryan Dyar, Alex Noriega, Ted Gore, Erin Babnik, Mike Anderson, Alexandre Deschaumes, Ken Duncan… Tell them I sent you! 🙂