Arts & Tradition

Wilderness Photographer Creates Rather Than Captures a Sense of Place

An interview with photographer Erin Babnik
BY Deena C. Bouknight TIMEJuly 20, 2022 PRINT

Writer Henry David Thoreau said, “We can never have enough of nature,” and landscape photographer Erin Babnik delivers on that sentiment through her painstakingly captured images.

Babnik hails from California, but she and her camera equipment travel all over the United States and the world with the goal of recording every jot and tittle of natural scenes through photography.

In fact, Babnik’s landscape photography is distinguished by the sensory qualities it exudes. In one of her online portfolios, “Feelings,” we can certainly “feel” the dry heat in the close-up image of parched, cracked land.

photo of death valley
“Enigma,” 2017, by Erin Babnik. Photo taken in Death Valley National Park, California. (Courtesy of Erin Babnik)

In one of her shots from a different online portfolio, “Moving,” water pours over a forest’s wide falls and rushes toward the viewer in an ethereal stream.

Photo in the French Alps
“Sweet Emotion,” 2016, by Erin Babnik. Photo taken in the French Alps. (Courtesy of Erin Babnik)

Though Babnik cannot pinpoint an absolute favorite photograph, she does acknowledge that she never feels more creative than when she’s photographing “atmospheric mountain scenes. There is something about mist and low clouds mingling with craggy peaks that makes me exceedingly happy to be behind a camera,” she shared by phone.

Photo in the Italian Dolomites
“Blockbuster,” 2018, by Erin Babnik. Photo taken in the Italian Dolomites. (Courtesy of Erin Babnik)

Trained as a Fine Artist

Babnik approaches photography from an artist’s perspective. She has a doctoral education in art history from the University of California at Berkeley, but her dedication to photography grew from her need to photograph ruins at archaeological sites and artwork in museums for the purposes of teaching and research.

While she had experimented with photography creatively as an undergraduate art student, full immersion into the art came when she began moonlighting—while working on her doctorate—as an assignment photographer. She then transitioned into wilderness and landscape photography.

At first, she didn’t see the connection between photography and creating art.

“I had a real aha moment the first time that I experimented with a long exposure and realized that photography could be more about creating an image than ‘capturing’ some objective reality. … Suddenly, I saw the potential for photographs to be more than redundant renderings, imperfect records, or cheap souvenirs. Once I understood that cameras are tools of an artistic medium, I wanted nothing more than to dedicate myself to that outlet for creative expression.”

Thus, she eventually was able to combine her artistic bent with her passion for art photography into a full-time profession. She is now a photographer with Canon’s Explorer of Light program for talented creative artists.

Inspired by Traditional Art

Babnik is regularly inspired by her art history foundation. She notes,

“Art history instilled in me a tendency toward interpretation that makes me see stories and metaphors in the landscapes that I photograph, and that tendency constantly helps me to make decisions in everything from composition to post-processing.

Indeed, some of the “Personal Favorites” on her website beg for a narrative: A seemingly layered wintry wonderland with a stream in the foreground is edged by towering snow-laden fir trees and a backdrop of white-capped, jagged peaks. Or, lilac-hued flowering vines sprout from a windswept desert.

Photo in the Dolomites of Italy in snow
“Grand Opening,” 2018, by Erin Babnik. Photo taken in the Dolomites, Italy. (Courtesy of Erin Babnik)
Epoch Times Photo
“Arrow Dynamic,” 2018, by Erin Babnik. Photo taken in Death Valley National Park. (Courtesy of Erin Babnik)

In addition to the metaphoric and narrative elements influencing her, the subject of her dissertation was Hellenistic sculpture, and therefore she tends “to see every tree, mountain, or plant as some kind of abstract sculpture in dialogue with its surroundings.”

Also contributing to Babnik’s ability for achieving striking images are her inquisitiveness, confidence, and acute awareness. And she’s willing to experiment and take the time to get the photo just right:

“I’m … quite compulsive about craftsmanship, which sometimes works against me in limiting my output, but erring on the side of quality over quantity has probably done me more good than harm over the years.”

The Challenges and Exhilaration of Nature

Babnik believes that being in nature benefits her in every way. There is the physical exercise as well as nourishment to her psyche that the outdoors provides. These bring her to “a level of emotional and spiritual clarity that is hard to engender any other way.”

Into that mix, photography “brings about the highest levels of concentration and joy for me.” The vaster and more majestic, the more freeing, she said.

Because she loves to photograph remote spots, she often must put in a great amount of effort to even reach a desired destination. Sometimes she has to hike for many miles or use skis or snowshoes to reach an intended destination.

“Very often, I have to hike steep ascents for days with a heavy pack, snowshoe in the dark, or endure seemingly endless ruts on rough dirt roads. On one occasion in the American Southwest, I ended up sloshing 10 miles through frigid water in a river canyon all for one photograph of dried mud that spanned only a few feet along the canyon wall.”

These places far off the beaten path can present unique challenges. In fact, an impromptu rescue effort during a photography session in the Dolomites, which are in the Italian Alps, prompted her to pursue certification as a Wilderness First Responder.

Cries for help made her scramble to where she could see “two shadowy figures in the distance hobbling across a mountain saddle,” she said.

“Upon reaching them, it became clear that one was very badly injured with numerous deep lacerations and two broken limbs. Since it was a stormy evening, there were no other people around at first, so I led the rescue effort. I had no medical training at the time, which made me feel quite anxious during the entire experience.”

She then decided she needed to be prepared “both practically and mentally” in case anything happened to her or anyone accompanying her, or anyone she might come in contact with, while out of range of cell service and emergency services.

Epoch Times Photo
Photographer Erin Babnik. (Head Shot Studio)

A Positive Effect on the World

Babnik shares her academic teaching skills by offering intense photography workshops worldwide. With an office in Slovenia as well as in California, she spends as much time teaching photography as she does taking photographs.

Teaching is highly rewarding as she hopes to encourage students to find their own joy in the work.

“It may sound a bit grandiose, but I gain a lot from the feeling that I’m having some kind of positive knock-on effect in the world. Helping other people to bring out their best creative self is endlessly rewarding, not only as they produce compelling photographs, but also as they quite noticeably exude enthusiasm and inspiration with each small discovery or breakthrough.”

In an interview as CaptureLandscape’s 2019 Photographer of the Year, Babnik explained that the time she spends in the field is undeniably valuable for teaching. Besides classic lecture-style, PowerPoint instruction, she regularly leads workshop students into remote wilderness area and teaches “adventure style.” This approach may involve strenuous hiking, tent or hut accommodations, early pre-sunrise equipment setups, and even stormy weather observations.

She further acknowledges that taking workshop students into the wilds of an area, maybe for the first time in their lives, can deepen their regard and respect for the outdoors. Spending so much time in nature certainly has had that effect on her.

A 30-plus-year writer/journalist, Deena C. Bouknight works from her Western North Carolina mountain cottage and has contributed articles on food culture, travel, people, and more to local, regional, national, and international publications. She has written three novels, including the only historical fiction about the East Coast’s worst earthquake. Her website is DeenaBouknightWriting.com
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