Spring is coming! In honor of warmer weather, budding trees, and blossoming flowers, we hope you’ll enjoy these stunning photographs, taken by master photographer Allen Rokach.
Allen visited the Clark last summer to lead a workshop focusing on nature photography. His photographs (and the photographs of the workshop participants) were so beautiful that we reconnected with Allen for this special interview, in which he talks about everything from Egyptian antiquities to wildflowers to geology—and shares his secrets to creating stunning photography.
THE CLARK: How did you get your start as a photographer?
ALLEN ROKACH: I began taking photographs some forty years ago while working as a geologist. My photos then were strictly functional, though I always enjoyed being in some of the beautiful outdoor locations. When I gave up geology, I decided to make photography my profession, though I wasn’t very good. I learned on the job, taking assignments for newspapers, magazines, and private clients. I also took workshops with some outstanding photographers, such as Ernst Haas, Bruce Davidson, Arnold Newman, and Roman Vishniac. They were wonderful people who guided me, encouraged me, and helped me transform my vision. In the late 1970s, I landed a position as Director of Photography at the New York Botanical Garden. That opened many doors for me professionally.
TC: Your work has spanned everything from public relations and photojournalism to art and sculpture to travel and profiles. Which area do you most enjoy, and why?
AR: I enjoy them all because each offers a unique challenge. But I have to admit that the travel and features photography I did for Time/Warner and other publications were the most fun. I enjoyed getting to visit some of the most beautiful and interesting locations on earth and meeting some of the world’s most amazing people. Imagine being sent on assignments to places like Papua New Guinea, Egypt, the Swiss Alps, Hawaii, and the American Southwest. And imagine photographing jazz musicians in New Orleans, magnificent gardens of Charleston, South Carolina, wildflowers across Texas, and country musicians at the Country Music Awards. It’s the reason I got into photography and the reason I stayed with it for nearly forty years.
TC: You have traveled the world on photographic assignments that range from the bulb fields of Holland and the antiquities of Egypt to the vast Amazonian rain forest. Could you tell us about one of your most memorable assignments?
AR: Believe it or not, one of my most memorable assignments was one I got early in my career—maybe that’s why it’s so memorable. Anne Millman and I proposed an idea to Science Digest Magazine on the mysteries of ancient Egypt. Anne, who is now my wife, is a great researcher and she had come across some interesting explanations about the creation of various Egyptian antiquities. She would write the article and I would photograph it. (By the way, working as a team was a big advantage in getting assignments since it saved the editors a lot of effort.)
We got the assignment and flew off to Egypt to gather more information and bring back photographs that, as the editor put it, had to be “smasheroos.” It was quite challenging. I had to shoot inside the dark interior chambers of the tombs without flash or other modern supplemental lighting. All I used was a relay of mirrors, replicating what some archeologists surmised was the illumination used in the past. Then I set up shots of the pyramids at night, again without added light.
Along the way, we got to meet the local people, many of whom helped us get the story and the images we needed. And we got to see the amazing temples, tombs, and landscapes of this ancient historic land. It was an exciting and exhilarating experience that made me realize photography can open many doors for me, if I do it well and come up with good ideas.
TC: Let’s take a look at some of the amazing photographs you took while leading the “Focus on Nature” workshop at the Clark. What inspired you about this foggy landscape scene?
AR: I took this photo during our first morning out. We had everything a nature photographer dreams of: an incredible sunrise, fog, mist, and a bank of low-hanging clouds as day broke. The sun merged with the mist, creating an amazing atmosphere of mystery on the landscape. Everyone enjoyed photographing in the fog and mist. The challenge is to the get the shot before the fog and mist disappear. I decided to use a panoramic format to draw the viewer’s attention to the mountain and cloud and to minimize the dark foreground. I slightly underexposed to add contrast, which helps emphasize the trees in the background and the mountain itself.
TC: Could you tell us about the choices you made in lighting and coloring these two images of the same flowers?
AR: Actually, the lighting and color in these images are two different considerations. This is natural light but it’s filtered through the field of wildflowers. This soft, filtered light is ideal for a technique I call a “shoot through,” which involves getting low to the ground in a field or bed of flowers, selecting a subject that’s in the middle range from front to back and focusing on that flower using a narrow depth of field. This causes the foreground and background to be thrown out of focus while the subject remains relatively sharp and seems to float in the composition. If it’s a windy day, the movement of the flowers can register as a blur, adding to the impressionistic feel of this effect.
A “shoot through” gives the photographer an opportunity to experiment with selective sharpness and create unusual images of flowers that respond to the light and weather conditions at hand. These particular flowers were ideal candidates for a shoot through. Their petals were translucent, making it easy for the light to illuminate them. As for the color, I was not so taken with the golden/orange color of these flowers so I experimented with Photoshop to get a brighter yellow to achieve the aesthetic effect I wanted.
TC: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
AR: I enjoy sharing. After nearly forty years of making images, I believe I have the skill, knowledge, and experience to help my students become better at seeing the world; learning how to recognize what is beautiful versus photogenic; and to understand how to imagine what is possible with their cameras.
People ask me, “Is it possible to learn to be creative with the camera?” My experience has been that it certainly is! Some will learn from instructions and demonstrations; some will learn from the critique sessions, and some will gain insight by seeing how others approach the same subjects. A small group of photographers shooting in the same area and using the same basic equipment will see that each individual finds a unique photographic perspective. I get tremendous pleasure from guiding this learning process and seeing how much fun people have along the way.
TC: How did you and the participants spend your time here at the Clark during the “Focus on Nature” workshop?
AR: First, it’s important to realize that people don’t automatically think of the Clark as a location for nature photography. The Clark is known for art and its setting in a college town. So it shakes people up a bit to think in terms of nature, which is a good thing, because it makes people think outside the box and spurs them to be creative.
Once we got past that initial disorientation, I wanted participants to look with fresh eyes at the landscape all around the Clark and to see it with the sensibility of a nature photographer. That begins with an appreciation for natural light. That’s why I began the workshop with a presentation called “The Power of Natural Light.” In the presentation, I showed participants how to discover the beauty of every kind of natural light and how to capture it with their cameras.
Then, over the next two days, we took a series of outings, starting at sunrise and ending past sunset, exploring various settings around Williamstown, with an eye toward the light. The participants soon found out that shooting under rapidly changing lighting conditions is very challenging and they came to understand that decisions must be made quickly.
Between our outings, we worked in a classroom at the Clark to download and edit the images we had taken and hold our daily review session. This is always an eye-opener for participants because they realize how each person brings a different vision even though they are looking at the same scene.
If we liked what we saw, we probed to find out how the photographer approached it, visually and technically. If there were problems with an image, we discussed what the photographer might have been done differently. In this way, everyone became more familiar with the basic terminology used in digital photography (jpeg vs. raw, resolution, white balance, etc.); learned techniques to solve certain common problems—like getting the right exposure by using histograms or changing the ISO; or creating an interesting composition—and had a chance to learn about workflow procedures and after capture techniques that I use to enhance and/or “fix” a photo. Most important, we learned to expand our creative vision by seeing what was possible with the right imagination.
Of course, each day and each review session is different, but the concept is the same and it always enables participants to become better photographers.
TC: What was the main lesson that you intended participants to take away from the workshop?
AR: My intention always is to make all the participants better photographers, no matter where they are when they start. I know from many years of offering photo workshops that everyone has a creative core, everyone can learn, and everyone can improve. We may learn in different ways and at different speeds. We may start from different places. Some may need to learn techniques and develop their skills. Others may need to find their personal vision and gain confidence in finding their creative selves. We are all unique and I believe that everyone can create meaningful, imaginative photographs. Photography is wonderfully accessible means of self-expression.
I give participants a handout of my 10 commandments for better photography, and I’ll share it here with you:
- Think for yourself: Don’t let fancy gadgets think for you.
- Less is more: Include only what is necessary in each frame; eliminate anything extraneous.
- Light is everything: Use every kind of light to its best advantage.
- Be objective: The camera sees everything; train your eye to do the same.
- Imagine before you shoot: The picture your camera takes can only be as good as the picture your mind creates.
- Make it simple: As a photographer your task is to make order out of chaos.
- Beauty is made, not found: Ordinary objects seen by a sensitive eye are transformed into extraordinary images.
- Master your equipment: Understand your gear so that it serves the intentions of your eyes and mind.
- Never say “done”: There is always one more way to shoot the picture.
- Express yourself: The joy of photography comes from the ability to project a unique vision that you can share with others.
TC: You have been invited to judge local, national, and international photographic competitions. What makes a photograph truly great?
AR: To paraphrase a Supreme Court justice’s response to a different question, “I know it when I see it!” More seriously, I think there are elements that make a photograph truly great, though few photographs have them all: 1) an emotional connection to the viewer; 2) a dynamic composition; 3) interesting light; 4) a unique point of view; 5) the decisive moment; and 6) humor.
Interested in learning more about how to take stunning professional photographs? Join Allen Rokach later this year for another “Focus on Nature” workshop at the Clark! Please check www.clarkart.edu/calendar for updates.
All images courtesy of Allen Rokach