POLES APART: ADVENTURES of a NAT GEO COVER PHOTGRAPHER ~OpEdNews; 2015
OEN: Welcome to OpEdNews, Ira. You've had your work on the cover of National Geographic. Yet you never even set out to be a photographer. How did you find yourself on this career path?
IM: My photography career began entirely by chance. I had been an avid bicyclist, and owned a small lawn maintenance business. One day, while out on an 80 mile training ride, I was hit by a passing car. Ten days in the hospital led to three months out of work. A year later, my health and strength regained, north central Florida's summer hit with its typical vengeance. About to turn 40, I realized I'd done this type of work long enough. I put my business up for sale. Six weeks later I was free of it. Not owning a business or home, nor being in a relationship, and having some money in my pocket, I decided to take a break. I bought a used van in which to drive to Alaska. As a complete afterthought I bought a $180 Fuji point-and-shoot camera. I had never touched a camera before. Yet I knew I'd be driving up some beautiful roads, as well as hiking up gorgeous trails... and thought I'd get a snapshot or two for my walls.OEN: That bike accident changed the direction of your life entirely. What was that Alaska trip with a camera like? How long did it take you to develop a good eye?
IM: I've long since said the bicycle accident was bad luck turned good. The trip was incredible, as all the territory north and west of Colorado was new to me. I loved the mountains. And the wildlife I encountered en route delighted me. The Fuji camera was small, and clipped on to my belt. So hiking with it was no different than without. Then, when I got to Fairbanks, Alaska, I picked up a used SLR camera with a 70-210mm lens; as this would enable me to get better closeups of the animals I was encountering. From the get-go people told me I had a good eye. Yet I thought nothing of it. A few years later, helping out a friend who owned a one-hour photo shop, I began to see how little compositional integrity many other folks' photos had. And I started to think maybe my background in lawn maintenance and landscaping lent some sense of aesthetic balance to what I shot.
OEN: You make an interesting correlation there. You might be on to something! From that point on did you dedicate yourself to taking “nature shots” only? Or have you also zoomed in on faces, urban landscapes and shots more conventional and closer to home?
IM: I'm primarily a nature and landscape photographer, with urban landscapes being of little interest to me. Years ago I traveled to India and Southeast Asia for four months, finding the people and street scenes there fascinating to shoot. For the past number of years I've enjoyed working with dancers, gymnasts and yogis in the hills of Southern California, where I have now lived since meandering down here from Alaska in 1987.
OEN: I'm enjoying perusing your website and the section for Nudes was not all what I was expecting. You combine the female form with nature in a- may I say- natural, and very lovely way. Are these the dancers, gymnasts and yogis you mentioned? They certainly are in good shape! How is working with naked women different than getting shots of animals in the wild? How is your prep different?
IM: As to preparation: I'm essentially a "fly by the seat of my pants" kind of photographer. (That is to say I have no preconceived idea as to what might occur, and simply try to react to what nature puts in front of me in a manner which is artistically cohesive.) Though the models I initially shot with were mostly nude, I am primarily working with clothed ones these days. In either case, I endeavor to integrate the human form as an element of the landscape.
OEN: You made a decision to stop photographing nudes and instead use clothed figures in your work. Why?
I never decided to stop shooting nudes, still doing so occasionally. But most nude models charge in the neighborhood of $100/hour to shoot. As I have never been able to afford this, I've generally worked a few times a year with those who appreciated my work...and did so for art's sake. I enjoy collaborating with graceful subjects immensely though, thinking the marriage of their skills with an aesthetically pleasing environment is a good one. As it is much easier finding models to do this clothed, I am shooting much more of this genre lately.
OEN: At what point in your journeys did you decide to make photography a career? I'm assuming that picking up the Fuji was just the first step.
IM: Six months after heading to Alaska, I found myself visiting friends in California. It was Christmastime. The weather was warm, the skies clear blue. Having just spent about 10 weeks in predominantly 50 degrees, gray Southeast Alaska, British Columbia and Washington, my body said "I like this". So I decided to stay for a while. Some friends introduced me to someone with a landscaping business, whom I began working with. Weekends found me heading off to many of the state's varied iconic areas. My interest in photography was blossoming. But in spite of all the praise my work was getting, the notion of it becoming a career was entirely abstract. Yet the more I looked at the notable professionals work, the more I thought mine had merit. It was then I decided that I didn't want to be 90 years old, sitting in a rocking chair, thinking "what if?"... and began exhibiting my work at weekend art festivals.
OEN: Put us out of our suspense, Ira. How did it go?
IM: The reaction to my work was very positive. So I decided this might be a good way to get it visibility, and signed up for some more. 25+ years (and over 600 shows) have passed, and art festivals have been the primary source of my income since.
OEN: You've spent time in Antarctica. Tell us what it's like down there. Most of us will never know first-hand.
IM:While traveling in Patagonia in early 1991, I found my way to the southern Chilean seaport city of Punta Arenas. It was then the gateway to Antarctica, so I went down to the docks to see if I could find passage on a vessel heading south. To my delight, I discovered a commercial ship that was soon due to arrive in port, then taking a few passengers on its return to pack up a scientific base. The voyage was to be three days en route each way, plus five days and four nights in the South Shetland Islands. I plunked down $880 to secure myself a berth. Waking up the first morning at dawn and seeing the sun's light painting a seemingly never-ending 200 foot high glacial face pink found me wondering if we'd sailed away from Earth. The expansiveness of the vista left me gobsmacked. Landing on shore we found chinstrap and gentoo penguins scurrying about. Such comical creatures, their antics completely enthralled me. I've been extraordinarily fortunate since, as I've returned to the wondrousness of the ice continent nearly 25 times as a guest photographer on small passengers ships. Often people ask me why I keep going back, although no one who's ever been there has questioned this. Antarctica is all about the ice. Its shapes, forms and colors always leave me thinking I'm in the studio of a mad, yet genius sculptor. Penguins, seals and whales add spice (and life) to the experience. The air is delicious to breathe, the stillness is profound. An environment in which man has laid some footprints, yet had no appreciable effect. Nature at its absolute purest. It has become my monastery... a place where I can get away from everything that pushes and pulls upon me in my life at home, as well as all the gadgetry of our lives. Doing so not only rejuvenates me, but may well be transformative.
OEN: Moving away from the ice and snow, I'd like to ask you about a photo I fell in love with. It's very different from what you've shown us so far. Tell us about it, please.
IM: I fell in love with that little girl with a nail in her mouth, as well. This photo was taken in 1989, in the western Rajasthan city of Jaisalmer. India's often associated with poverty (although with a booming middle class, that surely seems to be changing). Yet each of the four times I've been there, the richness of its culture made the most lasting impression. Along with this, the people have a certain palpable dignity. In Rajasthan, it bordered on nobility. My journey there is a long time past, and memories often become indistinct. But this girl captivated me. An old soul... and lovely young flower.
OEN: So, what's life like as a professional photographer? You've hit the pinnacle with that National Geographic cover. What's your schedule look like? How do you juggle traveling and generating new work with staying put and doing whatever you do when you're not traveling?
IM: My life is actually fairly simple and routine, as I generally spend 10+ months a year at home. Much of this time is spent preparing for and exhibiting my work at the art shows I mentioned earlier. Some years ago, a woman came into my booth, and looking at my work said: I'd love to live your life. I replied: what you'd really like to live is your concept of what my life is. And you know what? I'd love to live that too. I've long joked that this adventurous, glamorous life that many people think I live would likely bore many of them to death. Yet I've nothing to complain about; it suits me well.
OEN: When you say that your life would bore many people to death, do you mean because you spend so much time setting up or waiting for a shot? Or are you referring to something else?
IM: I spend a lot of time at home, living in a fairly low-key manner. I don't go to movies, go out to eat often, or do a lot of other things many people I know do for excitement/ stimulation. As such, I imagine many would find my life boring. Yet I am quite content.
OEN: Got it. What haven't we talked about yet that you'd like to?
IM: Shall we discuss thermonuclear physics?
OEN: Umm, no, but thanks for offering. We've gotten this far and I realized that we haven't talked yet about your most recent book. Would you, please?
IM: ICE At the Ends of the Earth (ISBN 978-0-9746707-9-9), with a foreword Jean-Michel Cousteau, is a compilation of 150 of my favorite color photographs taken on two trips to the Arctic and a dozen to Antarctica between 2005 and 2011. The problem I always have with my profession is that I am trying to capture a three-dimensional world using a two-dimensional media. No place else I have ever been is this quandary more apparent than the polar regions, for the scope of the high latitudes tends to be gargantuan. Still, I am quite pleased with the images of ice and the wildlife which inhabit these realms.
OEN: Great! Go to town, readers! The book is gorgeous. I saw it last weekend at a friend's. A real pleasure talking with you, Ira.IM: The pleasure's been mine. Thanks for knocking on my door, Joan. OEN: What an adventure it's been. Thanks so much!