Steve Zigler - USA


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1. Steve, seeing your work means absorbing nature. You seem to love nature with an intensity and passion that can hardly be surpassed. How did you get in touch with nature for the first time? When did you decide to spend more time into the wild?

As a kid, I grew up in a farming community in the Midwest portion of the US, specifically in rural central Illinois. There were corn fields all around me. There were only three channels on the TV set, we shared a telephone line with our neighbors, and there was no internet. The only option I had to amuse myself was to be outside with my brother. We were explorers, but we stayed close to home. That is what everyone did: everyone stayed close to home where I grew up. Later, as I started graduate school, I became a dad. My family and I frequently camped on weekends because it was cheap and we had no money. I made my first significant trip west of the Mississippi River toward the end of grad school. The purpose of the trip was to explore the possibility of a post-doctoral research position at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. While I was there, a friend and I visited Arches National Park. This would have been 1986 or 1987. We decided to hike to the Delicate Arch one afternoon to see the sunset. I had no idea what a visual extravaganza awaited me! As I walked along the path near the end of the hike, I turned a corner and the wind hit me in the face as I viewed the Delicate Arch for the first time. My jaw dropped and the first thought in my mind was, “I need to get out more often!” I remember those exact words. I still have a picture from that visit on the mantle in my front room. At the time, I wasn’t able to pursue travel, but my first view of the Delicate Arch stuck with me and, along with my childhood experiences, laid the foundation for my love of the outdoors today.

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2. How did you find your way into photography? What does photography mean for you?

I received a Kodak Instamatic camera for Christmas when I was about ten years old. It was a lot of fun and I spent all the money I could on film and processing. A couple of years later, my uncle visited my family and brought along his new Pentax Spotmatic 35 mm SLR. It had a Takumar super multi-coated lens. I had no idea what a multi-coating was, but I immediately fell in love with that camera! I followed my uncle everywhere when he was taking pictures. Later, seeing the resulting photographs, I was amazed at what a camera could do. Several years later, my uncle gave me that camera. I don’t know why, but it was the greatest gift I ever received. The love of photography that started with the Instamatic exploded into a full-fledged obsession with the Pentax. I still have that Pentax! I didn’t know it at the time, but as a teenager with that camera, I learned the importance of freedom, experimentation, and creating art. Sure, I called it “taking pictures,” but I was really creating and experimenting. I took long exposures at night with an off-camera flash while my brother danced in front of the camera with sparklers in his hands. I took pictures of family, farm animals, and sunsets over the corn. I took as many pictures as I could afford. Since then, there are only a few times in my life when I have not had a camera. When I bought my first digital camera in 2001, things got really crazy and photography became imbedded in my DNA.

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3. Even if you are using social networking you seem to be rather reluctant with that kind of communication. What do you think about social networking and its influence on art?

That’s a perceptive question. You’re right. I am reluctant with social media. Initially, my reluctance was based on privacy and fear issues, but I’m over that now. Now, I’m just so busy with many projects (personal, professional, and work-related) that I don’t have the time to maintain the presence on social that I would like to have. Plus, I am a slow and inefficient writer, so it takes me a lot of work to develop content that I feel is worthy of sharing with the world. I think that social networking and media in the internet era is one of the most powerful tools ever invented to share ideas and information. It is really amazing, especially when I remember the days of sharing a telephone line with my neighbors.

Regarding the influence of social networking on art, wow, that could be a Ph.D. thesis for an answer. On the one hand, it is revolutionary how it has affected art in general and photography in particular. Think of the statistics we all hear about the number of pictures taken every day. There was a time when just being competent and taking a well-exposed negative and making a decent print was enough to call it art. There was a market for that and photographers could make a good living at it. Now, think about today and the number of careers have evaporated in the wake of the digital photography revolution. Every revolution has winners and losers, and there are plenty of both in the digital photography revolution. Personally, I think we all win today with modern digital cameras and processing software. The power we have to create images today is beyond words.

On the other hand, some things haven’t changed much. For example, there is still something special about being outside with a camera looking for compositions, chasing light. The magic of holding a well-crafted print on your hands remains. That will never change.

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4. In your book “Dark Forest,” you not only show your love and deep respect for nature, rather you offer a deep view into your soul. It’s all about the experience of being outside and what nature means for you and all of us. Could you describe this kind of experience?

I wish I could describe it, but for me no words or images can adequately capture the experience of meaningful moments in nature. That is especially true with the night sky and the bristlecone pine forest, both of which I discuss in “Dark Forest.” When I wrote the text in “Dark Forest,” I attempted to make these two topics accessible to the everyday reader. My first goal was to illustrate the grandeur of the night sky in a dark location. I don’t remember the exact statistic, but something like 8 out of 10 kids born today will never see the Milky Way due to light pollution and the fact that fewer and fewer people get outside at night. When I was growing up, I saw an awesome display of stars every cloudless, moonless night. All I had to do was look up and there was Orion, or the Big Dipper, or the Milky Way. It is a shame that most of us have lost that connection to the night sky. And with that loss comes the lack of understanding of our place, and our planet’s place, in the Cosmos. By understanding the grandeur of the Cosmos, we appreciate the tiny insignificance of humanity, “a pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan famously quipped. We all could benefit from that awareness. My second goal with “Dark Forest” was to introduce the reader to the amazing bristlecone pine tree. These trees live for thousands of years in some of the most inhospitable environments one can image. Think a barren desert at 10,000 ft (3000 m). What a bizarre paradox that the longest living organisms should inhabit such harsh environments. Yet, some scientists speculate that these trees would never die if it weren’t for the effects of erosion and lightning (and now, possibly one day, climate change). The simple fact that these trees thrive for eons offers us great opportunities to learn about our environment, and longevity, in general.

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5. What`s more important for your creative approach: Photography or writing? Or is it the combination of both in particular?

I really enjoy writing and photography as forms of personal creative expression. I can’t imagine my life without both of them. That said, the foundation for me is photography. I think the visual language of photography is a supreme challenge to master, one I will surely grapple with all my days. It also is an immense pleasure for me to contemplate the visual messages embedded in a photograph.

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6. What’s the value of photographs you bring from your trips compared to the experience?

As I mentioned earlier, the photographs don’t really do justice to the experience from a personal perspective. The experience always has more value than the resulting photographs. But in the end, I’m so glad to have both! The photographs offer a great way to share the experience with others, which is really important to me. It is so important that I use this tagline on my website: “Experience. Share. Repeat.” In sharing my photographs with others, my goal is to inspire them to seek their own experiences created on their own terms. My friends often say they like to live vicariously through me. I tell them to live vicariously through themselves!

Another value of my photographs is even more personal. I just love looking at my photographs and remembering the experience of being in that location at that time. I cherish the rekindled personal memories imparted by my photographs. They are like a tapestry of my most prized moments. I recently photographed some swamps and often found my myself emotionally moved by the quiet waters and the majestic bald cypress trees. Every time I look at my photos from there, I will be transported back to those emotional moments.

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7. You traveled several places all around the world, but most of your travels take place in the United States, your home country. If there would be just one single area you could travel in the future, and you would have the choice. Which one would it be? Why?

There are still so many places left in the world for me to visit that I can’t really answer that question accurately. I do love the landscapes in the US and I’ll continue to explore them as deeply as I can for as long as I can. The topography in the western US is unbelievable. I love the west. I love dark night skies wherever I can find them. I love the deserts. I love the Smokies near where I live.

On the other hand, there is so much beauty in the world that I’ll continue to seek it wherever possible. Maybe if I’m lucky, someday I will discover a new area that will captivate me and I’ll answer that question differently, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.

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8. What do you prefer more: Travelling alone and being completely by yourself or share the experience with other people?

I am a social animal at heart and I prefer to travel with others, especially when I travel to new places. People are an essential part of the experience for me and they also provide a bit of a safety blanket. Once I learn a place, I enjoy exploring it on my own. I love going to the Smokies by myself. Tomorrow I leave for a couple of days in Death Valley on my own.

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9. Where do you find inspiration? Which artists have been the greatest source of inspiration for you?

I find inspiration in most everything I do: my work, my travel, my friends, my family, other photographers, other artists. For me, finding inspiration is the easy part. Transforming that inspiration into something uniquely personal and original is more difficult. I spend a lot time trying to improve my ability to build creative output from the inspirations I find in my world.

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10. Final Question: This project is called "Vision and life". What do the terms "vision" and "life" mean for you, Steve?

I love the name of your project, Mirko! Beyond their dictionary definitions, “vision” and “life” for me can be synonymous. Actually, a better term is synergistic, like different words work in synergy to complete a sentence. Vision is the noun and life is the verb that define the complete sentence of a creative existence. “Vision” and “life,” you can’t have one without the other!

December 2017

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