Tell us a little about yourself (who you are, where you are based, what you shoot, etc.)
Hello! My name is Alex Burke and I’m a landscape photographer based out of Greeley, Colorado. It’s the perfect home base to explore Colorado’s mountains, the solitude of the Great Plains, and the entire American West. I use all film cameras - mostly 4x5 format - to create my images.
How and why did you get into landscape photography?
I grew up in a mountain town in Colorado and surprisingly as I child never really developed the love of the outdoors that you would expect from such a stunning backdrop for ones’ youth.
Granted, to blow off steam and contemplate life as a teen I would take a night drive through nearby Rocky Mountain National Park and stare at some of the best night skies in the country, but it wasn’t until I moved away from that small town and found myself in the mega-opolis of Phoenix, AZ that I realized how much nature and solitude meant to me.
I found myself sitting in the middle of the desert just to hear silence ringing in my ear and to watch a sunset.
I was handed-down a terrible 1-megapixel point-and-shoot digital camera and tried to capture the feeling of these moments. A spark was started and quickly grew into a flame that would dictate the next 15 years of my life.
What does photography mean to you?
Photography is powerful.
It can relate us to a special place; it can instill grandeur in the spirit; and it can document things that will never happen again.
When all three happen, the viewing of an image can send an emotional chill through our spines.
What do you value most in a photo? (emotion, composition, light, etc.)
I would say the emotional response it gives upon viewing. That can be hard to measure but it comes through with a powerful composition, strong subject matter, and great light.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations? What is it about their work that inspires you?
Inspirations always change.
Early on it was John Fielder, a Colorado photographer who traveled to so many remote parts of the state and captured it all on 4x5 film. Without a doubt he was an inspiration to get into large format.
I also have done extensive documentation of the oil and gas industries of Weld County. Initially this was something that came about on my own, but someone told me that it reminds them of Edward Burtynsky who quickly became an inspiration in that category and his work helped me hone my skills on that project.
These days, it’s mostly the wild that inspires me. I spend very little time on social media because the “highlights feed” mentality is typically not productive or inspirational for me.
If you had to choose one location to photograph forever, what would that be?
I’m intentionally leaving it that vague because I would never choose one valley, park, or subrange. Every place has its time and season and have means of transportation to see it all.
That said, the Rockies have everything I need from alpine tundra to forests of quaking aspen. A man could spend ten lifetimes and not be done photographing them.
Tell us about your photography techniques and the post processing of your photos.
I shoot from the gut and don’t overthink things too much in the field. From experience I know how strong a GND filter most scenes will need and a quick meter reading confirms this for me.
Since view cameras are not ideal for finding compositions, I use a small digital camera with a similar aspect ratio (m43) to find compositions with a zoom lens and to meter the light.
After shooting, I develop all the film myself and then scan it in with a drum scanner. Slide film only needs basic color and brightness correction after a drum scan, and with negative film I have to do a manual inversion and choose my color for the scene.
What makes you choose color or black and white for your photos when choosing film?
I am obviously mostly a color guy.
Color speaks to me and I love chasing the brief moments of the day where good color photography is possible. When I’m talking about vibrant sunrises and sunsets, we’re talking about mere moments each day, if any at all.
Occasionally I get in a mood for black and white, and this tends to happen in desert locations such as Death Valley. Black and white can be shot through a much longer portion of the day; the contrast of mid-morning or mid-afternoon are welcome to the format and the deep blue skies can be rendered as black if desired.
What film stock do you prefer to use? Why is this?
There is a variety that I use, and each has its situation.
Velvia 50 for when the colors need to be strong and there’s no wind so a long exposure can be done.
Provia 100f for general slide photography and images where I want blues to come through.
Velvia 100 for the rare time I want to bring out the magentas, such as a subtle sunset scene.
Ektar when the scene has too much contrast for slide.
Portra 160 for when I want the smoothest gradients and subtle hues.
Where do you find inspiration to keep going, even when things get tough?
I get to spend my days shooting in beautiful mountain valleys or remote spots on the plains.
I enjoy all the hardships of the adventure and the time away from civilization. Even if day after day is poor conditions for photography, I’m always in a good place and can be just as happy sitting on a rock and watching the clouds go by.
I no longer feel like there is a production quota that needs to be upheld and the relaxation of pace is mentally refreshing.
Do you have any opinion on art galleries? Should young artists strive to be in an exhibit?
It works for some people, but galleries are obviously most profitable for the owners and not the artists. They typically like to hide the clients from the artists which means you have no way of connecting with the customer on a personal level, or to stay in communication the way any business owner should.
Getting in a gallery is easy, getting in a good gallery is difficult. Neither option guarantees any sort of financial success.
Do you derive any income from landscape photography? In what ways?
I make my entire living from landscape photography.
Most of my income comes from outdoor art shows throughout the summer months, selling to clients directly face-to-face. This is both a lot of work and a lot of fun, but I absolutely love my job.
If you could only take one more picture, what do you think it would be of? How would you begin to make that decision?
If I was limited to just one image, I would spend years exploring the high country of the Rockies from Colorado through Alaska.
I would travel around without the burden of a camera and just observe, finding the most wild, beautiful valley possible. I would spend a week there observing the light and weather, then return again with a camera and stay until the best time to expose a sheet happens.
I couldn’t imagine spending my last sheet on an iconic scene that has been photographed by thousands of people; I try to avoid those places as is. So most likely the place I would find wouldn’t have a name that I could tell you today.
What message do you wish to send with your imagery? How do you make sure your images convey this properly?
I want to capture the grandeur of the wild so that people can have it enrich their lives daily. And not just postcard shots; I want people to feel the images when they stand close to a 4x5 foot-print.
I want them to be there.
It’s challenging to find images that work for this, but compositions that surround people help convey the feeling of presence. The photograph must have reference for scale and elements that pull the viewer from the edges into the center where the magic happens.
It’s not a standard way of thinking about composition. It’s more than just shapes.
What is an average day like for you?
If I’m out shooting, it probably started at 4:30am as I get out of my tent (or van) and get myself ready for sunrise. After sunrise, I would eat, make coffee, relax. Then I scout out compositions for sunset and prepare myself for that.
If it were an art show day, I’d be standing under my tent, greeting people and helping them find the right piece for their home.
If it were an at-home day, I might wake up early and shoot a sunrise around town, then go home and get the drum scanner going. I then like to take a nice long bike ride to refresh my mind and body before getting back into the nuances of owning a business, like bookkeeping, emails, and whatnot.