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The Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum
Artist Showcase: Steve Kossack
by James Morrissey

Part I: About Steve Kossack

Moose in the Morning (c) Steve Kossack

About this photo: A case where the animals walked into my landscape set up. It was one in a million! We were shooting a moonset on Medicine Lake near Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies and these two took about 20 minutes below feeding during predawn. Slowly they approached a little at a time and finally were perfectly in frame. A more complete story can be found here: http://stevekossack.com/notes/Moose.htm

JM: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
SK: I was born in Los Angeles California in 1947. A baby boomer. I was raised somewhat close to the inner city in a working class neighborhood with great recreation facilities close at hand. My interests early on were athletics and music. Although the talent for a musical instrument was not there, I faired much better in athletics. Elementary school brought the diversity of another culture into my life by way of a an earthquake and the subsequent closure of a nearby Hispanic school and the resulting relocation of its students into ours. Lessons about differences, similarities and tolerance learned there have lasted a lifetime.

A younger brother, mother and father were the nucleus of our family with infrequent time spent together at a premium. My father was in the dry cleaning industry and my mother returned to her education when I entered middle school. Music (mostly listening and collecting), sports, girls and cars became the focal point of this very American life. Independence and discipline played a major role in the structure of the family. With time divided mostly elsewhere by my parents, the importance of duties and order were very important. It was always made clear what needed to be done along with how and when. There was not lot of democracy involved and to question was usually not an option, however, the conversations and discussions were always meaningful and with purpose. The country in the 1950's and 60's was a fast and radically changing place. I was never to wonder how my parents felt about social issues or personal commitment. There was never doubt about what was considered right or wrong. "We are not here to simply take up time and space" I was often told, "You must make a contribution." Again lessons never to be forgotten but at times almost impossible to live up to.

I was married in 1974 and have 2 children. For over 25 years I worked, owned and managed the family dry cleaning business. It grew and along with it the adult obligations. As with many, the daily struggle became the rational and the reason It is a period I both benefited from and would just as soon forget. After my marriage failed, I returned to college to study Fine Arts/Photography with a couple of stops in between.

JM: When I hear you talk about your childhood, I hear strong personalities in your parents. If what I am hearing is correct, how do you feel that your family's world view has affected your own visions?
SK: Leadership and inspiration is what my parents provided. A plan for the day, the week, the month and the year is what we were taught. "You can always change it later" is what was said. I still feel the same and the structure that was provided for me is what I try to apply to my photography and workshops. To do something to the best of your abilities is all you can ask. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right!

JM: When and how did you first begin to photograph? Who were your influences, personally and professionally?
SK: My mother was always the inspiration. She saw that I admired snap shots she had done and gave me her Kodak instamatic camera and invited me to try it for myself. I always had some sort of sense about the way things should look in an image. I don't know where this came from or how it actually worked, but I do know it was there in someway from the start. The first time I seriously used a camera was when my children were born. Since I had one of the largest camera stores in Los Angeles directly across the street from my business, finding one wasn't much of a problem. The make was Canon, the model was FTb and I still have it! I'm not just sure what influenced that brand decision that day, it was most likely what the salesperson wanted to sell me, but I can tell you that it is still the reason I use Canon to this day. I don't fix stuff that's not broken. I learned that the camera and all others that followed were just a progression. It was nothing more complicated than that!

One day in the early 1980's I entered the Ansel Adams gallery in Yosemite Valley. I had been a casual shooter for sometime and was never much interested in pursuing it further. I was struck by the images displayed there. For some strange reason there arose in me the feeling that I wanted to actually touch the print. I came to understand later about texture and detail but what I realized then was the desire to know more about the process. It occurred to me then that I'd like to photograph this beautiful and vast landscape and just as fast I found out I couldn't! I didn't know how and returned to college to find out. I was under the impression for some years that photography was magic. Three years of training later I came away KNOWING it was! I found myself in an art department where I was sure I did not fit. I was a few moments from quitting many times. Landscape was considered an abstract notion or passe' and at times my work was laughed at. However, I soon started to appreciate the dedication and art that the people around me felt so deeply about. They were mostly doing product and commercial design work but I saw in them something that I knew I would like about myself if I could just stay and watch and hopefully learn. It was a most exciting and stimulating time and remains the highlight of my life!

Watching a large group of students looking at work hung for a critique, the department head asked me to watch the students. A short but very complex statement that I've never forgotten followed. I was told that this (seeing, as I understood it) was what it was all about. There were two parts. "Finding what you want to say and then how to say it. The first was the hard part, the second the easier. The first you have to decide on your own but the second can usually be taught". I try to pass this along in some form or in some way to each person that I work with. I think I can have a very positive effect staying with the how to say it part and just watch as the what you want to say part takes shape. I have always enjoyed working with creative people no matter the level.

JM: What other types of professional photography have you done outside of Nature and Wildlife Photography?
SK: In school I saw, learned and did most everything. I made great looking menus, but others were always better. I did product and model photography along with some pretty creative performance pieces as well. The great lesson for me was the fact that there were always those that did it better. I learned that the competition I was really interested in was within myself and those that could talk about their work were always the most interesting no matter the quality of their work.

I did wedding photography, which I enjoyed at first, for about 3 years and then 3 years of on mountain ski portraiture at resorts in the states of Washington and California. This period was one of the most interesting for me in both development and learning. Looking back on this period is like looking at someone else. It was certainly the hardest I have ever worked in my life!

JM: How are the skill sets that you developed doing wedding photography different from what you employ in landscape photography?
SK: As I mentioned earlier, I learned wedding photography doing on mountain ski portraiture. I was there because needed an entry level photography job after college and wanted to combine my interests. It seems strange but most of what I have done has been a continuation of that thought. Doing ski portraiture taught me the structure of the family and how formal photography was done. The off hours gave me the access to great landscape to photograph and I had access to film and a processor to boot!

JM: When you decided to go back to college, how old were you? What was it like?
SK: It was just great! I was in my early 40's and it was a completely different world from the one I had come to know. Without it, I simply would not do what I do today. I was recovering from an injury at the time and had the time, so I almost lived there! I remember quite clearly coming from hours in the darkroom and being surprised that is was either dark or light outside. I lost track of not only time but sometimes days!

Since my time was my own completely, my support came from those in the direction I was headed, rather than the one from which I had come. Everything and everyone was new at the time to me. It was very exciting and very threatening at the same time. I look back on it now as a very special time in my life. The influence from this period is very much in evidence in most everything I do today.

My schooling was the base for everything. In the art department the emphasis was always on manipulating images. There was not much concern for the way they were made but instead what they said. How they 'said it' was always what the lessons were about. I came away having no rules or dogma about what could or could not be done. To make a strong image that delivered what was intended was the only rule. It still is with me. Although Landscape photography was never even discussed as subject matter there, I applied this training to what I saw and did in the field and today most of what I learned is still in evidence in some way in the way I see and how I process my images.

Lightning Over Aguereberry (c) Steve Kossack

About this Image: A result of a quick passing thunderstorm and the use of the Lightning Trigger. This is a very rare case for me in that with the use of this great tool, I'm usually forced to frame the image much wider than I would like, as to have a chance at capturing the bolt. The storm moved through very quickly and this was the only frame with a bolt. It covered two thirds of the sky!

JM: You said earlier that , "Landscape was considered an abstract notion or passe" yet for you the concept of the landscape is living and magical. How did you justify these very different values?
SK: It was a magical time for me as I've said. I was there because I wanted to learn to photograph so I could make better landscape images. If that was not to be the case, then I knew I didn't belong. I did question this but only for a short time. I became really enamored by the creative process, those that did it and what was going on around me. It was very foreign to me, yet exciting,and I didn't want to leave it. I also found that I was, all of a sudden, much more secure in myself than I had ever been. I knew what I wanted to do and found a way to make what they were teaching work for me. I had the great escape of rationalizing that I did not have to do this, I was not there to learn a profession, rather just for my enjoyment and I could quit at anytime. I quickly realized they were not going to become one of me so I became one of them. In retrospect, it wasn't all that different. The goal was the same, making strong images that say something.

JM: "In the art department the emphasis was always on manipulating images. There was not much concern for the way they were made but instead what they said." Do you feel that this view of art affected how you view photography? Specifically, how has it affected your use of post processing?
SK: Absolutely! There were very few rules about how you said what you wanted to say. The emphasis was on what it said. If the process was important then it was part of the presentation. Things like brand of a camera or type of film or paper were only important if it was evident in the image. No hard and fast rules or restrictions on what could or could not be done to achieve the effect desired. I found that aspect of thought only after I left. Consequently, I have never had any misgivings about how to make the image I'm looking for. A good image is a good image! If I feel the need to explain how it was done, I do, but usually only if I think it adds something to the image. As a child and when thinking that everything was as easy as it looked, my mother would always stop me with the statement, "if you think it's so easy, let's see yours!"

JM: Were you still running your dry cleaning business during this entire time (i.e. returning to college, photographing weddings, etc).
SK: The businessman aspect of my life at that time ended, with great relief, with the dissolution of the family. What I was left with was a struggle to find myself and then, thankfully, the time to find what I wanted to do with myself. It was not an easy road and it included coming to terms with tobacco and alcohol abuse.

JM: What motivates you in your photographic work? What are you looking for in your photography (I know this is vague)?
SK: It's the landscape. The planet. I see the earth as fine art. Texture and shapes. Harsh and quiet. There is an ebb and flow that is magic to watch and trying to make a statement with all this is always a challenge. A challenge that I'm not often up to. I realized this early on and I've always considered any success I have doing it a gift, or more precisely, the result of very long and hard work that I enjoy thoroughly.

I see myself as being very different in approach to my subject than most I have met. I think most photographers fall in love with the process of photography itself and learn and study it in some form. Along this path they discover something that they like to photograph. My journey was much different. It was the other way around for me. I first found the landscape. I was out there exploring and experiencing for many years before the idea to try and photograph it arose. The motivation was, and continues to be simply to be there, with a camera if possible, or as my favorite phrase states, f/8 and be there!

Magic Light (c) Steve Kossack

About the Image: A personal favorite of mine. I think this image is the most subtle and effective effort I have from all my years of exploring and photographing the slot canyons. Winter light is quiet and soft. We are all used to seeing the great beams of light in the summer months but I find the other seasons more challenging.

JM: Did you ever consider giving it up photography as a professional venture?
SK: Since my workshops and now the new DVD project , were never a planned profession, instead they came about as the result of what I was doing at the time. I really have not had the notion of not doing what I do. I'm fortunate in this respect I believe. Sure, I run into people that do this professionally with egos and with the open grasp for fortune and fame that has made me step away, or at least back,at times. So far I've found that I can continue to do what I think is right for myself. The darkest it gets for me is an infrequent thought that I've not offered or done enough on a workshop. The happiest is when I know I have! I have been very careful not to let people or money influence my passion for what I do. I think if I had to do this I couldn't ...and wouldn't.

JM: Where do you like to photograph the most? Why?
SK: One of my strongest themes is "in order to photograph the Navajo you must first live with the Navajo." It simply means that to be familiar with your subject is everything. When asked to choose one over another I find that a lot of time I am comparing apples to oranges. Is the question really... Where have you photographed the most? Where have you been most successful? What is your favorite National Park? I think these are all great questions and the answer to your question is the culmination of all of these with emphasis on my first statement. Yosemite! Because it's where I've been the most, photographed the most, I'm comfortable the most and I think as a result, been successful the most ..... Actually though, the answer to the favorite national park is ..... the one I'm in now or will be next! :-)

JM: How does the photography that you do impact your choice in gear?
SK: When I started this photographic journey so many moons ago now, money was extremely limiting in my choice of equipment. I started and stayed with 35mm for the reasons most of us do. That being that 35mm does a lot of things fairly well and at a price that is more affordable than most other formats. The convenience and availability also strongly figured into the decision. I came to understand that 35mm was far from the ideal format for landscape but very good for wedding and ski photography. As I progressed and did more learning and practical field work in landscape, I realized that although the wrong format, if proper attention was paid to technique a competitive image could be made. In other words, I needed to do everything right every time to have the results I wanted. It was a valuable lesson that has never been forgotten. When thoughts turned to larger formats, there were those that were sure if we just hung on and waited for digital, we would get results that would rival larger formats. I did and I think this has proved true.

The move to a digital camera came some three years ago. I waited for a full frame DSLR to come to market. Although I wanted to move to digital earlier, the thought was that I did not want to sacrifice either the quality of the image or the equipment to do so. My constant use in the field of my gear(yes I drop them and worse) has long made a series one camera a must for me. Of course, all the bells and whistles now available to us are also a plus in 35mm and with the range of Canon lenses also available I find the idea of a larger format less appealing now. 35mm allows both backpacking and car shooting with everything in between and I think my prints are highly satisfying.

JM: I am still surprised that you would not consider moving to a larger format considering your passion for the landscape.
SK: I'm always quick to tell people that those of us that do landscape in 35 mm are dong so in the wrong
format. In order to be successful and compete with the larger formats we must have perfect technique. Saying this, of course I would have loved to shoot in the larger formats but the cost was always beyond my means. Today I'm tempted to go there but I see so many advantages in 35mm that the thought is a fleeting one. Every time I think I might, there is a leap in 35 mm digital that makes the thought moot for the moment. And then I see work by Art Wolfe, Jack Dykinga, David Muench, Tom Till etc. ... and the thought reappears :-)

If you are interested in learning more about Steve Kossack, you can visit his home page at http://www.stevekossack.com/
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Just a friendly reminder that this article is Copyright 2005-2011, James Morrissey, and may not, in part or in whole, be reproduced in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from the author. The images in this article are the property of Steve Kossack and have been licensed to James Morrissey and the NWP Photo Forum for the purpose of this interview.