Rfotofolio would like to thank Don Whitebread for sharing his story and images with us, without photographers many of us would not see much of the beauty that we have on this earth.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
Aside from a decade in college and grad school, I’ve spent my life in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I was growing up, my family spent a few months every year way off the grid in Nevada or Utah. In those remote areas, I developed an appreciation for wilderness and the rhythm of changing light and weather across open landscapes that has only grown stronger over the years. That experience also led to a fascination with the sciences and a career in health care, but I’ve recently taken the opportunity to move to photography full-time. I’m constantly inspired by my wife and two children who are passionate and dedicated in everything they do.
How did you get started in photography?
Of course, there was the Instamatic for some birthday. Then I learned the fundamentals from my dad, and paid him back by wearing out his Exacta. I took darkroom classes at college in Santa Barbara, read a lot of books, and experimented for days in the darkroom. My science background made photographic processes and problem solving fairly easy, so my most important learning steps occurred in a darkroom workshop with John Sexton, and an exhibition class with Brigitte Carnochan. John taught me about subtlety in printing, and Gitta opened my eyes to the art world beyond West Coast Photography.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
I will always remember an Ansel Adams Exhibit at the Norton Simon in about 1980. I saw how his art made him effective as an environmental activist. Books by John Sexton and Huntington Witherill made me rethink how I print. I’m especially attracted to photography that teaches me something, so people like Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange, Sebastiao Salgado, Steve McCurry, and Nick Brandt are high on my list.
Did you have a mentor?
I guess I have about twenty mentors. I live in an area with a rich photographic tradition, and the community of photographers here is very supportive and generous. My friend Bob Byers shaved about five years off my intro to digital printing, and many other friends with diverse backgrounds and styles are happy to provide suggestions, critiques, and opportunities.
Do you mentor?
I’d like to think so. I’ve written articles for Luminous Landscape, and will give a class in night photography at the Society for Photographic Education retreat at Joshua Tree in November. I just gave a presentation about my sea turtle photography at the headquarters of the Sierra Club in San Francisco, and I hope I inspired those people to use their diverse talents toward the same goal that I’m using photography.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
Probably the first really well crafted print I saw was an Ansel Adams that family friends in Monterey had bought from him. I don’t know the name, but it was one of his images of a forest floor with ferns and little white flowers. There was no spectacular scenery, just composition, care, and the ability to see something others had walked past. It was in the room I slept in when I visited, so I lived with it for a long time and became determined to make prints of that quality. I’ve learned later how to make more expressive prints, but it was wonderful to set the bar high so early.
If you could spend the day with another photographer living or from the past who would it be?
I should probably name one of my favorite early photographers, just to spend some time with them, but if I only get one wish, I’ll branch out a little. After recent opportunities to photograph in Yemen and Egypt, I am desperately curious to see how documentary photographers like Ed Kashi work so well in such challenging conditions.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
Definitely. That’s exactly what I did for many years.
How do you decide what your top images are?
It’s hard to separate the images from my positive or negative memories about the experience of making them. On the other hand, my goal is certainly to reflect the relationship that I establish with the subject in the images. There’s a sweet spot in there somewhere.
Please tell us about your process and what is the perfect day for you.
My traditional process involves a few years of relationship-building with a subject or location, often for reasons other than photography, then another few years of photographic problem solving before I’ll finally spend a few years making a portfolio I’m happy with. The time frame on this has shortened now that I’m photographing full-time, but it still seems to be my style.
The photography of threatened Green Sea Turtles in Maui that I’ve been working on a lot lately is particularly long-term. I started going to Maui to windsurf in the late 80s, and have been back almost every year since. My family is all water lovers, but even with hours a day spent in the water, we rarely saw turtles for the first ten years or so. Then, slowly but surely, the turtle’s favorite hang-outs were discovered. For years I was happy just to watch them, so by the time I decided to photograph them, I knew their behavior fairly well. I had to find high quality, but lightweight underwater gear, and take my free diving skills to a new level. Imagine photographing a dance performance on a stage, gliding on roller skates among the dancers while holding your breath. But I love being in the ocean with them, and the chance that I can show the beauty of the lives of these turtles, and maybe inspire people to help protect them, makes it especially rewarding.
For my night photography, there are only a few nights a month when the astronomical conditions are right. Factoring in weather and other unpredictables, it’s horribly unproductive. Sometimes, though, I’ve had irresistible opportunities to break from my usual practice. About five years ago, a friend asked me to come to Yemen to photograph for his book. I had just a few weeks to learn digital photography, remember how to make a portrait, learn about Yemen’s surprisingly rich culture, and then absorb my friend’s years of experiences to help make some meaningful images. It was the opposite of my usual process, and I’ve never enjoyed a project more.
A perfect day generally means having my planning and research work out, getting some good luck, and then a pleasant surprise, like meeting some nice people while I’m working. I’ve enjoyed a lot of perfect days.
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Most of my challenges are self-inflicted. Lately, I’m either underwater, or out in the middle of the night, or doing some other thing I love, but have maybe taken to an extreme to photograph. I can often bring in parallel interests to help. Experience with scuba diving and windsurfing makes free diving more comfortable when I’m photographing turtles, and flying gives me weather prediction experience that assists in finding clear skies for star photography. Nothing in my background helps me understand the mysteries of the art world, though, but a good mystery is always fun.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your work?
I like photography that teaches me something, and I hope that also works back the other direction. Lately, I’m really hoping to inspire some action with my photography. If my Starlight series gets people to go outside at night and look up at the stars like their ancestors did, I’ll be happy.
The part of Maui where I photograph the turtles is called Honolua, and I’m working with the Save Honolua Coalition to protect that area. Through rallies, public testimony, and hundreds of letters, state government was convinced to reverse development plans for 600 acres of luxury homes and a golf course and allocate funds to purchase the land itself. This is a huge success, but the oceans are more fragile than we ever imagined, so I’m hoping to promote this kind of work more broadly.
What is next?
These ideas sort of hatch themselves, so it’s hard to know what I’ll get obsessed with next. Along with expanding the work I’m already making, I’d like to continue some aerial photography, and I have some work from Egypt that I might print in Platinum/Palladium.
To learn more about the work of Don Whitebread please visit his site, Don Whitebread.
Thank you to the photographers that share their work and inspire us.