“Making the simple complicated is commonplace.
Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
Today we share the work and words of photographer Jan Bell.
Please tell us about yourself.
Growing up on a farm in the flatlands of Northwest Ohio instilled an appreciation for the land. This innate passion has followed me throughout my life and culminates in the collection of photographs presented in my portfolio of work. My early years were filled with exploration. Time escaped me during my visits to a small wooded plot on our farm; I became lost in my surroundings. In retrospect, I feel that it was my introduction to the wilderness, albeit a four acre wilderness. This desire to wander has followed me throughout my adult life.
I consider myself an avid adventurer and am most happy when I’m off the beaten path exploring remote locations throughout North America. I’m particularly drawn to the West and to the shores of Lake Superior – places that renew my soul and that I explore repeatedly. I’m always at peace during my visits, often capturing images for weeks, even months. More often than not, the experience is as much about spending quiet time in the outdoors as it is photography. Without one, the other wouldn’t hold much meaning – they are inseparable.
Who has had an influence on my creative process?
A few years ago, I came across a quote written by Ansel Adams. He said “I hope that my work will encourage self-expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us.” I’ve realized what a lasting impact these words have had on me. Adams’ photographs introduced me to a landscape that I only dreamed of seeing as a young child. They heightened my curiosity to explore the American West. My photographic journey has taken me to those landscapes and many others and allowed me to immerse myself in the beauty found throughout North America.
My early work had its roots in the work of the Group f/64 photographers, a small circle of illustrious West Coast photographers. Their work was characterized by sharply focused and carefully framed images, something that I adhered to in my early work. While I was influenced by their work, I’ve transitioned to a style that hopefully conveys my personal interpretation of the natural world.
I was introduced to Don Worth’s photography a number of years ago at Photography West Gallery, in Carmel, California. He was a West Coast photographer who lived at the same time, and in the same area, as a majority of the Group f/64 photographers. He did some exquisite botanical photography, much of which is included in his book, “Close to Infinity,” a book that I purchased during my visit to the gallery. Ironically, I planned to study horticulture up until my last year of high school, then I transitioned to fine art. Photography has allowed me to capture the beauty of the botanical world, marrying my love of the two.
The minimalistic work of Michael Kenna influenced me as I began exploring long exposure work. John Sexton’s work represents the quintessential standard in print quality in my mind. I’ve never been moved by animal photography until I saw the work of Nick Brandt. His photos are exquisite ‘portraits’ of wild animals.
I realize that some photographers do not peruse the work of others; they feel a need to be original without any outside influence. On the other hand, I prefer to be exposed to a lot of photography.
Is there an image that you wish that you had taken?
There have been many! I feel that I’d be remiss if I mentioned one or two without giving lengthy thought to it. But my current favorite is a photograph created by a friend and colleague, Jeff Gaydash. A body of his work, captured around the Great Lakes, hung in the photography gallery at the Detroit Institute of Art in 2019. The photo that caught my eye is titled The Path. We traded prints last year. It now hangs on our walls.
How do you work though times when nothing seems to work?
I’m fortunate that I don’t find myself in that position very often. Being that I’m drawn to large bodies of water or flowing streams, I have no problem finding something that stimulates my brain. While I love the American Southwest, I often find it difficult to find subject matter that fits my criteria. I’m not the classic landscape photographer who reveals the entire landscape – I prefer to isolate my subjects; and that’s not always possible. As I said, I enjoy quiet time in the wilderness, so I’m not too frustrated when this happens. I simply relax, enjoy cooking a fine meal, and of course, hiking!
What part of image making do you find most rewarding?
This is an easy one for me to answer! I love being outdoors, experiencing it to its fullest. So that, in and of itself, is enough. I’m always glad to get away from the busy activity that surrounds everyday life, even when I’m not being productive photographically.
Being in an area for an extended period of time provides an opportunity to gain an understanding of the area. Hopefully this connection is apparent in my photographs. Capturing long exposure images of moving water is definitely my favorite. I become almost giddy with excitement when I see each frame on the screen of my camera – every exposure is unique!
What tools have you found essential in the making of your photographs?
For long exposure work, it is necessary to use neutral density filters. I typically use a 5 or a 10-stop ND, sometimes combining them. Mine are hand-made by Singh Ray. Additionally, I use a carbon fiber tripod and a ball head made by Really Right Stuff. Periodically I upgrade my camera gear. This past year I purchased my first mirrorless camera along with all new lenses. I have been a big fan of Apple computers since the mid 80s. I currently use a MacBook Pro when I travel, and a Mac Studio desktop computer in my studio. I print on 100% cotton rag paper with archival pigment inks.
I feel that I’m a bit of an anomaly in the world of photography. While many photographers use Lightroom for most, if not all, of their work, I do not use it. I could not create my final images without Photoshop. I view my captured images as a starting point – nothing is off limits. Naturally I prefer working on a photograph that requires only minor tonal adjustments – adjustments that can easily be made with global curves adjustments, then fine tuning with masks/curves. That said, some masks take a LONG TIME. I’ve spent as much as 2-3 hours on an intricate mask.
As much as I love nature, sometimes the juxtaposition of elements in a scene do not work well together. Compositions are often not to my liking. As painters have done for centuries, I take the liberty of distorting or rearranging portions of the frame. This is not possible without some of the more complex tools within Photoshop.
Taking this to the extreme, I shot an abandoned adobe church a couple years ago in Lamy, New Mexico. Parts of the church were in disrepair. The property was strewn with junk and vehicles, and the message board out front was quite distracting. So I set about shooting “assets” that I would use to piece together a church that would be to my liking on a natural landscape totally removed from Lamy. I kept my eye out for that landscape and found one a few days later. It needed to be captured at the same time of the day, and at the same angle (as the photos of the church), else the final photograph would not be believable. After hours of work, placing the church in its new environment, I’ve completed the photo but haven’t decided whether it will ever be added to my portfolio or not.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
Aside from photography, I feel a close attachment to wilderness and the protection of it. A majority of my images illustrate natural beauty that can not be replaced once it’s lost. I feel that it’s important for me to document the splendor provided by these landscapes before they disappear. My travels have taken me to many of the country’s national parks, monuments and forests, as well as remote wilderness areas that are often controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Each controlling agency has a different set of rules and guidelines by which they operate. It seems that much of our public land is valued by the amount of use it receives. In heavily visited areas, that equates to a proliferation of signs, railings, roads and parking areas that detract from the look and feel of the very thing that we seek to experience. With increased usage comes an influx of commercial establishments, noise, traffic, and an overabundance of people on the trails, all of which detract from the natural world.
Public lands were set aside to protect them from human exploitation. They offer intangible benefits that are in direct contrast to a dollar amount that might be placed on them. Human development, climate change, political whims, and the search for energy encroach upon the land at an ever increasing rate. As this continues, these treasured places may not remain for the enjoyment of future generations. Pictographs, cliffdwellings and other culturally significant sites become subject to vandalism and looting. Mining for oil and gas disrupts the environment and leads to serious consequences. Off- road vehicles carve into the Earth’s fragile crust which leads to erosion, often taking decades to heal. I witnessed the disastrous results of such activity on a recent visit to Factory Butte, in Utah. In 2019 the Bureau of Land management opened 5,400 acres that surround the butte to unfettered off-road use. I was shocked by the multitude of tire tracks cut into the landscape and the resulting haze that filled the air for miles, caused by dust generated from these vehicles. I have photographed this butte numerous times over the last two decades – it is forever changed.
We must all work together to safeguard against these types of imprudent decisions if we hope to save public lands. The pressures from a growing population and the increased visitation resulting from it, combined with the shortsightedness of those in charge, are the greatest enemies of unspoiled land. Our planet is worth the protection that only we can provide.
Thank you Jan.
To learn more about the work of Jan Bell please visit his site by clicking on his name.