This series of photos, captured by Drew Doggett with his Leica S and M Monochrom, documents landscape scenery and vignettes from several US national and state parks, including Yosemite, Grand Teton and Olympic. These images seek to inspire others to explore and engage with the natural fabric of America. Many of the 58 national parks in the United States are facing tremendous challenges. In particular, the residual effects due to climate change are especially pernicious: parks in the West endure prolonged spells of drought that lead to unseasonably high temperatures and an increased risk of forest fires; park glaciers melt at alarming rates; habitats for wildlife including salmon and trout are compromised; and terrible air quality puts both human visitors and park animals at risk of illness. A further complication is that most of the parks are grossly underfunded and struggle to keep up with even basic maintenance. We caught up with Drew to explore his motives and techniques in creating this ode to the wild American West.
Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and your route into photography?
I became interested in photography at a young age. I was always naturally curious, and photography and travel combined enabled me to satisfy those desires. My first exposure to the realm of professional photography was working in fashion in New York. Assisting top fashion photographers planted the seeds for my own practice.
What started my independent career was a trip to Nepal in 2009. Fashion no longer intrigued me in the same way and I knew I needed to pursue a route within photography that had more socially and ethnographically engaged components. Sitting high in the Himalayas after one of the most physically-taxing journeys of my life, I made a decision to pursue an independent career focusing on photographing places and people at risk of disappearing unsung.
Was there a particular story behind to your series? What did you hope to achieve or express with these photographs?
For the American West series I had a few particular messages I was interested in exploring and relaying to the public. My generation faces extraordinary pressure and challenges to protect our natural resources. In certain areas, we are approaching the point of no return with the negative effects of climate change and pollution. I’ve seen the ramification of these issues felt far and wide, even in some of the most isolated locations. As a result, I’ve developed a strong interest in exploring and documenting these endangered natural treasures.
I’ve always romanticized the notion of discovering a location for the very first time in history, one that is untouched by man and exists in its purest form. This is a recurring theme explored in my American West series in particular. The work is a manifestation of my fear that future generations will no longer have the ability to experience such natural beauty and wonders with the same ease.
Which camera and equipment did you shoot with?
How did you shoot your landscape and natural feature shots and what do you consider the advantages of shooting with your particular set-up?
The Leica Monochrom ended up being perfect for the American West series. At a very practical level, the Monochrom fit into my palm making it ideal to maneuver through small spots and tight canyons. On an artistic level, the size didn’t compromise function and since it’s a pure black and white camera it has an extremely dynamic tonal range. I was able to pick up the subtle nuances in the landscape as well as the rock formations, or the textures of water and plants.
Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
Black and white has always been a part of my work; to date I’ve only created one color series and even that was a surprising decision for me. For this series in particular, shooting in black and white allowed me to pay homage to the incredible photographers who traveled this route before me. Black and white is timeless and classic, reminding me of the darkroom photography of my childhood – it transcends time.
How much did the weather play a role while shooting and what considerations did you have to make in terms of variable light conditions?
I wasn’t seeking the dramatic, big open skies like Ansel Adams, but the subtle, quiet moments that help make these parks multi-dimensional. A big part of capturing this was the overcast, cloud-filled days that let me really shape and craft the light during post-production.
A lot of the photos in this series have a soft, almost melancholic feel to them. How much of this effect was a matter of working with your aperture and depth of field?
By using a larger depth of field and slower shutter speeds I could further highlight the feeling of softness in the water and sky; the treatment of tonal range in this series creates the melancholic feel above all else. I actively looked for instances throughout the park where I knew I could play this up.
How much of a role does editing play in your photographic process and what advice can you offer to your fellow photographers?
My work is very centered in idealism in nature, requiring me to edit to portray the perfection of my subjects. I use editing as a device to maximize the viewer’s experience in understanding what I am trying to portray – in this case, all that we have to lose from not looking after our National Parks. Dodging and burning maximizes the dynamic range and draws out shadow details, creating a subtle shift in tone to push the viewer’s eye to important elements of the image. Editing can also take the work to a level of painstaking detail that hobbyists and non-professional photographers can’t get to; it’s what pushes images to reach their maximum potential for impact and message. As far as advice, I’d say it’s very easy to go too far and that exercising restraint in post-production is extraordinarily difficult.
How would you describe the experience of traveling through the American West? What struck you most about the geography and landscapes?
One of the most important lessons learned from this series specifically was how incredibly diverse our national backyard is. You often hear the Parks called ‘America’s Greatest Idea’ – and I truly think they are. There is an allure to getting on a plane and traveling miles and miles from home, but the American West was abound with natural beauty. We also did the entire trip in an Airstream trailer, which allowed me to really be involved with not only the Parks but the journey of getting to and from there. Being on the road for that long and in that vehicle created an intimacy with the land you don’t get by airplane.
How long have you been shooting with Leica cameras and how has your relationship to the brand evolved over time?
I first used Leica cameras professionally for this series but I have vivid memories of my father’s Leica growing up and the way it felt in my hands. The Monochrom, in particular, has proven to be an invaluable addition to my camera bag.
Your work is often defined by the hard-to-reach locations you shoot in. Do you have any projects in the works? Where are you off to next?
I’m preparing to release my newest series, Desert Song: Compositions of Kenya, in mid-October. To create this body of work I traveled to a remote Northern corridor of Kenya to photograph the Rendille and Samburu tribes, who have been plagued with a drought that has left their semi-nomadic lifestyle in jeopardy. However, they still get up everyday and continue their traditions and take pride in their expressions of self. This is why I made the decision to photograph the people in a manner that pays homage to classic fashion photography, because it’s a style that exudes the celebratory attitude they have in their culture. Africa is a place I am continuously fascinated by and I will be traveling back there in 2018 for my next series.