All images by Mark Hemmings, used with permission
Mark Hemmings got his start in photography with a trip to Japan in 2000. With a film camera in hand, Mark set out to photograph the beautiful environment around him, first in Nagano and then elsewhere. Those first rolls showed that Mark had a knack for the craft, and steadily his career gained traction. Largely self-taught, Mark has had the opportunity to travel the world to both photograph and teach workshops. He is also the Director of Photography at Hemmings House Pictures, an international media company based in Canada.
Phoblographer: Your photography career began with a trip to Tokyo, which seems like a fairly daunting place to begin photographing, given how beautiful Tokyo and the rest of Japan is. What were those first images like, and how did you decide what to photograph?
Mark: Tokyo and the rest of Japan were defining moments for me in a lot of ways. One of the biggest however was birthed out of being on a tight budget! I had little money for film purchases, so I said to myself that I can only take one exposure of each scene. No bracketing, no second shot, and with slide film and its unforgiving latitude (compared to negative film), this was a gamble. That level of austerity created in me a longstanding desire to create a small amount of photographs . . . small but visually and emotionally potent. These days there are no budgetary restrictions on the number of photos one creates, but I still love the challenge of attempting to get the shot in one take.
My first images were actually in Nagano, as I was very sick while arriving in Tokyo, and needed to go to Nagano for fresh mountain air (I had some form of pneumonia). While in Nagano I had an insatiable desire to climb the Japan Alps and to start my career as a nature photographer. It was early Spring and there was a massive amount of snow on the mountain. When I arrived at the top I had a spiritual encounter whereby I wanted to keep climbing upwards, not wanting to reach the peak. Well, the peak was reached regardless, and the photos that I took on top of Japan were the ones that, in many ways, launched my career.
Phoblographer: Who – or what – influenced your early years?
Mark: My early years influences were vast; as a Canadian photographer I was naturally drawn to the foundational work of Freeman Patterson, Darwin Wiggett, and Daryl Benson. I learned so much back then by reading their articles in Photo Life magazine, or reading their books.
When I returned to Japan a second time to live for a year my influences shifted to an Asian minimalist style for my artistic work. For my commercial/advertising work I am indebted to the extraordinary skill of Japanese pro photographers and their ability to light their subjects. It is rare to see high contrast advertising photography in Japan; the work is subtle, delicate, soft, and sets the viewer at ease. I would say that the images are purposefully much quieter than North American commercial images. This outlook, I believe, is commensurate with the overall Japanese aesthetic of restrained, but present authority.
As for a historical photographer that made the most impact on me, I would say that Gertrude Käsebier influenced me the most. The photo that sparked something in me was untitled, I believe, but has since became known as The Silhouette of a Woman/ A Maiden at Prayer. It was featured as album artwork on the Elecktra/Nonesuch recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I bought the album because of the photograph! It turned out to be an amazing album with the haunting vocals of Dawn Upshaw, so two good things came of the purchase.
Phoblographer: How has your commercial work for Hemmings House influenced your creative vision and vice versa?
Mark: I feel very blessed that most of the commercial work that we do has our own stamp of aesthetic approval. There are certainly times that a client is adamant that they choose stylistic elements which we may disagree with, however the desire for the client to be served well and accommodated is our prime directive. Fortunately, most of our clients trust our work and abilities and give us a framework, and then let us run with the art direction. Those are the jobs that turn out great!
Commercial photographers sometimes get looked down upon by fine art photographers, however I have found in my experience that it is the commercial work that has given me the technical skills to support my creative, artistic visions. Hemmings House Pictures is a commercial-based media corp, however creativity and artistic integrity is a constantly flowing undercurrent.
Phoblographer: Outside of your work for Hemmings House, what do you enjoy photographing?
Mark: I am in Jerusalem right now, and there is nothing more rewarding for me than doing street photography. I love people, and especially recording slices of time in the lives of people from other cultures. By the time this interview is on your blog I will be teaching my annual photography workshop in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. So I would say that my non-commercial photography would be street photography at home and abroad, as well as teaching photography at workshops and also private lessons.
Shooting for yourself is important. It keeps then creative muscles flexed, and it keeps commercial work fresh. I think a photo per day (at least) should be viewed as taking your daily vitamins!
Phoblographer: When did you feel comfortable enough with your photography that you decided to start providing classes for others?
Mark: My international photography/filmmaking workshops have included teaching in Korea, Japan, Transylvania/Romania, Hungary, England, Mexico, and my home country of Canada. My first teaching encounter was in South Korea in 2004. I was responsible to bring Canadian students to Korea so they could learn camera work with the Korean students. It was meant to be a cross-cultural event between the two countries (plus a few others), and it sparked in me an interest in sharing my skills and passions with others.
The following year I taught in Hungary at a very good workshop run by filmmaker’s in the South of Hungary, and then finally a year later I created my own workshops, owned by me, primarily in Japan. I have been to Japan nine times! I love that country.
I believe that my transition to doing my own workshops, and the courage to actually pull them off, was aided by the fact that I had already helped teach on two other workshops, Korea and Hungary, both owned by other people. These two experiences gave me the confidence that I could do the same.
Phoblographer: You’re fairly active on Instagram. What attracts you to that form?
Mark: As I mentioned above, I am in Jerusalem right now creating some really interesting street photographs. My enjoyment of iPhotography (or whatever name you want to call it) comes from a desire in my life towards simplicity and minimalism. I also want to create intentional road blocks in my artistic career, which forces me to think outside of the box. With the obvious technical and aesthetic limitations that are inherent in mobile phone cameras, you have to make up for the lack by really becoming a master at composition. I am certainly not a master yet but I absolutely love that challenge.
Another reason I like photographing with my iPhone 4S (I am waiting for the iPhone 6, whatever that will look like), is that my camera is always with me. My DSLR’s are used by me at work, my iPhone when I am walking down the street. The best photos that I have taken have been ones that occur when I don’t have a DSLR with me!
I have received a little bit of resistance to my Instagram work from other pro photographers, but I always remind them kindly that I consider my Instagram image making as my favorite hobby, and my DSLR work as my career. Everyone deserves a hobby, and mine just happens to be recording life with my iPhone. It is that simple!
Phoblographer: What advice can you give to fledgling photographers to help them develop their creative vision?
Mark: Young photographers should read magazines constantly, read photo books, volunteer as an assistant for established photographers, and really go after an angle that sets you apart from the thousands of other great young photographers. For me, my Japan portfolio was what set me apart and gave me a “name”. While going to another country is not viable for everyone, just to create a portfolio, you could substitute that with a local option that is equally as compelling.
My greatest concern however for photographers who want to break into the industry is that they have no, or little concept of small business finances. It is so critical to learn how to market yourself, how to pay government taxes, how to operate a balance sheet, invoicing, scheduling, and a host of other tasks. That is why working as an apprentice is valuable. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel . . . there are established practices already in place used by successful production companies. Learn what they are, and then jump into marketing yourself. While this does not sound as romantic as the image of the globe trotting photographer, the mantra of the photographer in 2014 needs to be Marketing, Marketing, Marketing! There are so many other photographers out there who are after your potential clients, and who are possibly better than you. How do you get around this problem? Get your name known, ad nauseam.
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