Outdoor Enthusiast Interview
Michael Skourtes is an avid outdoorsman who has combined his appreciation for the outdoors with his talent for photography into a satisfying business. He authors a blog that gives a narrative background for his breath taking photographs. These are no ordinary landscape photographs that you might catch by stopping by the side of the road. These are truly art that any backwoods hiker would be proud to display in the finest of homes. Michael tells a story of the Oregon wilderness through his outstanding photography. Read his story below.
1) Hi Michael. Thank you for joining us today. Please take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers and tell them all about your blog and website.
Thank you; it is a pleasure to speak with you and your readers. Although I have been taking photographs for several years, last year I took the next step in my photography career and started my company and website, Oregon Foto, to share my work with others and inspire them and witness for themselves the beauty of Oregon. I am very pleased to have a website as a central location where so many visitors can view my photographs and discover the top photography and hiking destinations in my home state of Oregon.
2) Tell us about how you got involved in photography in general and what brought you to specialize in outdoor photography.
Taking pictures has always been a part of my life. I started very young with an instant Polaroid camera and would take pictures of the animals near my childhood home, which had a small creek running through our backyard. At that time, obviously I had no knowledge or care in the world of quality or “capturing a great shot”; I just was having fun and was very proud of taking a picture of some small bird which barely showed up in the picture as a black dot. Over the years, as I have encountered new experiences, I have also grown as a photographer. I specialize in landscape photography for the simple fact that I enjoy taking pictures and being in nature. Fortunately for me, I can satisfy two passions at the same time.
I essentially have two approaches to outdoor photography: I either head out into the field with the express purpose of photographing a destination, or the photographs come naturally during one of my outdoor adventures. I always bring my camera and gear along with me while backpacking in the hope of finding an inspiring scene along my journey. That is not to say that if I set out with purpose to photograph a scene that it is forced. However, if I have decided to head out and shoot a scene, a lot of planning is involved to arrive at the location with optimum light and weather conditions as my only mission is to get a good shot. Therefore, sacrifices are made to either leave very early in the morning or stay for many hours at the same location waiting for the right conditions which typically results in me coming home much later than anticipated. Landscape photography involves a lot of standing around and waiting, as well as return visits to the same location hoping for the right light.
I aspire to convey the scene on print with the same vividness as my eyes see it while in the field. If my eyes see dull grey or if I need to squint due to harsh lighting, there will be no vividness in a color photograph or subtle tonality in a black and white photograph. Therefore, shooting can be hit or miss when I am backpacking since my primary goal is making it safely to my destination and setting up camp after a long day of hiking. I do not have the flexibility to be at a location when the prime moment to start snapping pictures arrives. The key criteria for taking photos (early or late in the day, quality of light, and fluffy or dramatic skies), are not the same criteria when backpacking. Backpacking should be about being smart. Venturing off from the safety of your tent is not the smartest move when you decided to hike a quarter of a mile to photograph a promising lake you see on your map at sunset and a thunderstorm rolls in.
I learned a lesson while backpacking in Hells Canyon in Oregon. The lesson is drop pack and set up tent. I reached a scenic point along the ridge of Bear Mountain with an expansive view of the canyon below, it was a breathtaking scene so I decided to call it home for the night. As I was tired from a long day’s hike and anxious to get in some shots, I dropped my pack, rested a bit, and grabbed my camera to take some photos as promising clouds were developing. I stood around for a while waiting for a good shot and all of a sudden dark skies came rolling in and I was in the middle of some of the worst rain and hail thunderstorm I have experienced. I was wet, and my gear was wet, as I pulled out my tent to set it up for shelter from the storm. With frozen hands, while being pelted with hail, it took me ten fumbling minutes to set up my tent when it should have taken two. Lesson learned: drop pack and set up tent. There is always time to shoot after you take care of yourself first.
3) You state that you strive to capture a scene so that its sense of place leaves a lasting impression. I think this will resonate with my readers who return to the outdoors for much the same reason. Tell us how you choose the specific subjects of your photography. What inspires you?
I feel that a great shot is one where the viewer connects with an image and a part of that image stays with them. This lasting impression is what I am after because as the photographer, I have the chance to possibly connect with another person in a unique manner which only the print can bring. I believe this can only happen if I am successful in drawing the viewer into the picture to experience all that I experienced while taking the photograph. I want to capture that sense of place –that feeling of what it felt to be there when I took the photograph –and this is my inspiration.
I try to choose a subject that suits my current mood and is best suited for the time of year. After all, shooting photos can take a bit of work, so I need to be in the mood to physically get to a location, set up my gear, shoot, post-edit, and then write a blog about the destination and update my website. Right now it is late February, the sun is currently out, the weekend forecast seems fine, and I am in the mood to take a short hike in the Columbia River Gorge and take waterfall pictures. I am a little hesitant about not having the green lush vegetation that comes with spring, but I might go out anyway and see what I can find to shoot. So I will do some research in my guidebooks and various online websites to find a destination which suits my style and seems promising to photograph. If I have a rewarding experience and wish to recommend the destination to others; then I will write about it on my blog to share with fellow photographers and outdoor enthusiasts.
4) Are you a self-taught photographer or did you have a mentor that got you started?
Self-taught. Over the years, I have found it necessary to learn and hone my technical skills in order be able to show a scene in the manner I intend. Without my desire to improve, I would still be taking pictures with my instant Polaroid camera.
5) Was there a specific defining moment when you decided to become a professional photographer or did it gradually develop over time?
There was never a defining moment per se since I have always been a photographer in some aspect or another. Like everything in life, we gain experience in what we are passionate about because it is what motivates us to keep at it. All of this has indeed gradually developed over time and hopefully will continue to develop. I would be very happy if 10 or 20 years from now I could look back at my current portfolio and say to myself “You really have come a long way.”
6) Describe the most spectacular outdoor photograph you have ever taken. What made it so dramatic?
It is honestly hard for me to say if I have ever taken a spectacular photograph. I look at other photographer’s work and only see the positive and what moves me. When I look at my own work, I see the flaws and what I should have done better if I were able to do so. The photographs I have enjoyed taking the most are from my Outside of Shaniko series on my website. Off the highway about 20 miles from the old ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon is an old homestead. The place is bare wood, with broken windows, and is occupied by pigeons and pack rats. It is a neglected piece of history, (although I really have no idea when it was built), but it resonates with me: the Old West and what it must have been like to survive as a Oregon pioneer. Here you have a small farm house, two sheds, a chicken coop, a large barn, and a spectacular windmill right in the middle of nowhere with clear views of the open landscape. To me, this is the prime Eastern Oregon landscape I am after; a barn, an old house, the open horizon, something to shoot in black and white that captures a life that is long past.
Over the years, I have been here probably five times and each time this homestead wastes away a little more. Last year when I visited, the windmill was damaged from the winter’s storms and sadly, I feel there are not too many years left for these rickety buildings. The place seems to have lost a little magic now that windmill stopped spinning. I kept going back because this place is peaceful and I enjoy shooting here. I also kept going back to finally be there when I had a “perfect storm” so to speak – a thunderstorm late in the afternoon just before the sun went down. My Outside of Shaniko series captures that sense of drama that I was searching for when one day I finally did get that thunderstorm after sitting around for hours, waiting for the clouds to develop and the sun to drop. Any photographer will tell you that fantastic clouds and dark skies will add drama to any shot and I believe this series lives up to this advice.
7) If you had the opportunity to take any landscape photograph that you desire without the limitations of time, money, transportation or other such factors, where would it be? What season would you choose? What would you want to capture in the scene?
Well, if I was truly without the limitation of transportation, I would set up my camera inside a crater on the Moon and take a shot of Earth with the rim of the crater on the horizon line.
On Earth, The Great Pyramids in Egypt during a lightening storm in winter. I want very dark skies to contrast against the light colored stone blocks.
8) What projects are you passionate about?
My primary project, and the one I am most passionate about is photographing the top destinations in Oregon. Whether I reach them by car or by foot, my goal is to cover all four corners of the state and describe them so others too can head out and explore the state with better images than a black and white guidebook and a little more consideration and detail than most of the small blurbs I read online about places. If I can promote my state and inspire others to explore places that I personally have found rewarding, then I will consider my work well done.
9) What else would you like for us to know about you and your impressive work?
I encourage each person to find something they are passionate about and embrace it, as their life will be rewarded in more ways than can be imagined.
Michael, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you and showcase your work. I found your work very moving, even mesmerizing and I think my readers will too.
Michael lives in Portland, Oregon and travels into the backwoods to capture captivating photographs of his home state.
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