in the eye of the beholder
BY SHIN YUN
Charles Phillips is a black and white landscape photographer who spends half his life in the Wyoming wilderness and the other half thinking about it. He was at the University of South Carolina last month to talk to students about his life and his work.
Phillips produces large and detailed photographs in a unique way. He combines developing and printing techniques adapted from aerial photography and graphic arts. He prints the shadows, masks over them to print the detailed midtones, and then masks over the midtones to print the highlight detail.
This allows him to produce photographs that retain the clarity of the negative. It takes Phillips up to seven weeks to produce the masks and balance the image.
"I use special precision enlargers that allow me to use registration systems plus employ film-masking materials," he said.
"These are positive and negative materials which I expose from my negative to create different timed types of film masks which blocks light, enhances the sharpness and fine detail, and allows me to preserve the clarity of the detail from my 8 X 10 negative state into the print."
Phillips spent two years studying the basics of fine art photography from Ansel Adams.
"When I was a freshman, I worked all summer and earned enough money to buy my first real enlarger and also get a really good camera. I got my first view camera and at age 19 I started studying with Ansel Adams."
Adams' was very hands-on, Phillips said. In the darkroom, students would bring in negatives and he would pick a negative and put it in the enlarger. He would crack a bad joke and go through the process of focusing, guessing the exposure, doing test strips and talking about what he was doing and why.
Adams talked about the strengths as well as the weakness of a negative and then read it on a densitometer. He taught his students to use scientific tools to monitor the density levels of their negatives.
"He always felt it was important for the photographer to feel part of a tradition. He'd give lectures on the history of photography, starting back in the 1800s, particularly showing some of the frontier photographers like Henry William Jackson, Timothy Sullivan, Moybridge and others.
"He had a marvelous collection of his own work as well as slides of other work so he'd talk about that and answer questions," Phillips said.
Seeing people like Adams and other photographers, focused and dedicated to photography, lent Phillips a sense of commitment to his own work.
"I love it. I love being in the mountains and the experiences I've had there. It's a natural evolution to want to be able to express those for myself and with other people," Phillips said.
Until a few years ago, Phillips had a pack mule named Missy who he traveled with. Missy died of colic.
"She was a great mule. She knocked me unconscious and ran off a number of times in the wilderness so I had to track her down," Phillips said. "I could always tell when there were bears or lions because she would get real spooky, so I learned to read her moods and I learned some mule psychology."
Phillips said being in the wilderness, with Missy and an 80-pound pack containing his Deerdorf and lenses, was scary at times but the fear made him more alert.
"One time I forgot one of my food sacks and I had to eat raisins and peanuts for the last three days," he said. "I actually fasted the last day.
"It's just an incredible experience to go out at night under the stars at those high altitudes with the Milky Way on a pretty night. In the morning you see the elk herds grazing on the meadow and if you happen upon a bighorn sheep or a grizzly bear, it's amazing."
After studying Adams' zone system, Phillips experimented with other techniques. He spent several years practicing and trying to sell his work, but he found it hard to compete with photographers who had been doing landscape photography for a long time and who had better reputations.
Phillips needed money to buy equipment and to learn marketing skills so he could sell his own work.
"I've done everything. I finagled the used of a camper trailer and sat at the base of the Superstitions in Arizona. I worked at a golf course, and when I got enough money I'd go back and spend a couple of months on the Superstitions," Phillips said.
He sold insurance, gave seminars, sold cameras, had his own custom black-and-white lab, and worked offshore at the oil rigs.
He began to work for himself full-time 12 years ago. Phillips is 43. It took him eight years to perfect his own technique.
"I had experience photographing and printing in the traditional sense. I just got so frustrated with the inability to preserve the quality of the negative into the print stage," he said. "l finally wised up and looked at other fields."
His work is always evolving. He said he's never bored because his work is technically challenging, and being able to make a living by working in the mountains is satisfying.
Phillips devotes all his time to taking pictures and promoting his work. He's been engaged once but never married. He said he hasn't found a woman who wanted to travel or wait six weeks while he went off in the wilderness, but he's still hoping.
"I think anything you really love to do is easy to communicate with other people because it just flows naturally out of being immersed," he said.
"In a way, the photographs present timeless aspects of our nature. These areas have really been changing over huge periods of time and I think there's a part of us that really longs for that kind of nonobstructive view of nature and its purity."
Shin Yun is a student at the University of Carolina in Columbia.
I love being in the mountains and the experiences I've had there. It's a natural evolution to want to be able to express those for myself and other people."
wilderness photographer Charles Phillips