by David J. West
PHOTOGRAPHING EDEN: DAVID J. WEST
Interview by Stephen B. Armstrong
Springdale, Utah sits just outside of Zion National Park, one of America’s most popular—and beautiful—travel destinations. The streets of Springdale are lined with inns, bars, gift shops, outdoor gear suppliers and coffee shops, making it a charming place to walk after a day of hiking. Among the more striking spots in Springdale is the David J. West Galley, where visitors will find enormous photographs of Zion hanging from the walls, along with images of other spectacular sites in the Mountain West, including Bryce Canyon, the Wasatch Front and the Grand Canyon. All of these photographs are the work of one person, the gallery’s sole owner and proprietor, as well as its namesake, David J. West. West recently stopped to chat with Route 7 Review about his life and his craft.
ROUTE 7 REVIEW: What prompted you to take up photography as a vocation?
DAVID J. WEST: My dad was a portrait photographer and early on I learned the basics about lighting, composition, exposure from watching him in his studio. I grew up in northern New Jersey right by the Appalachian Trail and spent a lot of my childhood outdoors exploring the woods and enjoying being surrounded by nature. It was a natural process for me as I had to access to cameras from early on: I would take the camera outdoors and record my love of nature on film. I did not follow my father into portrait photography—as I always had a need to explore nature and be outside. I spent two semesters at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and realized that I couldn't learn what I needed and didn't have the patience to be stuck indoors. And instead spent the next years traveling and photographing my travels.
R7R: What brought you to Utah?
DW: During my years travelling I spent some time in Zambia, Africa, doing volunteer work and it was there I met my wife, MaryJane, who was a fellow volunteer. My wife worked mostly with pre-school teachers in villages, and I worked mostly with youth club leaders on various projects. My favorite project I took part in was when I took out a microloan and started a little peanut butter business—I organized a bunch of youth club leaders and other people and we all pounded roasted peanuts I bought from local farmers to make peanut butter. We then put the peanut butter into jars and distributed them to local markets and sold some door to door. It worked well and we were able to take the profits and buy more peanuts and jars with the profits and do it all over again. So basically I started a small peanut butter business. Jobs are hard to come by in Zambia.
Anyway, after we were done with our time in Africa, I followed her back to Utah—I moved to Utah in 2001. MaryJane was in school at the University of Utah [in Salt Lake City], and I knew from previously traveling through Utah that I already loved the state’s diverse landscape. After visiting Zion National Park numerous times I opened my gallery in 2007 in Springdale.
R7R: Would you say you have a distinct visual style? If so, how would you characterize it?
DW: I like to photograph majestic landscapes. I would say my work is dynamic, moving, and speaks to people. I am trying to convey an emotion that I feel when I took the picture. My favorite landscapes to photograph are mountains, whether it’s the sandstone mountains of the Colorado Plateau or the snow-capped mountains of Glacier National Park [in Montana]. Often the sky there is moody and stormy. I also enjoy creating work in canyons with no sky, or anything to do with water, whether it’s a reflection in a lake or the flowing water of a river. One thing I strive for in my images is to make the person viewing my photographs to feel as though they were standing there with me as I tripped the shutter. To feel the sense of awe in some of the simple moments that make up a lifetime.
R7R: Describe your approach to work.
DW: I often will go back to the same spot again and again until I capture the photograph I first envisioned while there. I will visit this spot during different times of the day, different seasons, different weather patterns....I like to walk around and get familiar with an area. I don’t always stay in the same spot but move around, exploring an area. I currently have two panoramic cameras that I use, a Linhof 617 and a Fuji GX617 as well as a Hasselblad H4D and a 35mm digital. I usually take one pano camera and either an Hasselblad or 35mm digital with me wherever I go. Sometimes I'll combine multiple exposures with my Hasselblad or Nikon to create a panoramic image. There is something about film I still love, and so I'm still exposing lots of film along with my digital work.
R7R: How do you determine which photos will be turned into the prints that you sell? What separates the keepers from the rejects?
DW: For me the keepers are the ones that successfully convey the emotion I was trying to capture. But also technically I look at color, exposure, composition, focus, etc. Make sure all the technical aspects are in order, and whichever of those then give me the emotion I am looking for—that is what I turn into a photgraph. I also have my wife and friends look at the images and give their input.
R7R: Which photographers have influenced you the most? Why?
DW: Galen Rowell. I liked his style of capturing dramatic light and traveling light, although I now shoot a lot of medium format, which is a much heavier system to lug around. But for me the increase in image quality with larger film and sensors makes it worth it. And even though my dad didn't photograph landscapes, he taught me to slow down when composing an image and the importance of establishing a correct exposure and dynamic composition.
R7R: Plans for the near future?
DW: For now, my main plan is just to continue to grow and progress as an artist, to keep creating images that inspire people. My wife just gave birth to our second child in July, so I don't think I'll be taking any long trips to exotic locations any time soon as far as photo workshops, I'm content for now doing 4-5 a year here in Zion. I'd love to come out with a coffee table book featuring some of my personal favorite images and some words to go with each one. A guidebook about landscape photography in Zion is also in the works and should be published soon.