This week, photographer David Barthel talks about building a career from his art, how his photography evolved from a hobby and curiosity as a kid, the turning point of a job loss, and some of his inspirations from our area.
DB: I’ve been photographing the natural world for over fifteen years, with a primary focus on the North Shore of Lake Superior and a secondary emphasis on the vast and rugged American West. I’m often asked how long I’ve been involved with photography, a question that would seemingly demand a concise answer. The reality is, my journey into photography didn’t result from any single moment of epiphany, but rather the gradual development of a long-held hobby.
My first experience using a camera was in the early 1990s when I was eight years old and purchased a simple 110-film point-and-shoot camera (for $10) with some gift money. Back in those years, my motivations involved simply documenting vacations, family events, and such. When I was in 9th grade, I enrolled in an elective industrial technology class that gave me my first (and only) darkroom experience. It was there that I first learned about SLR cameras and the basic concepts of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focus. By the time I was a junior in high school and had a part-time income, I was eyeing up photography gear in the catalogs I picked up at Ritz Camera and Wolf Camera (anyone remember those stores?). Eventually, I settled on an entry-level Canon Rebel G SLR and a couple of lenses.
It was around that time that I developed a passion for exploring the rugged terrain surrounding Lake Superior and the numerous state parks that dot the North Shore and started paying attention to the work of other photographers. One individual who particularly stands out as an influence in my nascent years as an artist is Duluth photographer Dennis O’Hara. Long before artists were sharing their work on the web, Dennis had pioneered a website with his portfolio of Lake Superior area photography before most of the public even had access to the Internet! Not only did I admire his style of photography but also how he was sharing it for the world to see and enjoy. Keep in mind, social media and content management platforms were still in their infancy at the time, so getting your work out in front of the world required much more effort. In 2004, I decided to take the plunge and launch my own online gallery.
The years that followed included numerous trips up and down the North Shore to develop my body of work while also earning my B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering and later working in that field for a few years at a utility technology company in Pequot Lakes, MN. Then the Great Recession hit, and I, like many people at the time, found myself without a job. While I didn’t realize it at the time, it turned out to be one of the best things that has happened in my life. I was at a crossroads and decided to take a chance and try to make photography my full-time occupation. Had my job not been eliminated, I don’t think I would have mustered the courage (or perhaps craziness!) to trade a steady, comfortable income for the uncertainties of selling artwork. In 2011, I began exhibiting my work at art fairs and festivals throughout the Upper Midwest and continue to earn my living from that today. The nice thing about art fairs is the opportunity it gives people to meet and purchase artwork directly from the artist in an upbeat, comfortable setting.
While building my portfolio over the years, I became familiar with and studied the work of some of Minnesota’s most notable nature photographers, including Jim Brandenburg, Craig Blacklock, and Jay Steinke, to name a few. As with most photographers, my own artistic style and preferences developed over time from an amalgamation of characteristics I appreciated in the works of others. Even today, I’m constantly inspired by the creations of other artists, both local and international, and continue to find opportunities to push my photography in new directions.
When I’m out in the field, my goal is to seek out the singular elements in nature that stir my soul, whether it be the delicate light of a sunrise over Lake Superior, the natural curves formed by stones and the movement of water, or the patterns formed by a grouping of trees in the forest. I’m always looking for a deeper meaning that elevates an image beyond the ordinary postcard-like shot and allows the viewer to experience the emotions I felt as I made the photograph.
My current gear includes Canon’s EOS 5D Mark IV and several pro-grade Canon and Nikon lenses. In general, I don’t get too obsessed with gear as I believe the best photographs result from a compelling vision and technical skill rather than the sharpest lenses and highest-megapixel-count sensors. That said, better equipment can help overcome obstacles to achieving one’s vision in certain situations.
One of the greatest challenges of being a self-employed artist is balancing the creative side of the business with the day-to-day, administrative side. The creative hat is only one of the many that need to be worn. Furthermore, it’s really challenging trying to multitask the two sides as each requires specialized function from different sections of the brain. That means I might spend one day with the artistic work of processing and proofing photographs I’ve captured and another day doing more administrative tasks like inventorying and purchasing supplies or matting prints and building custom frames for artwork I’ve sold. I try not to mix the two types of activities. My best work happens when I’m in a state of ‘flow,’ which is a mental state in which one is fully immersed in an activity with a feeling of intense focus and involvement.
When exhibiting at outdoor art festivals, the weather often presents unique challenges. Occasionally, the weather gods smile upon us and deliver 75 degree sunshine with light breezes. But, frequently there is some element that makes things less than desirable, whether it be excessive heat, humidity, rain, or worst of all—damaging winds. Last summer, my tent (and many other’s) suffered extensive damage after a severe thunderstorm packing 80 mph winds roared through an art festival in Excelsior, MN. Thankfully, I was able to secure much of my artwork before the storm arrived so that the damage was limited mostly to the structure itself, which was covered by insurance.
Despite these challenges, the rewards from working as an artist are manifold. When I deliver a finished piece to a client’s home, I often get the opportunity to see where it will be displayed. Even more fulfilling is when a customer returns to a show in the future and shares with me how much they are enjoying the piece they bought. Also, having opportunities for extended travel to capture photographs in some of nature’s most sublime locations is a definite perk.
My online gallery can be viewed at www.northshoreimages.com. I also share new work and other updates on social media, primarily through Facebook (www.facebook.com/NorthShoreImages), but also on Instagram (@davidbarthelphotography) and Twitter (@NShoreImages).
The best place to see and purchase my work in person is at any of the 15-20 art festivals I attend each year. I regularly exhibit at the Park Point Art Fair (www.parkpointartfair.org) and, up the shore, at the Grand Marais Arts Festival (www.grandmaraisartcolony.org/arts-festival/), both of which I’ll be at this year. In the Twin Cities, a couple of prominent shows I have on the schedule so far in 2018 include the Stone Arch Bridge Festival and Uptown Art Fair, both in Minneapolis. The museum store at Split Rock Lighthouse also routinely carries a limited selection of my photography.
I am currently also collaborating with a prominent regional book publisher that approached me with the idea of creating a photo guide book, showcasing the natural and cultural landmarks of Duluth and the North Shore. The release date is tentatively set for 2019.
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