Carl Johnson is an award-winning nature photographer based in Anchorage. He shows photos in his gallery, Arctic Light, on the Anchorage hillside and leads photo tours through Alaska Photo Treks. He has held multiple leadership positions with the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers and currently sits on the organization’s board. Learn more at arcticlight-ak.com. ~ as told to and edited by Alexander Deedy.
Tell me about the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers.
ASONP is a collection of people of all skill levels. It’s a really welcoming and open group, where you get an opportunity to interact with people who are longtime, well-known, big-name professionals in Alaska’s photographic community, to people who are just learning and just do it for fun on the weekends. You don’t even have to live here. We have plenty of members who are out of state.
Is there a gray area of photography ethics you sometimes struggle with?
I don’t consider there to be gray areas. There are a lot of benefits with the growth of digital photography and social media. It has exposed a lot of people to photography as an art form, and it gets them really excited and gets them learning about new places. But on the flip side, social media has greatly exacerbated long-standing problems with photo ethics. People who want to become what they call Instafamous, sometimes pursue unethical photography practices, particularly with regard to wildlife. And people, unfortunately, celebrate their results.
In Alaska, we had the long-standing example of the eagle lady in Homer. She was openly feeding herring to bald eagles in the wintertime, in violation of federal law, and people ignored it for years. Hundreds of bald eagles would gather on her property on the Homer Spit. Local photographers even took advantage of that and would pay to be there to get these close shots of eagles. That’s an egregious example of manipulating wildlife to get a photographic result.
I don’t employ those practices. Back to ASONP, we’ve adopted the ethical field principles of the North American Nature Photography Association. Those include ones that apply specifically to wildlife photography, and manipulating wildlife for the benefit of a photograph is in violation of those principles.
When you lead a photo tour, what’s something most photographers don’t know when they start the tour that you wish they did?
Most people, and this is across skill levels, need to learn to slow down and observe. The natural reaction is to go to a spot, see it, take a picture, and move on. One of the unofficial things we teach everybody is to observe and visualize for several minutes before you even set up your camera. I enjoy helping people learn to slow down, so I don’t know if it’s something I wish people knew beforehand, because teaching is part of the fun. But in general, that’s one thing everybody can learn to do better: just observe and visualize.
You’ve been taking photos for a long time. Now when you capture a photo you love, what emotions come up? What keeps you wanting to take more pictures?
I have a favorite spot on Turnagain Arm that I like because there’s a creek outflow that creates these killer patterns in the mud flats, and I know it’s a safe area. There are six ridges in the Kenai mountains across Turnagain Arm that all line up perfectly. It’s a spot I’ve been going to for years, and it always gives me something new.
I was there recently with a custom photo tour client. After taking these great shots with the evening light, the sun had gone behind some clouds. I was kind of standing there and took a moment to look around. To my left, there was this salmon carcass half buried in the mud with its skull facing me and its tail pointing to the outflow and Turnagain Arm. I got so excited. I don’t know what triggered that, but there was something about it visually that blew the top off my creative head.
I worked around it first with my smartphone to figure out different angles. Then I got my camera in a position to take those pictures. It just got my adrenaline pumping and my heart racing. I never know what’s going to trigger it, but those things still happen. I’ve been seriously into photography for about 33 years, ever since I first started doing volunteer work as a ship’s photographer in the Navy. Those moments still happen. I don’t know when they’re gonna happen, but by being out in the field and taking pictures on a regular basis—no matter the weather conditions—I know those moments will occur. I look forward to them. They’re always a surprise. It’s one of the things that keeps me going—the constant process of discovery.
Want to add any parting thoughts?
Photography is whatever you want it to be. It could be the best hobby in the world, if that’s all you want it to be. That’s perfect because photography just gets you out in the field. If you’re into nature photography, that means you’re out hiking, biking, walking, going for a drive; you’re out in a constant state of exploration. It gets you out in the world, and it gets you to see things you wouldn’t otherwise see or experience. If you don’t get the picture, that’s fine. You’ll get it next time. Savor the experience.
I’ve gone through phases where photography was a serious hobby, to a side job, to a full-time gig. You can take the best photos of your life in any of those stages. But remember, you can always keep getting better. I have photos I took 11 years ago that are some of my best photos, but I’m still looking for my next best photo. The point is it gets you out there experiencing the world. I think that’s one of the great things about photography.