Photographer Interview: Michele Sons

Michele Sons and I connected the way many photographers do these days - online. Although we have never met in person (at least not yet!), I have found Michele to be a kind, generous, and giving person. She is also a talented photographer, with a calming, meditative style that I find especially appealing. In addition to her portfolio of work mostly focused on the landscapes of the eastern United States, Michele recently returned from a trip of a lifetime to Antactica, which she discusses in depth in the interview below. 

You can see more of Michele’s work on her website or you can join her on Facebook at Michele Sons Photography.

Image (c) Michele Sons

Image (c) Michele Sons

From reading a little about your background, it sounds like you have taken an interesting path to get to landscape photography. Can you tell us a little about that path?

Circuitous is likely the best word choice here! Landscape photography turned out to be the perfect and inevitable convergence of many loves of mine, it just took me a while to figure it out! Travel has played a huge and important part in my life, as a child and as an adult, and so I developed an abiding sense of adventure, a love for seeing the world, and a real passion for experiencing wild places. Add a lifelong love of nature to my interest in place, and I set off down an academic path involving degrees in environmental biology and physical geography.

In my twenties, I enjoyed casual photography and I shot a lot of slides as I travelled the globe. Then I had my daughter and, out of necessity, things slowed down and settled down for me for a number of years. I’ve spent the last dozen years working as a retail geographer, but as my daughter has grown and become more independent, with the help of my amazing family, I have been able to indulge in time to rediscover my personal interests beyond motherhood and my corporate day job.  Landscape photography blends them all in a really compelling way for me.

Image (c) Michele Sons

Image (c) Michele Sons

You recently returned from a trip to Antarctica that you won through the Luminous Landscape. Can you share some more information about the experience and what is was like to travel to such a remote, wild, and captivating place? 

I’ve lived in and visited some of the most gorgeous and exotic places on the planet. A lot of them, actually. I’ve been very lucky in that regard.  But this trip absolutely represented the pinnacle of my travel experiences.  In a word, Antarctica was beguiling, and like no other place I’d ever been. It was a raw, wild and inhospitable place. The cultural element that is so often a part of our travel experience just wasn't a factor there. It was all about the physicality of the ice and the land and the sea and the wind carrying the primal smell of penguins.

Antarctica was at once intensely dramatic and wonderfully subtle, with glaciers calving in sun-drenched bays and the moon setting over snow-rounded peaks in skies filled with the paint strokes of wispy, pink clouds. The scale was massive and deceptive and far outside the scope of my personal experience, with giant mountain ranges seemingly just a few miles away, when in reality they were 60 miles away. The rhythm of time was distorted in 20 hour days, and the beautiful soft light at the edges of the night lingered for hours at a time. I was a meaningless, microscopic observer of the powerful forces at play in Antarctica, and it was humbling. As someone with a great love of nature, I was entirely captivated by the sense of timelessness and purity and wonder, and I tried hard to convey that in my images.

The photographic opportunities were endless. I lost an evening and a sunrise to seasickness, but it didn’t matter as so many more opportunities to make incredible images presented themselves over the course of my trip. I tried very hard to be open and not focused on getting specific shots. I waited for the shots to come to me; not my normal modus operandi, but right for this environment. The weather was highly changeable, locations and destinations were often determined on the fly and at the last minute, and zodiac cruises and landings were not flexible in terms of timing. You take what you are given. But what you are given is incredible and generous in quantity. The quality of the light was unique; crystalline, even. Soft colors were everywhere, calling my name. The shapes of the land and the ice ranged from snow- dusted devilish black peaks set against jewel-toned skies to softly undulating curves dressed in the palest aqua. And the penguins were everywhere and endlessly entertaining!

I was told that Antarctica would change me. It changed me, alright, as a human, and as a photographer. I was always a wilderness advocate because I have repeatedly experienced the therapeutic, soul-sustaining impact that spending time in the wild has on my sense of well-being and my sense of peace. But now I know it with a far greater intensity and on a deeper level. Photographically, I came back with a matured appreciation for pared down simplified compositions, and an intensified pre-occupation with quiet color. I also learned a great deal in terms of technique and vision from the large group of incredibly talented, successful, and generous instructors on the trip, and from my fellow adventurers, too.

Put simply, it was a huge privilege and a personally and professionally significant experience.

Image (c) Michele Sons

Image (c) Michele Sons

I absolutely love that you packed a formal dress for your Antarctica trip and then used it to create one of your Feminine Landscape images. Can you tell us a little about this series and the making of that particular photograph?

Yes, I’m quite sure I was the only person on the ship with formal clothing in my dry bag! The Feminine Landscape is an expressive series I’ve been working on for a couple of years.  I love portraiture in addition to landscape work, and it all started as a way to combine both into one frame. The concept has evolved (and will continue to do so, I expect), but currently represents an expression of my personal experience of place. Women in dramatic landscapes depict themes that include solitude, shelter, empowerment, femininity, and curiosity.

Compositionally, I like to start with something that could stand alone as a straight landscape, then I walk into the frame to add elements of contrast, scale, and story-telling.  Occasionally, I use a friend if I have someone along for the trip, but these are usually “selfies” by necessity since I typically travel solo. I try to make sure that the figure and the landscape play equal roles in terms of emphasis, although my latest (unreleased) images explore vast landscapes and smaller figures. My pack always has some sort of dress wadded up and shoved down in there, just in case I happen across the opportunity to shoot one of these images.

The Antarctica image was inspired by a Yeats poem, The Collar-Bone of a Hare, which explores looking back on a former reality from the vantage of a realized dream. I have a soft spot for Yeats, and this piece really resonated with me in regard to my trip.  It was shot on the last day of the cruise at Deception Island, an active volcano.  I hiked up to the top of a ridge overlooking the caldera wall.  What appears to be a dress is actually a skirt and a swimsuit. I wore the swimsuit under all my regular Antarctica gear in anticipation of a polar plunge that same day.  So for the shot, I pulled the skirt on over my waterproof pants and bog boots (if you look closely, you can see my boots and my suspenders peeking out from under the skirt!), and just pulled off jackets and wool gear before quickly running into the frame for 3 shots.  It took a minute, tops. Everyone asks me if it was cold. Yep, it was cold, but anyone can bear cold for a minute.  It was far, far colder when I went for an icy swim 30 minutes after taking this shot!!

Image (c) Michele Sons

Image (c) Michele Sons

One of the things I really enjoy about your photography is the calming, serene atmosphere that you are able to capture in your work. Have you intentionally worked on creating photographs in a specific style or do you think such qualities are just naturally expressed in your photography without any particular focus or effort on your part?

Although I have been intentionally working on finding my style, I didn’t consciously choose where I landed. I just kept experimenting, kept listening to my inner voice, until I found what felt right, authentic, and honest.  I’ve explored all the standard aesthetics, all those stages that many of us go through; over-saturated, over- processed. You know the drill. But in the last year, I’ve found that what really resonates for me is a pared down composition, softness and a sense of peace or dreaminess or melancholy, and quiet color. I’m not limiting myself, though, and so if I feel compelled to shoot something more dramatic or edgy, I’m going to do it.  But in general terms, calm and serene catches my eye and so this shows through in my work.

It is my understanding that you are a single mother of a teenage daughter. Since a lot of writing about the lower numbers of women in landscape photography, compared to men, discusses barriers like family obligations and hesitation of traveling alone, I am wondering if you have any advice for women who might be in similar situations and are looking for examples of what is possible with regard to their photography?

I am a single-mother, and I’m fortunate to have a supportive family and a successful co-parenting arrangement, both of which make it easier for me to travel fairly regularly.  Even without that support network, I believe I would still make this work, although it would certainly be harder with a grumpy teenager in tow!  I will say that timing has been a huge factor for me. The intensity of mothering my daughter when she was young would certainly have severely limited my ability to devote time to photography. But my interest developed when my daughter was older and more independent and so I was able to explore it more easily. I believe strongly in “tending my fire,” and in living an adventurous life - for my own fulfillment and also to demonstrate the importance of doing so to my daughter. And so I work hard to find ways to overcome my circumstantial limitations in order to feed my passion. I’m highly motivated in that regard.

The biggest barrier for me personally is a financial one, but my workaround is to travel on a shoestring - my adventures are far from luxurious, usually involve ramen noodles and car camping, or opportunistically extending business trips for my day-job to save on personal flight expenses.  I can inevitably find a great reason for not being able to take a trip.  But I choose not to approach it that way and instead look for reasons why I should go. As for fear of travelling alone, I can’t comment on that specifically.  Because of my background, I’ve just always had the confidence to travel and explore with impunity. I have other fears, certainly. Don’t we all? Mine is an unreasonable fear of bears, and so being out in the landscape often helps me to confront this fear and I am slowly diminishing it!! In many ways, shooting the land is a therapeutic pursuit….  It’s one of the reasons I love it.

In the end, I don’t really feel that my gender limits me in any way in terms of shooting the land. It does influence how I see and the ways I connect with places, I think, but it’s only one of many things that does and I see it as a positive rather than some sort of limitation.  It isn’t always easy to get “out there” and shoot, but isn’t that the nature of the most worthwhile things in life? An adventurous spirit, a yearning to experience nature and place, and a willingness to overcome circumstantial obstacles is what it takes for me.  I can only speak for myself, though.

Image (c) Michele Sons

Image (c) Michele Sons

With your trip to Antarctica serving as a life-changing experience, where do you hope to take your photography in the future? Are you considering full-time photography?

Winning the Antarctica trip was certainly hugely significant – both in terms of the experience itself and the images I was able to make, but perhaps even more so in terms of the doors it has opened for me. The attention it generated has resulted in some exciting opportunities for me. My first article was published on The Luminous Landscape website and represented huge exposure for me and my work.  I hope to contribute more written pieces in the coming months, too.  In November and December of this year, I will be the solo exhibiting artist at a small museum here in southwest Virginia. It’s incredibly exciting to be on the threshold of exhibiting my work, as this has been a personal goal of mine.  It’s also a huge honor to have my first exhibition at a museum, and I expect it will be a valuable learning experience.

Eventually I think I would like to go full-time with my photography, but after my daughter has fledged and I have less financial pressure and more personal flexibility. For now I plan to continue to grow and develop as an artist, and really just enjoy the ability to shoot for the sheer joy of it.

Image (c) Michele Sons

Image (c) Michele Sons

What advice do you give to landscape photographers who are just getting started? 

I’m not big on giving advice, especially when I am still learning myself!  But I’m happy to share two things that have helped me grow relatively quickly.

I spend as much time as I can on my photography.  I do whatever it takes to travel, shoot and edit, and educate myself as much as I possibly can.  I prioritize my photography, of course after my daughter, but it definitely takes a front seat in my life. As a result, I have grown more rapidly than I otherwise might have. At my age, that matters. Time’s a-wastin’!
I’ve also had the benefit of guidance from my generous, talented, and accomplished mentor and great friend, Derek von Briesen. He motivates and inspires me, holds me accountable, challenges me and gives me plenty of food for thought, and points me in the right direction when I need help navigating the world of photography.  Having a mentor has been a huge advantage and something I am thankful for on a daily basis. He’s also taught me the importance of finding ways to pass kindnesses on and, if I’m lucky, one day I’ll be able to do for someone else what he has done for me.

To see more of Michele's beautiful photography, you can visit her website.  Thanks for reading and thank you, Michele, for taking the time to share such thoughtful and insightful responses!