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[Photography] Interview with Rex Wilder

[KELP JOURNAL] I always like to open by asking our photographers what they look for in a shot? What makes you take one versus another?

[REX WILDER] I’m sort of like a sports scout, waiting for a shot that has a shot — at the big leagues. Friends recall me carrying my camera around and not taking a picture for days. Then I see it: a sweet composition borne aloft by adventurous light. When we’re talking about moving things, quickly moving things, things with wings, things that don’t sit around and pose, I usually take 30 or 40 shots in quick succession and hope I get “the one.”

[KJ] Looking at your photographs, it makes me wonder if your approach varies based on the subject, like a landscape versus a living subject like an animal?

[RW] As I just mentioned…yes, though the search for great light is the same no matter what my subject is. I see all too often, especially in travel books and magazines, the results of a photo shoot executed at a lackluster time of day or in halfhearted weather conditions. A scene that’s celebrated can look as if the party’s over. A photographer’s model can or cannot move, but it must move the viewer.

[KJ] It seems that photographing wildlife is an extremely hard task. Like there might be a lot of silent waiting in the outdoors and whatever weather or time of day the shot needs. Can we talk for a bit about how you were able to get these photographs at all? Every time I see birds they just fly away from me (granted I have my dog Hank with me), but still. How ever, did you capture these shots?

[RW] The secret is to have an old and unintimidating dog. Unlike your Hank, my companion Louie was (he passed away at 17) ever patient (which let him catch his breath) and paid little attention to the birds. They returned the favor by ignoring him for the most part. The silent waiting is key, though after an hour with my life on hold pending a heron’s liftoff, I’m usually talking or singing to myself.

[KJ] What are your thoughts on editing the photos? Is there such a thing as manipulating it too much?

[RW] Ansel Adams said "The negative is the score. The print is the performance." If I’m lucky and the divine intervenes, I don’t need to edit much, and the score and performance are nearly indistinguishable. That sure saves time, no question. But the obsession I often notice in photographers and critics, and object to, is to label a well-chosen filter, or careful editing, or even impromptu manipulation as a cheat, an impurity. Adams himself believed that there are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. That’s how I feel, especially when a raw image begs for a makeover. The editors of my new book, A Quiet Place to Land, put it better than I can: “Whether you are gazing out at a dull gray sky or a crack in the sidewalk, nothing can stop you from using your imagination to visualize something even more beautiful…Give yourself permission to reimagine something.” Sounds like a good rule of thumb to me.

[KJ] I just read Conversations with Birds by Priyanka Kumar and in it she details, through her interaction with various birds, the importance of looking at the world as a connected unit and ultimately the need for conservation. Your photos give me the same feeling. Each bird is beautiful and different. There is a reverence and an appreciation for them. Was this your intent, to convey their beauty to the view?

[RW] Can I lie and say yes? I believe what you and Kumar say implicitly. I only wish my method were that deliberate.

[KJ] With a name like “Wilder” it feels like it might have been fated that you would be an outdoor photographer, and that got me wondering, what is your origin story? How did you get into photography in the first place?


[RW] “Rex Wilder,” based on name alone, might have fated me to a career in porn Westerns, if there is such a genre. Alas, the road not taken. As far as my actual origin story, the prologue was in 6th grade, when a few friends and I were recruited by our teacher to learn the basics of movie making in order to film a documentary about my grade school. We learned how to handle various cameras, including twin-lens reflexes, how to meter light, how to frame for maximum impact, and what to do in the darkroom. The whole nine yards. That’s when I fell in love with the craft. Such mystery, such possibility. Photography has given me entrée where I might never have boldly gone. I was even a Playboy photographer for awhile when I was in college! But that’s another story entirely…

Rex Wilder is an internationally recognized poet as well as an accomplished photographer. His latest book, A Quiet Place to Land (Chatwin Books), which beautifully illustrates his recovery from mental illness in words and images, is now available. Rare Fuel, due out this spring, is the winner of the 2023 Donna Wolf-Palacio poetry award from Finishing Line Press. 


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