An Interview with Marks and Joey Culver, Florida Nature Photographers

I spend a lot of time browsing the Web looking at nature photography.  It motivates me, and inspires me, and challenges me in my own attempts at wildlife photography.

So I thought I was used to the conventions of nature photography – that is, until I stumbled upon the blog of Marks and Joey Culver.  This husband-and-wife team are carving out their own niche as black-and-white film photographers, and they seem to love Florida just as much as I do.

Marks and Joey Culver

Marks and Joey Culver – Photo by Culver Photography

I was so captivated by their photography – and the haunting, antiquated look of much of their landscape photography – that I sought them out for a Q&A session.  They graciously agreed and told me all about their technique, their collection of antique cameras and their fondness for tree roots (yes, tree roots).

F.A.: If I’m correct, you each took a very different route to Florida.  Marks, you were born here, and Joey, you were born in the Netherlands and raised in Africa.  How do you think that changes your perspective on the landscape?

Marks: Yes I was born here in the town of Holly Hill, Fla. My family settled here in the early ’30s. They owned a chicken and cattle ranch, along with a citrus grove. My dad died when I was 7 so I became a farm hand then. My grandparents raised me. Always being in the woods and on the farm gave me a different look on life. Everywhere you looked there was something different. You appreciate that the woods and land,  will take care of you if you take care of them. So, whenever there was free time my grandfather would drag out his cameras and off we’d go. He bought for me my first camera when I was about 9 or 10 years old. From then on I was a camera junkie.

Joey: Having lived for a long time in Africa and the Middle East has taught me to appreciate a lot of different scenery. I value nature in all its forms and shapes, be it the wide open spaces of Africa with its abundant wildlife and rolling hills, or the harsh rocky landscape that I encountered in the Middle East – Sultanate of Oman. I find beauty in all that the world has to offer. It’s so hard to define that in words without rambling. The landscape here is totally different to where I was brought up and it has its own beauty.  I love the unique look of Spanish Moss hanging from century-old oak trees with back lighting which gives an ethereal, mystical look to the trees.  The woods are a particular favorite of mine.

Oak Trees

Oak trees at Princess Place Preserve – Photo by Culver Photography

FA: What is your relationship to the outdoors (photography aside) – are you hikers, kayakers, hunters?  Or are you singularly focused on photography? 

Marks: I pretty much lived in the woods, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping. I use the photography to not only document nature as it is but maybe show people what they‘re missing by being stuck in a city environment. To me being in the outdoors was just the way it was.

Joey: I have always been an outdoors kind of girl. Being outdoors was a natural match growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Growing up I spent a lot of time in the bush, either game viewing, photographing, or just hiking, rock climbing, canoeing down the Zambezi River – all were natural pastimes when I was growing up. Today I would say that my outdoors activity, other than photography, is cycling. I try to get in about 17-20 miles a day.  Both of us backpack with our camera equipment in the woods. You could call that hiking but that is with the singular purpose of finding interesting subjects to photograph. We usually don’t stay on the path either. We are not afraid to meander off the beaten path deep into the woods where we have happened upon deer, hogs, water moccasins, and the occasional battalion of mosquitoes! (yes, snake boots are a must as well as “Deet“!)

Oak Octopus Tree

Photo by Culver Photography

F.A.: I don’t often come across black and white nature photography.  Most Florida photographers seem to play up the colors, particularly in photos of the water.  You take an opposite tack, and that forces me to look at the photos (and the subjects) differently.  What is it about black and white photography that draws you to it? 

Marks: I have always been drawn to BW because it is pure. It draws your eyes in to the image. The detail in BW in my opinion exceeds Color detail enormously . The detail, contrast and accuracy of the detail far surpass color. Nowadays people use digital programs to enhance the colors, contrast and laying multiple images on top of one another with an end result of something that does not exist in nature and resulting in a photo that looks totally fake, and something that can never exist. I firmly believe that BW emits emotion and color just doesn’t.

Sugar Mill Gears at the Sugar Mill Botanical Gardens

Sugar Mill Gears at the Sugar Mill Botanical Gardens – Photo by Culver Photography

Joey: I find that black and white photography has so much more detail.  Your eye is not confused by an onslaught of color and you tend to concentrate on detail, texture in even the most ordinary of subjects. With black and white your eye is forced to look for the detail. You’re right that so many Florida photographers play up colors.  Too much so, in my honest opinion. This is the digital age and anyone with a camera phone or digital camera is suddenly a photographer. I have a real problem when I see a color image that has been highly colored to the point where it does not resemble anything found in nature. Some of these photos are the result of hours spent layering as many as 10 different images on top of each other and then working them together in a photo editing program. The result……”something that never really happened at all”. When I click the shutter, that moment is forever frozen in time, never to be duplicated.  I also prefer the black and white because it does set the work apart from all those color images.

F.A.: Can you tell me a little bit about your process of development?  Do you do it all in your own darkroom?

Marks:We used Medium Format cameras for probably 90 percent of our work. Lenses range from 45mm, 80mm, 150mm. We use Extension tubes and Macro rings periodically. We mainly shoot Ilford HP 5 or Ilford FP 4.

Photo Development

Photo by Culver Photography

Normally our film which is 400asa is shot at 200asa. This produces a negative slightly overexposed. I develop all our film in the darkroom. Primarily using an ascorbic acid developer (same formula as Kodak XTOL). We then print the images on one of several brand of Fiber Based print paper, our favorite is Arista EDU Ultra VCFB. I sometimes use filters in the enlarger to gain or lose contrast depending on the negative. Our goal when taking the image is to get it RIGHT on the negative. Therefore I normally won’t have to resort to in any manipulation other some minor burning or dodging to correct highlight or shadows. After printing the images are toned using either sepia, selenium or both. Sepia warms the image or can be used to give an antique appearance to the image. Both toners seem to assist with a slight sharpening of the image. For the Blog the prints are scanned using an Epson V500 photo scanner. However it must be noted that the scanning does take way from the purity of the image, in that it never looks as good after it is scanned and loaded into the computer. 

Joey: I don’t spend a lot of time in the darkroom. I will assist where needed but Marks is the real expert here. I will give him my opinion of which process I think will look good for a particular image.  Using different toning does lend to some interesting and sometimes “olde” time looking prints. This is where the sepia toning, or split toning with both sepia and selenium step in to give the desired result. I do handle the secretarial duties (I know how to type!)

An uprooted Cedar Tree

An uprooted Cedar Tree – Photo by Culver Photography

F.A.: Is there a place you’ve taken pictures that stands out as being particularly interesting or inspiring?

Marks: I find that the old ruins are probably my favorite thing to photograph. I take the image and then try to image what was going on at the place hundreds of years ago. Times were hard in those days but they were simple times. That is what I imagine when I’m standing near the ruins. I like taking photos of antique things like old camera or old tools . Maybe the antique camera recorded a moment in history or some child’s first bicycle, maybe the tool helped to make a granddaughters’ hope chest..

Joey: Like Marks, I love old ruins, anything historical captures my interest.  I also see beauty in curved tree limbs and their relationship to the surrounding softness of the leaves. Reflections on a smooth body of water, tree roots (yes, I know. Most people wouldn’t see anything of interest in tree roots!).  Dark mysterious woods with the light from high above filtering through.  Inspiration is endless for me. I see so much when I’m out bike riding where I catch myself wishing I had my camera handy.  Here’s a quote from Ansel Adams “The whole world is, to me, very much “alive” – all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can’t look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life – the things going on – within them. The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of the ocean, or a magnificent piece of old wood.”  That about sums it up for me.

Bulow Plantation Ruins

Bulow Plantation Ruins – Photo by Culver Photography

F.A.: I’ve noticed on your blog that you experiment with different, antique cameras and their unique effects.  Do you have a substantial camera collection?  What are you looking for when purchasing old cameras?

Marks: We have approx 20 antique/collectable camera. All are functional. Some are not useable only by the fact that film is nonexistent for them. We have old Kodak Brownie, Argus, and Adox (all 120 film) cameras that we have used on occasion. Several 35mm cameras. Our workhorse Medium Format cameras are– my Mamiya 645 Pro and Joey’s Mamiya 645 Pro TL and a Yashicamat 124  (all 3 cameras are fully manual including focus) could also be considered antique as the are all approx 30 to 40 years old. They work like brand new cameras, and have never let us down (knock on wood).

Joey: Not much to add to the above except that Marks forgot to mention my baby the Holga. This is not an antique but this camera has become something of a cult and has a great following (The Crappy Camera Club being one of them). It’s a plastic camera with a plastic lens. It has very little in the way of settings – sunny, cloudy, and four different distance settings. The resulting images from this camera can be very rewarding as each Holga has its curious light leakage problems as well as vignetting which blurs the outside edges of the image thereby causing the eye to be drawn into the picture.  It’s beautifully lightweight and a great way to set yourself free from any and all automation.

Princess Place Preserve

The Princess Place Preserve Estate Homestead

F.A.: Do you have any advice for amateur nature photographers who are just getting started with the hobby? 

Marks: PATIENCE – Take to the hiking trails, walk slow, look and you will be totally surprised as to what there is to see. Get to know the camera you have chosen, take it off all the automatic stuff and learn the basics of exposure, composition. One thing to remember when starting out is – when shooting film do not expect every photo to be perfect- they won’t be. Don’t worry they will get better with practice and experience. I always am very happy with 15 negatives to have 2,3 or 4 that just jump out and say look at me. That’s my goal. So go out and shoot, shoot and shoot photos. Remember – Ted Orland : The word “photographer” is a verb.

Joey: Keep your eyes open. There’s beauty all around. I agree with Marks that it’s important to know your camera.  Whether it be digital or film, photography can be immensely rewarding. There really are no rights or wrongs. If you have imagination you can see art everywhere around you (even in tree roots). If you’re shooting film you have to expect failures before you get those rewarding images.  Shoot something that you truly have passion for and the results will come, maybe not immediately but eventually they will surprise you.  Here’s another great quote from Ansel Adams: “Any photographer worth his salt has ten thousand bad negatives under his belt”.

—-

From here, Marks and Joey hope to begin showing their photography in local libraries and, in time, develop a website to permanently host their collection.  But, as is the case with many artists, the art comes first and marketing is on the back burner.  I think that’s cool.

In the meantime, you can reach out to Marks and Joey on Twitter.  You can follow their latest photo excursions on their blog, and you can see even more photos on the Flickr streams for Marks and Joey.

Enjoy!

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Comments

  1. What a fascinating pair…. and what an interesting life story for Joey (and Mark). Thanks for sharing!

  2. I found and followed this blog, I love their photography! So I was excited to read your interview with them. I share their love of tree roots… so I am not the only one 🙂 Thank you for searching them out and doing this wonderful post.

  3. Hi I enjoyed the article and reading about these photographers!

  4. I really like their take on photography…I enjoyed the post.. Thank you for the visit, I know my blog is very confused right now as not being all about nature, but I can’t separate my life from nature and I need it as an outlet to deal with this cancer diagnosis….Michelle

    • Michelle,
      I’m sorry to hear about your cancer, although I’m happy to hear it’s very early on. It’s great that you have photography as an outlet. I wish you all the best for a speedy recovery. You’ve got lots of people thinking about you out here in the blogosphere!

  5. Thank you for this great post! There’s a plethora of fantabulous information here. My grandfather is sending me his old Pentax K1000 for Christmas, and I’m looking forward to trying film photography and adding it to my repertoire! Now, I have some lovely photography to look up to and a new blog to check out 🙂

  6. Rebel Tommy says:

    Great post! What cool people and interesting photos! Well be following them (and you)!

  7. what a nice interview 🙂 i’m a huge fan of marks and joey and their fantastic photos!

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