Frame Your Story Simply – Photographer Chris Chapman


Livestock Framing sat down with Chris Chapman, a Montana-based photographer who captures amazing landscapes. We covered several topics, including his favorite season for shooting and what tips he’d offer to the aspiring photographers out there. And if you’d like to purchase his prints, please visit Chris’ Livestock gallery.

1. What originally sparked your interest in photography?

That spark is not so much a moment, but rather a lifelong process. I just turned 48 this past August. I’ve been taking pictures since I was 5 years old. I remember being fascinated with polaroids from my mom’s SX-70. I still have that camera. I grew up in the country in the midwest and just found the mundane to be really beautiful. I remember having an emotional response to things I saw in nature. Thinking about it now, my folks were really indulgent. I shot a lot of polaroids on the farm. In college I took all the photography and darkroom classes and decided that some people make a living in photography so why shouldn’t I? I went to photography school in California and that broadened my horizon and love for black and white landscape and nature photography. I took a couple workshops from John Sexton and Ruth Bernhard that were invaluable. Their work is/was some next-level stuff, very inspirational people that really made me want to work on my craft.

2. Much of your work documents the vast outdoors of Montana. What about the Montana landscape stands out to you the most, and what do you try and convey to viewers of your work?

I grew up in Indiana. California really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I hiked, biked and traveled all over California during the birth of the internet. There was no Instagram so it didn’t really happen, right? But, when I traveled to Montana – in 1995 – I knew immediately I wasn’t leaving. It was such a vast wild place at the time, so big and wide I fell in love right away. But I couldn’t make any sense of it with a camera. I put my camera away for 3 years and just learned to fly fish and hunt. I hiked and drove around and camped all over. After awhile I felt like I knew the place well enough and how I wanted to capture it. It literally clicked for me over night and I got back to it knowing exactly what I wanted to do. Montana is really big and wide and full of extremes from mountains to the plains. Temperatures can reach from -60 to 100+. We have bears, big cats, wolves and wildlife that sort of define the place. But, what stands out for me the most is how close at hand the past is here. The very last of the old west happened here and not that long ago. There is still a lot of wild here and you can still find it. That’s getting harder and harder to do in places. I guess if I want to convey something through my images it’s that there is beauty and a sort of order in the wild places and that they have a deep intrinsic value that cannot be bested by any human endeavor therein. When people find beauty in the wild they find themselves. I love the national parks and everyone should visit them, but so much of the imagery has become cliche. #Swiftcurrentlake in Glacier National Park is truly awesome, but you don’t even have to get out of your rental minivan to get a great shot. You can get a latte and see a wild grizzly bear within a 5 minute span. When I’m in wild places the images come easy. When I’m not I’m always searching for the remnants of the wild that used to be. I hope people will also take paths less traveled.

3. You also photograph architecture. How does that differ from shooting landscapes?

I have a favorite photograph of Ansel Adams burned in my mind of him photographing a group of school children. You have to make a living. I don’t enjoy shooting weddings or doing portraiture and it shows in the final product. I can do it, but not as well as someone who loves it. I really love architecture and consider it just an extension of the landscape, another element in it. It’s also a very technical niche. Architects can be a tough client because they’re highly professional and detail oriented. I enjoy working with them to capture what they make. It’s satisfying when you nail it and they see something in their work that they hadn’t even noticed.

4. The seasons in Montana can be extreme. What’s your favorite time of year to get out and take photos?

I love all the seasons here. And we have them all in spades. I’m sad when they pass and look forward to the next one at the same time. But, Autumn is my favorite and Spring is my least favorite. Summer is a time to work and explore. There’s camping and fishing and I always have my camera. If you don’t love winter, this may not be the place for you. Montana turns into a vast black and white landscape with the snow and I love it. I’ve started winter camping with a canvas tent and a wood stove. It makes winter exploration way more appealing knowing I have a hot tent to come back to. Perhaps more importantly, all the seasons have a different quality of light. It’s light until 11pm in the summer, but only till 4:30pm in the winter. Those long nights make for some unbelievable starry nights… but it’s really cold out. Autumn is perfection out here and it never last long enough.

5. And finally, if you could give one tip to all of the aspiring photographers out there, what would it be?

One tip… that’s difficult. Be true to yourself and what you love most. Some of the best photographers aren’t necessarily the best photographers, but are passionate about other things AND do photography. There are cyclist with a camera and skiers with a camera and rock climbers with a camera that make interesting work because of what they love. If you want to be a competent photographer then you make a lot of photographs and learn both from your mistakes and what you did right. People today have a huge advantage in learning photography with digital photography, instant images and instant feedback. Also, it’s quite alright to emulate other photographers, you will eventually find your own aesthetic. I would add that the more you know the more you realize you don’t know so keep on learning. It’s a journey, you have not arrived.

If you’d like to learn more about Chris, visit his website, and if you’d like to purchase prints (framed or unframed) of his work, visit his gallery. And finally, follow Chris on Instagram here.