Interviews with the PDN 30: Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher is a recent recipient of the PDN 30 Photographers to Watch award. His specialty is also pretty cool (pun totally intended)—Mark specializes in ski photography, and also captures the portraits of various athletes. But beyond this, Mark also shoots various lifestyle projects.
We recently reached out to Mark, and he chatted with us about the gear he uses, ski photography, and wanting to have a baby despite his busy career life.
B&H Photo: How has becoming one of the PDN 30 changed your career?
Mark: Honestly, PDN 30 hasn't really changed much in my career at this point. Then again, this interview came up as a result, so there has definitely been a slight increase in overall exposure and awareness :) Thanks Chris!
I think the biggest thing PDN 30 has done for me has been the process of editing, producing, and presenting a cohesive body of work worthy of receiving PDN 30. This was my second time asked to participate. So, in a nutshell, a little more exposure, and a good process for me personally. Looking to the future, I hope to be able to use PDN 30 to connect with more agencies and creatives, and expand the scope of the work I currently do. Having just returned from being in Alaska on assignment all winter, I'm anxious to start putting a little more energy into PDN 30, and capitalizing on that.
B&H Photo: You’re a ski photographer who also shoots portraits of athletes. How has being an athlete helped you to get your photographic vision across?
Mark: I'm not sure my portraiture and the fact that I'm an athlete has much of a connection. I am passionate about people, and portraiture is one tool I use to connect with interesting people. The pro athletes I work with are people that I usually find interesting. I'm also interested in all types of people, not just athletes. My website, although recently retooled, only shows a fraction of my work, sadly.
In my portraits, I try to capture the "off moment" in my subject, the moment when they're off guard and show something utterly natural and unique, maybe even vulnerable. It's subtle, but when it happens, I know it. Being an athlete is a requirement for me to capture the types of images I do. You have to actually be able to ski, climb mountains and rock faces, etc., to do what I do. The skiers whom I work with ski way better than I do, which is the point, and why I'm creating images of them. Being an athlete myself helps me to 'understand' the sports. I know the nuances of what's important about a particular scene, the decisive moment, does the knot in the climbing rope look real, etc. Nothing kills me more than super-cheesy staged car ads, with a climber somewhere that's so inauthentic in terms of the activities they promote. It's too bad, really, because it takes away from the campaign, in my opinion. And it's really not that hard to get it right. But that's what happens when you have non-endemic people capturing images of activities that they're not familiar with.
Coincidentally, I actually came to skiing more from a mountaineering and climbing background, than a ski-racing background.
B&H Photo: From where do you get your inspiration? Some of the photos that you light are unlike any others that I’ve seen in the ski-photography industry.
Mark: When I started shooting, I shot only black-and-white 35mm film. I developed and rolled my own film, printed in the darkroom, and loved it. I come from a highly artistic family of graphic designers and painters, thus I was exposed to and involved with art my entire life. It sounds cheesy, but early on I was very influenced by Ansel Adams, and I still am. His work is amazing. He was a black-and-white master. I'm also heavily inspired by Richard Avedon, among others. Avedon, though, was gifted beyond reason in how he connected with people in his portraits, in my opinion, and in his vision. Cartier-Bresson and the decisive moment stand out for me as well. Some of my work that I'm most proud of combines the inspiration from these "mentors." In particular, my favorite 'action' images are the really graphic, contrasty, somewhat moody, very-simply landscape-style images from a crazy environment, with a human figure in action. This could be skiing, climbing, whatever. It's the type of image you want to hang on your wall because it's beautiful in and of itself, and then you have this human component that takes it to an entirely new level.
Back in 2006, I had the opportunity to work with—and learn from—shooters like Norman Jean-Roy, Paul Elledge and Joe McNally, among others. I've definitely carried nuggets from each of them into the work I'm doing today.
B&H Photo: Photographing climbers seems very dangerous. Have there ever been any accidents while on set?
Mark: I actually feel as if photographing climbing is relatively safe, compared with photographic skiing. Climbing has a lot of systems that can be double-checked. It ultimately depends on what type of climbing photography you're doing. Big mountains are obviously more dangerous than a small crag, ice is more dangerous than rock, etc. But most climbing photography is 'relatively' safe, if you know what you're doing. Skiing has a lot more going on. Avalanches, for one, are a huge and ever-present concern. The opportunity for injury is much greater, in my opinion. Unfortunately, I've been part of many ski accidents while shooting. It sucks, but it's a reality. I used to work as a mountain guide, and I have some advanced wilderness medical training. It helps, and I use it more often than I'd like. Ultimately, it's important to be comfortable in whatever you're doing and shooting. If you're new to skiing and want to shoot ski photography, stay at the ski hill first, before you go deep in the back country. The same is true with climbing—stay at the small and easily-accessible crags, before you try and shoot on El Capitan in Yosemite.
B&H Photo: Photographing in cold climates also requires some serious gear. What’s in your camera bag?
Mark: Actually, the gear in cold climates isn't much different than in hot. I actually find snow pretty easy to work in, most of the time. It's a lot easier than being in the rain, or in a super-humid rain forest, for that matter. Having pro camera bodies like the 5D Mark II/III or the 1D Mark IV, as well as good lenses, really helps. The weather-resistance built into 'pro' lenses and bodies really helps durability and prevent problems. It'd be tough to do what I do with a 60D. I shoot Canon. On a typical 'ski' shoot, I'll usually carry a 70-200mm f2.8, 24-105mm f4 IS, 16-35mm f2.8, 50mm f1.2, and a 1D Mark IV. Often I'll bring a speed light, and often I'll bring two bodies and pocket wizards to remotely trigger a second camera on a tripod. I've been using the Manfrotto 732 CY tripod, and it fits in my backpack well. I recently switched to f-stop camera bags. I love them and they're perfect for what I do. If I'm using strobes, I use Elinchrom rangers. For my portraits, I use an 85mm f1.2 or 50mm f1.4. I just picked up a 24mm prime, and I love it. It's always good to bring a lot of lens wipes, really absorbent ones, spare battery, extra cards, etc. Just remember, once your camera is outside in the cold, keep it outside in the cold until the end of the day. If you try to bring a cold camera inside and then back out, you're ruined for the day.
B&H Photo: Why did you choose to make your athlete portrait project in all-black-and-white?
Mark: I love black-and-white because it lets me focus on what's important—the moment. In this project, I feel as if color is a distraction. With black-and-white, I can focus on the framing, the details, the contrast, etc. I feel it's more intimate than color.
B&H Photo: You also shoot quite a bit of lifestyle photography, and much of it looks totally different than your normal work. Do you feel that lifestyle work allows you to be more creative?
Mark: I love the challenge of lifestyle photography. 'Lifestyle' for me is a super-broad category which includes everything non-action. Action is way easier to shoot than lifestyle, I think.
B&H Photo: What’s next for you as a creative?
Mark: Having a baby, for one, maybe as soon as next week :)
Work-wise, I've been really diving head first into video over the last 2-3 years. I have also been putting a lot of work into the 'business' side of things, and I recently launched "fisher creative." I have a lot of cool storytelling-driven multimedia pieces that I'm working on right now, and throughout the summer. I also have another portrait project that's been on the back burner for years—it'd be great to launch that. I'm really excited about the video projects this spring and summer, and my new baby :)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo Video Pro Audio