In 1988 Marty Knapp quit his day job and spent all his money on equipment to start a new career as a photographer. He survived using only his camera and his darkroom doing portraits and weddings, making slides for artists, developing films and creating custom prints for clients. In every bit of spare time he had he pursued his own creative work, capturing dramatic moments of light in the landscape then printing editions for collectors. Before long his work began to sell.
30 years on and Marty’s iconic black and white images can be seen in his own art gallery in Point Reyes, California, and he has written a book, Point Reyes: 20 Years, which tells the stories behind his quest for his most memorable shots. Marty has been on an incredible journey in order to do what he loves and we hope you enjoy the interview. ~ Rachel
In the entrance to my gallery
Images from my “New Photographs 2015” exhibit
2. What was the catalyst for deciding to dedicate your life to photography, and how did you discipline yourself to stick with it in the early days?
I had an epiphany in my mid-thirties which changed my life. Up to that point I had been wandering kind of aimlessly in both my professional life and my personal life. I was uninspired, unmotivated and had fallen into a dangerous habit of too much drinking and use of recreational drugs. Then, and this is hard to explain, on one summer morning I woke up and everything became absolutely clear to me. Nothing could shake this new feeling. I just knew that my addictions were over. It felt like I had shed my skin and was a brand new person. At the same time, I knew that I would dedicate my life to my photography. I would look for the light and record my discoveries with this medium. I was full of the spirit and inspired to get on with my life’s work. I felt a profound happiness and I wanted to honour it.
“Dinner Time, Point Reyes Mesa”
At the same time, my confidence, which stemmed from an intuition that I was doing the right thing, was tempered by gratitude. Despite everything that could have worked against me during this time of transformation, there was a little voice that kept on nudging me to follow my heart. I sensed it was important to pay attention to this voice and so I continued to listen and follow that.
Now, over forty years later, I’m still doing what I love and know it was the right decision. I feel amazed and grateful for the gift. Following my muse, I went into debt, but instead of wasting my money on partying, I used credit cards to outfit my darkroom, acquiring cameras and lenses, and the materials I needed to create my artifacts. I rationalised the credit card debt assuring myself that I would succeed at my art and eventually support myself.
My path would not have been reasonable if I had a family to support, but I lived alone and was putting only myself at risk. It took a while, but now my wife and I live off the income generated by the sale of my work. It actually was easy for me to stick with my plan because I felt so certain that I was doing the thing I loved the most, looking for the beauty of the light and creating beautiful images to share with the world. Although there were bumps along the way, I got over them confident I was absolutely doing the right thing.
Oak Circle, Mt. Burdell, Novato
3. What is it about the art of photography that captures and engages you?
A couple of things here: I love exploring and paying attention to how light changes and draws attention to objects and scenes. I’m fascinated by how what seems mundane in one kind of light takes on new meaning and beauty when the light changes. I enjoy looking at the world more deeply… finding things about it that I would normally pass right on by if I hadn’t paused to look more intently. Those wonderful moments of exploring, then discovering! Being able to freeze, to capture these moments of light and place that have beckoned me for a closer look. And, then, the satisfying moments that come through the making of the print, to express the feelings, the thoughts about what I’ve seen to others. I like it all… the finding of the image, the time spent considering and recording it, and then the successful expression of all that. The incredible beauty of this world is revealed when I look, then look again, more deeply.
Moonrise at Treerock
4. Tell us about your first camera; how did it spark your interest in photography?
I got my first camera from my grandfather for my eleventh birthday. I wrote about this experience in my book Point Reyes 20 Years: My grandfather stood in our Connecticut kitchen holding his camera. Handing me the 35mm rangefinder, he said, Happy Birthday, Marty, I hope you have fun with this! Fun? Little did he know how much fun I would have! The heft of my new toy was substantial. The aromatic leather case was lined with dark green velvet to protect the precious apparatus inside. A camera – for me? I studied the aluminium dials circled with arcane numbers which promised new ways to explore the world. My eyes must have shined as brightly as the polished lens that would be a portal to future adventures. I loved everything ab out that camera, especially the incredibly magical world it opened….
To this day, I still get that good feeling whenever I pick up my camera. It just seems I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing, enjoying it and feeling all is right. Everything feels in harmony when I explore with my camera.
5. What inspired your interest in black and white photography and how has this developed over the years?
The first influence came from seeing the work of Ansel Adams. I loved looking at his photography in books and calendars. When I started out I studied what he wrote and looked at this photographs to learn how he created his magi cal images at Yosemite and other California wonderlands. When I moved to Point Reyes a neighbour showed me how to develop my own black and white film. Another neighbour sold me his darkroom equipment. I set up in my laundry room and was off to the races. I love black and white and continue to work exclusively in that medium.
6. Talk us through the process of taking a photograph. What factors do you have to consider?
While walking along I focus my attention on the direction and the quality of the light. Without expressive back-light or side-light, I know my photographs will lack the third dimension of depth. So, I make it a point to orient myself to the most evocative light available at the time. Then, once I’m exploring within the good light, I try to let go of distracting thoughts or expectations so that I can be inspired by or drawn to scenes that naturally call me. It’s easy to let your mind blind you to what your eyes notice. There’s a certain kind of attention that comes from relaxing and being open to what you may be shown.
7. What is the key to becoming a great fine art photographer? What the secret of your success?
It may sound trite, but love for the art and craft of photography is the foundation. If you have an abiding fascination with light and how it highlights or transforms what it is that you see. In my case, whenever I pick up my camera and go for a walk out into the world, or wander around inside a building watching light spill in through windows, I feel deeply happy and fascinated. I want to make photographs when scenes beckon. A burning desire to make photographs and a concurrent joy of the process of doing that is a key.
At White House Pool, near Point Reyes Station, California
However, if success is to be judged by recognition, awards, financial security, there are many other things that need to be addressed; things that involve the other side of your brain such as marketing, developing a following, getting your work out there to be seen both in physical spaces and on the internet. Also, you have to be thick-skinned and able to accept criticism as a gift, not a detriment to your development.
The artist’s path can be all-consuming, so it helps if you have an understanding mate who’s prepared for the fact you will, at times, totally submerge yourself in your process, perhaps lose a sense of time and need to work totally alone for periods. After a few bumps during the beginning of our marriage, my wife, who is also an artist, understood this. We laughed aloud on day when Jean said, ‘Now, I get it… I’m your wife but I see you have a mistress, your camera!’ So, you see, an essential ingredient in a fine art photographer s success is dedication and a high degree of single-mindedness.
8. What’s in your photography toolkit? What can’t you live without?
Obviously, that would be my camera. But, there are two things that will cause me great dismay if I can’t find them while out in the field: A spare, fully-charg ed battery and my infrared remote-control shutter release. Light changes so fast and the saddest moments are those missed opportunities caused by forgetting to carry either of these with me!
On Point Reyes Bridge, Northern California
9. You lived in Point Reyes for many years. Why did the place capture your heart and do you ever tire of the landscape?
When I first came to Point Reyes in 1973 I had no idea I would eventually become an artist/photographer. I enjoyed the natural beauty but hadn’t considered photographing it. I enjoyed photographing my friends, even doing some family portraits, but I actually supported myself working at various jobs in cottage industries or in the building trades.
When I had my epiphany about becoming serious about photography, I tried to make a living doing portraits, copying old photos, printing for other people, you name it. Gradually, though, influenced by the beautiful landscape photographs I saw in books and magazines, I started turning my eye to the magnificent landscape at Point Reyes. Hitherto, I had only made grab shots at the beaches and so on.
Around 1985-86 I began to hone my craft and set out to capture the iconic beauty here. As I explored deeper and deeper and learned to see better, it was as though I was courting a would-be lover. Point Reyes got into me as I got into it. There was a sense of magic, wonderment as I witnessed the light and season change over those early years.
Marty at Drakes Bay. Photo by Logan Kelsey. (All other photos of Marty by John Kupersmith.)
I still love Point Reyes, but some of the excitement has waned in recent years. Perhaps it is because I now look to create new work, to express other things I see and think about. This broadening of my vision has brought me more often to places like Death Valley, Joshua Tree NP, and even to the light pouring into the dark recesses of old barns, or sparkling through glass or liquids on my work table! Macro work, also in the natural world, dealing with plants, dewdrops and webs has become increasingly interesting to me. So, my landscapes have recently taken on more of a close-up look and the wonders of nature.
10. Technology has changed a lot since you started out on your journey as a photographer. What big advancements have challenged you most and why?
After developing film and making my prints in a traditional photo darkroom for more than 30 years, I know work exclusively in the light. My re-education into the digital world began about six years ago and at first the change was daunting. I remember wondering if I ever would be able to make prints as beautiful as my silver gelatin darkroom prints. I had to take a deep breath because the new techniques seemed overwhelmingly complicated to me. What finally got me over the hump was to take my time, going step by step until I built my knowledge and got the right equipment for this new way of working. I’m happy to say that I now make prints digitally that exceed the quality, the beauty of the prints I had made in my darkroom.
Wide format digital printing
11. What do the words ‘creativity’, ‘success’ and ‘freedom’ mean to you?
Creativity stems from inspiration, from letting go and leaving room for it to grow, to bear fruit. I find that I need to create a space for new ideas to blossom. There are so many things that can hinder the process. In the end, it comes as a gift on the wings of inspiration. Inspiration can come only ready to receive it. You can’t force it but only be available to become aware of it when it arrives. In a small way, I feel successful when my bills are paid and there’s a little extra in my pocket for that new lens, a vacation trip with my wife or a photo expedition with friends. A deeper feeling of success is when I feel whole, healthy, and in balance with myself and the world. This is most apparent during those moments of openness and creativity. So I would say success is the joy I feel when the gift of inspiration enters. Freedom is a state of mind when all things seem possible…
12. What is next for you? Do you have an ultimate dream?
For the most part, I feel I’m already living my ultimate dream, doing what I love, creating photographs. I think there’s an endless possibility of new creations and places to explore with my camera lenses. Just that possibility puts a smile on my face on many mornings when I greet the new day.
13. What piece of advice has helped you most over the course of your career?
Listen to and follow your heart. Your heart will lead you to what is right for you… to love what you love. Be passionate and steadfast once you know your course. There is a natural healing and harmony available when you take this path. The wealth you obtain is greater and more fulfilling than money. This is the same advice I would give to anyone who struggles with the dilemma of how to live a life of harmony in this world.
Point Reyes beach, California
You can find out more about Marty and his work on his website.