Interview with Val Atkinson
I still remember my very first fish - two little bluegills - caught in 1954 with a worm, a cane pole and a bobber. I was so excited I rushed home and my father - who was a serious amateur photographer - took my picture. Later I would visit the local hardware store in Zanesville Ohio and study the fly fishing equipment. Even though I really understood very little about it, somehow I knew instinctively I wanted to fly fish. I had no one to teach or show me, as my parents didn't even like to eat fish let alone catch them! I finally bought a cheap fly rod, and not knowing any better, attempted to thread the thick floating fly line through the eye of the fly. Pretty funny. No one had mentioned that I needed a leader to connect the two.
I eventually figured it out and caught my first trout at the age of 12 in the Wissahickon Park outside Philadelphia where hatchery trout were stocked. My first wild trout also came from Pennsylvania- a mountain stream called Penn’s Creek, at the age of 15. It was a Brown trout about 13 inches long caught on a Yellow Sally and a St Croix glass flyrod. I can still see it clearly in my mind's eye.
I didn't start photography until I went to art school, however my father was very serious about photography and I was exposed to it from an early age. Fishing and photography actually go very well together, and the secret is in knowing when to put down the rod and pick up the camera.
At art school I spent five years studying illustration, fine art and photography. At one point I attended a seminar about how to make money from selling stock photography. They said 'find a niche and fill it', meaning find something you feel passionate about, and work to become the master in that area. I had always loved to fish and so I combined my two passions –fly fishing and photography.
One of my first trips was on a camping/fishing adventure with some friends, and I documented the entire trip in black & white. Because I had been to art school and learned about color and content and composition, and because I had my own darkroom and had taken Ansel Adams classes, I could make beautiful black & white prints that were well composed and told the story of our adventure. The magazines had never seen anything quite like these prints and they purchased everything. It was amazing. The light bulb came on in my head and I thought this is what I want to do and it feels natural.
I worked for Frontiers International Travel for 18 years as their staff photographer shooting the many sporting destinations they represent. They have sent me to 29 countries- some of them many times over. They are all fantastic and there's not a single destination I wouldn't return to in a heartbeat. The people and the culture combined with a variety of scenery and fish all come together to make this world a wonderful place to explore. Those were wonderful years.
Patience and anticipation are important aspects of any good outdoor photographer. Sometimes you must wait for hours or days for the right things to come together, other times you need to be able to anticipate when exciting elements are going to coincide. My most famous image, the ‘jumping mullet’, was taken in the Seychelles as a school of hundreds of mullet spooked by a shark or barracuda came porpoising in and out of the water right at him. I had my camera around my neck -- where it usually resides -- and time only to point and shoot two frames. The mullet came right around and past me in about three seconds flat. The amazing thing is that images were sharp and well-composed.
You just have to anticipate when things might happen and be ready to act fast. These things, combined with a certain amount of technical knowledge and skill, go a long way to being successful. My single tip is just keep shooting with truth, adventure and passion. The magic will come.
When I'm on the river I start off early in the morning to make sure I catch lhe light just right with a low sun angle and maybe some mist on the water. I have all my tools (camera, lenses and fishing rod and reel in a backpack ready for action. Usually there's no hatch as the water is still cold, so I shoot pictures for a couple hours until the sun gets higher and the water warms often producing a hatch of some sort. I then exchange the camera for the rod and go fishing. If something spectacular happens my camera is never far away - it's in my backpack along with other essential gear. You just have to be disciplined. And do the right thing at the right time. But I always fish first!
I guess that makes me a true fishing addict. I've loved to fish all my life. My mother used to say I'd rather fish then eat when I didn't show up for dinner. But as I get older I do find that my photography is starting to transcend the fishing. But only slightly, as the two go very well together. Ernest Hemingway once said “It's better to be a writer who fishes than a fisherman who writes”. That's the same way I feel about photography. I guess I am a true fishing/photography addict. I'm always either shooting pictures or fishing.
One of my two favorite fish would be the brown trout. I love the challenge of sight fishing - meaning I like to spot my quarry first before casting. It's like stalking and hunting. You are searching and searching - then you spot the fish and quickly must decide how to approach and cast for him before you spook him. It's exciting! And of course Brown trout are very beautiful, they come in so many different color combinations and live in sublimely beautiful locations, like the stunning rivers on Poronui in the North Island of New Zealand. New Zealand is one of my favourite places to fish, and I visit Poronui as often as I can. The warm welcome i get there makes it feel like a second home, and i never fail to feel inspired by the majestic wilderness of the property and the clarity of the night sky – so many stars!
I guess deep down what motivates me is the beauty and solitude of nature. It is my sincere hope my imagery will help others share the passion and magic I feel for these special places I photograph. That my viewers will also share the romance and help to cherish, respect and protect what wilderness remains in this world, and actively resist the greed that flourishes and threatens. This success would help to realize another dream of mine - that our grandchildren will see these same places one day in the future and find them as lovely and pristine as they are today.
More information about Val can be found on his website www.valatkinson.com. Val will be at Poronui in November 2010 to host an exclusive Photography Weekend. Details can be found here or contact us by email with any questions.