Nelson nature photographer Robert Neufeld has waded through rivers with heavy gear, scrambled over boulder fields and rappelled down cliff faces in inclement weather, all in the name of painstakingly composing his shots.
But none of that was necessary to win the top prize at the International Photography Awards this year. Instead, all the local composer had to do was step out on to his front patio — just a stone’s throw from Oso Negro Coffee downtown — and point his camera uphill.
“It was last Thanksgiving, and the snow was coming down the peak above Nelson, and I noticed just below the line of snow there were some birch trees with the last of their leaves on them,” he told the Star, after being named Nature Photographer of the Year for his image “Cusp of Winter.”
“I just stepped out my door and saw it. So with a long lens I framed up those two things together and there it was.”
It makes him laugh, the irony of capturing the shot so easily. He’s put an enormous amount of work into developing his craft over the past few years, an endeavour he picked up on top of his full-time gig as a composer for documentaries, commercials and TV shows. It’s still far from being his primary vocation, but he loves it.
“It was about six years ago, and my initial thought was to experiment with doing some video but once I had the camera in my hands I felt myself drawn to stills,” he said.
“I’ve always loved being in wilderness and nature, and I wanted to get out of the chair where I do the composing and out into the forest, by the lakes and the mountains, feeling more connection with the outdoors.”
His relationship with music is such that, though he loves it, it doesn’t take over his whole life.
“Composing is what I’ve been doing since I was really young, but photography is like ‘what would happen if I take my composition skills and transfer them into a different medium?’ There’s actually quite a lot of parallels,” he said.
“I tend to think of framing in a musical way, with musical analogies, so a ridge line of mountains could be like a melody. Colour or texture is more like harmony in music, and then there’s the whole thing of balance — how do different elements relate to one another?”
He said a “photo that captures our attention often tells a story of some kind,” which is what he believes he achieved with “Cusp of Winter.”
“There’s this contrast, this tension between the elements, and I find that endlessly fascinating.”
Neufeld said the creative headspace he needs to get into to feed his art is the same whether he’s composing a song or an image, and ideally he wants to be a conduit.
“It’s not that I created it, it’s that I found it. It’s like going fishing, you throw a hook up into the ether and every now and sometimes you catch a theme, or a melody, or something, and then you can use that,” he said.
“It comes from beyond my conventional thought process. And with photography, when I go out into the wilderness, I don’t go with a very rational idea of how I’m going to do that, instead I go out with an attitude of openness and see what the wilderness presents.”
He said the excitement comes from “waiting and listening for what’s offered.”
“Not many people in our modern world get the chance to go out and be with real wilderness. Living in Nelson we’re incredibly lucky, but it’s easy to forget 95 per cent of the people on this planet have never had that experience,” he said.
“For them to see it still exists, to see nature speaks its own language, I find that inspiring. The thought that if you do it artfully, you can convey to someone the feeling that still exists on this planet where the environment is relatively intact.”