Looking at the photography of Chip Hooper, it’s easy to see his passion for landscape. His coastal images speak of beauty, tranquility and a technical mastery of the black-and-white photographic process. From the initial visualization to the completed print, Hooper is sharing with a growing audience the beauty he finds by the sea.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: You’re obviously passionate about photography. How did that start?
HOOPER: My art teacher in junior high school in Chicago saw that I was struggling with drawing, painting and sculpture and suggested photography and the darkroom to me. I immediately loved it. I started with a Diana camera, taking pictures and making photograms. One thing led to another, and in six months, I had completely taken over my parents’ basement with my own darkroom. I was the yearbook photographer, the school sports photographer, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I had my own full-blown photography business.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: With your photographic talents, it seems you could master any subject matter. What was the attraction to landscapes and the natural world?
HOOPER: Starting back in seventh grade, I was taking a lot of pictures of water. I was always attracted to photographing around Lake Michigan. When I moved to the West Coast, I realized what actually attracted me to photograph any subject was the quality of light, rather than any particular subject matter itself. The light that I find along the coast is what attracts me.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: Is there something tangible about the coastal light that draws you?
HOOPER: It’s really an intangible. There’s something I feel here that’s just different. When the light gets great, the pictures start to happen. There are so many times I find myself thinking, “Wow, this is really great light happening. What am I going to do here?” I love the ocean and I love the water–I love the feel of it, I love the sound of it, I love everything about it. It’s just where I happen to see photographs. That’s one of the intangibles that makes it exciting. I don’t even really know why.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: How much does talent account for the success of your images?
HOOPER: Talent is a funny word. You do what you do and hope people respond to it. The pictures either work or they don’t. Without inspiration, there’s no basis to make a picture. Without the technical mastery, you can’t get your inspiration onto the film and paper. For me, technical mastery is crucial. The more complete my command of all of the things that make up presenting an image, the clearer my statements can be. Having it all together technically is a means to an end to allow you to express yourself. If I really feel strongly about an image, I’ll work it in the darkroom for a long time until it’s right, until I’ve got it where the print is really happening. I won’t stop until I have it. I don’t know if it’s patience; I think it’s a drive actually. If I think I’m onto something, then I’ll really work it until I’ve got it. If you do that long enough, your bag of tricks along the way is going to get filled up with a lot of tools to get you out of problems that may come up from photographing in an extreme range of light. A lot of my photographs are made in extreme lighting situation with broad ranges of contrast. I started with Ansel Adams and the Zone System, and it sort of evolved into my own way of working. When an image is really happening for me, I’m really just concerned about getting it on the film with some degree of accuracy. But then a lot of it happens in the darkroom. If you really sit there and you fiddle around with your camera for 20 minutes, the picture is gone. If something is really happening, you’ve got to move fast and get it. I”d rather get the image and deal with it later. I think by virtue of my working that way, I’ve been forced to become a good printer. The “3 1/2 Birds” picture is a great example–that thing is a nightmare to print.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: What type of equipment do you use?
HOOPER: Since 1996 I’ve been using a Wisner Expedition 8×10 view camera with a load of lenses and T-Max 100 and 400 film. I also have a 4×5 outfit that I use once in awhile–prior to 1996, I used it for everything. It’s a Wisner technical field camera.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: What draws you to black-and-white instead of color?
HOOPER: Some painters use watercolors, some use oils or acrylics. I started with black-and-white. I’ve always used it. I’ve dabbled in color a little, but I find that I can express myself better with black-and-white. As a kid, I printed Cibachrome for a number of years, and did it pretty well. It’s just not my thing anymore. I think I just see pictures in black-and-white. I’ve never even spent that much time thinking about it.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: Describe your technique when you approach a photograph.
HOOPER: I just like to wander where I like to be. Much of my time is spent along the coast because I live here, but I try to spend at least two weeks of every year in the desert. I usually photograph either by myself or with one other person, and just wander around in places I enjoy. It usually happens early in the morning or late in the afternoon unless there are weather conditions that are making something extraordinary and unique happen. It’s a bonus; where I live is where I really love to work more than anywhere else in the world.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: Do you plan ahead for locations or return to subjects?
HOOPER: Generally, yes; specifically, no. I just go to the coast and see what’s happening. I’ve really explored the Big Sur coast and I know the area very well. I don’t go scout for locations and say, “Tomorrow morning at sunrise; that’s going to be really great.” There’s a beach where I photograph all the time, Garrapata Beach, and it’s constantly changing. It’s a new place every time I go. I have a lot of photographs of it, and I don’t think any of them look the same. It’s constantly changing. The weather is changing, the beach is changing, the sand is changing, the tide is changing.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: Some moments just aren’t special. What do you do then?
HOOPER: If the light isn’t happening, I just don’t work. I don’t try to force a photograph. I definitely don’t say, “Well, fi I do this and that, I can make something happen.” There’s got to be some level of serendipity or magic happening. If there’s not, then I’m not even fired up to work. I always make pictures, but I edit myself very strictly. I’m tough on myself in terms of putting something new out; I’ve got to really feel strongly about it. Working with an 8×10 camera, you’re going to have better odds than someone shooting 35mm because you just don’t work that fast. When you see something, you’re really going after it, as opposed to just shooting. I feel more like I make pictures than take pictures. It’s more methodical and slow and thought out. You can work that way with a small camera, too, but an 8×10 just lends itself to working slowly.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: Why did you choose fine art photography instead of becoming a commercial photographer?
HOOPER: I’ve been very fortunate in the acceptance of my work. Selling my imagery is one way of sharing my work; and that’s the completion of the photographic process for me. There are two sides to selling prints: the printing and the selling. If you’re going to sell the stuff, you have to work at it. You have to turn them on to it. You have to enable people to spread the word. You have to take the time to get the work out there because, if you don’t, no one will know that it exists in the first place. I feel really fortunate that people have responded to my photography, and I’ve worked really hard at making it available.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: What else have you been doing?
HOOPER: In 1997, I published my first catalog, and there will be another catalog of new work in the next six to 12 months. I’m also speaking with several publishers about my first book. Last fall, I went out into the desert for two weeks, and there are a lot of images of things I ran into along the way, which I’ve included on my website.
OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER: Will you continue exploring the coast?
HOOPER: I think I’ll always photograph the coast, and sort of go where the wind blows me. I think that’s how the best pictures come, just letting it happen.