Story by Patricia Morrison Coate • Photos by Keith Lazelle, Lazelle Nature Photography
From Living on the Peninsula magazine, June 2011
“There is a road from the eye to the heart
that does not go through the intellect.”
— G. K. Chesterton
“To any artist, worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book,
all the inner truth.”
— Auguste Rodin
Heart and truth, core and essence — these are the foremost principles fine art photographer Keith Lazelle seeks in nature and toils at translating into images. Growing up on a 100-acre farm near Olympia, he was, to paraphrase John Lennon and Paul McCartney, one of “Mother Nature’s sons,” absorbing and appreciating all his rural environment had to offer.
“I was steeped, from a very small age, in being outdoors and I fell in love with the Olympic Peninsula on family trips to Sol Duc and Kalaloch. It was the first place I wanted to go after college,” Lazelle said. “I wanted to play around on the Olympic Peninsula.”
A literature major, after college Lazelle took a job that would mold the course of his life, professionally and personally. He hired on with the Forest Service out of Forks in 1980 and on the crew met a petite, effervescent and confident Georgian named Jane Hall, who shared his love of the backcountry.
Hall recalled, “When I first met Keith, he was practically a hermit, living in a one-room cabin on the banks of the Sol Duc River … the walls lined with books of poetry and philosophy.”
Their first date was a backpacking trip on which Hall brought her single lens reflex film camera. Not to be left out, with his first paycheck Lazelle bought his own 35 mm and the pair started taking backpacking pictures for fun to share with family and friends. Snapshots soon gave way to more artistic endeavors, both behind the lens and in the darkroom, born out of Lazelle’s frustration to accurately capture and reproduce the nuances of nature in his photographs.
“My way of seeing things had its roots in college when I had a professor who’d spent nine years in Japan and talked about Oriental versus Western European esthetics,” Lazelle explained. “From that introduction, I was fascinated by Japanese esthetics and I picked his brains on it. With Japanese esthetics, compositions are simpler, there’s a different focus on balance — asymmetry versus symmetry. As an artist, you simplify something down to its essential core and that appeals to me because it’s different and based on nature.” It was another artist’s book of photographic translations of Japanese Zen poet Matsuo Basho’s haiku from the 18th century that led him into fine art photography, Lazelle said.
With three years of hard physical labor behind them in the Forest Service and in their late 20s, the couple realized it wasn’t a career path they could follow forever, “so we quite naively decided to start a nature photography business,” Lazelle said.
“We were looking for a lifestyle where we could be outside and that was adventure-filled. A close-to-nature lifestyle and one where we would be able to work together,” Hall added. “We believed we had the personalities to pull it off and we gave ourselves a 10-year goal. If we weren’t making a living with the business then, we’d fall back on our college degrees.”
In conversations at their remote cabin, with its clapboard milled from fir on their 20 acres above Dabob Bay near Quilcene, it is clear that these two have been equal partners, body and soul, probably from the moment their eyes met. They emanate an aura of belief in each other as talented individuals and together as Lazelle Nature Photography.
Though Lazelle knew he had an artistic eye, he nonetheless returned to college to study photography as a discipline and in 1985 had a mentor in Pat O’Hara, an award-winning and long-published wilderness and environmental photographer from Port Angeles. Hall supported the couple as a social worker and acted as Lazelle’s agent.
“We got a portfolio together in 1987-1988 and started getting some things published and made some fine art prints in a rented darkroom in Seattle,” Lazelle said. “We had the idea of a calendar that we’d talked about for five years and produced one in 1991. The concept, I think, was a way to publish things I really liked — a journal of backpacking. I wanted the calendar to do a lot of the legwork Jane had been doing for two years.”
Their instincts were on target and they got their first big break as Lazelle Nature Photography in 1992 when retailer Eddie Bauer selected them to design and produce its first-ever calendars for 1993 and 1994.
“Eddie Bauer was a full-time project for two years, producing engagement and full-size calendars. After that we knew we could do anything,” Jane said, radiating her customary confidence.
“We would give calendars to our clients, who would want to buy prints and so word spreads,” Lazelle said. “Calendars are our most important marketing tool.” Today they send out about 3,000 of their calendars worldwide annually.
On the day of this interview, Federal Express had just delivered a dozen proofs from the printer for the 2012 Journal of Seasons calendar and Lazelle and Hall’s contagious excitement to compare them to the originals made it feel like Christmas. To the casual observer, the images appeared much the same, but to Lazelle’s refined eye, there were subtle differences between them.
“They need more yellow, more light — light is very important to images,” he said, pointing from proof to original. “I did a lot of work massaging (the variables) to get the color to come back to what I captured with my camera.”
He refuses to accept any deviation from that state of perfection in the proofs and the printer will hear about it. A large measure of his artistry is in manipulating the features of a graphics editing program on his computer. There’s a great grin on his face as he talks technical, his enthusiasm cascading out in a rush of graphic design and digital photography terms as he explains how he produces such compelling prints. Masters and mock-ups, dodging and burning, saturation, exposure and contrast, temperature and tint, sharpening, RGB to CMYK.
“I can easily be distracted for a couple of hours and not realize it,” he admitted — and Lazelle has the equipment for it — two computers, one with a 27-inch monitor, a slide scanner and a 24-inch, eight-color printer. Each of Lazelle’s images is available as a Giclée print, in formats ranging from small to large, and he does all of his own printing using state-of-the-art digital tools. In addition to having his works in the hands of many private collectors, Lazelle has a strong corporate following with hundreds of clients, including banks, medical centers, investment and insurance companies, tribal centers, airlines, utilities, retailers and the state ferries.
The Tacoma Art Museum and the Burke Museum of Natural History, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Washington, have exhibited his photographs. For the past decade, Lazelle has been the latter’s primary photographer, traveling all over the state to photograph the conservancy’s lands. Many of these appeared in the book, “Preserving Washington Wildlands.”
In 2007, at the behest of the Hoh Tribe, Lazelle photographed 60 miles of the Hoh River, from its headwaters at Mount Olympus to the ocean, through all four seasons. This photo essay, with narratives by West End residents, resulted in the publication of “Fast Moving Water” in 2010. A collection of 24 prints from the book are on exhibit at Peninsula College in Forks. Another item on his resumé was Lazelle’s stunning cover photograph of Mount Steel for the first issue of Living on the Peninsula in March 2005.
As Lazelle sits, forearms resting easily on the long matting table in the couple’s airy upstairs gallery, the inevitable request comes: Tell me about your “eye.” He pauses and then his hands and arms begin combing the air for the language he needs.
“Like with any art, it really is hard to put those things into words because it usually involves a feeling. When I look at an image, there’s a general mood or feeling. The Japanese don’t have an English translation for it but ‘atmosphere’ comes the closest; a certain aura around an image gives you that feeling.”
When an artist composes a painting, he starts with a blank canvas, adding and subtracting from an image, Lazelle explained. “With a photo, I point my camera at something pretty cluttered and in the process what I see is to simplify it. I don’t want anything in the frame that’s distracting. I want the viewer’s eye to go through that image like a jazz song without interruptions.”
Professional photographers and good amateurs do have one thing in common; they recognize and celebrate an image’s “awe moment.” Sometimes it’s serendipity; more often it’s try, try and try again — in the field, in the darkroom or at the computer. In his workshops, Lazelle imparts his knowledge on four photographic fundamentals: light; color and tonal contrast; composition, which encompasses lines, shapes, movement and perspective; and gesture, the decisive moment of clicking the shutter and the why of that moment.
“But there’s more to it when I’m taking a picture — it’s one more step beyond,” Lazelle said, grasping at words in the air. “It’s trying to get something more out of your reach. Those moments are like a growth thing. You want your eye to keep getting better — and the eye has grown, but it’s not been in a straight line, more like a circular loop. The hardest thing for any artist is to talk about your esthetics but I do want to communicate these things to my students.”
“I think Keith foremost is a naturalist because he wants to know everything about all wildlife. On our daily walks, he’s always getting me to pay attention, listening and watching,” Hall said.
Lazelle echoed his wife, “We do talk about my camera being a bridge to nature — the possibilities are infinite.”