Capturing the essence of a person within a portrait, getting a clear shot of squirming creatures, or photographing artists mid-performance is not a simple task, yet this year’s Alta Journal pages were full of these incredible moments. Looking back on split-second decisions and last-minute changes, Alta contributing photographers share behind-the-scenes glimpses into some of the year’s top photos.
PENNI GLADSTONE, “OLYMPIAN DREAMS,” ISSUE 18
“For this picture story, I spoke to the subject to get a greater understanding of what it is to do the job of harvesting oysters. Morning light, cold water, and the story of how they acquire the bounty gave me inspiration. I entered their lives, and pictures began to unfold.
The portraits have more latitude where the environment within the subject tells the story. It’s where I control the art and design.”
JASON HENRY, “THE GENTRIFICATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS,” ISSUE 18
“Working with [creative director] John Goecke is always such a pleasure because he trusts my eye and gives complete creative agency. So when he reached out with an assignment about psychedelics, I immediately thought about ways I could make those otherworld-like internal feelings of being on them come alive on the page. So I utilized fractal prisms, color projections, and slowing down the shutter to emulate an out-of-body experience.”
CAROLYN FONG, “SHE WHO REMEMBERS,” ISSUE 19
“I wanted to make sure that as the inaugural poet laureate of Oakland, she was given as many ways to shine and be featured. She arrived wearing those bright red eyeglasses, which were such a perfect contrast to the bright blue sky of a California winter, and we happened to have that great accent sculpture that was also bright yellow. We had lots and lots of primary colors, and I wanted to play on those contrasting colors and make her red be the highlight.
I’m always a little bit amazed at getting access to these incredible people.”
GORDON WILTSIE, “CALIFORNIA IS HOG WILD,” ISSUE 19
“I was excited when Alta first asked me to photograph wild boars but quickly had misgivings. It took only minimal research to learn that these menacing creatures rarely come out in daylight and that they are actually terrified of humans, which they can smell closer than the reach of my longest telephoto lens. No land manager mentioned by the author was allowed by their superiors to let me photograph their sometimes grisly work to control [boar populations], and I despaired of getting anything more than tiny dots in a murky background. Only after reaching out to professional hunting guides—who suggested that they might be able to get me closer—did I finally accept the assignment. Even then, it was still a matter of luck and a lot of searching to get rare, scenic pictures of them in the wild.”
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO, “FAR MORE THAN A BUILDING,” ISSUE 19
“I made a couple of visits to the Colburn School for this assignment. While on campus, I kept imagining what it would feel like to attend a performing arts school like that—to receive that kind of training and be surrounded by so much emerging talent. Looking back on the photos, I realize I was placing myself in the environment from a student’s point of view in an attempt to convey that imagining and immersion as much as possible. I found being in that atmosphere immensely inspiring.”
CHRIS HARDY, “HOW I BOUGHT A RUSSIAN SPACE SUIT,” ISSUE 20
“When I tried calling Jamis [MacNiven] at the restaurant, the person answering the phone said they would go get him and, as opposed to putting me on hold, set the phone down on what I presume [was] a counter. I could hear all kinds of noise and yelling about where the hell is Jamis. After a few minutes, he got on the phone and just said that he had my number and he’d call me right back.
How he got my number is a mystery, but I assumed he’d call me directly. After about a week, and after I left a few messages, we finally spoke. I told him about the creative director’s thoughts on the photo, and he said that the suit was for someone barely five feet tall and that he’s six foot six. It’s also attached to the 12-foot ceiling of the restaurant by wires and has a mannequin in it, but the mannequin looks like him, and it’s holding a martini glass, so it’ll have some additional photo panache. He also said he had a weird Russian space hat he could wear, so the photo would be coherent.
Buck’s restaurant is one of those places with lots of stuff on the walls and ceiling and pretty much everywhere. Trying to photograph Jamis and the space suit in the same frame would be challenging. Luckily, at six foot six, he’s a little closer to the ceiling than most people, but not close enough. As I tried to figure out how to do this, he spontaneously climbed on top of a booth and managed to get pretty close. The odd part of that is that no one, not staff or patrons, thought that a six-foot-six man in his 70s standing on top of a restaurant booth wearing a goofy Russian space hat was unusual.”
DUSTIN SNIPES, “YOU CAN’T SAVE WHAT YOU DON’T LOVE,” ISSUE 20
“The thing I noticed first was just their relationship and how close they were and how loving. I knew that they had a sort of bond and relationship, and I wanted more of a spontaneous shot as opposed to a shot of them standing there. I knew I had to show that relationship as opposed to just individual parts of the two or just a more-posed portrait because I felt like that picture would have shown more of the story; it just came across really well in the photo.”
MARISSA LESHNOV, “‘I’D LIKE A CATHOLIC DIAPHRAGM, PLEASE,’” ISSUE 21
“When I read Pia [Hinckle]’s story draft, I was struck at first by the ‘still, black deadness’ she described feeling immediately following her abortion. I imagined photographing her in the San Francisco fog to illustrate that feeling—sullen, lonely, serious. Looking back, I am thankful that my plan was foiled. For one, it was a gloriously sunny day. And when we met, I was immediately embraced by Pia’s warmth and predisposition for laughter. She invited me to photograph her at the swimming club she frequents every week. There, I saw a woman fulfilled, someone who got to become who she wanted to be on her own terms. I realized then that I wanted to make the portrait that would have given hope to Pia if she had seen it at 19, and the bay winds and golden hour light graciously cooperated.”
TOD SEELIE, “FIVE MEN, SIX DAYS, AND 34 MILES ACROSS THE SIERRA NEVADA,” ISSUE 21
“My focus is always on trying to communicate what it’s like to be there, suspended in the moment of the photo. In this case, it was a challenge to try to reflect being surrounded by the natural beauty of this rugged terrain and, simultaneously, the strenuous physical exertion required to move through it. In order to depict that, you learn to be able to break through your present mind, how you’re feeling in the moment, and focus outside yourself, almost as if zooming out to a wider perspective. This helps me see what to focus on, where to position myself, and what to photograph.”