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Photographer Interview Series: Dakota Kappen

In the spirit of gratitude and appreciation for the art of photography and the photographers who create it, I am doing a series of interviews with a select few photographers who inspire me and whom I learn from. They color outside the lines yet they respect the art of photography. Art can make us feel many things…and it can make us think.

Anyone can pick up a camera and call themselves a photographer, especially in this day and age with phone cameras and filters readily available to all.  But what does it really mean to be a photographer? What happens when an artist picks up a camera and, in the blink of an eye, captures a single, solitary moment? What happens when a creative mind meets technology? We will hear from different points of view, all, of which are right. Because art, ultimately, is a personal expression.

I have great respect for those who learn this craft, know their equipment, and experiment, create, document, push through challenges, and continue learning. We will forever be learning. I know I am certainly learning from those who have come before me and those whom I admire today. We are a community and this support only makes us better.

Dakota Kappen, a 20 year old American photographer from southern Oregon, who shoots both digital and film, is photographing his way through adventure after adventure, while capturing some of our planet’s most beautiful landscapes, as seen through his eyes. With a combination of informal and formal instruction, he is making a living with photography. Through his eloquent and genuine words, we get a closer look into the mind, heart and soul of Dakota.  All photos by Dakota Kappen.

How many years have you been a photographer? For about five years now. Before that I was just messing around with my mother’s camera, taking silly pictures of my cat and other things around the house.

Are you self-taught, formally trained or a mix of both? Both. I began learning how to use a camera in middle school on my own before taking a class in high school to learn the elements and principles of design in photography. Beyond that, I am still learning much about photography on my own through personal experience and online tutorials. I frequent YouTube channels such as Phlearn, Professional Photography Tips (Joshua Cripps), and Sean Bagshaw. I also follow and study the works of Jimmy Chin, Steve McCurry, Callum Snape, Chris Burkard, Ken Etzel, and many others in the landscape, adventure, and photojournalism genres.

Painted Hills in Oregon.

What has been your career path? So far, it has been doing senior and family portraits in Oregon, odd jobs around Los Angeles, and starting a small headshot business with my roommate out of our apartment. I am currently working at a European car dealership in Los Angeles doing inventory photography. It’s not the kind of photography I pull the most enjoyment from, but I am thankful to have the job. My transition from an aspiring photographer to a full-time photographer was much like plunging into a pool from a diving board. A little over a year ago I made the big move from Eugene, Oregon, to Los Angeles, California, to take a bigger bite at photography, and so far it has truly been a life-changing experience. There have been far more downs than ups along the way, but the amount of knowledge gained through my time there has been invaluable. As the idiom says, “experience is the best teacher.”

Your images include gorgeous landscapes? Where have you traveled?  Around parts of the American Southwest for locations like Valley of Fire, Zion, Monument Valley, Flagstaff, and the Grand Canyon.

“One of my favorite earlier landscapes—taken in the John Day fossil Beds National Monument when there was a break in the clouds that allowed the golden morning light through to light up Sutton Mountain. The light was only around for a couple minutes before being shut away by the clouds.” Dakota Kappen

What turns you on creatively? What turns you off? What gets me feeling creative is seeing vast, magnificent landscapes and humans interacting with those landscapes, be it through sport, study, or simply enjoyment. It is hard to tell what turns me off creatively. Some days I would just rather experience without a camera!

Do you have a camera at hand at all times or would you say you set specific time for photography? I set specific times for photography. I like to leave my camera behind when I want to give my full attention to a place or set of people, whether it be a special event or just to see a place without a camera in front of my face.

Stoney Point in Chatsworth, California.

What are your thoughts on color versus black while processing? Sometimes color can be a distraction. Sometimes black and white cannot accurately tell an image’s story. For me it is highly dependent on the subject matter and what I am trying to portray in the image. If a photo’s subject depends on color to convey a message, I leave the color be. When a subject does not necessarily need color to convey its message, I then compare how it looks as a color image versus a black and white image and feel it out. I don’t do too many black and white photographs.

“My friend Sam enjoys a moment to himself in the Alvord Desert. I have visited this place four times now and plan on returning for years to come. This is one of those places to go if you want to quiet your mind but the vastness can almost be overwhelming for first-time visitors.” Dakota Kappen

How do you process your images? First I use Lightroom for global adjustments, then I export to Photoshop for local adjustments. If editing a mobile photo, I use Snapseed.

What motivates you to continue clicking the shutter? I enjoy showing others what can be done and seen in the outdoors. Being outside and taking part in outdoor activities has played a huge part in keeping me happy and satisfied with life. I want to share with others what makes me happy.

What is one of the most exciting days, or shoots, you’ve ever had as a photographer? When I met some friends in Joshua Tree for climbing. Within a couple hours of being there I felt like I was part of a family and I tried to convey this feeling in my photographs I gathered over the couple days I spent with them. These photos can be seen on my blog.

Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Explain what your dream photography experience would be? Documenting a multi-day climbing expedition. I really enjoy outdoor sports, climbing in particular, so having a photography assignment centered on that would certainly be an experience for me. I still have much to learn though, both in photography and climbing.

What does photography, and being a photographer, mean to you? Photography is a way to visually share my personal experiences with everyone around me. It is a way to communicate my ideas and preserve certain memories. For me, being a photographer means to capture and portray the fleeting moments between an action or event that are often forgotten.

“Another one of my personal favorite landscape photos: Zion Canyon. It was a cloudy summer day with intermittent sprinkles. On my way up to the Emerald Pools, the clouds broke to allow the brilliant blue sky to peek through.” Dakota Kappen

Do you have an insecurity when it comes to photography? As with most artists, I tend to hold high standards for myself and be too critical of my own work. It mostly hurts my creative process because I often come back from a trip without many photos. However, the more time I spend with my camera the more detached I feel from this insecurity.

Have you been influenced by other photographers? Who are they and how have they influenced your thinking and photography? Other photographers who have had the most influence in my work are Jimmy Chin, Ken Etzel, Callum Snape, Taylor Burk, and Corey Rich. All have inspired me to move outside my comfort zone and to capture more than just the high times during a photographic outing.

If you could take a portrait of just one person in the entire world, who would it be? Now turn the tables…if you were allowed only one portrait of yourself, who would you choose to take it? I would want to take a portrait of John Muir if he were still around. Taking a portrait of someone can be an intimate process and I think it would be a great opportunity to talk to him. I think it would be amazing to have my portrait added to Ben Moon’s gallery. It would feel like a privilege to have my face among such esteemed outdoorspeople.

“My favorite image of myself climbing in Kelly Canyon, Arizona.” Dakota Kappen

How do you feel about the “rules” of photography? It’s good to understand the basic rules in photography but it is important to never feel restricted by them.

Do you think there are any untruths about photography? What I hear most is that becoming a full-time photographer is as simple as pressing a button a few times, sharing the photos you get, and having everything else fall in line. There is much, much more work involved!

Do you embrace perfection or imperfection and why? I think perfection in an image is present when its subject matter strongly provokes and conveys the emotion(s) the photographer was trying to capture—the idea seems to be effortlessly transferred from print/screen to mind. I do tend to lean closer to perfection in terms of a clean image that follows the basics of photography.

Monkey Face at Smith Rock in Oregon.

What are you currently listening to on your iPod? Does music influence your artistic creation? I listen to a lot of ambient and instrumental artists including but not limited to Tycho, Bonobo, and Ulrich Schnauss. Tycho’s music is inspiring to me in the way that it sounds like an expansive landscape. That alone encourages me to seek out the landscapes that come to mind when listening to the music.

Do you ever get stuck creatively and what do you do to get unstuck? I feel like I am in a creative rut more often than not. I think what tends to pull me out is unexpectedly taking an incredible photograph (incredible in my eyes) and riding on the flow of creative juices from that single photo. Taking a mental vacation can help unstick myself too.

Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in California.

What are your thoughts on originality? I think originality comes with each person as they meld their personal experiences and understandings with current photographic trends so that they stand out from, not blend in.

What should we know about you that might give us something to think about? Photography has taught me to give attention to the present and recognize the full value of every passing second. With this in mind, I think it is important to always be in active pursuit of what makes you happy and share that with others.

Do you have a favorite quote that motivates you or speaks to your heart? “Make more mistakes.” I’m not sure who said it first but making mistakes is a very important part of the learning process.

Monument Valley in Utah.

Dakota Kappen Photography

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