Aaron Davis's stunning landscapes have graced multiple Prism covers over the past few years. See his work on the website as Winter 2016's featured artist. Aaron is currently the manager of OMN's KBVR TV station.
Devin: What I usually start with is just talking a little bit about how you got started. When you got serious about it, that kind of thing.
Aaron: So I started doing photo work kind of just as a hobby when my family would go on road trips. And my parents were very into... we didn’t really fly many places, but we’d drive everywhere. And so my first experience taking pictures was when my parents got a new point and shoot camera and they gave the old one to me. They said, ‘Go crazy, you can break it.’ I was a teenager, so, you know, I broke everything. So they gave me this crappy point and shoot camera and we went to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and we were on our way up to Yellowstone and stuff. On the way I was taking pictures out the window and just seeing what sorts of crazy effects I could get of my sleeping brother next to me, and just being a stupid teenager... But when we got back and I imported them all to my computer and I’d just gotten Facebook. That was like the first year everyone had Facebook, my freshman year of high school, and I started playing with them and messing with them and just really really enjoyed it. I ended up taking a photo and video class the next year that really opened my eyes up to the possibility of using color, composition, or not using color to convey ideas and not really coming from a strong artistic background that was really interesting to me. It blew my mind. I actually got very into video at that point.
And I wanted to be a doctor, which was weird. I came into Oregon State in the pre-med department. So long story short, pre-med sucks.
"It’s interesting because a lot of people feel more confined with photography, but I feel less confined."
Aaron: And I went into it just because I thought being a doctor would be cool, and I didn’t realize how much paperwork and lab time, and how much time you spend underground in these cold dingy rooms looking through microscopes. It was not my cup of tea. I wanted to be outside. So I was talking to advisors and stuff and they asked me, ‘Well what did you enjoy doing in high school?’ And I kind of fell back on, ‘Well I like taking pictures.’ So through that I found DCA, and I became involved in the TV department here, but something about taking pictures has always been really interesting to me. Because it feels like with video you are locked into this timeframe. You know, your video is X amount long, and you have to have the person pay attention for that whole time. But with a photograph it’s an instant or it’s 30 seconds worth of time that you’ve put into this one picture. And that captivates someone for as long as it lets them. You know, I’ve stared at a picture for hours because it’s just like so incredible and has the depth and everything to it. And there are videos I click on and I watch 5 seconds and I hate it. It’s interesting because a lot of people feel more confined with photography, but I feel less confined. I think it’s less on the artist and more on the person looking at it. So that’s how I got into photography, and I took a bunch of classes here.
But it’s become what I really like to do. It’s relaxing. It’s meditative in a lot of cases. You get that dark room time with your laptop. So that’s a cool process.
Nick: So what’s your major now?
Aaron: I’m in Digital Communication Arts with an emphasis on production.
Nick: So this is a career path for you?
Aaron: Yeah. The video stuff is. I do a lot of freelance on the side when I have time for it. But lately photo has become more of an opportunity to do career stuff.
Nick: So do you think you like photography more or video editing, TV managing?
Aaron: I love photos. Way more. I feel like I have a lot more opportunities for creative expression in it whereas with video I feel a lot more locked into current trends and things like that. With video there are so many tried and true set ways that you do things. And you don’t change that. Especially in the film industry which was what I was into — short film kind of stuff. So coming from that to photography and just like do whatever you want. Experiment. Play with stuff. It doesn’t matter. However you want to do stuff. I like that a lot more.
Nick: You did the cover art for the Fall 2014 issues. How did you find that location?
Aaron: That was actually somewhere that I grew up camping. So I’ve been going to that lake since I was six or seven. I only recently thought, ‘Hey I should go back there at night,’ and it worked out really well.
Nick: You said you don’t like using models, but I’ve noticed a lot of times you’ll have a single person in a nature background. Are those people you’ve been like, ‘Hey go stand over there,’ or does it happen more organically?
Aaron: Sometimes. Sometime’s I’ll set my camera on a tripod and I’ll run out there.
Nick: Oh, some of those are you?
Aaron: Yeah. Like the cover one — that was me.
Nick: Did that take a lot of time?
Aaron: Yeah, and standing still for that long... You just look up and stare at one star and just think, ‘Don’t move!’
Aaron: So that was an interesting experience. I really like the concept of using people as scale. So when you’re looking at a blank landscape you have no sense of grandeur. How big are these mountains, how high up am I? But if you can stick a little person in there, subconsciously, I guess the viewer puts themselves in the place of that person. And so even if they’re not close to the angle of the photograph you kind of set yourself in that person’s role.
Nick: So it’s not just for scale.
Aaron: It’s an engagement technique.
Nick: Otherwise you could just use a banana for scale.
Nick: Yeah I think it’s working for sure.
Aaron: Thank you.
"it was a night where I realized I was just incredibly happy doing what I was doing."
Nick: I couldn’t quite place why your photos are more distinguished than other nature photographs I’ve looked at, and I think that’s the reason.
Aaron: It draws you in. You don’t really have a choice about it.
Devin: Do you have a particular experience or a particular shoot that was just really cool, or a turning point for you at a photographer, or just whatever sticks out.
Aaron: I think the night that I did a lot of the astral photography that was on that cover. And those were two of probably hundreds of photos I took in that night span. And that was not necessarily a turning point, but it was a night where I realized I was just incredibly happy doing what I was doing. And even if they weren’t the best photographs I just thought they were the coolest thing I’d ever done. And so knowing that I was making that by myself... It was just a defining moment for me realizing that I was doing something very cool. And doing it for myself, and not for anybody else. Not for class, not for anything like that. I’m in my childhood favorite camping place out under these incredible stars by myself. I could get eaten by a bear, but I’m just dealing with it. It was an incredible self-affirming evening.
Nick: Yeah, you were creating something of your own volition.
So you’re like a super busy person right? Cause you’re also sponsored by a yo-yo company.
Aaron: (Laughs) Yeah.
Nick: Would you say your yo-yo sponsorship inspires any of your other creative work?
Aaron: The yo-yo sponsorship is why I got into video work in the first place.
Nick: OK, right. Cause you were posting videos of yourself doing tricks on Youtube.
Aaron: Right. My whole motivation for getting good at video came from this compulsion to get professional at literally everything I’d spend more than five minutes doing.
Nick: That’s a good compulsion though! How long have you been sponsored now?
Aaron: Almost three years? No. Almost two years. I’ve been yo-yoing for almost five.
Nick: Are you still making videos?
Aaron: Every once in a while. It’s definitely fallen off in the last year or so just because of the job here at KBVR, and with the amount of photo work I’ve been doing instead. And video work takes so much time. A lot of people don’t understand how much time it takes just to make a one minute video.
Nick: Oh I understand. Devin understands.
"it doesn’t matter if it’s crooked or if it’s upside down as long as people feel something from it."
Devin: So what do you think makes a good photo. Like what separates a great photo from an OK photo?
Aaron: That’s a really good question. So there are the standards that every photo teacher, every critic will tell you. And those are composition, color, etc. But I think it goes a lot beyond that because people break those rules all the time successfully because it has a lot to do with the individual who is taking it themselves and how the viewer is connected to them. And you see this on social media where people will post what could be considered a mediocre photo, um, maybe it’s too dark for your liking or something, but because of the story attached to it and because of the person and the connection you feel to that person, it gets an incredible response.
So classically yeah, I think photos that... If you’re trying to become a better photographer, studying the rules of composition. The rule of thirds. Where the eye settles on a photo. Paying attention to focal points and color balance and your lights and darks. There’s so many rules to follow if you want to be technically proficient. But I think good photos are something that tell a story on their own. Something that people can look at and become engaged with regardless of who they are. Like if people associate their own meaning or emotion with it, it doesn’t matter if it’s crooked or if it’s upside down as long as people feel something from it.
Nick: Do you have a creative process? Get pumped up? Drink some tea? Do a crazy dance?
Aaron: Uh, yeah. Totally.
Devin: All of that?
Aaron: I usually drive wherever I go shoot, so lots of music and jumping around and air punches...
Nick: Is there specific music?
Aaron: No, not specific music. I love finding new stuff. If I can find a new song with finding a new spot and forever associate that song with finding that spot...
Nick: Aww. That’s beautiful Aaron!
Aaron: (Laughs) Yeah. So I just try and have fun when I go out. I never want to be in a bad mood.
Nick: Well, but what if a bad mood equates to a somber image?
Aaron: And that has happened. Totally. It’s just not how I prefer to do things. Yeah if something great comes out of it — but everytime I look at that picture I’m reminded, “Oh that’s when I was fighting with my girlfriend,” or “My grandma just died” or... not that that’s actually happened. So the biggest thing about photos for me is being able to look back at them and remember where I was and what was going through my head as I was framing it, and if that’s something I wasn’t happy about then I’m instantly transported back there.
Nick: Man I envy you as a writer. You cannot do that. It’s always battle scene, “Gory death!” I never associate anything with...
Have you ever submitted elsewhere?
Aaron: Yes. I was featured in the Art of Visuals Magazine. It was the first edition they’ve ever done, so I don’t know how often they will be done, but they feature a ton of photographers. I think it was close to a 100, but they were all people they found through Instagram. So I was featured next to a lot of people that I really really admire.
Nick: Oh that’s a cool experience.
Aaron: It was an incredible experience being on that same level. A couple of guys had like full spreads and interviews and stuff. But just being included in that was cool.
Nick: Have you ever had a moment where you thought you weren’t good enough and should just stop.
Aaron: Yeah. Oh yeah.
Nick: How did you get over it?
Aaron: I just had to tell myself to stop being a little bitch.
Aaron: I know for a fact that I’m too hard on myself a lot of times, and I think that stems from... my parents just have very high expectations. Not in a bad way. Not in a, “If you don’t meet these expectations you’re dead to us,” kind of way, but more like a, “You did a great job, but here’s where you could do better,” or “What do you think you could do better?” So that’s pretty ingrained in me. So like I did this and it was pretty good, but is it to my standards? Even if other people like it, I’m not really doing it for other people, I’m doing it because I want to do it, and you know what can I do better. So a lot of times I find myself saying, “Aaron you suck. Why do you even try,” and all this stuff. But that’s probably my biggest adversary. I’m overly critical of everything I do. I’ve had many moments where I’m just like, “Screw this I don’t want to be around a camera ever again,” and then in three days I’m back taking pictures again.
I think social media as well is a huge help. Not even my personal social media, but if I take a break and I’m looking through Instagram or Tumblr or Reddit even where you just see these incredible images all the time. A lot of times I’ll see places that I’ve already been and that’s just like, “I’ve been there. I’ve done something like that, or I’ve done something better than that in my eyes.” And if these people can get this sort of gratification and recognition out of it than I need to get back on it because that’s my calling.
Thanks again to Aaron Davis for talking with us. We hope you've enjoyed Reflections this year and come back to the site next year for more on the arts community here at OSU.