Featured Artist: Andy Merkel


Featured Artist – Andy Merkel

Of all the fantastically fascinating photo snapping physical therapists out there, today we are fortunate to feature our fave! Though his given name may be Andrew, you will no doubt know him better by his Instagram handle "grantplace"(don't ask us why... but don't worry, we did ask him 😉) . With an eye for incredible, a talent for tones and a fabulous feed worth the follow, our interest in this captivating character was piqued. So we set out to see what we could learn about the thoroughly thoughtful therapist and the responses we got did not disappoint. Ladies and gentlemen it is our great honor to proudly present the work and words of the one and only Mister Andy Merkel. 


What’s the story of Andy Merkel and how is it that you happened to get into photography in the first place?

My grandfather was a wedding photographer from Green Bay, WI. Every holiday I went to visit him since I was born, he was always posing us, and taking photos of our whole family. I always wanted to be like him. My parents gave me one of their film cameras when I was young, and I always wanted to shoot more but they would always limit how many photos I took because of the cost of processing at Walgreens in the 90’s! In the early 2000’s, digital cameras were finally becoming cheap enough and I used my first few paychecks as a grocery store bagger to buy a Canon Powershot SD300.

By trade you’re actually not a photographer but a physical therapist, what drew you to that line of work and what benefits or drawbacks does it have for your hobby of exploring the world through photography?

That’s a funny question. When I was in high school, all I took were architecture, and mechanical drafting classes. I thought that’s what I would be doing right now. My parents wanted me to go to UW-Waukesha to save money and then transfer into Marquette University, so when I got to my first year of college there were no CAD (drafting) classes available. I started taking biology, zoology, and other science classes and eventually ended up majoring in Biology at Marquette. My mom was a nurse (now retired) and loved patient care. That’s what drew me into the medical field. After graduating from college I started shadowing different professions, and settled on PT for the best direct patient care career. You spend more time with the patient and less documenting/chart reviewing than other professions. I work in the acute care / hospital setting and no two days are the same. It is a fast paced career! 

The benefits of being an acute care PT are that I can actually work a 40 hour work week (no overtime), and I don’t have to take work home with me since everything is team based. If I am not there, another therapist will work with the patients the following day. 

The drawbacks are that it is a full time job! I work weekends, and I am only able to take off one weekend per quarter, or as much PTO as I can accrue over time. Being a member of a hospital team does have its obligations and I do wish it were a little bit more flexible.



How have things changed for you over the past year?

Last year, my wife and I had a trip planned for the week of March 18th to go to the Arizona and Utah national parks. We had everything booked (campsites, car, flights), and one day before we were supposed to leave, the airport shut down. This set the tone for our travel plans for the year. We decided to keep our time off and just relax at home. 

One month later, my dad passed away. Being an only child, I had to step up to help my mom, learn everything it takes to run a house, help her figure out everything out financially, and try to grieve when I found time. I used to be a daily poster on Instagram, I’m sure everyone that does follow me probably noticed that I have not posted as much as I used to. I haven’t been able to go out as frequently for photography and lost some of my passion for since this event and lockdown happened. 

My number one goal last year was to help promote COVID awareness. Going into work daily to hear “Code 4” being called repeatedly on people young and old was something that I wish everyone could have heard. I think if everyone saw the gravity of the situation firsthand and how many families were ripped apart by COVID, they would have probably changed how they acted last year, masked up, and stopped acting like it wasn’t going to hurt them. We have caregivers at our hospital that still have not recovered from COVID and do not have their taste/smell, lung issues, and just feel significant fatigue daily (who were otherwise completely healthy with no other medical conditions!). 

On a lighter note, when COVID numbers were down this past summer, my wife and I took a road trip to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks, and went camping for a week. It was a much needed break from everything for a few days! 


When it comes to photography, what would you say is your favorite aspect of the craft and what do you find most challenging?

My favorite part of photography is just how it changed my perspective on how I view the world. I am constantly scanning the horizon for compositions and visualizing the end result. I love that the opportunities are endless to how an image can turn out. It’s a lot more than just taking a photo, the real work begins once you get home to process it. 

What I find is most challenging is simply being happy while out hiking. I have a problem where if it ‘s raining or conditions aren’t great, I will be in a bad mood. If anyone has any tips as a landscape photographer on how to be happier during these situations, I would love to hear it! It’s just when you get to a new location, and it doesn’t look like it did how you were expecting, it’s hard to get into a good mindset. If the light isn’t just right, we won’t be happy as landscape photographers. 

On your Instagram profile you label yourself a “midwest explorer” what are some of your favorite midwest regions to explore?

As you probably have seen, I love going to the state and national parks. These are my favorite areas in the midwest that I have been:

Wisconsin

  • Devil’s Lake State Park
  • Peninsula State Park
  • Copper Falls State Park
  • Amnicon Falls State Park

Illinois

  • Starved Rock State Park
  • Matthiessen State Park

Michigan (UP)

  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
  • Porcupine Mountains
  • Copper Harbor 

Minnesota

  • Tettegouche State Park
  • Split Rock State Park
  • Gooseberry Falls State Park
  • Temperance River State Park
  • Cascade River State Park

    Even from just a quick glance at your work it is clearly evident that you have a love for landscape photography over other types of subject matter, so what is it in particular about nature that calls to you?

    This is a hard question. I feel like I’m just drawn to it. I’ve always loved the national parks and nature in general! There’s just something about being outside and walking through the forest that can clear your mind, and completely change your mood. There is actually evidence behind it! 
    If I ever am feeling depressed, stuck in a creative rut, or just need time to think, I will always go out to local park and take a walk. I think I just subconsciously love nature and landscape photography for these reasons. It’s where I feel the best about myself, and the work I can produce from it!

    Your editing is phenomenal. You clearly take great care in pushing and pulling your tones to get them just the way you like... what is your process and what kind of tips do you have for others trying to hone their editing skills?

    Thank you! That really means a lot. If you go back to the beginning of my instagram feed, you will see how much my editing style has changed over the years! I never want to delete my earlier work because I want to see where I came from. So currently, my editing is more minimal. I try to create brighter, cleaner images overall. I’ve even gone back to edit older photos with this new technique.
     
    I tend to not worry too much about camera settings when I am out in the field. I shoot wide open typically (F4 lenses), and increase the exposure in post. Something I’ve been trying lately is dropping the shadows, but lifting the tone curve to create more intricate contrast. 



    What are some of the best resources you know of for photographers looking to improve their skills, especially those just starting out?

    I think instagram, youtube, and flickr are the best places to start. Youtube is a great place to view people in the field (Thomas Heaton is a great place to start). For instagram, start following more people and go through their work! Do not focus on how many followers they have, you will get a lot more inspiration from looking at the local photographers in your area and watching how they paint the world around them. Finally flickr is (still) good if you are looking to buy a new lens. They have groups dedicated to different lenses on there where you can see what types of images you can produce with them from photographers of all skill levels. 

    Being that your name is Andy and not Grant... where did the name Grantplace come from?

    I expected this to be question number 1! “Grant Place” is the street I used to live on when I was younger! Back in 2010 when I started using instagram, people were more private. Everyone had their username, now everything is completely different and using your real name is in! 



    What are the best and worst things about living in Wisconsin?

    I’ll keep this one short because lately I’ve been feeling like moving away from here (Don’t worry, I’m not going to anytime soon)! The best thing is probably its central location to everything. Taking weekend road trips is relatively easy to get to the best parts of the midwest. Being from the Milwaukee area, the places I want to see are 3-5 hours away. The worst part about living in Wisconsin as a landscape photographer is that there aren’t that many places to photograph! 

    Throughout your photographic life you have been to a number of National and State Parks across the country... which has been the most awe-inspiring destination and which was your favorite to photograph? (Were they the same or completely different?) And why

    My favorite moment was my first trip to the southwest and driving into Zion from the East entrance at sunset. The physical size of the golden canyon walls towering over you as you wind through them on the switchback roads were something I will never forget and the reason I will always want to come back to this park. The downside of Zion are the amount of people there! One person said they get an average of 10,000 visitors per day. As a landscape photographer, it’s hard to take a photo without dozens of people in it. 

    My favorite to photograph was Arches. I went to Delicate Arch at sunset and I could tell immediately it was going to be an amazing sunset with popping orange and pink colors with clouds above and a clear line on the horizon. Everyone was leaving at the time, and I was thinking in my head “where are you all going? Don’t you see what’s about to happen?” Sure enough, it was one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Otherwise just simply the national parks in Washington were some of my favorite places to photograph.  


    Everyone has their own idea of what the term Up North means... what to you is “Up North”? 

    “Up North” to me means pines, lakes, campfire, starry skies, northern lights, being on the water, having the trail to yourself, relaxing, local dive bars, fish fries, and lots of mosquitos!

    As you know, we asked our Instagram followers what kinds of things they would like us to ask you about and these are the things they are dying to know...

    What is your secret to fall photos?

    I typically use HSL sliders in my fall photos to help “enhance” the color. There is a particular time of fall when you have multiple shades in the trees and I like to turn my yellows to oranges to create a more dynamic shot! 

    What keeps you excited about photography?

    I love gear, whenever a new lens, camera, or piece of gear comes out, I want to go and try it right away! 

    How do you stay motivated to keep shooting or get yourself out of a creative rut?

    Aside from visiting new places, the number one thing to get myself out of a rut has been only bringing one lens with me. It forces me to see things differently. I always regret not having another lens while I’m out, but then I can actually focus on creating something new rather than doing the same style/type of shot in a new location. 

    What kind of stuff are you listening to right now?

    Lately I’ve been really into folk music. Caamp, Mt. Joy, and Novo Amor 

    Duck duck grey duck or duck duck goose?

    Duck Duck Goose! 


    Alright getting back to the script...

    What resources do you use for improving your skills? What have been some of the biggest lessons you have learned since you first picked up a camera?

    I mainly use Youtube for improving my skills. I don’t really do anything fancy! Just a lot of trial and error. I think the biggest factor for improving your skills is finding a new perspective on a familiar place so that you aren’t simply copying other photographers. The biggest lesson I have learned is trying not to copy other photographers. It’s really easy to get the same composition these days, sometimes just limited by the physical space you are in, so then it’s your chance to make something your own. 
      What do you typically bring with you when you go out for a shoot?

      I usually carry:
      • Sony A7iii
      • Canon 16-35mm F4
      • Tamron 28-75mm 2.8
      • Canon 70-200mm F4
      • I recently got a Sony 24mm 1.4, which I haven’t been able to use that much! 
      • I usually do not bring anything else with me camera gearwise… otherwise a sweatshirt and a water bottle

      What would you say is your favorite thing about shooting in Wisconsin? And favorite season?

      I’m sure you all already know my favorite thing about shooting in Wisconsin is fall color. If there is one thing great about this state is the ever colorful forests in the fall. It always reinvigorates me! 


      Outside of Wisconsin, what has been your favorite place to travel to and photograph?

      I never thought I would say this before I’ve visited there, but the Southwest. I absolutely love the desert. The orange and red rock, cacti, and mountains are something I hope everyone can experience! 

      Do you happen have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken?

      This morning in Mt Rainier National park. 

      I thought everything was lost because of how foggy/hazy it was. How could I possibly get a good image of Mt. Rainier with the smoke in the air? I just needed to look right in front of my eyes to see what I could create. 



      Who are your heroes? (Photography or otherwise)

      Honestly, I brought him up a bunch already but Thomas Heaton is my main photography hero because of how self-restrained he is to go out and take only a few photos instead of taking hundreds of the same thing hoping one turns out. 

      Any bucket shots on your list?

      My number one bucket shot that got me into mountain photography was taken in Johnston Canyon in a cave, with a waterfall. When I got to Canada, I looked and I looked for this spot. I couldn’t find it on my first day. Social media, smartphones were JUST getting popular and I didn’t have an international plan at the time, so I couldn’t research. When I finally got here I almost teared up because this was the first time I saw mountains, glacial blue water, and set a photography goal and accomplished it. 

      As of right now, White Pocket and The Wave in AZ are on my list. Unfortunately they either a.) need permits / lottery system to enter, or b.) you need a 4-wheel drive jeep and risk getting stuck in the sand in the middle of nowhere to get there. 


      What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just starting out as a photographer?

      I do! It’s actually one of my favorite quotes for photography: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson
      Literally just keep taking photos. Imitate your favorite photographers and then use what you like about that photo in different scenes. Just keep taking photos. I have probably taken over 500,000 photos since I started and I still don’t feel like I’m anywhere near where I want to be!


      This one comes from our previous featured artist Zak Gruber who would like to know... What moment in time made you decide to follow your passion?

      With photography, it was the day instagram selected one of my photos to be featured on their main page. This was about 5 years ago now. It made me realize “this is real” and I would actually be gaining recognition and a significantly larger audience. I don’t do photography for a living, I just want to share my talents with everyone. 

      Having a full time job already, which I love, I love photography for what it is and I try not to let it consume me (which it has in the past). Lately I’ve been a lot more reserved in how many photos I take when I am out. Through experience, I know when I might be able to change something in post-production, or when it wouldn’t be worth taking the shot. 


      What one question would you ask our next featured person? (Anything you like. Doesn’t have to be about photography - it may or may not be a fellow photographer who goes next) 

      Imagine social media does not exist, but everything else does in the world like it does now. How would you want to share your gifts and talents with photography?
       
      Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?

      @ashinthewild (of course I want to pick my wife), but if that isn’t an option, then @maddymarq

      Thank you so much for your time.

      For more great Grantplace content make sure to follow along with Andrew on...
      Instagram: @grantplace

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