Featured Artist - Matt Birkholz
Today it is our great pleasure to welcome Matt Birkholz to the UNTC blog. To be honest, before setting up this interview there was relatively little we actually knew about the mysterious man behind the captivating camera work. Sure we had admired his awe-mazing imagery and wow-inducing wanderings for a great while, but the fine fella behind the fabulous photos was a bit of an enigma. Then again, that's why we do this in the first place... to meet the incredible people we admire from afar, hear their astonishing stories and share their breathtaking work... and Matt's got plenty of that to spare. Just see for yourself.
As always the first question we like to ask is a fairly simple one (or is it?) ... can you tell us a little about yourself, what’s your story and how is it that you managed to get into photography?
Well I wouldn't say it's a simple question, I guess it depends on how much you want to know and how honest you want me to be. First of all, I'm 39 years old, I know, I can't really believe it either, I'm still just a big kid though. I live just outside of Minneapolis and have a fairly normal 9-5 job in the city, it's more like 6-5 but who's counting. I mainly do photography as a hobby. I sell prints of my photos and also do some freelance work when the job is right and time permits. It's a true passion and love, and has taken me on many adventures and taught me some valuable lessons. I plan to keep growing as a photographer and hopefully one day I can make a decent living from it. Working for National Geographic would be my dream job!
I actually only started getting serious about photography a couple years ago. I took a couple classes back in high school but about my junior year I got caught up in the party scene and stopped caring about school and sports and became a pretty bad student. This trend continued for many years, I never finished college and just worked odd jobs and "had a good time" on the weekends, like every weekend! I was living to party on the weekends and it ultimately made me pretty depressed and felt I was going nowhere in life. I finally started to clean up my act in my 30's, I was lucky to get a good job and started to focus on taking pictures again, I always loved to take photos.
My life really changed when I finally bought a nice Canon camera, it was the creative outlet I needed! I've told people that photography saved my life which may sound dramatic but I truly believe it gave me a new outlook on life, kept me out of the party scene and has taken me places I never knew existed before photography. I love travelling and seeing new places because I can't wait to chase a sunrise or sunset and capture that moment in a beautiful photograph! I get such a rush from adventure photography, witnessing an amazing landscape after a long hike or kayaking on Lake Superior in the dark to capture the sunrise. I think photography is a journey and I'm definitely on it. I feel like I'm just getting warmed up and this journey will last a lifetime. I can't get enough of it.
Now that you have been out honing your craft and capturing your adventures, what is it that keeps you interested in photography? What is it that challenges you and drives you to improve your art form?
Growing! Just growing as a photographer. I think I still have a lot to learn and that's exciting. I don't even think I know all the capabilities my camera has and I'm already thinking about getting another new one. I just think the current Canon I have has its limits, I want a more powerful camera that's better in low light, amongst other things. Night photography has been challenging for me and capturing lightning has been frustrating as well. There is always something to shoot and I'm never bored with my camera in hand! There's still plenty for me to figure out.
I have really good mornings and evenings and come home with great photos that I love, but those times when I don't get what I ultimately want is when I learn the most. Whether it's a bad composition or my settings were off, or I just didn't have the time needed to accomplish what I wanted. When I make mistakes I learn, and I'm definitely my own worst critic.
In gathering images for this piece it is plain to see that your subject matter varies a great deal between metropolitan settings and natural landscapes... which do you prefer and which challenges you more?
As much as I love shooting in and around the city, I love going up north or to a new dramatic landscape more. I don't think much beats a calm, quiet, beautiful sunrise over Lake Superior on a crisp spring or fall morning! Or a visit to a National or State Park to see a sunset after a long hike. Yeah, I like nature more than the city. Both come with challenges, finding new perspectives and appealing compositions may be the biggest challenge. However, finding those perspectives and compositions is half the fun, maybe 80% of the fun actually!
Another thing that is quite evident is that you are a fairly avid kayaker (and who can blame you in the land of 10,000+ lakes)... what are your favorite places to explore via kayak and what advantages does shooting from the water provide?
I love a good sunrise paddle! Hitting the city lakes or the Mississippi River is always fun, but getting out on Lake Superior is the real adventure! I won't go out on Superior unless it's completely calm, that lake can easily kill you, trust me I know, I had a scare my first time to the Apostle Islands. Getting out on the water is all about perspective, especially in a kayak that sits low on the water. Being out there opens up a whole new world of angles and compositions, like getting into sea caves! It's also challenging because you're constantly moving, and in low light it can be extremely challenging. You can't use your tripod in a kayak, crank up that ISO, ha!
Across your work I also notice you have a fair amount of beautifully saturated reds as well as a ravishing range of deep, thoughtful blues... would you say you tend to favor certain color palettes when you shoot and edit or are you drawn to certain kinds of moments which naturally lend themselves to these palettes?
What can I say, I love color! We live in a colorful world and I like to capture those vibrant colors, especially during sunrises and sunsets. I wouldn't say I favor any particular color palette, I like every photo to stand out on it's own but I definitely get excited when I get to witness and photograph a burning red, orange or pink sky over the city or a beautiful landscape! I'll photograph anything if it catches my eye. I work with what I'm presented with, color always has attracted me, but give me some moody fog, some cool architecture or an interesting animal and I'll be just as excited!
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?
Yosemite! Man, Yosemite National Park is jaw dropping! Driving through that valley past the huge waterfalls and 3000 foot granite cliffs is mind blowing. That's the kind of landscape I dream about photographing. I didn't get to spend much time there, but that's usually the case when I travel, I try to cram in a lot of locations in the little time I have. I'm working on taking more time and slowing it down a bit. I will never get sick of visiting beautiful landscapes like that though, it's so inspiring to get out there and explore them! I just wish I could do it more often, I get inspired every time I travel and I love to take photos everywhere I end up. Tettegouche and Split Rock are favorites as well. Any State Park along the North Shore is awesome. Gosh, I have got to get back up there ASAP, it's been a little while now.
You recently posted some sweet cave photos from the rocky banks of the Apostle Islands and in one of the captions you mentioned that you had been dreaming about getting a shot like this for years... how amazing does it feel when you finally get that shot out of your head and do you have any other specific shots you have been dreaming about getting for a long time?
It really doesn't happen that often, but when it does it's an amazing feeling. Those that have been out shooting with me know I tend to get pretty excited when I get a shot I love, even more excited when I've been thinking about getting that photo for quite some time. I think the more effort that goes into a photo and the longer it takes me to get it, the more meaningful it becomes. That was my third trip to the Apostle Islands and finally everything came together. It was a crazy boat ride back to Madeline Island, getting caught in a thunderstorm in the dark and getting turned around, almost heading out into the middle of Lake Superior. That just adds more character to the photo I think.
What is it about the Apostle Islands that you enjoy so much?
The Apostle Islands are beautiful, and unless you live there it would take a lifetime to explore all 22 islands. I love how expansive the area is and the rock formations and sea caves are amazing! A good friend of mine and I have gone two consecutive years now and plan on going every summer. He has a boat and we're able to load our kayaks on the boat and cruise from island to island dropping our kayaks in the lake to explore sea caves and the other cool rock formations. I think it's the only way to truly explore the Islands, it's awesome!
In addition to beautiful photography, you do a great job of including some thought provoking captions when you post on Instagram. You recently wrote “I think true adventure occurs when you’re out in the elements, maybe in a bit of danger, and totally focused on the task at hand. That’s when all the other crap in the world disappears and you’re left with only what’s in front of you and the challenges you face to make it home safely. It’s a real escape from reality.” How often do you find that you push yourself to these kinds of “true adventure” moments and is it a kind of thrill you seek out?
Well, Thank you. I like to add some context to a photo or tell the story that went into capturing that photograph. It's definitely thrilling for me, like I said before, more than half the fun of photography for me is getting out into the world and living the adventure that comes with exploring beautiful landscapes and capturing a sunrise or sunset along with it. That type of adventure photography is my favorite and I do it as often as possible.
One of the images that I think stands out to me amongst your work for some reason is the exceptionally moody fog-laden view from Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. There is just something about the lack of color in a body of work which generally includes such vivid palettes that makes that single image a little more intriguing somehow. What was it like that day when you knew you had that shot just sitting there waiting to be frozen in time?
That was my first time to Sleeping Giant. After the very long hike to the top I was expecting to see the long expansive views from just about 1000 feet above Lake Superior. However, the cliffs were completely fogged in, I almost walked right off the edge! It was amazing, I've experienced fog like that on Lake Superior only a handful of times but everytime it amazes me! The many moods of Superior are exquisite!
Do you have a favorite lake?
It may be obvious at this point in the conversation!? How many times have I mentioned a certain lake already!? It's Lake Superior. I absolutely love it. I was going to drive around it this summer but unfortunately 2020 happened and plans changed. Hopefully next summer I'll get to do that trip, we'll see. I find myself longing for the big lake if I haven't visited in a while.
I know before agreeing to do this interview you read a few of our other featured artist blog posts... of the few you had the pleasure of reading 😉😁 were there any in particular that were your favorite? Was there anything you learned about someone that surprised you or you found particularly interesting?
I dig that dude Keefography (John Keefover) not only because he does great work and I learned more about how he works, but because I can relate. It sounds like he went through a rough patch in life and may have been a bit lost before moving up to Duluth and getting serious about photography again. He's not the first photographer I've heard that from and won't be the last. If anyone else reading this is struggling in life and feels a bit lost a camera may be exactly what you need, it really helped us! Or perhaps another way to express yourself creatively. Any art form is a great way to escape the rat race of everyday life. Get outside and be creative! Or inside works too.
As you are well aware a little while ago we asked our Instagram followers what kinds of things they would like us to ask you about during this interview. So here it is straight from the horse’s mouth...
What fact amazes you every time you think about it?
How about the fact that we, as a human race, know more about Space than our deepest oceans.
What is your favorite lens to use when you are out shooting?
I recently picked up a Tamron 18-200mm, that's my favorite right now, It's been my go-to since I bought it. I also love my Canon 10-18mm wide angle lens and my Canon 70-300mm. Those three are in my bag every time I head out!
What’s your scariest moment taking a photo?
I've put myself in danger plenty of times, whether it was hiking to the top of Yosemite falls and back down in the dark and the rain, Angels landing in Zion, in the Apostle Islands, or even the North Shore gets dangerous. But the story that stands out the most is my second time to Sleeping Giant with my girlfriend. Similar to the Apostle Island sunset cave shot, I had wanted to capture a sunset from the cliffs of Sleeping Giant for some time and I was determined to make it happen this trip. Our timing was a bit off and we really had to hustle to get to the top in time to catch the sunset. It's a long hike! Well, we ended up getting separated after sunset and it was now dark, snowy and cold! I was the one navigating and she didn't know how to get back, we were frantically searching for each other. Through shouting and spotty cell service we eventually found each other. It was totally my fault and could've been pretty bad if I didn't find her. I don't get scared that often putting myself in danger but I brought her there and I was responsible for her safety. So putting her in danger scared me. Anyway, we made it out alive with a heck of a story and some cool photos! Oh, and that was the first weekend we spent together as a couple.
What is your favorite cuisine?
What do you read?
Crappy news articles on my phone. Na, I've been reading National Geographic books lately. Probably more for the pictures, ha.
Did you play center your whole life? What was it like going to Harvard and winning the Super Bowl? Why leave the Vikings??
That's hilarious! This isn't the first time I've been mistaken for Matt Birk.
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?
Practice makes perfect. I won't ever be perfect but just getting out as much as possible and using my camera is how I've learned the most. I've watched my fair share of YouTube videos as well. Other photographers are great teachers, sometimes it's the littlest things you learn from others that can make a huge difference. Like setting your camera to shoot in RAW rather than Jpeg. or even a simple editing trick.
What would you say is your favorite thing about shooting in Minnesota? And favorite season?
That's just it, experiencing all four seasons is my favorite thing about photography in Minnesota. I love weather, and experiencing the changing of seasons and all sorts of weather is challenging and exciting. You definitely get a different feel through a photo depending on the weather conditions. If I really had to pick a favorite I'd probably say summer, just because it's nice out! You can be outside and pretty comfortable most of the summer, it's easy to head out and shoot. Winter can be painful, and tough to find motivation.
Do you happen have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
I'd have to say my favorite photo is the sunset at Sleeping Giant shot. I love how it turned out and the story behind means a lot to me. It was a heck of an adventure and I did it with someone I love! I also learned some valuable lessons that night, some examples of what not to do. Ha.
Who are your heroes? (Photography or otherwise)
There are a couple photographers, artists and athletes that I keep a close eye on but I wouldn't consider them heroes. Honestly I'd have to say my parents are my heroes. They put up with a lot of my crap when I was younger and have loved and supported me in everything I've ever done. They're the biggest and best people in my life, they're my heroes, love you m & d!
Any bucket shots on your list?
My bucket shots consist of epic landscapes. Like Banff, I have to get back to Yosemite, Milford Sound, Niagara Falls, gotta get back to Zion, the list goes on. I've got so much left to shoot! That's why I'm so excited about my future in photography. I have plenty left to learn and photograph! It's just so expensive to go to all these places. Can we start a go fund me?? ;)
What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just starting out as a photographer?
#justgoshoot Seriously though, just get out there and use your camera! You'll find out pretty quick what subjects interest you and the more mistakes you make the more you'll learn. Also pick up some editing software, I use Lightroom. It's exciting to get home after your adventures or walk through the city, or whatever you were shooting, and put those images in your computer to mess around with the different editing tools that are available. I'm pretty much a self taught photographer. I think I still have a long way to go but I've also come a long way from when I started. I've learned by doing! #justgoshoot
This one comes from our previous featured artist Martin Ramirez who would like to know... Do you call it pop or soda? ?
Soda pop! Na, it's pop.
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)
Your dream trip!? All expenses paid for a week, where would you go??
Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?
I wouldn't mind hearing from Christophurous (Chris O'Donnell) I think he's super talented and I guarantee I could learn a thing or two from him. I met him once along the Superior Hiking Trail. He popped out of the woods at Bean and Bear Lake wearing sandals, it was cold out. He planned on taking a nap in a hammock and then was going to shoot the Milky Way. Pretty sure he got a sweet shot that night. Yeah, get him on here.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks for having me! Check back in a year or two to see how I'm doing. The journey continues! Peace and Love,
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