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A Conversation with David Middleton

We recently caught up with Crossroads co-founder David Middleton, a master photographer and one of our favorite instructors of all time. We had a chance to ask David about his sources of inspiration, his work with non-profit organizations in Uganda, and his favorite places to live and work. Oh, and there’s a tidbit about elephants too, so read on!

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Crossroads: David, you’ve been a teacher and mentor to hundreds of students over the years and helped launch the careers of many successful professional photographers. Looking back on your own career, you seem to be largely self-taught. Were there people who helped influence the look and feel of your own photography when you first started out?

DM: I was lucky very early in my career to work with two well known, very accomplished photographers- John Shaw and Wayne Lynch. I led tours with them and then co-taught workshops with them and it was a great education. I realized that I was a good photographer, but I needed to be better. Seeing John’s landscapes and Wayne’s wildlife photos made me realize where the bar was set and it inspired me to consistently reach for it.

Crossroads: You’ve travelled all over the world as a working photographer and visited some fascinating places. If you could choose one place to return tomorrow, where would it be?

DM: The easy answer is home. I have spent so much time away, home is always the most exciting place for me to head towards. The hard answer is….it is very hard to choose one place- a harbor in Maine? the Serengeti? on the Nile River in Uganda? the Amazon rainforest? an old-growth forest in Oregon? a kayak in Glacier Bay? The most gobsmacking spectacular place I have ever been is probably Gold Beach on South Georgia Island. I was alone with a million king penguins for four hours with glaciers and elephant seals as well. It was the most other-worldly experience of my life.

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Crossroads: You’ve recently opened up about the impact of travelling to Africa and photographing on behalf of non-profit organizations in Uganda. You’ve also recently established a foundation called All About The Light (AATL), which distributes solar powered lights to individuals and communities throughout the world. You mention the impact of this work in terms of the joy of giving back. This seems to be a major shift in the direction of your photography and a deeper emotional connection to the work itself. Do you feel you would have done this kind of work earlier in your career or is the timing right now? DM-Uganda_Luci_Lights

DM: Establishing AATL did result from a major photographic shift but it wasn’t in philosophy, it was in subject matter. The previous 10 years or so I started to photograph people seriously. This is something I religiously avoided for the first 20 years of my career. Photographing people means interacting with them. It means listening to their stories and getting to know them a bit. From there, it isn’t so far a leap to start a foundation that helps the people you photograph. I am deeply connected to this kind of photography, but I was and still am deeply emotionally connected to my first photographic love- old-growth forests. I think that to do any kind of creative art really well, you have to have an emotional connection- otherwise it’s just either play or a job.

Crossroads: What do you think is the single biggest factor or misconception that holds people back in their photography?

DM: That the computer can fix it. I have railed at this for years, mostly to deaf ears. And as digital processing becomes ever more sophisticated the ears are getting increasingly more deaf. If you take a good picture to begin with, you won’t have to fix anything in the computer.  Relying on the computer to fix something that you could’ve fixed in the field is just being lazy and sloppy but it is very common. It leads to an overall diminishment in craftsmanship and that is a shame

Crossroads: You’ve made your home in southern Vermont for over 20 years now. Of all the places you’ve lived and worked throughout your life and career, what draws you to this particular place?

DM: Several things- first it is the environment I loved growing up in- the northern deciduous hardwood forest- very diverse, very appealing, very welcoming and very comforting. I picked Vermont in large part because of its sense of community. Vermont is a small town, a quaint village kind of place where you know every one of your neighbors, people greet you by name when you do errands and your dog is welcome into everyone’s kitchen. It also has a huge hunk of public land- the Green Mountain National Forest- that encourages wandering and getting lost. Having space to wander is very important to me.

Crossroads: People may not know that you have a special affinity for elephants. Tell us something we may not know about elephants and why they hold a special fascination for you.

DM_ElephantDM: Elephants communicate seismically through their toes. That’s right, they can both send and receive vibrations through the ground that they sense with their toenails. And they can do this over distances of several miles. They also frequently communicate infrasonically- below the threshold of human hearing. They remind me that there is an entire mysterious world out there that we, as humans, are almost completely ignorant of.

Crossroads: As a professional photographer for over 30 years, are there ways you continue to learn, grow and challenge yourself? Do you feel you are still evolving as an artist and perhaps seeing the world differently now than earlier in your career?

DM: I always challenge myself to photograph better- either the subjects that I regularly photograph or subjects that are entirely new to me. Even my favorite photos, I know I can do better. I am also forever searching for stories to tell, compelling stories, stories that will grab your heart and give it a good twist. With each new story comes new ways of telling, new challenges, new frustrations, new successes, lots of new failures. The point is in the trying, always trying.

Crossroads: Describe the perfect day for you.

DM: Walking into a small village in a magical environment (with new birds!) and meeting a person working with their hands- carpenter, weaver, painter, farmer- and spending the day listening, watching, laughing with them. A quiet veranda at twilight with glass of wine, a tablet of dark chocolate and a warm hand in mine would then lead to sleeping under the stars with my dog Abe snoring at my side.

David will be teaching Crossroads workshops in Santa Fe (March 20-25, 2016), Vermont (June 7-12, 2016) and Sitka Alaska (August 2-8, 2016). For more information, visit the individual workshop pages here. We promise it will be a great educational experience and so much more. And yes, David will share his wine and chocolate with you! To see more of David’s work and read more of his musings, visit his website.

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