From Letterman to Iceland, Mikkel Aaland has traversed the globe photographing, speaking about photography and writing about it. Authoring more than 10 books on digital photography, his latest work, “Photoshop Lightroom Adventure: Mastering Adobe’s next-generation tool for digital photographers (O’Reilly)” released in July 2007, has quite a buzz. The project: perhaps his most ambitious yet, takes a group of 12 seasoned photographers and drops them in the middle of Iceland armed only with cameras and laptops, where there is 22 hours of horizontal light daily. The mission: to beta test Adobe’s all-in-one imaging application. The book, part road trip, part photo essay, is rich with images and easy-to-follow directions on how to emulate them. The excursion took place last summer, a time when the artic nation is suffused in shades of dappled light practically all day and night—a perfect stage to test, experiment and discover Lightroom.
Iceland isn’t Aaland’s first global adventure. In 1999, a six-year adventure resulted in “The Sword of Heaven, A Five Continent Odyssey to Save the World”. In 1978, a three-year study of international bathing customs took him to Russia, Japan, Finland, Mexico, Turkey, and Greece and resulted in “Sweat”. Later, he spent nine years traveling the U.S. county fair circuit creating “County Fair Portraits” in 1981. This work received widespread acclaim and landed Aaland on Late Night with David Letterman.
A digital imaging pioneer, Aaland’s obsession with digital began in 1980, when he interviewed Ansel Adams. When he asked what the lengendary photographer would be pursuing if he were just starting out, Adams discussed at length his fascination with digital photographs of the planets. Recently, Aaland opened up to us about his digital life and recent “Lightroom Adventure.”
imaginginfo: First of all, I have to ask about your summer in Norway. Why are you there? Are you shooting a lot? If so, what there inspires you? Why do you think many photographers take up permanent residence in places like Finland and Norway?
Mikkel Aaland: My father is from Norway and although I’ve spent most of my life in California, I’ve been coming here since I was a child. When my father passed away three years ago, he left the family home to me. Since then, my wife and I and my 2 daughters have summered here. We are in a small town, on a river, surrounded by forest, and we love it here. It’s a nice contrast to our hectic, urban life in San Francisco. It’s also a photographer’s paradise. In the summer the light is simply wonderful, nearly 24 hours a day. Norway has always inspired me; in fact, nearly all my 10 books trace their origin to Norway in some way. Even County Fair Portraits, which was shot entirely in California and Arizona, is connected to Norway. I had been working the fairs as a photographer for years, earning money to pay my way through college. But it was only after living in Norway and Finland for a year, and coming home, could I see the people I was photographing as something unique. I came back with foreigners “eyes,” and the familiar suddenly became quite exotic and special. I started collecting model releases and preparing the book. (BTW, I was in Finland, writing my first book, a book on saunas and sweat baths. Don’t get me started talking about that subject! That’s quite a tangent!)
ii: Describe your most inspiring photographic assignment. Why? Where was it? When? Who was it for?
MA: I’ve been a professional photographer since I graduated from California State University, Chico with a degree in Photojournalism 33 years ago, in 1974. I have lots of favorite assignments and many people have inspired me! Early on, I’ve worked under a two great newspaper and documentary photographers, Gorden Clark and Bill Owens, who were also my mentors and really encouraged my love for photography. Bill Owens is of Suburbia fame and Gorden Clark was my boss when I worked for at the Livermore Tri-Valley Herald. After a short stint doing newspaper work I went entirely freelance and was lucky to be exposed to the likes of Ansel Adams, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Mary Ellen Mark, Michelle Vignes, and several other masters. All of them contributed to my photographic knowledge, and inspired me as well. And then there were the picture editors I worked with such as Laurie Kratochvil, Laura Parker, Monica Suder, and Nancy Duckworth. I can’t think of a more dedicated group of people, with a great passion and love for photography.
ii: What are you working on currently? Independent projects/books? Any more team projects/beta testing?
MA: I’m working on an update to my Photoshop RAW book, and planning the next Adobe Lightroom Adventure. I also want to do something related to my experience taking over the family home here in Norway, but I haven’t figured out an “angle” yet.
ii: Describe your experience as beta tester in Iceland. Explain some of the challenges you experienced while developing Photoshop Lightroom Adventure. Was there healthy competition among other members of the group? When was it finally published? Describe the additions/tweaks made to it and what delayed final publication.
MA: The book was a challenge! That’s for sure. It’s the most ambitious technical book I’ve ever done. Not only was I working with beta software (think moving target) but I organized and worked with 12 very serious, world-class professional photographers (think herding cats). The book is out this week, nearly a year after the adventure in Iceland. Why did it take so long? When you see it, I think you will understand! It’s not only a complete guide to the latest version of the application, but a pleasure to look at. It’s a technical book, yes. But it’s my hope that it honors photography through the beautiful images that fill every chapter. I was actually done with the book several months ago, but then Adobe let me know they were planning a major upgrade from Lightroom 1.0 to 1.1 and my publisher and I decided it was best to update the book right away, and not put a book on the market that was immediately out-dated.
ii: What brought you to using Lightroom? What are you favorite features of Lightroom 1.1? Those which are most beneficial to your business/career?
MA: Adobe’s Kevin Connor and Geroge Jardine turned me on to Lightroom several years ago when it was twinkle in Mark Hamburg’s eyes. They only had screen shots to show back then! But I was totally captured with Mark’s vision: a photography application built from the ground up for professional photographers. Back then, I was spending more time in front of the computer than I was shooting. Lightroom, or as it was code-named, Shadowland, promised to change that with an organized, speedy work-flow. Adobe was so committed to the vision they sent a group of the engineers to my studio in San Francisco to see how I worked. They really wanted to get it right, and that impressed me to no end.
ii: Why was Iceland, with its 22 hours of horizontal light, the ideal location for the beta testing? What tweaks did you suggest to Adobe? What improvements can still be made? What features cannot be improved upon? What is the best thing about this new program?