“There is no better rush than to watch a new day begin. It is always different.”
Mark Houser

Today's interview subject is Mark Houser, a nature photographer living and working in Western North Carolina. Mark specializes in photographing the Linville Gorge, an enormous gorge that rises from the mighty Linville River 1,400 feet to its rim. Within the gorge Mark finds plenty of interesting subjects for photography. Find out more on his web site at markstevenhouser.com.

How did you get started in photography?

Mark: My parents first gave me a Kodak 110 camera in the mid 80’s. I always thought freezing an instant and being able to go back to it was a pretty awesome thing. I messed around with 35mm, then point and shoot digital, but it wasn't until I got my first Digital SLR that the bug bit me hard in 2009. That was when I knew what I wanted to do.

“I always thought freezing an instant and being able to go back to it was a pretty awesome thing.”

I can certainly understand that. There is something addictive about creating beautiful images out of your own experiences. Were you always an outdoors enthusiast or did that come along as part of the photography bug?

Mark: I have always been an outdoors enthusiast. I grew up on a farm and my parents could never keep me out of the creek or out of the woods. Once I started exploring the mountains around me I just had to have a camera with me on every trip.

It requires a great deal of commitment to photograph sunsets in remote backcountry areas as you often do. What motivates you to get up before dawn, drive to these remote locations, and hike in the dark?

Mark: There is something so inspiring about getting up early in the morning, while most folks are hitting REM sleep, to get to a certain place and watch the sunrise. Often times you are the only person that made that journey and you are the only one who is going to see a sunrise that will never be the same again. There is no better rush than to watch a new day begin. It is always different.

I have never seen you without your trusty brown fedora, which I happen to know you had custom made. Tell me, what is the story behind the fedora and what does it mean to you?

Mark: I started wearing the Boonie Hat when I was in the military. I always valued the broad brim for its protection in the outdoors. Let's face it though, sometimes camouflage does not go well with your hiking gear. Eventually I started wearing Tilley hats ( I still do in the warmer months) which are a great outdoor hat but not too tactical.

The brown fedora came in when I was heading up north to Maine one Autumn and I wanted something to keep my head warm. I took a liking to the look and always thought that a fedora brought with it a sense of adventure. I guess it was films like "Treasures of the Sierra Madre”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Casablanca” that gave it the mystique: they always had the lead characters wearing fedoras and chasing treasure. I get that because I chase treasure, too. My treasures are pixels stored in flash memory.

“I chase treasure, too. My treasures are pixels stored in flash memory.”

I like that analogy. Maybe your interest in movies is what has led you to experiment with time-lapse photography.

Mark: I started doing the time-lapse movies as sort of just a fun little thing to do while I waited for the lighting conditions to get right. When I rendered the first time lapse movie I made, I was blown away by how the clouds, shadow and light move. I look at time-lapse as a way to tell a story. Sometimes this can be hard to do with a still image. I love the still image and will always find satisfaction in pressing the shutter, but I rather enjoy making those images move too.

“As I drove up Old NC 105 from Nebo I saw the ribbons of fire following the contours of the Gorge.”

Table Rock Mountain in Linville Gorge caught on fire this past year (2013), the result of a camp fire carelessly left smoldering. You went to the gorge and caught pictures of the fire. What was that like, seeing a place that you love destroyed like that?

Mark: I was in Morganton on November 12th when I noticed what looked like smoke around Table Rock. Later that evening I saw a pretty spectacular cell phone shot of the wildfire. The next day as I drove up Old NC 105 (Kistler Memorial Highway) I could see the ribbons of fire following the contours of the Gorge. The area around Table Rock and the Chimneys were hard hit in places. It was tragic to see but also one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life. I think this area will bounce back in a few years.

Who are some of the photographers who have inspired you?

Mark: Ansel Adams has always been an inspiration to me. The guy was a genius at composition, light and manipulation of the print. His drive for perfection really showed in his work. Derrick Story has also been a big influence on my work. Derrick has a common sense approach to photography. I get bugged when photographers claim their X brand of camera is the best one. Derrick always reminds me it is vision and skill, not equipment, that makes a great image. Of course nice gear makes it easier...

The biggest inspiration comes from the people I have the privilege to call my friends. I shoot with them often and I have learned more from these folks than anyone else.

“It is vision and skill, not equipment, that makes a great image.”

That's a great point, and one that many new photographers need to hear. Expensive gear won't improve your composition or your understanding of exposure. It's the photographer behind the camera that makes the biggest difference. If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring nature and landscape photographers, what would it be?

Mark: Seek out the extraordinary in the ordinary. Everyone comes back from Paris with a great shot of the Eiffel Tower. Most of the shots are taken from the same touristy overlooks and if you took prints of them, they would mostly look like the same pictures from the same angles. The same can be said of the Blue Ridge Parkway, waterfalls, and even my beloved Linville Gorge. You can still make those images, but you need to go the extra mile to get something that no one else has on their memory card. Seek out that something special in each place you go. Wait for that rainbow after the storm or wait for those crepuscular rays shining into the valley below after the broken clouds move in. When you start to push the boundaries of what you are willing to do to get the right image, you will see that magic creeping in.

Great advice! To see more of Mark’s work and support this talented local artist, visit his web site at markstevenhouser.com