Growing up in a breathtaking region dotted with lakes and the purity of wild nature just south of Moscow, Daniel Kordan spent most of his spare time outdoors. As a child, Kordan attended an art school that focused on painting, mixed art, nature, and outdoor activities. Upon graduation, his summary report stated he was best suited for landscape photography—and how right it was.
Kordan attended university and first studied quantum physics. However, he always found himself returning to the forest and enjoying pathless adventures. Nature continued to inspire him with its beckoning beauty and endless palette of colors and compositions.
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There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.” —Lord Byron
While at university, Kordan mountain climbed and hiked, and began guiding tour groups during the winter and summer. From there, it was an easy transition to guiding photo workshops. Shortly after, Kordan became Chief Editor of Continent Expedition Magazine, contributing to global travel and adventure articles.
Kordan has won numerous awards including the 2013 Golden Turtle Nature Award; winner of the 2013 National Geographic Russia contest; winner of the 2013, 2014, and 2015 Best of Russia contest; and the Trierenberg Super Circuit award for Best Landscape Photographer. He has also been published in Digital SLR Magazine, Photography Master Class, National Geographic, and Discovery, just to name a few.
Today—when not traveling the world—Kordan can be found in the villa Gaia in Tuscany or in Norway at the Lofoten Islands guiding photography groups from Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, Asia, and Russia.
An open book and an insatiable traveler, Daniel Kordan is every young landscape photographer’s dream mentor. Face the Current enjoyed a revelatory discussion with Daniel Kordan as he humbly shared his unmatched experience in Japanese travel, astrophotography, the best ways in which to plan unique location adventures, and the details of his upcoming Kenyan tribes project.
Sasha Frate: At university your focus was on physics, but as you shifted focus to landscape photography over time, nature seems to have “stolen your heart”. Does your foundation in physics play into your travels, expeditions, and photography work today?
Daniel Kordan: I started as a mountain and climbing guide in my University mountain club. We hiked and traveled a lot, meeting sunrises above clouds. (It’s hard not to start sharing the beauty with others in such conditions, isn’t it?) I never thought that photography could be my work or profession. I admired my scientific work and photography was always a passion, and even now I do not consider my workshops as “work”—it is an essential part of my life. I loved physics, too, and it is similar to photography in that it is about solving problems. But, instead of math and equations, I now deal with complicated logistics, people relations, composition planning, and working with cameras and equipment (including yachts and cars for expeditions etc.). I just need my brain spinning and steaming all the time otherwise I would feel dead.
SF: You’ve named Koyasan as one of your most favorite places in Japan where, “The traditions are still well kept and you feel the ancient and rural spirit of Japan. Just wandering at Okunoin cemetery in the night is very special; several kilometers of mossy ancient torii gates, lanterns, and tall cedar trees.” What would you re-experience in Koyasan and what other places in Japan evoke this type of feeling?
DK: There are some places with a touch of magic; a touch of the spiritual. You just feel energy sourcing there. This energy goes into your mind and feelings and keeps inspiring you no matter how tired you are. This kind of energy doesn’t need to be linked with religion. However, Koyasan is an amazing example of a place with rich history; it’s the center of Shinto-Buddhism and just a quiet place outside of most tourists’ paths.
There are many places like Koyasan in Japan! In June I was in Kyushu island and loved Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine. It is the most popular in Takamori for its extremely divine atmosphere. People feel very relaxed and peaceful at the top of the mountain and you’re just alone there among old mossy shrines in the morning mist of the forest. I watched and photographed fireflies at old shrines and in the vast bamboo forest. Even Kyoto has little temples outside of mainstream attractions. To find them sometimes you just need to wander around with your phone switched off, just guided by your feelings.
SF: One might imagine the night skies to virtually look the same from any vantage point, but you’ve discovered a couple locations that proved particularly spectacular, and you even described the night sky of Namibia as “Certainly among the most impressive I’ve seen in my life. The only competitor is probably Atacama/Uyuni night sky in Chile/Bolivia, at Uyuni salt flats.” In addition to these being the top locations, are there any others that would make your Top Five list, and what is the best way to prep for such a magical experience?
DK: One of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had as a photographer was on the flooded Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia. These are the world’s largest salt flats and they flood for about four months every year. It’s a natural spectacle that merits an award, applause, or a bow from us.
It’s hard to believe your eyes and senses while standing in the middle of these flooded salt flats at night. Let me explain my experience: Our “spaceship” (car) was parked in the distance and the stars were blinking with blue, red and yellow hues. The stars completely surrounded me—they were above me, next to me, and “underneath” me. It felt like space on Earth!
Another place that made a strong impression on me
was Altiplano, Bolivia.
It ranks as the best possible place on Earth to observe stars and practice astrophotography. There are not many places in the world where you can enjoy an absolutely dark sky because cities and even small villages emit a lot of light at night time. Besides, it’s often hard to get a very clear sky. But at this place, the sky was just amazing—perfect for astrophotography.
If I were to try to select my Top Five “night photography” destinations, they would be:
1) Bolivia, Altiplano (including Uyuni)
2) Atacama Desert in Chile
4) New Zealand
As you can see, all the places I named are in the southern hemisphere. However, you can sometimes wait for clear weather or drive outside of town and enjoy zillions of stars in the sky in northern locations. (Or better yet: hike in the mountains with clear air!)
SF: Sailing through icy waters in Greenland and Antarctica is dreamy in its own right! From these experiences, what do you most recommend for anyone dreaming up their own adventure on these seas?
Our planet was given to us to explore. We are here not to produce money for money’s sake, but we are here to feel, listen, and explore our beautiful world. When I see first rays of sun and beautiful colors in the sky, they inspire me to move forward. These are the simple things that drive me: sunsets and sunrises, a walk in the mountains, the sounds of waterfalls, and the singing of birds in the trees. I just feel happy and in harmony when I’m in nature, and even happier when I am able to share the beauty of our world with others while inspiring them to travel and feel what I feel.
The world of photography is saturated with copies of the same locations, but there are still plenty of places to explore in the world! However, most of them require hard planning and are truly tough expeditions (like my Greenland sailings).
In Greenland, we communicated with local fishermen, helicopter pilots, and geologists because they know lots of nice locations. In this way, the trip becomes adventure-like—a sort of Lord of the Rings series. Local fishermen told us stories about old marble caves, whale cemeteries, and abandoned villages, and we explored these places in an old way. This is why an adventure feels like an open book! (These adventures are, of course, not likely possible without a professional crew and passionate people.) So, my best advice is to join me on an exploration adventure in Greenland!
SF: You venture to some pretty incredible and remote locations for your adventures, such as Kyrgyzstan—which you’ve described as being “Surrounded by the spectacular snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains”—and the lost Kingdom of Mrauk U in Myanmar where one can, “Wander freely among ancient pagodas covered with moss and grass.” How difficult is it to arrange these types of remote travels, and what was the most challenging journey you’ve faced in order to arrive at your remote destination?
DK: Your journey is not just a trip to a location. Instead, I try to create it as a long-lasting project with several goals and ideas to be tested. For instance, possible goals might be to create an album, an ecological project, or an exhibition. But you don’t have to travel to find inspiration—you can start photography around your home town!
The way you plan travel into your year will reflect your style. With so many photographers in the world, you must be different from others to stand out. So, the idea for a trip realized in a particular project creates your style. I sometimes spend the same amount of time planning a trip as it takes to actually experience the adventure itself! Your adventure starts at home in front of the map, a list of locals’ names, and a cup of coffee in the night.
I will give you some advice to help plan future adventures: Most shots are taken based on conditions in the moment. However, there are stunning natural phenomena like the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun, and you can plan specific times and locations for your visit to see them. (If you photograph the Northern Lights, you must understand that the North should be open if you are below 68 degrees. If you go further north, Northern light could appear in the South.)
During the Midnight Sun, you can capture stunning photos when the sun touches the horizon for the first time. Analyze the light at any location using Photopills and Google Earth and take advantage of services that predict the Northern Lights. If you plan to have a nightscape session, take the phase of the moon into consideration.
Your overall strategy should be to select the right season and an interesting project for your work. Your main tactic is to be at the right place at the right time! Find the season when mountain valleys start to bloom with fireworks of flowers, and avoid crowds of photographers and tourists.
SF: How do you find your destinations to explore? Take Korea for example: that took you on a three-hour drive and a two-hour hike to reach your destination with spectacular sights and adventures along the way!
DK: I read a lot about places I intend to visit. I take inspiration from books, magazines, and from my Instagram feed. I mostly follow local and unknown photographers that live in the region in which I am interested. For the actual planning stage, I use services like Panoramio, Flickr, and 500px to analyze photos from various locations. However, many places I visit are not yet photographed so we plan the region and explore it, saving enough time for photography. There are plenty of useful tools to analyze locations such as TPE, Photopills, and Google Earth. When planning, I sometimes have topographical maps on one screen and Google Earth on the other as I try to understand where I can hike, where the sun will set, and how it will hit the mountain. It is basically like a scientific study!
SF: From your South Korea hike to wandering the Okunoin cemetery in Japan, why do you opt to venture out to places during the night, and what type of equipment do you take on your night adventures?
DK: For South Korea, it was actually quite unusual. I traveled there with a friend named Nate Mertz who is a local schoolteacher. Because of his job, we had no other option other than to hike in the night after his work, shoot the sunrise, and return so he could be back in time for work. (It is not easy to travel alone in Korea! For instance, there are local rules that dictate I cannot rent a car there. So, having such great friends around the world and being open to making new friends is another key element for exploration.) Okunoin was just magical at night because of the silence and the little lanterns that illuminated the pathways. In the daytime, it loses part of its magical atmosphere. I normally prefer to shoot sunrise, sunset, or the night sky, and then rest during the night or at least have time for an extra nap in the daytime. As you can see, there is not much sleep in my life!
SF: Nature often paints a scene right in front of our very eyes. From flashing, dancing fireflies in Japan, to the flowing rivers of Iceland, and white horses running the beaches of Camargue, you’ve witnessed so much. What are some of these types of scenes that you believe should be witnessed with one’s own eyes, and how easily do these “paintings” come together through a lens onto print?
DK: You cannot get the full impression of some things in a single print. For instance, let’s say fireflies in Japan.
Imagine sitting in a bamboo forest in the total silence of the night listening to the gentle rustle of leaves in the air, and suddenly the whole forest starts to glow like a Christmas tree! Fireflies are all around you like waves of light, lifting up and down in synchronization.
It is just impossible to bring all of the accompanying emotions and feelings I had in that moment into single images. (As for the preparation to witness these Japanese fireflies, you need to arrive at the spot at 10:00 a.m. to reserve a place for yourself, otherwise you will not squeeze in at 10:00 p.m. when the fireflies start to dance. It is considered impolite in Japanese culture to come later and take a first-row viewing spot.)
With the Camargue horses, we spent around a week photographing ten to twenty thousand images from which I selected just a dozen. The lesson there is to try to capture a moment many, many times!
SF: What does it mean for you to truly wander off the beaten path that most are taking to experience the well-known destinations? For example, in places like Lofoten Islands, you manage to discover and capture the diversity of the region. Do you believe we need to broaden our horizons?
DK: It all depends on infrastructure.
Most people are not ready to get out of their comfort zones, and there are so many stunning places you can experience while still staying in hotels or driving nice cars. But, personally, I prefer to have a challenge. I want to see the unknown, to challenge myself to get there, and to explore.
This feeling has been in my blood since childhood when I read countless books about adventures. Even still, in my off-time between expeditions, I hold photo tours in civilization to teach my students in Tuscany, the Dolomites, and Japan. It is a nice change for me to be in a relaxed atmosphere and have some rest after “challenges”.
It is not necessary to travel off the beaten path to be a good photographer. For instance, the Lofoten islands are quite a civilized place with hotels and good roads, but seven years ago it did not have many tourists. Since then, I have traveled to Lofoten every year and have amassed many images, made many friends there, and established photography tours.
You can be persistent and make a project about any place and show its beauty to the world!
SF: Your scenes from Senja Island in northern Norway look like they’re straight out of a fairytale! You’ve called this island a favorite in Norway because of its turquoise Arctic Ocean waters and its remarkable granite peaks and stunning hikes. Can you share what it’s like to travel around this island? Does it feel like a fairytale?
DK: Haha, I just recalled my first winter trip there when I was trapped in my room for three days during a severe snow storm. I left that location without a single shot. Nature is nature—it is not a fairytale, especially the nature of the north. But even still, I love this place! If weather permits, you can hike to the top of the mountain and see all the fjords around you, with the mountain ridges protruding like the spines of a dragon. Ocean fog sometimes rolls into the fjord and you can stay above the sea of clouds.
SF: Many feel uneasy about travels in Saudi Arabia, but you’ve been and discovered some of its beauty at the Magnificent Rocks of Buraikah! What’s your take on travel to this region of the world, what’s it like at the Rocks of Buraikah, and do you have any locations on your “bucket list” that you wish to revisit and explore further?
DK: Saudi Arabia was just opened for tourist visitors this September, so I did not want to miss the opportunity to travel there. Again, it was with the same motivation: I barely see any images from this country, so my inner curiosity prevailed over any fears I might’ve had to travel in an unknown country. I hate politics and always explore nature, being sure to stay away from any political judgment. The country appeared to be safe and friendly to travel within. I was there for just a few days and was very happy to photograph two places: Al Disah Canyon and the Magnificent Rocks of Buraikah. Both are beautiful and very special. There’s much more to see and explore in Saudi Arabia so I hope I will return again!
SF: Through much of your travels, you often get a taste for what it’s like to live like a local. I love your story on the Samburu people in the wild Ndoto Mountains of northern Kenya where you reflect on your climb to capture the area and its local tribes. “Bushes with long thorns tearing apart my t-shirt, extreme heat over forty degrees Celsius, hyenas and lions roaming around… Ndoto is located at the edge of the Chalbi desert and the biggest challenge is usually just to get enough water!” Can you tell us more about your tribes project and what motivated you to begin the project?
DK: The tribes project was initiated by Lumas gallery. I work with them offering my limited-edition prints. Basically, my Mongolian tribes series went very well, so they asked me to continue the series in Kenya.
The idea of the project is to show cultures that are now in danger of extinction. It is a hard situation for tribes in Kenya—many people abandon their traditions and move to big cities looking for jobs. The other stressor is that national parks and safari parks press tribes out of their territories. We are about to show the world the beauty of traditions that must be preserved.
The Masai and Samburu tribes seem like they are from another planet; they are very friendly, very curious, and strongly depend on their traditions and superstitions. The hardest part of my adventure there was in Ndoto mountains, north of Kenya. It is a very remote place and people live in simple tents in the desert with almost no water. We hiked a trip with the Samburu tribe inside the mountain valleys, sleeping on rocks and hiking in the wide-open African landscape with all manner of animals freely wandering among us.
SF: Congrats on the numerous awards and accolades you’ve achieved for your work! Is there any award you feel particularly proud of/grateful for?
DK: Actually, I do not like contests because I always miss deadlines and simply don’t like to show off with my “victories”. I believe the biggest award for me is when I meet someone in nature and they recognize me and are grateful that I inspired them to open the door and step outside. It’s also gratifying when people start treating nature with more consciousness. Another big reward is to sit in front of the fireplace at home after a tough adventure and realize that you are alive with all your memories stored as photos.
SF: As a new year and new decade begin, it looks like you’re headed for lots more adventures—some even appear to be out of this world like your photography tour in Puna Atacama that has people “landing on Mars” into a “Dali painting” and visiting salt flats, blue lagoons, volcanoes, pumice fields, flamingoes, and more! What is up-and-coming for you and others with your photography tours and workshops?
DK: Every year I plan some new amazing photography tours. It is my second-biggest passion to not only experience photography myself, but to do so in the company of amazing people while teaching them photography and sharing beautiful moments. I have planned several exciting and fresh adventures in 2020! In March I am going to Hokkaido in Japan, to Patagonia and Puna de Atacama in April, to Peru in June, and in September I will be exploring south Greenland. I have already created itineraries for most of my trips with details and prices included on my website. Basically, everyone and anyone can join no matter their level of photography!