A southern California native, landscape photographer Eric Bennett’s earliest childhood memories featured a camera. He began casually photographing and filming his friends at the local skatepark, and this eventually parlayed into a career of filming professional skateboarders. Even though he found success in the high-energy and fast-paced skateboarding environment, Eric yearned for a more peaceful and natural artistic outlet.
Now Eric uses his lens to explore the alluring deserts near his Utah home, and he has thus far searched for new experiences and landscapes in over thirty countries ranging from Australia’s glistening coastlines to the Arctic’s pristine glaciers. With an unmistakably unique style, Eric uncovers unseen places and perspectives and amplifies his creative vision with advanced post-processing techniques. For Eric, landscape photography encapsulates nature’s power and allows its viewers to fall in love with the remarkable and natural beauty of our planet. He also uses his imagery to spark a desire in others to protect and conserve our precious wilderness.
Face the Current had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Eric and learn more about his artistic approach, the critical importance of responsible nature photography, and the hope he carries for our planet’s future.
This Face the Current Travel Feature is published in Issue 31. Order PRINT here, SUBSCRIBE to digital edition for unlimited access, or continue reading this article below.
Sasha Frate: Your photography has taken you to more than thirty different countries to explore and capture your art, but you also set out to take a more unique approach and style with the way in which you capture and convey what you discover. How would you describe your approach?
Eric Bennett: I really just try my best to avoid obvious scenes and to always create something unique. Doing what others have done, or most likely would do, isn’t nearly as satisfying for me as feeling like I have created something new that will simply not be possible for another person to replicate. That way I feel like I am making a real contribution to the world as an artist and sharing a unique perspective that wouldn’t exist were I not here.
When I am out exploring in nature, I simply wander around until something naturally catches my eye. Then I start to look at what else is surrounding it and what should be included or excluded in order to best convey what it is that drew my attention about the object in the first place. I tend to focus more on exclusion—simplifying the scene as much as possible—rather than inclusion while creating compositions. If I strive for any certain style, it’s to create photographs that are powerfully concise.
SF: You’re part of the Nature First Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. Can you explain a bit about this Alliance, what it’s protecting, and why it was important to you to join/participate?
EB: I actually had the privilege to be involved in the early creation stages of the Nature First Alliance (I came up with its name) because Erik Stensland, a great nature photographer and one of the main organizers, invited me to one of the initial brainstorming meetings. We created the Nature First Principles as a way for people to take and share photos more responsibly. It’s basically a “Leave No Trace” for photographers. The whole goal with these principles is that photographers that visit these beautiful, pristine places don’t end up damaging them while trying to take photographs. The preservation of nature should come first as a priority before a photo or selfie.
Instagram and other social media platforms have caused explosive rises in visitation to National Parks and public lands in the last few years because of all the photos that are now being shared—many of which even include geotags for the exact locations. This increased foot traffic has caused many places to now have to enforce permits, install protective railings to keep people on the designated trails, or be closed off to public access completely. In more severe cases, many places that were once pristine, offering incredible solitude and silence to anyone who visited, have now become overrun and destroyed by tourists looking to get “the shot” as they come through and love the landscapes to death. I don’t think most people realize what vehicles of erosion we really are. Just a few people irresponsibly walking around off trail can have dramatic effects like disturbing wildlife, compressing soil, removing vegetation, and causing landslides. Like my friend and fellow photographer Phill Monson always says, “Outdoor popularity has exceeded outdoor awareness.” The large crowds of urbanites that are drawn to popular natural places are not educated on how to behave in them. The names carved into trees and sandstone that we see along trails everywhere now is clear evidence of that.
I believe that nature photography has a positive impact on the world, as it effectively educates people of the true value of undisturbed wilderness and natural places that many of us will never get to visit, but it must be done responsibly. We believe that the Seven Principles of Nature First are the ways people can still enjoy taking pictures of the amazing places they visit in nature without having a negative impact on them in the process. It has been amazing to see the majority of the nature photography community now embracing and sharing these principles openly to spread awareness.
SF: You have an entire tab and page on your website that is dedicated to other photographers whose work has inspired yours. It’s not all that often you find people sharing and promoting others’ work like this! Why did you choose to do this?
EB: As someone who tries their best to interact with the community and their followers, I am often asked which photographers inspire me and whose work I look at. I mainly created the list as a quick, easy way to share it with others so they can find great photography that will hopefully inspire them as well. I think a lot of people make the mistake of looking at photography as a competition; a zero-sum game. Like if someone else puts out a great photo then it somehow makes theirs look worse. I don’t know anyone that will only listen to one musician or eat at just one restaurant. I think photography or art is the same way, and most people have many favorite artists whose work they like to see. Just because I show another artist’s work to one of my fans doesn’t mean that they will then trade me out for someone else. I have no problem promoting the work of my peers and those I look up to. I feel my work is original enough that it won’t be compared against anyone else’s work (you can only be compared if you are doing the exact same thing), and I will always have a deep respect for the great artists that came before me. I have no problem giving credit where credit is due.
Most of the photographers listed on my “Inspiration” page are seasoned veterans with decades of experience in creating images of nature. I admire the more “old school” approach to photography, largely based on composition and lighting rather than the gear or technical processing. They tend to take photos that are quieter, that cause us to contemplate and wonder, instead of being loud and in your face, yelling for your attention. Because of this, I feel their work is more timeless, continually relevant, and only gets better with the years, while new fads and trends tend to die out fast. Although I am still a younger photographer, I have tried to emulate this same sort of style in my own work, hoping to carry on this tradition of thought provoking, classic imagery.
SF: Looking through your galleries, you’ve created a name for each of the images that effectively describe the essence. What made you decide to name each image, and how do you come up with all the names?
EB: I get asked about this often, and to be honest, I really don’t have a special formula or anything particular that I do to come up with image titles. Once I finish editing a scene, I’ll sit and look at it for a while and a title will just pop into my head. I feel images need titles so that people can refer to them easier and it makes it a more complete piece of artwork. Also, it’s an opportunity to add another touch of mood or essence to a scene so you can further guide the viewer’s perception of it.
SF: Observing the variety in your forest image gallery alone, one can easily reflect on the cycles, transitions, transformations and passing/temporary beauty of each moment that is intrinsic in all of nature, including the human experience. In one of your articles, you discuss the perfect harmony found in the forest. As you incorporate a lot of great education into your work, what would you say are some of the greatest ways we can learn from this harmony to find or create more of it in our own lives?
EB: From spending much of my time in nature, I have observed that everything in the natural world flows perfectly. Each event, even tragedy, triggers another event that can sometimes be a joyous victory. I think it is important in our own lives to always try and remember that every experience we have, whether we judge it as good or bad, is for our benefit in some way. Human beings tend to often make the mistake of trying to control that which they have no power over. We spend enormous amounts of energy resisting things that come our way as if we could somehow wish them out of existence. I believe that the secret to a happy life and world lies more in submitting and adapting to the forces of nature around us, rather than trying to conquer and control them.
SF: While the forests are rich with life and creatures of all kinds and sizes lurking in unknown spaces, something about the desert—vast and desolate as it may appear-—has always felt even more wild to me. What is your desert story?
EB: To be honest, during my first few visits the desert seemed very underwhelming for me. It felt so static, arid, and void of life. I preferred hiking and photographing in landscapes of roaring waterfalls, majestic mountains, and dynamic coastlines. Desert landscapes just felt boring to me. It wasn’t until recent years that I developed a deep love and appreciation for its profound space, stillness, and silence.
As a photographer, I love the simplicity of the desert landscape, especially here in Southern Utah near my home, where you can find and appreciate pronounced light, shadows, shapes, lines, patterns, and designs, without other objects crowding around them and getting in the way. I also love the softer pastel colors of sandstone or clay. The light you can witness in the desert is like nowhere else on Earth as well, creating plenty of remarkable photographic opportunities. I feel like I am most prolific when it comes to producing images of the desert, because I can always find such interesting subjects, often more abstract rather than literal, even in places I have returned to time and time again.
As a person, the desert has become a place of refuge for me where I can go and really escape from the busy, noisy world. It’s one of the few places where you can still look out for miles and miles at great expanses of nothingness and not see a single trace of humanity. It’s a place where my body and mind can slow down, and I can really focus on the things that are most important in my life. The openness also allows me to feel and explore big emotions. Whenever I spend a few days in those wide, open landscapes, it acts as a mental reset and allows me to get more in touch with my soul again rather than my ego.
SF: Something about your Dolomiti capture you’ve titled “Golden Dawn” is really captivating. It has stopped me in my tracks several times now as I’ve been exploring your work. Much like you’ve described of your personal experience with nature preventing your thinking mind from taking over and essentially reinvigorating your spirit, I look at this image and wonder how often people forget about the beauty in our world that exists in every moment with so much potential to ignite our spirit because we’re often bogged down and consumed by our thinking minds and the temporary experiences we face. Can you share a bit about your experience with this?
EB: Absolutely. Photography has been a huge blessing for me as a person because it has caused me to always take a closer look and allow more time for observation while in nature. I do not love photography, rather I love nature—the subject that I photograph—and photography is just the medium that I happen to use to create images of what I love and share a message with others. Photography helps me to be more mindful of my surroundings and have a greater appreciation for nature.
Of course, you don’t need to be a photographer to do this—to see the beauty in every moment. All it takes is giving yourself some time to slow down and take into account everything that you are sensing around you. You can begin by consciously breathing and thinking of everything you can taste, touch, smell, hear, and see. Surprisingly, this is something very few people ever do, but in this digital age where we are constantly surrounded by noisy, flashing distractions, it’s becoming more and more important that we make time for it. Natural places where there are still no traces of human presence are extremely conducive to this way of being. The natural world is simple, raw, and much easier to take in. I fear a future world where we no longer have places like this that we can go to and take a break from civilization and society.
SF: Our thoughts, words, and actions have more power than we often realize! If you could take any one of these images or experiences and use it to inspire your vision to dream up and describe how you would like to see the world one year from now what would that be like for you?
EB: Honestly, I think any one of my images would do, since I always work to portray a world still spared of human impact; a pure and undisturbed wilderness, which for me is heaven on Earth. I am trying to give people a glimpse of how the world was before us, and how it could still be if we only learned to be better stewards of this beautiful place we are fortunate enough to live in.
I think most of the human-caused problems we are facing on a global level today (ecosystems collapsing, extinctions, water shortage, pollution, drought, etc.) stem from an irreverence and disrespect towards nature. In a perfect world there would be a deep reverence for the planet and all of her creations, and a sincere respect for her sacredness. I wish people would act towards nature more like the way they act towards their religious beliefs and deities. The Earth, the sun, water, and oxygen, all keep us alive—literally! It’s indisputable, no matter what religion you believe in, that we depend on them in every way. To me it’s pure insanity that we wouldn’t hold these things with the highest regard and would destroy the very thing that grants us the wonderful miracle of life.
SF: Your latest gallery is titled “Pacific Poetry” and it explores the coasts of New Zealand. You really put things into perspective in your gallery foreward, sharing a lot of observations and facts including one study showing that currently only thirteen percent of the ocean has remained undamaged by human impact. This is significant! Throughout your research and experiences so far, what hope have you witnessed on the horizon indicating our ocean (and humanity) is capable of recovering from this damage?
EB: The thousands of recent studies that reveal the negative impact we have had on all of the different ecosystems of our planet are truly overwhelming. Sometimes it can seem like we are already headed full speed towards a point of no return. But the good news is there are many intelligent and dedicated people working hard to find long-term solutions to all of these issues.
One idea is that we replant as many trees as possible. This way they can absorb the carbon in the atmosphere that is causing global warming and create more breathable oxygen. Theoretically this would help to offset the excess CO2 in the air, but it would take decades for trees that we plant today to mature enough to effectively absorb CO2. Trees also store all of the CO2that they consume; they don’t simply get rid of it. So, once forests are felled, burned, or die off, they release this CO2 in great concentrated quantities right back into the air again. Another problem with that idea is that we simply do not have the space to restore all of the forested lands that we have cut down since they are now used for civilization, farming, and pasture.
A better solution that is being suggested by biologists such as Hope Jahren in her latest book, The Story of More, is to replant along the ocean floor instead. The seafloor still remains uninhabited by humans and has plenty of space to restore aquatic plants. These plants, green algae, and phytoplankton also photosynthesize just like their distant cousins on land. They effectively absorb carbon from the atmosphere and simply fall to the ocean floor when they die off, instead of releasing the CO2. Restoring sea plants would also help ocean ecosystems to bounce back— something that would be beneficial to the entire planet.
Abundance by Steven Kotler is another great book that talks about other exciting solutions that progressing technology may bring. Water shortage is a foreseen catastrophe that we will soon be dealing with. Only two percent of all the water on Earth is drinkable, and half of that is still frozen in our glaciers. As glaciers melt, instead of being able to use that clean water, it is released into the ocean. There is no ecosystem or species that can survive without water, so running out would simply be a disaster for the entire planet. However, new technology that is arising is promising that we will soon have the capability to desalinate seawater. In that case, there would be an abundance of drinking water for everyone and everything, and it would never run out, since we could always reuse whatever runoff reenters the ocean. It’s just a matter of that technology being developed in time before global disaster occurs.
Seafood makes up a large portion of the world’s diet, and with dying oceans, fish populations are significantly decreasing every year. We are simply removing too many fish from the ocean, disrupting ecosystems everywhere, and causing the reproduction of more fish to be disturbed. If we continue at this current rate, it is foreseen that we will run out of seafood by the year 2048. While controversial, and previously another destructive industry to the environment, fish farming has been developing and improving in ways that are showing that promising things are in store for its future. Some of these are: alternative vegetable protein (instead of seafood) to feed fish in farms such as salmon; using fish to fight pests in rice farms, where in turn they can boost both rice and fish yields and both can be harvested afterwards; and greenhouses of vertical farms that house both fish and plants where the feces of the fish are used to fertilize the vegetables on higher levels.
SF: Beyond the ocean facts, some of your perspectives are in mindful connection where you describe the “low vibrating sound of crashing waves” and the ability it offers us to simply “fall into a restful awareness and stop being tossed around by the waves of thoughts in our minds.” When nature “escapes” aren’t readily or frequently available/accessible for people, what is your next go-to recommendation?
EB: That’s a tough one to answer because of course there is no substitute for the real thing. Nothing compares to being in the wilderness, experiencing the serene space, solitude, and silence that it provides. This is why it is so important that we preserve and protect these places as havens for humanity, as well as the millions of other species that enjoy them. We will never be able to adequately replace them by anything we invent or build.
For me, the next best thing would be to constantly engage in some form of physical activity. When I am not away on backpacking trips, I am at the local skateparks trying to learn new things and skate obstacles in new, creative ways. Art is also a great release, and accessible to everyone. Even with just a pencil and a piece of paper you can create something new and exercise your mind in a positive, relaxing way. I also enjoy playing the guitar when I can’t go outside. As adults, a lot of us forget to make time to just play and not worry about something turning out “good”. The only objective should be to enjoy yourself.
I’d also say to be more mindful of going outside, even just in the backyard, whenever possible. When the weather is nice, I always try to eat, read, and even just sit and look at everything around me in our backyard as often as I remember to. It’s so important for us to be mindful and not forget to just soak in the moment whenever possible. This life goes by incredibly fast, and in the words of Ferris Bueller, “If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
SF: You’ve been working on a book that will be available soon. Can you share what will be featured in this book and why you decided to create it?
EB: Creating a photo book has been a dream of mine ever since I first picked up a camera and walked into the wilderness. As an avid reader I am a huge fan of books and I especially love seeing photographs printed. I felt this book was one of the best ways I could share my imagery with the world, presenting it in this way so people could physically hold my pictures in their hands and flip through the pages at their own pace, having time to admire the amazing details of nature up close and in a suitable environment without distractions.
For this book I was able to combine both my love for photographing and writing about nature. It contains four sections: Forests, Deserts, Mountains, and Canyons, as well as a Foreword written by one of my biggest inspirations, William Neill; an introduction written by my friend and inspiring photographer, Alex Noreiga; a Prologue, and an Epilogue. Each section features over thirty of my best images of that subject as well as an essay written by myself about what makes each environment special, my personal relationship with them, and the threats they are now facing as a result of climate change, pollution, and development.
The whole mission behind my photography is to educate the world on the importance of conservation. The point of making this book is to spread awareness about the value that natural places offer us in their pure, unaltered states. Pristine wilderness has steadily been disappearing, and it is important that we preserve what we still have left for now and for future generations to come. A world where we couldn’t visit these sacred places of singular beauty and experience the space, solitude, and silence that they provide is not what I would want for my children and grandchildren.