January 12, 2015
Text by Caroline Cunningham
With the eye of an artist and the passion of a techie, Phil Nelson creates luminous, mesmerizing landscape photographs.
The sun is setting over a cerulean sea, or behind a distant valley that turns rich magenta in the fading light. Autumn leaves transform a hillside into a shimmering blaze of yellow; pink clouds float above a still harbor at dawn. We are surrounded by evanescent beauty, but don’t always stop to appreciate what’s before us. When we do, we often call to others to share in the wonder: “Come here! Look! Look at that!” We may even reach for our camera phones to record the scene, but these images invariably disappoint—we see them and think, “It was better than that.” Nature eludes our attempts to record its transcendent majesty.
But not always. Phil Nelson’s remarkable landscapes capture these fleeting moments of unexpected grandeur, and demonstrate both the photographer’s keen creative vision and his grasp of how technology can be utilized to realize that vision. As he says, “What the camera delivers isn’t what you first saw. But the raw data is in there, and I can pull out the details to make the images that I want.”
Nelson is a persuasive advocate for how technology can enhance the artistic process, and dismisses with a cheerful laugh any perception that this represents a compromise of a “pure” image. “That’s just nonsense,” he says. “Ansel Adams was doing some version of this in his lab decades ago, and he’d be all over Photoshop today, too.”
Nelson is an artist first and foremost, but he’s also an expert technician with an enduring interest in understanding the way things work. “I was always the kind of kid who took things apart, just so I could put them back together,” he confesses.
The parallel inclinations to tinker and create, nurtured in an extended family of artists and art historians, continued through high school, where Nelson took courses in photography and drafting, and into college, where he explored graphic design and filmmaking. He started a company with three friends in New York City, focused on animation and advertising, and was always looking for innovative ways to approach their projects.
Enter Apple, and its early Macintosh computers. As Nelson says, “It was very obvious what they were doing, which was changing the world. I saw the beginning of this huge revolution and thought, ‘I just have to work for them.’”
And so he did, leading seminars in desktop publishing and graphic design all over the country for almost a decade. After leaving Apple, Nelson went on to Adobe Systems as a corporate account manager, working with clients across the advertising, publishing, and entertainment industries. He then developed a field of expertise in the area of color management and measurement, and has given hundreds of presentations on how to maintain consistent color throughout the photographic workflow—a process that is even more complex and demanding than it sounds.
During these various, but interconnected, careers, Nelson continued to pursue his quiet passion for photography, mastering technologies around lighting, digital cameras, and printing almost as quickly as they emerged.
A breakthrough moment occurred when he sent the photographs he’d taken during a bicycle trip in France to Backroads, the company that had organized his holiday. Backroads used these gorgeous images in their promotional literature, and sent him to the Loire Valley the following year for more. Soon thereafter, Nelson launched his fine-arts photography business.
Nelson’s extraordinary photographs document scenes that, with their saturated color and pristine detail, seem at once somewhat surreal and absolutely familiar. We’ve stood on that dock at sunrise; we’ve walked along that beach, or wandered up that mountain trail. It is Nelson’s masterful use of natural light, framing, and perspective, along with his technical wizardry in processing his images, that creates this sense of intimacy. We are drawn into the photograph; we can feel the wind in the trees along Lake Tahoe, or hear gentle waves breaking along the shores of Stony Creek. Nelson may capture specific moments in time, but the sentiment behind his luminous work is that beauty in the natural world is both spectacular and timeless. •