THROUGH THE LENS: A Q&A with photographer, featured artist Jim Bair |

THROUGH THE LENS: A Q&A with photographer, featured artist Jim Bair

Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A interview with photographer Jim Bair for the Nevada County Arts Council, which presented Bair as its Artist of the Month.

We start off this year with a story from 2019 — a photographer being featured by the Nevada County Arts Council. 

It was extra special given the caliber of the artists being considered — the excellent painters, poets, potters — so many fabulous artists in Nevada County. It was a notable compliment being considered an artist, not always associated with photography. 

The interview style uses a predetermined set of questions, a contrast to our usual “Through the Lens” interview. 

Jim, tell us about your chosen medium – your art form. 

My love of nature led me to photography as a way capture a visual essence of what I saw.  I got a SLR (single lens reflex) right out of graduate school and chose 35 mm slides instead of print film for the least distraction from being out shooting. Back then, making artistic prints was rare, and while dark-room processing was the “professional” method, slides were well received in social settings and competitions.

Years later, digital photography extended my creative process essentially turning the computer screen into a pallet that feels like painting. Digital editing enables the momentary camera capture to be transformed into a more enduring artistic expression — which is my goal.  I use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate the light, form, and color in an image and hopefully expand my initial vision into a more appealing work of art. Often, preparation for printing turns the original image into a “permanent” representation of art that I display in shows including galleries, tasting rooms, coffee shops, and other pubic venues. One of my first winning digital photos is Orange Glow at Twilight. 

Orange Glow at Twilight

At what age did you discover your love for photography, or at what age you understood yourself to have a talent?

While at Stanford in my late 20s, the excitement of capturing light through photography became a respite from the intensity of research. Living in the hotbed of technology innovation, I studied with internationally acclaimed photographers Marian Paterson and Steve Crouch.  Venues like the Palo Alto Camera Club and statewide competition supported a belief that my photographs were worthy of sharing.

Paterson inspired me to focus on macro photography which is like shooting through a microscope. A bug or a bubble can fill the image revealing beauty not readily visible to the naked eye. It is often referred to as “wet-belly” photography because dew drops on flowers or webs required me to get down into the damp grass at dawn. Underwater Bubbles, An Abstraction is taken within inches of Deer Creek’s surface focusing on the bubbles a few inches underwater. (This could have been more than a wet belly if I slipped.)  

Underwater Galaxy

What is your creative process?

While life seems like a path to be followed, taking a camera with me transforms travel into a series of delightful surprises. It may be an Ansel Adams moment screeching my car to a stop and leaping out to capture a storm crashing into desert mountains; or the joy of children playing at a community event; or a brilliant backlit flower that becomes the “canvas” for creative rendition in my computer. 

My process is about managing light and rarely is the original image the end result. Study has given me rules for composition and quality but often leaves me in a quandary between creativity and following the rules. In the end, adjusting an image to be more interesting is really a matter of “more is less.” I think about guiding the viewer’s eyes to a center of interest comparable to lighting a path through the image. Lightening and darkening based on that path, usually from the lower left of the image, is a process of elimination.  

Enhancing color, intensity, contrast, and other elements is necessary for me. After all, a photo is 2-D visual abstraction of a 3-D experience with all of our senses including time and context.  My tendency is to eliminate objects and bring up visual elements like increasing saturation.  Perhaps the greatest challenge is to create a vision of an experience when the original experience is long past.  How can a cool, crisp dawn on the edge of a vast, wilderness canyon be represented in a photo?  A carefully crafted image can excite viewer imagination as in Dawn Flowing into Bryce Canyon. 

Dawn Flowing into Bryce Canyon

Removing part of an image through cropping is another process of discovery. I see images within images that are more enticing than the whole and have to be careful not to crop too small for good image resolution.  

I often am thrilled by discovering what I captured at the extremes of my equipment, like the microscopic revelations of a macro lens, or the frozen light patterns of a very fast shutter speed, or the lush flowing of a waterfall using a long exposure as in Rock Creations (on Deer Creek).

Rock Creations in Deer Creek

Ultimately the discoveries may lead to printing, a game-changer in photography: we see only light that’s available to be reflected by the print, presenting the ultimate challenge. This photo won a First Place and Best of Division at our Nevada County Fair (2018), and a  First Place at the California State Fair.

Share with us a project or photograph you are most proud of.

While exploring Long Beach, scanning boats and water, I looked inland to see a unique architectural contrast. Bent Glass, the Old in the New won a first place at the California State Fair and remains an intriguing delight.  

Bent Glass The Old in the New

What do you love best about the arts community in our county?

I love the shared excitement of creativity on a community scale. In my travels around the world, I’ve never encountered such a high level of artistic talent in such a large proportion of the local population. Our towns are frequently turned into galleries as residents and visitors relish the county’s creative enterprise. I’ve been honored to be juried into the awesome Wild and Scenic Film Festival (South Yuba River Citizen’s League) which goes far beyond the County to an international audience. It beings several thousand attendees to view environmentally oriented films and photos for four days (Jan. 16- 20). First Snow on Sun Graced El Capitan was juried into the Festival and feature in the Wild and Scenic Film Festival Brochure last year.  While a tribute to the preservation of Yosemite National Park, it was the luck of the dawn and a fresh December snow.  

First Snow on Sun Graced El Capitain

Who are two Nevada County artists you admire, and share with us why?

There are so many excellent photographers here, some with lifelong photographic careers, this is a “who’s hot now” question. David Wong brings extraordinary knowledge and service to us with international tours, local classes, and shows by locals. He is a leading force in the ever-growing Nevada County Camera Club.  

Mike Shea has become an award-winning professional published in national magazines.  His many projects include portrayals of San Francisco and stunning collections of images of the Sierra. He has been featured on the front page of The Union Newspaper portraying his life’s photographic journey. 

What is your current or next art adventure?

After participation in shows ranging from local to state, I’m now working on entries for the highly competitive the SYRCL Wild and Scenic Film Festival (three entries accepted for Jan. 16-19 at Miners Foundry), Nevada County Fair, and the Nevada County Camera Club monthly competition. 

Photography is, after all, sharing as well as seeing, providing a lifetime of exploration.  

Jim Bair is an independent photographer in Nevada City and volunteers for local arts and photography organizations including the Nevada County Arts Council. 

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