Photographer Mike McPhee wasn’t born in the mountains. In fact, he came into this world about as far away as one can get. Raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, McPhee first picked up a camera in high school, shooting skateboarding and punk shows. It wasn’t until a fateful trip to Fernie, B.C. over 20 years ago that his career as one of the premier lensmen in the Rockies really took off.
“I came out to the Rockies for a season and it’s been 20 years now,” he says. “Funny, as it seems to be a regular story around these parts.”
McPhee’s images have since appeared in publications around the globe. Between his busy schedule coordinating sales and marketing at Island Lake Lodge (the kind of “desk job” that allows him access to some of the best terrain and athletes in the world), he found time to dig up some of his favourite images and chat a bit about what it’s like behind the lens.
How does a prairie kid end up spending his days photographing in one of the best mountain destinations in the world?
I came out to the Rockies for a season and it’s been 20 years now. Funny, as it seems to be a regular story around these parts. I am completely addicted to the mountains now and have an amazing job.
Can you remember when you picked up your first camera?
In high school I had some inspirational teachers that pushed me into photography. I believe I started with the good old classic Pentax K-1000. I had some band photos printed in the local papers, then some skateboard shots and just kept on shooting.
Shooting skateboarding and punk shows in Winnipeg is a far cry from the big mountain photos you’re shooting now. Has anything carried over?
I started shooting with film and slide film. It was a lot harder—especially with slide film—and more expensive. I think it really helped me think about framing, depth of field and focus. I still shoot manual focus. I should probably stop that so more shots end up in focus!
Weirdest situation photography has put you in?
Stuck on a live volcano in Chile with 80 km winds on solid ice. Scary.
What’s your typical day in the life?
I usually wake to up the sound of one of my little boys yelling that it’s time to get up. Bike or walk to the office and start up the computer. Load a shot to instagram. Though photography is part of my job, I still spend most of my time in the office.
What rules about living in Fernie?
Dramatic mountains, mountain culture, some of the best dry-fly fishing on the continent.
What doesn’t rule so much?
The price of houses, like all cool mountain towns, I suppose.
What has shooting in the mountains taught you?
I’ve learned to have a lot of respect for the mountains. Working with mountain guides has taught me to take safety very seriously. I’ve learned to become a better human overall and to also have more patience. I’ve learned to revel in those beautiful little moments when light, geography and nature come together. Capturing those little moments basically makes me feel good.
You’re shooting a lot more fishing these days. What is it about that appeals to you?
Fly fishing is my newest addiction. It combines a whole bunch of elements like exploration, hiking through the bush, skill, constant learning and moments of adrenaline when a fish hits a dry fly. I love participating in it and capturing those special little moments on a quiet stream in the wilderness.
Most would thinking shooting fishing wouldn’t be as exciting, or challenging as some of your other work?
It might not be as technically challenging as ski and snowboard photography, but there is a fair bit of patience required and lots of legwork to get into cool spots.
Where’s the most exciting place fishing photography has taken you?
I went up to the North West Territories this past summer to shoot a reality TV fishing show. It was an epic time. Giant northern pike on the fly, float-planes, cool lodge and interesting scenery. I really love hiking around in the mountains looking for good spots; it’s the sense of exploration that drives me, seeing what’s around the next corner.
What do you look for most when shooting photos? What makes a good photograph?
I look for symmetry and or off-kilter compositions, interesting light and some sort of emotional aesthetic. There are moments when everything comes together and you see the picture like a vision. Other times you can try and try and things do not seem to come together. With so many great photographers out there these days, it’s hard to be original, that’s for sure. I personally like photos that have a lot of depth and layers.
What does it take to “make it” in the photo biz?
Anyone shooting full time will tell you how hard it is to make a living. I am fortunate that photography is part of my marketing job. I would say that in order to make it, you need to be willing to work super hard, you need a unique eye and you need to be personable and open with clients, as they are the ones that pay you. This last part seems to get lost on some people, especially the new up-and-comers.
Who have some of your inspirations been over the years?
Mark Gallup really inspired me as a young photog in the ’90s. It was surreal to do a book with him a couple years ago. Outside of photography, one of my favourite artists of all time is Hans Hofmann, the German abstract impressionist. I can stare at his paintings for hours.
If you didn’t find photography, where would you imagine yourself being?
I hope I would have ended up as some sort of artist. Painter perhaps. There’s still time.
Do you manage to get your laps in without a giant backpack?
I need more days without a backpack, that’s for sure. On those rare days without a pack, everything seems easier and my body feels so much better. I have spent so many killer days sitting in the snow waiting.
What’s new and exciting in photography? What’s piqued your interest these days?
The new brand direction from Destination BC is pretty cool. Getting away from cliché mountain images to more authentic, in the moment shots that capture some emotion. There are a lot of photographers pushing the envelope with composition and new techniques these days. The new digital camera technology has really spurred new possibilities, especially in low light. I find all of this very exciting. I personally hope to spend more time shooting “golden hour” shots in the future. I am also hopefully going to pick up an underwater housing for my D-800 and get in the water with the fish!
What can we expect form Mike McPhee in the coming year?
I’m working on a Master’s Degree right now, so will be writing a thesis in the coming year. I will try my hardest to shoot as much as possible, though. We are also filming a TV show at Island Lake this winter and I will be working hard on finishing that including photos. If all goes a planned, perhaps another photo/film trip to the North West Territories for some arctic style fly-fishing for pike.
Watch for more of Mike’s images on our Instagram feed in the coming weeks.