“If you photograph landscape,” photographer Stephen DesRoches laughs, “you really have to be committed to dumb hours, terrible hours.“ The hours matter because the secret to landscape photography is time. “Landscape photography is based on what is given to you. Scheduling a date for June, today, is not useful. To get the best image of Cavendish – the weather will tell you when,” he says.
Now, with travel off-Island curtailed, intimacy with this landscape is more important than ever. “Any really good landscape photographer will know how to follow the tides, how to control water movement, how to make it feel like a storm or feel really calm,” Stephen reflects. “The advantage I have for PEI is time—you know when you need to be there and you know the spot to be.”
I spoke to Stephen DesRoches in pre-pandemic March, but the natural processes that attract a landscape photographer are both briefer than a moment and longer than a season, even a pandemic season. He spoke about documenting change year after year, such as “a hole in the rock in Cavendish near MacKenzie Brook,” he originally could measure by the size of his hand, and today, “you could drive a car through it.”
Stephen says, “When you’re a photographer, you can’t walk down the street without seeing … details. whether you act on them or not.” It’s a personal response, but, he says, “I would say everything I photograph is personal, because that’s how it started…
“All through school and graduation, I wanted to be a painter, and, specifically, an animator,” Stephen recalls. He went to Holland College and ended up in web development with silverorange. Several main clients were catalogue companies, and Stephen’s work was to edit images and prepare them for websites.
“I learned to edit images before I ever owned a camera,” he says. As his obsession with images grew, so did his desire for more files to work with. “I wanted to make source files instead of using images from other people,” he recalls, so he bought his first camera in 2001 and his first “serious camera” five years later.
His work also opened up travel opportunities, “when I had never been on a plane before,” and he documented his travel. He tried shooting sports; he says, “I tried the wedding thing.” But he finally did “narrow it down to one thing,” landscape photography, and, by 2010 he says, he was already getting calls to do commercial work, mostly for tourism purposes, and, he says, “I said no to everything else.”
Stephen says, “Landscape was more a reflection of what I was interested in painting, when I wanted to paint. I believe that photography is more of an extension of something else… You have to commit to really knowing what you’re photographing. If you shoot sports, you have to really like sports. If you are a wedding photographer, you have to really like people. If you photograph wildlife, you should know about biology.”
Stephen has used his time and knowledge well, with two stand-out books of photographs published: A Photographer’s Guide to PEI, with John Sylvester, and Prince Edward Island: Images of the Night Sky. “Personally,” he says, “I prefer books over prints. It felt like it was always the goal… I really feel more like an artist than a photographer trying to make wall art.” Another goal he has achieved is educating others, particularly on four teaching trips to Greenland.
His next goal, Stephen says, is “I’m going to focus more on purpose,” meaning more work with groups such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Nature First Colorado as well as Parks Canada. While he doesn’t see himself on the front lines of solving climate change, he says, “Photography definitely gives you a better awareness to details that, before I had a camera, I would have been ignorant to.”
As a landscape photographer in a changing climate, he sees “an additional role, not to police but to encourage the wellbeing of the landscape,” sharing images that start a conversation about what we can do better—and why we should.