Meet the Artist

David Ondaatje - 'I could photograph waves all day long. I’m just happier near water'

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David Ondaatje - 'I could photograph waves all day long. I’m just happier near water'
David Ondaatje - Gaviota Swimmer, 2022 - photograph taken in 2020

A love of water runs deep in David Ondaatje. This Canadian-born, US-based photographer, filmmaker, writer, and businessman studied at both Harvard and Cambridge universities before pursuing a career in art and commerce. He has written and directed films and in recent years has pushed to capture fresh remote, aerial photographs.

Ondaatje's deep love of fly fishing, as well as riverine and coastal scenery has guided his career path, taking him across the globe, capuring new sea and landscapes in both still and moving imagery. Now, the author has worked with Artspace to create a limited edition print, Gaviota Swimmer, 2022.

Limited to only 25 signed and framed editions, the print is accompanied by Water Views, Ondaatje’s breathtaking new book of aerial photography published by Monacelli Press. He has committed to donate a portion of sales from the limited edition to support Human Rights Watch, an organization he has supported for many years.

In this interview, Ondaatje discusses the beauty and challenges of shooting natural water; why waves remain a particularly compelling photographic subject for him, and how the pandemic led him to the stretch of coastline where the image, Gaviota Swimmer, 2022 was created.

 

 DAVID ONDAATJE - Gaviota Swimmer, 2022

Vivera Pigment archival inks on Lexjet Sunset metallic paper Paper size: 36 x 24 3/4 inches Edition of 25 The work is signed and numbered by the Artist on the front $1500 framed - edition photography Garrett Carroll

 

What came first, the love of water, or the love of photography? I’ve been an angler all my life. When I was young, I fished a lot with my father, and now go more with my kids, friends, or on my own. We’ve always either lived near water or sought it out. Over the last 30 years I have been involved with a fly rod manufacturing company called RL Winston and have done a lot of their landscape photography, so I still spend a lot of time in, on, and now over, the water. 

Photography has also been a passion. All my life I have documented – over documented – everything. I’ve had cameras since I was young. My mother likes to tell a story about how when I was maybe 10, she would tell me to stop taking pictures and I would mischievously hold up my hands, as if holding a camera, and make the click of the shutter sound with my mouth. 

Looking through a lens gives you the opportunity to view a private world, and that’s part of what’s driven my excitement around photography. It’s an ongoing exploration and experimentationI’m constantly trying to evolve as a photographer, whether doing portrait work or landscapes. 

 

 David Ondaatje on location 

Was there a Eureka moment? I guess I’ve always tried to explore new technology and find different ways to capture things. For a while, I used to play with different lenses, including one called a Lensbaby, which throws 75 per cent of the image out of focus. So, when a friend of mine got a drone several years ago, I was very interested. Back then, I was more active in filmmaking, so it became a tool for me to capture what was going on from a completely new perspective using video.

I was originally more excited about the video element because the camera resolution wasn’t all that great back then. It was harder to control the process. You had to fly the camera blindly and never really knew what you were going to get until you had downloaded the images and looked at them on the computer.

As the camera resolution of these cameras improved, and the relationship between the camera and the drone became more sophisticated, it became possible to attach a monitor so that you could actually see what the camera was seeing and start to control camera settings.

 

DAVID ONDAATJE - Gaviota Swimmer, 2022 

Vivera Pigment archival inks on Lexjet Sunset metallic paper Paper size: 36 x 24 3/4 inches Edition of 25 The work is signed and numbered by the Artist on the front $1500 framed - edition photography Garrett Carroll

 

What’s the most challenging and the most fun part of it? The challenging part I guess is my own fear of people coming up and interrupting what I’m doing, because you’re on a tight timeline - you only have maybe 15 minutes to get the shots you want before the battery runs out. So, I try to hide, or at least get out of sight, when I’m flying the cameraI’ll go behind a tree or around a corner or between two buildings to keep away from other people.

As soon as the camera goes up, my stress level increases. That’s the most challenging part. But there’s an excitement that happens at the same time because you’re seeing things that you can’t see from the ground, and you have this clock ticking in terms of trying to capture something fresh.

It must be an incredible adrenalin rush. Is it hard remembering to keep out of the frame? It is! I try to keep myself out of frame wherever possible, but can’t always do it.  If I’m in a boat against this vast ocean landscape, or on a river by myself, there are times I need to be both the photographer and the subject. Sometimes it works out. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’,  I guess is the expression.  

Does light play an even more important role with this kind of photography? Most of it is dictated by the light. You work with the light. Overhead shots at midday, for example, are fantastic. Because you shoot directly down you don’t have as much glare; you can see deeper into the water. An overhead sun adds a new dimension when you take pictures over water, like in Gaviota Swimmer

What constitutes the moment for you? Is it the light, the composition, the view? I guess I’m a bit of a romantic so, for me, it’s tied to this sense of beauty and something I’ve never seen before – which can be taken somewhere new or somewhere I’ve been many times but am seeing from a new perspective. It can be the end of the day in Montana on a river where suddenly the evening light causes everything to pop and the shadows are long. That gets me excited. It’s usually caused less by me, and more by just seeing something in a new way. 

 

DAVID ONDAATJE - Gaviota Swimmer, 2022 

 Vivera Pigment archival inks on Lexjet Sunset metallic paper Paper size: 36 x 24 3/4 inches Edition of 25 The work is signed and numbered by the Artist on the front $1500 framed - edition photography Garrett Carroll

Tell us about the photo you chose for the Artspace edition. I love this photograph. It is up the coast of California, just north of Santa Barbara, the Gaviota Coast. The water there is a beautiful dark shade of green with kelp forests just offshore.

Friends invited us up there to spend the weekendIt's a great example of how beautiful the California coastline can be and how dramatic a small, single image can appear against the vast ocean – even when you’re looking directly down. With the sun and my camera directly overhead, I could see deep into the emerald water below as a lone swimmer swam parallel to shore. This was taken around midday. When I’m up there, I’ll experiment with the camera angle and explore whether to shoot from an angle or directly down. It’s a different, more detached feeling when looking at something or someone from directly overhead, which you get in this photograph. 

Is that how you capture the incredible light on the spray? That’s just nature doing its work. The bright white of the waves helps define a safe shoreline and helps us see just how far the swimmer is from shore. I love to photograph waves and the notion that something new is being created every second, and that every moment is different. I could take pictures of waves all day long. I don’t know what it is, I’m just happier near water. I’ve spent most of my life near, or on, water. There’s a reason why we seek out the water. I think it relaxes us.

Putting yourself in remote places you must have had a few run ins with the locals? It's not a constant fear but when they drop you off in the river in British Columbia by yourself and you can hear the sound of the boat fading into the distance you know that no one is going to be there to help if you run into a bear. 

Bear vs Shark - what’s scarier? I’ve taken pictures of sharks when I’ve been in a boat, so that’s safe, but wouldn’t have wanted to go swimming then. I’ve been bonefishing on flats in the Bahamas and have been approached by sharks but that’s less worrying in 18 inches of water. I still go flyfishing in the British Columbia wilderness every year and there’s always a threat of bears. I was on a trip with friends a few years ago who were false-charged by a grizzly. Being around predators adds an excitement, and if you are going off to photograph in beautiful, remote spots, there’s always some level of risk.

David Ondaatje

You cite Massimo Vitali as an influence. What, apart from a similar vantage point, do you admire? I guess, ultimately, if you have enough of yourself in a photograph, it’s going to be unique. You shouldn’t necessarily compare your photographs to anyone else’s work. Does it capture a moment for you? So, for me, I’m capturing moments as opposed to places. I think that’s something that really resonates with me in terms of Vitali's photographs. He talks about taking photographs of humanity. He says he’s not really interested in ‘where’. 

I like to travel, so ‘where’ inevitably becomes a part of my photographs. But, like Vitali, I certainly hope that’s not the most interesting part. Seeing something from the air can immediately turn the familiar into the unfamiliar. It’s a form of traveling. So, how Vitali’s and his elevated perspectives cause us to reflect on human interactions, and much more than simply where his photographs are taken, is something I admire greatly.

You say in your book Water Views that you'd like your ashes sprinkled in a particular stretch of water. Hopefully it doesn’t happen too soon! There are places you go where there’s a personal connection, where you’ve spent some of the happiest moments in your life. One particular spot is up on the Morice River in British Columbia where I’ve gone steelhead fishing for almost 30 years, and still go with my daughter and friends. I haven’t been able to convince my wife yet but am working on it – hopefully the first time she goes isn’t when she’s sprinkling my ashes. It’s a great fishing spot and it’s spectacularly beautiful. Thankfully I have my photographs to keep me there for now.

 Find out more about David Ondaatje's Gaviota Swimmer, 2022 edition here.

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