Lingering Echos By inSpire with Jim Ponder

Photo: Jim Ponder
We asked Jim Ponder about his background and interest in art and photography. 

inSpire - Jim, some of your photos depict interesting objects and items that many people might overlook. Tell us about your background and how you came to be interested in capturing photographic art.

Ponder - My first real exposure to fine art photography took place when I found a book containing a reprint of Ansel Adams' "The Black Sun, Owens Valley, California, 1939" when I was 15 years old. The photograph, which depicted a tree beside a stream in a part of California where my family had gone camping when I was a boy, shows the sun as a black disk. The effect was caused by extreme chemical solarization due to the developer Ansel used on his film. At any rate, the primal form of that tree, combined with the unlikely black sun, awakened a primitive calling deep within me and I knew that one day I would become a photographer.

Two years later, my Dad lent me the family camera for a class field trip to the Oakland Museum. We ate a sack lunch while sitting on large concrete blocks, which were part of an art installation in the garden. I peeled a tangerine and laid the peelings down on the block I was seated on. All of a sudden, I realized that the contrast of orange peelings and blue-gray concrete looked pretty neat, so I made my first fine art photograph. The year was 1970.

During my junior year at the La Sierra campus of Loma Linda University, I became fascinated with fine art photography and almost changed my major from journalism to photography. I took several classes, and photography became my passion. Neal Stevens, the instructor for several classes, became like a hero to me and encouraged me to keep going even when the results didn't match my expectations.

When I graduated in 1976, I moved to Los Angeles and began working at White Memorial Medical Center. One afternoon, I found a brochure for the Owens Valley Photography Workshops. I signed up to attend a week-long workshop based in Bishop, California, at the north end of the Owens Valley. The moment I walked into the room and saw original prints by Bruce Barnbaum, Ray McSavaney, and John Sexton, I knew I had found something my heart had been yearning to do for a long time.

The next year, I bought a 4x5 view camera and set out to master the zone system of exposure and development for black and white film. I developed my skills between the twin poles of fine art photography--vision and technique--for several decades. Eventually, I graduated to an 8x10 camera (the size of the original negative) and launched two series of photography workshops at the Grand Canyon and other locations throughout the Southwest. I also landed a part-time gig teaching fine art photography at Ventura College. I had a number of shows and exhibitions and sold a few prints, but never made enough at it to quit my day job.

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In 2007, I began working with a digital camera for the first time and soon found that it is a lot simpler to use. Instead of 10 or 15 exposures, I can make several hundred in a day. My all-time record is 2,000 in a single day. These days, I do far less per day, choosing to concentrate on quality over quantity, but when I first went digital, I was interested in pushing the boundaries.

Last year I enrolled in the online MFA degree program at Academy of Art University, based in San Francisco. I have always been primarily interested in two major genres of photography: landscape and abstract. However, one of my instructors told me that by the time I graduate, I will only be working in one direction. This posed a major dilemma for me since I love both types of work. However, the more I explored my basic interests, the more abstraction seemed to win out. For my semester portfolio in The Nature of Photography Class this year, I photographed road squiggles, those lines and loops painted over cracks in the pavement to prevent further erosion.

Although I am now photographing abstracts, I am seeking to incorporate images that are abstracted from the natural world as well as human constructions. In my view, however, there is less of a distinction between human constructions and natural objects since everything man-made was, in one form or other, derived from the raw materials of our planet. I'm equally happy rummaging through junkyards with camera in hand as I am in pristine forests. What upsets me, however, is when people tear up a wilderness area or trash it. Come on, people, show a little respect for God's creation!

Some of my favorite abstract artists include painters Franz Kline and Wassily Kandinski as well as photographers Aaron Siskind and Brett Weston. Of the four, only Kandinski worked primarily in color. Kline, Siskind, and Weston worked mostly in black and white, although Kline incorporated color into his earlier and later works, too. For 30 years, I worked mostly in black and white, believing the Modernist propaganda that monochrome alone could be considered fine art photography. My education, however, has freed me to work in color and I'm finding it to be a very challenging and rewarding experience.

I'm enjoying the challenge of finding abstraction in nature, on the surface of old roads, in architecture, and wherever it may appear. 

inSpire - What is your favorite subject matter?

Ponder - What is my favorite subject matter? The Mojave Desert and the American Southwest are where I usually find my best subjects, but I also love Big Sur and the Orange County beaches at Crystal Cove. Anywhere with an abundance of wilderness and/or old buildings, rusting cars, twisted metal. I love Route 66, In 2009 I went to China and found myself enamored of the landscapes and architectural styles I found there. Once a photographer begins to get a handle on the visual elements, you can turn him loose in a WalMart parking lot and he'll come back with something good. In the Nature of Photography class at Academy of Art University, I was introduced to A Primer of Visual Literacy by Donis A. Dondis. It's heavy reading, but if you take it slow and try to practice what you read, you'll begin to master the visual elements and they will revolutionize the way you see. Great photographs are literally lurking around every corner; the only limitation is our ability to recognize and create them.

inSpire - When you prepare your photos for a gallery show, where do you have them printed?

Ponder - I haven't had a gallery show since 2000. Back then, I printed everything in my own darkroom. I will probably either buy a good digital printer when I get ready to have a gallery show of my current work, or have them printed by a premium output firm like Nash Editions. When I started out in photography, I just wanted to rush up to the scene, click the shutter, and let the lab do the rest. Then, after spending countless hours mastering the darkroom and the zone system, I wouldn't let anyone else touch my images. Now, in the digital age, I'm thinking the best of all possible worlds is to work with one printer and let him or her (some of the best ones are women) learn my style and print my work. I've spent weeks of my life in the darkroom with smelly chemicals, but what I most enjoy is being outdoors with the camera.

inSpire - What connection does your photography make with spirituality? Does it bring you closer to God, and do you hope to spiritually inspire those who see your works?

Ponder - For me, spirituality and photography are inextricably connected. If nature is a manifestation of God's creative artistry, we should find many things in the natural world that remind us of God's work. And, of course, if we start from the belief that God created the world, we find lots of corroborating evidence.

Photographic historian Nancy Newhall uses the phrase "words of the earth," which she may have borrowed from photographer Cedric Wright or poet Walt Whitman, to infer that individual elements of the natural world are actually intentional statements of the natural world. Although she doesn't use or apply the phrase to Christian spirituality, the concept can be interpreted to refer to individual elements of the natural world as manifestations of the creativity and majesty of God, much as the Epistle to the Romans does in its first chapter.

When I first started out as a photographer, my highest intention was to create photographs that would reflect the genius and creativity of God; almost as if a photograph could offer a type of proof for the existence of the Creator of all things. However, as I became more well-versed in the dialog between faith and science, I became aware that while beauty, for believers, is a corroborating witness to the work of God, for the evolutionary scientist, it is more of a conundrum. What suggests a link to divinity for one person may be merely a curiosity or phenomenon to someone else.

For me, however, nature is always the abode of the spirit and the closest thing we still have on this marred planet to a lingering echo of what God had in mind at the creation of the world. In using the creative gift God entrusted to me to create photographs, I am affirming my reverence and appreciation for who God is and what He did. Ironically, that makes no sense to unbelievers, but it connects to my personal faith and spirituality in the deep recesses of the visual part of my soul.

inSpire - Thank you for sharing your insights and photos. They are truly unique and interesting to view.

To see more of his images, become FRIENDS with Jim Ponder on Facebook.

This interview was conducted by Rich DuBose, Director of Pacific Union Conference Church Support Services and the inSpire project. All rights reserved © 2012 VisitInSpire.org. Click here for content usage information.