Stefan Forster’s relentless landscape photography quest
As landscape photographer Stefan Forster remembers it, it was just before midnight last April when he was sleeping soundly inside a four-wheel drive SUV on a remote mountain pass in northeastern Chile when “All hell broke loose.”
The Swiss photographer had been in Chile and Bolivia for several weeks on a private photographic expedition. He’d made dramatic images of sunrises over expansive dunes, crystalline lakes, and other lowland features but wanted to get higher into the Andes Mountains for even more spectacular landscapes. Driving along the little-traveled Paso de Sico, a 15,000-foot-high mountain pass on the border between Chile and Argentina, he spotted a picturesque valley he wanted to photograph the next morning. He pulled off the gravel road to camp for the night.
After a walk he prepared a modest dinner then tucked himself into his sleeping bag inside the rented Nissan Patrol, where he drifted off to sleep.
Several hours later he was violently awakened by a massive lightning bolt followed by a deafening crash of thunder, like someone cracking a whip. “Lightning bolts were striking everywhere, POW, POW, POW, just yards away from me,” remembers Forster.
Disoriented as the thunder boomed and lightning flashed outside the vehicle, he wrestled his way out of his sleeping bag and grabbed a flashlight. He was shocked to discover the windows caked with snow. Flurries had half-buried the vehicle as he’d slept. “I was trapped inside as lightning bolts flashed all around me and the snow pelted down. I’d never seen so severe a storm."
WORSE WAS YET TO COME
The lightning waned and Forster began driving to the nearest mountain village, which was more than 40 miles away, but the SUV quickly became buried by the raging blizzard. Trapped and afraid of driving off the mountain pass in the blinding snow, he shut off the engine and climbed into his sleeping bag. The temperature dropped to 10 below zero.
Morning dawned and the storm was still intense. He spent more than an hour getting the SUV started. His GPS was not working and the battery on his satellite phone was weak. He could see no more than a few feet in front of him as he began creeping forward in the SUV along the mountain pass. The road disappeared ahead of him. He was exhausted, cold, and frightened.
Suddenly he spotted a light flickering in the distance. “It was like something out of a Hollywood movie—a miracle,” he remembers. He had chanced upon a remote Chilean military minesweeping outpost high in the Andes.
The five-soldier team were amazed to see Forster stumbling toward them. They welcomed him into their remote barracks for three days until the skies cleared and the road re-opened. “Those men saved my life,” he says. “Someone was watching over me.”
WHERE FEW TREAD
While Forster admits that his Andes adventure was frightening, it hasn’t put him off searching out some of the world’s remotest spots to photograph. “I love going to places that few landscape photographers have been,” he explains. “And that’s getting harder and harder to do as so many photographers go the same hotspots over and over again.” He cites the example of Iceland, which he first photographed 13 years ago and has returned to more than 40 times. “When I first went to Iceland there were fewer than 300,000 tourists a year going there. Last year there were nearly 2 million. Now it can be difficult to find a spot there that isn’t packed with other photographers.”
To get off the beaten track he typically rents an off-road vehicle and usually brings along a kayak as well as 80 pounds of hiking, camping, and camera gear. “I’m a loner and I love exploring new areas—the more isolated the better—on multi-week hikes,” he says. He’s kayaked along the coasts of Greenland and Norway, in Louisiana’s alligator swamps, and in Alaska and the Pacific. He’s visited many African countries and photographed active volcanoes in Indonesia. “There are enough pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Get out to the backcountry,” says the 31-year-old. “To really stand out as a photographer you have to come back with something different.”
Looking through Forster’s portfolio of dramatic landscapes that include icebergs shimmering under the Northern Lights, rarely-captured desert rainstorms, and breathtaking drone shots of the Grand Canyon, you can see that Forster’s idea of “something different” means finding and capturing a scene bathed in the perfect light.
“Light! Yes, that’s it. That’s what I am always after,” says Forster as he smiles and admits that he titled his first book, “Chasing Light” to reflect his twin passions. He explains, “I’m restless (my photographer friends say it’s as if I drink too much Red Bull) and am not the type of photographer who is content to wait for the perfect moment or scene. I’d rather go hunting for that moment. I am always chasing after every sunbeam I can.”
He explains that he rarely uses a tripod because it slows him down: “I’m never satisfied with a spot and keep moving.” He confesses to having taken 100 different photos of the same sunrise from 85 different spots on one trip. “Even when I’m taking a picture from a certain location I’m always looking to the right or left thinking, There’s another hill or small dune over there that may make a better foreground. I am anxious to see what’s over the next hill.”
Forster admits he has an advantage in hunting for dramatically lit scenes: He leads as many as 10 photography tours a year to destinations such as Namibia, Iceland, Greenland, and Norway in addition to traveling widely on his own personal assignments. “If I find a breathtaking scene and the light isn’t perfect I know I can always return again to photograph it when the light may be magical,” he says.
He’s a keen amateur meteorologist and is usually able to read the weather (his Andes misadventure notwithstanding) well enough to know what factors will produce a startling sunset or sunrise. “There are surely many better photographers than I am, but I have a knack for knowing how different weather conditions will affect the light,” he says. He often tells his students, “Never trust the weather forecast. The most amazing light comes when bad weather is predicted.”
While his book “Chasing Light” was a great success—the first printing sold out in three weeks—some critics accused Forster of altering or enhancing his photographs. “That bothered me,” he says. “They had no idea that I don’t manipulate my work and that the 160 pictures in that book were chosen from the more than 500,000 in my library and were shot over three, four, five or more visits to those locations.”
Forster stopped selling his work via stock photo agencies because, as he explains, “I finally refused to accept the ridiculously low prices they were offering,” He sells prints via his website. “I’d rather sell 10 pictures a year at a price I am proud of than sell hundreds for next to nothing,” he says. In addition to his photo tours, he offers photography classes and presents multimedia lectures, “The Kingdom of Light,” that feature his photography and videos. The lectures help him market his popular (and lucrative) photo tours. Only two of 2018’s 10 tours were not fully booked by the end of 2017.
What’s next for this peripatetic Swiss photographer who’s worked so hard to get so far off the beaten path? “There are still so many places left to visit on my to-do list,” he says with a broad smile. He begins reeling off a long list of places such as Mongolia, Alaska’s Katmai National Park, Cambodia, and other remote destinations when he stops and confesses, “I used to think that it was a bad thing to always be frustrated, always wanting to find that next—even more dramatic—destination. But I have come to realize that when you are chasing the light it’s good never to be fully satisfied. There’s always that next picture. The one just over the next hill.”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.