Reimagining the Rockies
Paul Zizka on Canada's Mountain West
OK. Here’s the deal. The Canadian Rockies have been photographed to death and quite frankly, a lot of the images being churned out featuring our country’s ‘Mountain West’ look pretty well the same.
Sorry folks. But it’s true. Then along comes this adventure photographer dude from Quebec City who finds his bliss in Banff and, well, he turns the visual interpretation of Canada’s oldest and most revered national park not just on its ear but inside out and upside down.
Toque & Canoe loves Paul Zizka for this. Which is why we’re featuring a Q and A with this extraordinary artist who is reimagining how Canadians, and the world, can experience this incredible landscape.
Put simply, the Rockies have never looked so awesome. All you have to do is study the lead art for this post. Give us a Canadian who wouldn’t want a self-portrait that looked like this one?
T&C: Paul, tell us how you ended up living in Banff.
Paul: Like many fellow Quebecers, I came to the mountains out of curiosity and a need to pay for my undergraduate studies. I sent applications to a variety of establishments and the first place that called me back was Num-Ti-Jah Lodge on Bow Lake. Little by little I fell in love with the mountains, and my life became defined by the connection I could have with wild places. I met my wife exploring the Bow Lake area and eventually we longed to become part of a larger community. Banff made the most sense due to its location within the national park.
T&C: How has life in Banff shaped your career as a photographer?
Paul: The community here has been very supportive of my work since the beginning – perhaps because many locals share the same appreciation as I do for mountain places. Of course, Banff is located at the heart of some of the planet’s most photogenic scenery. Wilderness immersion is easy and inspiration is always close at hand.
T&C: What inspires you artistically about this region of Canada?
Paul: Not only are the mountain parks incredible to behold, but they are ever-changing, which ensures that nothing is ever the same and that one scene can be rediscovered and appreciated over and over again. Throw in four distinct seasons, lakes whose colour changes daily with silt content, wild weather, trees that turn to gold in the fall and all sorts of clouds and the possibilities are endless. People talk about how beautiful the Canadian Rockies are, but I think what really sets them apart is their dynamic character. Since living in Banff I have explored and photographed other mountain regions of the world and this led me to a somewhat unexpected discovery. Some mountains may be higher and others more remote but I have yet to see a place on earth where everything comes together the way it does here in the Canadian Rockies. All the ingredients are present in the perfect amount. The harmony nature displays here is truly astounding and can easily leave the photographer overwhelmed.
T&C: Talk to us about the coolest thing you’ve ever shot – and the realities of being a photographer in Banff?
Paul: One image that comes to mind is called “The Sentinel.” It’s a photograph of a great horned owl perched on a dead tree during an aurora display. At the time I was gathering sequences for a time-lapse film and so it was common for me to leave the camera for hours at a time. That night I was busy capturing the northern lights at Lake Minnewanka, about 15 minutes from Banff. I got a few sequences and then went home. The next morning, after I downloaded the material from the night before, my jaw dropped when I realized that an owl had not only entered the frame, but stood still for seven straight seconds to allow for proper exposure. Probably the coolest, luckiest, most eerie image I have ever had the chance to photograph – and I was not even aware of it! I have spent many, many nights out chasing the aurora borealis here in Banff National Park, and have to say few displays in nature are as beautiful and mesmerizing as the colourful, graceful lights dancing overhead. I spend a fair amount of time in the wilderness and witness my share of natural beauty, but nothing beats standing under the stars in complete silence and watching the fantastic array of colours and shapes above.
T&C: What about the greatest challenges shooting in a mountain environment?
Paul: If the ever-changing nature of this area makes it incredibly beautiful, it also makes it challenging to photograph at times. It’s not just about keeping the gear (and yourself) warm and dry, it’s about having just a few seconds to document those fleeting magic moments. In that sense I would say that the greatest challenge associated with landscape photography here in the Canadian Rockies is the need to remain adaptable, and to make the most of what you are given, as opposed to going after a specific image that requires specific conditions to happen. Of course access is also a challenge for those who enjoy mountaineering and backcountry photography. You need to be comfortable traveling across a wide range of mountain terrain.
T&C: From the hip, what do you love most about Banff? Paint us a picture of your life here.
Paul: What first attracted me was the setting. Hard to beat having the turquoise of the Bow River close by and being surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Over time, other aspects of the town grew on me. Its fascinating history for example. I quickly became acquainted with many of the tales of the first mountaineers and mapmakers, and with the First Nations heritage. I also really enjoy being part of a community that is generally quite open-minded and that allows people from everywhere to pursue their mountain-inspired dreams. I also like that the town is a magnet for lovers of the wilderness, which makes it easy to connect with like-minded people.
T&C: Where does Paul Zizka like to hang out in his hometown?
Paul: When I need to take a break from editing and get out of the house, I like to walk around the Fenland Trail or up Tunnel Mountain, which are readily reached on foot and provide a wild feel despite being located very close to town. I also enjoy meeting friends at the Wild Flour Bakery for a coffee or at the Nourish Bistro for a bite. When it comes to playing, my favorite area remains the Icefields Parkway and particularly the vicinity of Bow Lake, where I spent many summers exploring.
T&C: Aside from taking photos 24/7 – what else to you enjoy about living in this area?
Paul: I just like that I get to wake up here every morning, in a place many dream to just visit one day. I sometimes feel like even the most ordinary things in life are extra special in the mountains. I have Cascade Mountain looming at the end of my street. I get to cross the turquoise Bow River on my way to meet a client. A deer shows up in the window as I edit a shoot. Things like this make me feel lucky – even though ultimately I made the conscious decision to live here.
T&C: You are no stranger to beautiful places. You grew up near Quebec City, after all. What does it mean to you as a Canadian to live where you live?
Paul: It’s true, I grew up near another very special place. Quebec City is absolutely beautiful. There is definitely a sense of pride associated with living in Banff National Park. That sense of pride is accompanied with a sense of responsibility. I like to think that through documenting the beauty of the park I am fulfilling my responsibility as an “ambassador” of Banff National Park – that I contribute to making others love it as much as I do, and inspire in others the desire to preserve this place.
T&C: How do you manage to cast such a fresh light on an area that has been photographed forever?
Paul: I think that if you really have a passion for a place, you will want to explore it as thoroughly as possible. I started out shooting the classic locations at times of day that were traditionally known as the best possible times, with just the right amount of cloud cover. Then I went back at other times of day, on rainy days, at night, in the middle of winter, had a look underwater, tried some very long exposures, some black and white work, and still there is not one single location where I feel I have exhausted all possibilities. That’s the beauty of landscape photography. It forces you to notice the differences with each visit to a location.
It’s also worth mentioning that perhaps 1% of the park could be considered to be “shot to death.” It it still very easy to get to places that are only very rarely visited and photographed. There are Lake Louises and Mount Rundles everywhere in the backcountry. People just don’t have the time or the motivation to check them out.
T&C: What haven’t you photographed that you want to capture with your camera?
Paul: Honestly, the list gets longer daily. There are many, many places where I would like to return under different conditions. And even more places I have yet to document and see through the camera.
T&C: How has living in Banff affected your understanding of what it means to be Canadian?
Paul: Banff National Park is often considered to be the flagship of the national park system, and I feel privileged to be living here and to be able to bring it to the world through my work. I am very proud of where I live and very thankful that in some small way I can contribute to helping more people experience the fantastic wilderness we have here.
T&C: What does your future hold?
Paul: We have no plans to leave Banff. We love it here and are overjoyed by the prospect on introducing our little daughter to all the joys of the mountains. From a photo standpoint, my desire is to continue documenting this area I feel so passionate about, in whatever form that takes. A project that keeps me particularly busy these days is my first book, which comes out this fall.
T&C: Can you talk a little, finally, about what really motivates you as a photographer of wild Canada?
Paul: I feel like wild places have added much to my life and cannot imagine being cut off from them. Unfortunately, I also feel like this connection is increasingly missing in our society. My wish would be to inspire people to go out there and find out for themselves how wilderness can impact their lives. Once this happens, I am hopeful that the desire to preserve these special places will simply follow.