Forest Woodward’s Path to Adventure Photography
He sold his first photograph at 14 and has been making pictures ever since
In early 2014, Forest Woodward and I sat in the window of a Lower East Side coffee shop, flipping through a scrapbook he had made during our 28-day Grand Canyon raft trip a few months earlier. It was only three months old at that point, but already had the look of something you’d find in a dead relative’s attic: bulging at the spine, Instax instant photos and pieces of the river map with notes scrawled on them glued to the pages, and scenes from each day written in the leftover space. Forest had mentioned wanting to do something with the material, plus the stills and video he had shot during the trip—maybe a web story, incorporating all the visual and written elements, in time for Father’s Day as a gift for his dad, Doug, who was 77 at the time of the trip, when he was returning to the Grand Canyon after his first trip there 40-plus years ago.
Forest never did get around to making that web story. But he did end up making a film called The Important Places with friends at American Rivers and Gnarly Bay. I helped a little bit, too, if you count refusing to write the script and telling Forest he should write it himself, and offering a couple small pieces of advice along the way. The film is probably the best-known single piece of Forest’s work—it won the Best Short Mountain Film Award at the 2015 Banff Mountain Film Festival, toured with the festival, showed at dozens of other film festivals, and appeared in a slightly edited form on Oprah’s SuperSoul TV.
The film follows the trajectory of Forest’s life, growing up very close to the wilderness in the mountains of North Carolina and Washington, getting away from the outdoors for a few years in college and New York City, and then returning to the mountains, desert, and rivers, where he started making a living as an adventure photographer just before I met him, in 2012. Almost exactly seven years ago, a mutual friend, Darin, introduced Forest and me via a charity climb of Mount Whitney, telling me, “You should meet my friend Forest—I think you’d like him.” People say that all the time, but Darin really nailed it. Since that climb, Forest and I have collaborated on magazine work, several films, and a book project that will be coming out in spring 2020.
Forest’s photos have been published in Alpinist, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, VICE, The Atlantic, Climbing, Rock and Ice, Australian Geographic Outdoor, Surfer, Afar, Men’s Health, Forbes, the Guardian, and on the cover of Adventure Journal multiple times. He’s now one of my closest friends and one of my favorite creative collaborators, and I can’t pretend to be objective about him as a person or a photographer. But since we’ve had such enriching conversations about life and creative work—in the front seats of cars driving in more than a dozen states, at diners and coffee shops, at belays, on dozens of trails and campsites—I thought I’d ask him to sit down and talk a little bit about how he became a photographer and his evolution as a creative.
On Growing Up Experientially Homeschooled and Close to the Outdoors
I grew up in western North Carolina, in the mountains just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, ten miles as the crow flies off the Appalachian Trail. My folks built a house out in the woods on 160 acres of mountainside in rural Appalachia, and that’s where we grew up for the first 12 years of my life. We did a lot of whitewater canoeing and kayaking in that area. What drew them to that area was the rivers and the water. They homeschooled us, and oriented our lives around the idea of experiential education, both in our backyard and in our daily lives. Part of homeschooling was being sent outside and told to come back when it gets dark, which I don’t know if that was really part of homeschooling or just Mom needing some time to herself.
A lot of my memories are of my dad’s or my mom’s back, being on a backpack or a bike trailer. I remember Dad had this kiddie cart that they pulled behind the bike that my sister and I would sit in. We would do a lot of family overnight bike tours. I remember just seeing the world, the landscape always through this scuffed up plastic window. I think those were some of the earliest memories, just bouncing along in that cart. You could see Dad’s back up ahead, legs churning along, and then you look out the little plastic window, and stuff’s moving along, and I’m just a little sponge, soaking it all in, wondering when the snacks were going to come.
Those were the early years growing up in western North Carolina. Then we moved to Stehekin, Washington, another rural part of the country up in the North Cascades. A little community at the head of Lake Chelan, surrounded on all sides by the North Cascades National Park. There were about 100 year-round residents. We lived there for five years, and that was another very interesting, distinct chapter in growing up. I was 12 to 17 growing up in a very small community, and learning how to live and interact within that was pretty neat. A good place to be a free range kid. Chopped a lot of wood, boot packed a half mile through the snow from the end of the driveway to the house in winter. There was no cell service in the valley, no internet yet, so if you wanted to see your friends you just got on your bicycle and started riding up and down the valley road, checking the usual spots—the bakery, the swimming holes, the river resort, pirate island. All through my growing up years in North Carolina and then later in Washington, there was no TV or Nintendo and we didn’t have a lot of the things that “normal kids” had. I thought, “This is not idyllic. This is hell,” but with time and space, and as I’ve come to reflect on it, it was absolutely idyllic. We had the woods and the mountains and the rivers and a lot of freedom to make our own fun.
On His First Camera
I got a camera for Christmas when I was 10. We took trips as a family, usually once or twice a year. I think in that time we were headed to Guatemala. Mom and Dad knew I was interested in photography, because I think I had used Dad’s cameras before. They gave me my own camera, which was this little point-and-shoot 35-millimeter. I think I got one roll of film for a six-week trip or something, because it was expensive to develop it. That was my allotted share, and it was a big deal. I remember having a lot of fun with that on the trip. That was my way of interacting with the landscape, and the culture, and the people that we were meeting, and oftentimes thinking about if it was worth one of my 36 shots.
Then Dad gave me one of his old cameras when I was 12, his old Canon AE-1. That was when we began developing and processing black-and-white film together in the darkroom in the basement, and it sparked a deeper sense of connection to the craft, and a deeper understanding of it. Dad and a lot of the old-school black-and-white photographers come at picture making from a very engineering minded, scientific sort of background. As I became immersed in that, I started to take more pride in what I was doing. It was less of a pressing the button and being curious what came out, and it was more of a tactile, hands-on sort of thing. I became fascinated with light and without really knowing it I think, I began to study it everyday.
All of the kids in the family were encouraged to explore art in some way. I always resisted the idea of being an artist or being creative. I was like, “I do sports.” I wanted to be the sports kid. For me, the camera was a creative outlet, but it was like I could pretend that it wasn’t. I could pretend I was a tough 12-year-old who just liked sports, but was secretly falling in love with photography.
On Early Days in the Darkroom with His Dad, Doug
My earliest introduction to photography, before I ever took a picture, was standing outside the door of the darkroom in the basement, and knocking on it, and Dad being like, “Just a minute,” and waiting for one of his prints to get into the fixer. Then he’d open the door and let me come in, and turn the lights off again. We’d be there in the orange glow of the safelight. He’d perch me up on this tall wicker stool, and let me rock the developer tray. That’s my earliest memory of photography. It definitely was a connection between me and Dad, and seeing what he did, and getting to spend time with him.
It seemed like magic, even just the glow and the hum of the safe light, and the enlarger. Then the images slowly appearing on blank paper, taking shape, becoming real through some alchemy I didn’t grasp but which captivated me. It was a mysterious and entrancing place, the darkroom. For some reason they made the fixer chemicals smell like vanilla, which I think is sketchy in retrospect for kids. Also, there were wild beasts. There were copperheads that would crawl in through the dehumidifier, and so the first thing we would do when we went down to the darkroom was check for the copperheads, and oftentimes they would be there back under far enough that we couldn’t get to them. You would see one peering out at you from under the dehumidifier. It became scary once I started doing it on my own, and wasn’t with Dad. I would check for the copperheads by myself. Eventually we developed some sort of truce I guess.
On His Early Studies at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography
Before college, I had started going out to the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula. I rode a Greyhound bus with my sister from Spokane, Washington, to Missoula, Montana, when I was 12 and she was 14. We took our first black-and-white printing workshop there together.
My dad was friends with Neil and Jeanne Chaput, who started the school in Atlanta when my dad was living there. I think back then they had three students, and Dad was one of them. He and Neil became friends, so when Neil and Jeanne moved the school out to Montana they kept in touch. They always kept the door open for my parents, if they ever wanted to send any of their kids. It was not something that our family could afford, but they let me come for free and stay in their guest bedroom. I was amazingly supported by the folks at the school from an early age.
That opened my eyes to this bigger world of photography where my teachers were people I looked up to a lot, like Neil and Tim Cooper and David Marx. Neil, who founded the school, had studied under Ansel Adams. He did large-scale black-and-white fine art printing. I saw that as the path to being a photographer, and didn't know that much else about different ways to make a living in photography. I thought you had to take really good black-and-white landscape photos, and then figure out how to get them into galleries. So up until college, that had been my focus. Once a year, I’d go out there for a week and learn from those guys.
I don’t know if I would send a 12-year-old on a Greyhound bus now, but whatever. It worked out. Maybe it was different back then. But that was my first workshop. Whatever formal education I had around photography, besides what came from Dad, came from those weeklong visits to the school in Missoula. I had really positive interactions with the teachers there, and with other students. Everyone was just really encouraging. It was a lot of older folks. They thought it was pretty neat to see a 12-year-old or a 16-year-old who was that interested in the craft, and in learning the details of fine art printing, and large format photography and all that.
Every summer during college, I went back to Missoula. The first year, I took their summer intensive course, a 12-week crash course in everything from studio lighting, to photojournalism, to fine art printing. The next three summers, I went back and assisted with the program, working in the darkroom helping folks with printing. I can’t imagine a better place to develop a foundation and appreciation for the art of photography and I look back on those years as some of the most formative for me as an artist.
On Maybe Not Wanting to Be a Photographer
As I got into my later teen years and was looking at college, I came to realize that maybe that wasn’t that cool. I was still investigating “normal.” I was like maybe being in a darkroom all day, and smelling like chemicals, maybe I'm turning into one of those artist nerds. I’m not the sports guy I wanted to be, or whatever.
I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I took one photography class while I was there. I majored in sociology and Spanish. I had heard growing up the encouragement of people saying, “You’re good at photography. You’re making beautiful photos.” But that would also be accompanied with, “It’s really hard to make a living as a photographer though.” I always kept that in the back of my mind. Since I want to make a living, I decided I was going to go to college and study other things. People forgot to tell me that it was going to be hard to make a living with sociology and Spanish too, which I started to realize at the end of college.
I figured if I was going to do something that was hard to make a living with, I might as well do something I really liked and really cared about. So after taking the college years away from photography, except for in the summers when I would go Montana, I came back to it at the end of my junior and senior year and started shooting more seriously.
On His First Photo Sale at Age 14
I sold my first black-and-white print at the little craft shop in Stehekin. In the winters there, I could use the darkroom in the one-room schoolhouse, and use the chemicals there, and print my own stuff. I was printing landscapes of the North Cascades. Then I’d cut the matts and Krazy Glue them in, and put them in these little plastic sleeves, and take them down to the craft store when it opened in the summer. Part of the deal was if you put stuff in there you had to work behind the desk a few days.
I think I was probably 14, and I was working there the day that my first black-and-white print sold to these two lovely older ladies from Seattle. They said, “You're the artist? We're going to buy one.” It was a really neat feeling. I mean, I put these here, but I didn’t really think anyone was going to buy them. It was $12 for the print. They found out it was the first print I’d ever sold, and they got so excited and were like, “You take this dollar bill, and you put it somewhere special, because this is going to mean something.” I don't remember exactly which photo it was. I want to say it was of a waterfall, Horseshoe Falls maybe. Just a photo from a hike up the valley. That was $12. I think the craft store kept 15 percent or something, but I was psyched. That was enough for multiple cinnamon rolls at the bakery.
You start doing the math as a kid and you’re like okay, that’s three hours of dish washing, or hours of mowing the lawn or splitting firewood. But this was fun. I was doing something I liked. I kept selling prints there in the craft shop, and then I stopped when we moved away when I was 17.
How Selling Stock Photos Started His Career
There had been a teacher in Missoula who did commercial photography in New York, and mentioned that there were these big agencies that kept libraries of photographs, and would license them. If you got your photos in these libraries, then you could potentially sell one sometime and get money. So as a college student, I thought that sounded like a pretty interesting thing.
I had a bunch of photos, so I started reaching out to these different stock houses like Getty. I got turned down by all of them. At the same time, there were some small startup companies, micro-stock agencies like iStock, and they accepted me. I don't remember the first sale, but it was probably under a dollar for a photo of some carrots or something like that. But then it started selling every day, and then 10 times a day. It was this new model for how to license imagery to meet the growing needs of the internet. It really took off three or four years after I got into it.
I realized I had access to things that a lot of other people who were shooting photos for these stock sites didn’t have access to. I just started photographing things that I was doing with my friends, like trips and stuff we’d do outside, and stuff around campus. I remember the first week pretty early on when I broke $40. That was enough to buy beer all week.
Right as I was getting ready to graduate college, I decided to take an extra semester to finish my Spanish degree, and move to Sevilla, Spain, and spend six months there. That was a whole new landscape and culture, and was much more visually inspiring than walking the same 10 blocks to campus.
I think I was breaking $1,000 a month. My plan was to just keep shooting all this stuff in Spain with my friends. If I just keep doing interesting things with my friends, and uploading all these photos, and working hard, I might not have to worry about getting a job when I leave college. That just lit a fire under me. I poured everything into creating images, and exploring that stock world after that. Things took off to the point that it was sustainable by the time I graduated, and financed all of my trips, and gave me a lot of freedom.
It felt like cheating. It felt too good to be true. I think I still keep that mentality from those early days, when a photo would sell and then stop selling, and you were always at the whim of the algorithms that were changing. I always thought “Well, another good month. Maybe I’ll get another.” Never took it for granted. Keep working hard and make it while you can, because it’s not gonna last forever. Whatever it’s been now, 12 years later, I’m like well, keep going. I’m not doing the stock stuff anymore. I haven’t done that for six years, but I have that same mentality: I’m incredibly lucky. Enjoy every day of it and work hard, and don’t take it for granted.
On His First Published Photo
A friend was studying abroad in Spain, and he told me, “Man, I just picked up a magazine, and I found this photo of you in it.” I thought, “Wow, awesome. I've made it. I’ve got a photo in print now.” I knew that these stock photos had been selling online, but I didn't know where they went or how they were being used. I asked him to send me a copy.
A month later, this manila envelope arrives from Spain. I'm going, “Oh man, this is exciting.” I open it up and pull out this glossy, high-quality print magazine called Gay Barcelona. OK, all right. He’s got the page dogeared, and I open it up. It’s a double-truck spread, this intro to an article with me sitting there shirtless on my laptop, typing. He’s translated it for me because it’s in Catalan, and he’s written, “It says gay men who meet their partners online are 10 times more likely to contract STDs.”
I slipped the magazine back in the envelope and thought, “I think I’m going to wait for the next one to show my mom that I’ve got some published photos.” Four or five months later a copy of National Geographic came, and the opening double truck of it was an ad with one of my photos for renewable batteries or something.
On Other Career Options
I’ve never made a resumé. I can’t believe I have made it to 32 and can say that. I think I had enough of an inkling of what my other options were. I mean my first business endeavor was at the age of 10, when I started a lawn mowing company. My main client was Marty Siminski, and I mowed his lawn once a month, and got $20 and a free soda. It was awesome. That was my first sense of the entrepreneurial spirit—that if I could do things on my own terms, it was going to be better. I liked that freedom.
I worked in a bakery in Stehekin for four years. I remember at the age of 12 going up to knock on the bakery owner’s door. It’s all women in their 20s to 40s working in this bakery, and I’m this 12-year-old kid who wants to bake too. Robbie Courtney, the owner, told me, “Wash dishes for the summer, and I’ll start teaching you to bake when you get done with the dishes each morning.” She let me do that. She was the best boss I ever had and I really enjoyed it. The next summer I started baking, and then when we moved back to North Carolina I spent a couple summers working as a line cook in a resort. That was when the luster of being a cook or a baker started to wear off. I was working double shifts in this mountain resort where the other cooks were dealing opioids out of the back door, and deep frying hot dogs. I got pretty sick of it after that. It was enough understanding of some of my other options to drive me towards the thing that was really fun.
On His Start as an Adventure Photographer
The summer after I graduated college I was driving through Denver, and Blake Herrington, one of the kids I had gone to school with in Stehekin, was living in Denver. We hadn’t really seen each other much in the last 10 years, but he reached out and invited me to stop in and stay with him and his wife and go rock climbing, and I could shoot photos. We went up to Lumpy Ridge. He’s a writer, and ended up getting some of the photos published. We started taking climbing trips together where he would write articles, and I would shoot the photos, even though I really had no business climbing or taking climbing photos by most standards.
Growing up in North Carolina, we were pretty heavily tied to the outdoors, whether it was family bike trips, or rafting or backpacking. It was a big part of my childhood. When I went to school in Chapel Hill, I got away from that lifestyle. That return to the outdoors through climbing showed me that maybe I could use this skill set and my camera to get back to doing more of the outdoors stuff. I had this inkling of this whole realm of adventure photography, and that sounds more like what I want to be doing, more than taking pictures of carrots, or the farmers market, and rolls of $20 bills and keyboards, or whatever silly stock images I had been doing.
On ‘The Lifelong Study of Light’
Technically speaking, photography for me is absolutely the lifelong study of light, and relation to light. It’s a way of seeing and interacting with the world that I can’t turn off. I’m always looking at light. What makes a good photograph is partly that study of light—just an appreciation of it, and a willingness to pay attention, and patience. Everything I do is with available light, I don’t light anything myself. I’m never shaping or controlling light in the way that many people do beautifully with photography. For me, it’s a study. It’s a relationship that is based in patience.
The photographs I get excited about these days are when it’s a confluence of light and elements that are beyond my control, and I get to witness something that maybe happens only once ever. When that confluence of elements happens, it’s rare. I take a lot of photographs, a lot, a lot, a lot of photographs where that is not the case. But a really great photograph? All these elements click together. You can feel it.
On How a Great Photo is Often a Great Moment
I would say, to me, the other big part of what makes a great photograph is the experience behind taking it. I have found that to hold true in all of my work. I don't have any photographs that I think are great photographs where I feel that what went into making it didn’t come from a good place, or was not something I value. I can’t look at a photograph that I don’t like the story behind and say that’s a great photograph for me. A lot of it is the interaction with a landscape, and with nature, or with people. It’s always the experience that I have of making it. If those things don’t feel good, and don’t feel honest, then the photograph won’t be great.
As I’ve shot more and more lifestyle stuff, interactions with people, you can feel what the connection is between the photographer and the person photographed. While I admire and look up to some of the classic street photographers, and went through a phase of wanting to do that, I realize that’s not for me—stealing moments that leave someone feeling uncomfortable. That’s not how I work. The taking of the photo and that interaction matters to me. Hopefully everyone feels good from it. What I hope comes across in a great photograph is that shared joy of life.
I don’t find that those moments happen very much when you try to force them, or are constantly trying to produce them. It’s more of this patience and appreciation of having the space to actually see how many of those moments exist around us each day. To connect with people or a landscape or the soul of whatever it is you’re searching for in an image.
There’s a photo that I posted on Instagram a couple months ago, of my friend Duke putting on his jacket after a day of running bison up the chutes on his ranch in Colorado, and to me that photo, that moment, holds a lot. You don’t see his face. I’m not even saying it’s a great photo, but for me there’s so many stories in the grip of his hand, and the surrounding environment where we spent days just existing on this ranch, not shooting a lot of times. There’s a lot of time and a lot more below the surface that goes into developing the trust and connection to be able to stand that close to another human. At that point, the sun’s dipping through the clouds, and he’s finishing up a day with the bison. It was just a brief moment but it encapsulated a lot of things that were special to me. For me at least, it speaks to a lifetime.
I think it’s a good litmus test for me, and what I'm doing too. If I can’t exist in the space, and be engaged, and learning and interested in it, then maybe I shouldn't be there photographing it. Less and less do I differentiate between my lifestyle photography of other people and my own lifestyle. It’s different for everyone, but for me, to be able to exist in the space in a way that is really meaningful beyond just capturing something and running off with it. I value the relationships in my work and the experiences—whether I capture them or not.
I think about that all the time with Instagram in particular. I know that people are missing the experience because they’re obsessed with the end product of an Instagram, or sharing it in some way. I’ve had times in my life where I’ve felt the same, and in the last few years I’ve found that it can be worth it to me not to take the photo, and appreciate the experience instead. If you can do both that’s great, but if I have to choose, more and more I try and choose the experience.
On Work-Life Balance
I had the realization in the last year that no kid says, “When I grow up, I want to be busy.” You could have the best career in the world, but if the way that you feel about it, and interact with it and describe it to other people is, “Oh, yeah, I've been busy,” that’s not what I dreamed of when I was a kid. With all of the opportunity that I’ve been afforded in my career to choose, and create the lifestyle and the career as a freelancer that I want to have, there’s been a shift for me around realizing there is a limit to what is enough.
When you start out as a freelancer, I think you spend a lot of time constantly in fear of when the next job is coming. Am I going to be able to eat or pay rent? That mentality can carry forward in a way that can become unhealthy. I block out time. I hold time for clients all the time. Clients say, hold this week, or hold these weeks for a possible job. I’m always doing that for these people who oftentimes are friends that I love working with, but I’m doing this for people for schedules, for marketing schedules.
The idea shift in my head has been: I can do that for myself. Forest, hold this month for doing things with your friends, and your family and the people you love. Block out this year or this month for the things that are important, because it’s easy to not do that. We have a culture that seems to validate business and financial success over personal health, and taking care of yourself and your relationships.
I’ve been working like a madman for the last six years. Even when I’m not working hard, I’m still working. You have to be brave to say no to work, and prioritize the things that really matter when this is all said and done. As much as I love my career, and love the things I get to do and call work still, I think I've been working on getting better at taking time for the important people, and projects, and prioritizing that more than prioritizing moving up the next rung or whatever.
My friend Stefan Hunt shared this quote with me a few weeks ago as we were talking about this, something like, “Until you decide what is enough, there’s never enough.” What is enough work? What is enough money? What is enough prestige? What is enough social recognition? If I don’t address that for myself, I'll always be striving for more. More isn’t better.
Advice to New Photographers
If you’re living life the way that you want to live it, it’s going to show in your work. That means figuring out what feels true to you, and what matters to you, and not trying to be someone else. I think that’s important more than ever with Instagram and social media. It’s so easy. I get sucked up in it. Scrolling through Instagram, you see 100 people you admire, and you want to be all of them.
The only person you can be is who you are. There’s so much to distract from that. None of those things are a roadmap for how you get to where you need to be. That comes from really honoring who you are as an individual, and leaning into that, because your greatest work, your greatest strength, is your individuality. I think the greatest work that comes out of any artist is digging into their soul, and sharing that with the world through whatever their medium is.
That takes time, and that takes work. There may be a phase of emulating people along the way, or jumping through the hoops to learn things. That’s fine, but at some point, you have to follow your own path, and you have to have guts to do that. Surround yourself with good people. Take care of your community. Take care of your friends. Take care of yourself. Even if things don’t work out in a career sense, you’ll still be building a good life. Which is success in the most fundamental way. And if you’re going to make a career out of anything, you need that foundation to step off of.
Every relationship you make along the way as a young photographer matters. Take care of those people. There’s no job or relationship too big or too small, so take care of the people you work with. That all adds up over a career. Be good to the people you work with, whether it's people you’re hiring, or people you meet along the way, or your clients. You have to love what you're doing enough that working hard doesn’t feel like hard work all the time. Sometimes it has to flow. If you have that, chances are you’re on the right track, and things will unfold as they should.