Well of Life

By Janet Alexander – Photos by Josh Holko.


Being that Joshua Holko was born and raised in the land down under, perhaps it’s of little surprise that this award-winning fine art photographer specializes in landscape, nature, and wilderness photography. “Remote and otherworldly landscapes are my passion,” says Josh. And his passion truly knows no bounds, taking Josh to the farthest corners of the globe, including Antarctica, Tasmania, Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbad—yea, we had to look it up too—so perhaps it’s even less of a surprise that Josh needs the most durable gear available to withstand the unpredictable wrath of mother nature. We recently got a hold of Josh to tell us all about his adventurous lifestyle, and how he avoids allowing any photograph to fall victim to circumstance.

How did you get your start in photography?

I can lay the blame, or credit, for my beginnings in photography squarely at my father’s feet. When I was young, my father was pursuing a personal interest in medium format fine art photography. He had a small well-equipped dark room, a Bronica medium format camera (we are obviously talking pre-digital) and a Canon 35mm SLR. He purchased my first ever camera, which was a Kodak Disc camera–a format that thankfully had a very short life as the negative was tiny and the image quality woeful; but it was enough to get me hooked. As I grew older, my interest in photography waxed and waned but never went away. In my late teens I began my formal education in photography, and as I have gotten older, the passion has continually increased and now it’s a driving force in my life.

From where did you learn to shoot?

I learned a lot of the technical aspects of photography from my education at Photography Studies College and the Australian College of Journalism. However, it was really studying the books of photographers I admire and respect that helped me develop my own eye and style. Just being out in the field and learning how to “see” was a major factor in developing my photography. I remember shooting my first rolls of Fujichrome Velvia and being utterly disappointed with my results because I had not learned how to compose and consider my shots. Learning how to translate a 3-dimensional scene into a 2-dimensional photograph was something I learned through experience.

Highway to Hell

Why are you drawn to landscapes, nature, and the wilderness as photography subjects?

I find great joy in remote and wild places in nature and find them highly evocative of a more primordial time. I am drawn to the starkness and haunted nature of remote landscapes, such as the Icelandic wilderness. There is a solitude to wilderness and nature photography that takes me away from the bustle of everyday life. There is a drama that is often found at the edges of weather, and a play of light that just sings to me in combination with these types of landscapes.

Does your education at the Australian College of Journalism inform your approach to photography?

I think a formal education provides a foundation upon which to develop ones own craft and style as well as to garner an understanding of the business side of photography. This foundation needs to include an understanding of not only the technical aspects of photography (in order to be able to use the tools available to us to create our vision) but also, at its most basic level, an appreciation for art. I would say that my education provided me the building blocks to then go out and develop my own craft.

Josh Holko

Any near-death experiences, or otherwise exciting/scary stories?

What actually scares me most is not being able to get the shot I want when I have invested thousands of dollars and travelled halfway around the world to get it. Since most of the photography I do involves extensive travel (often into remote parts of the wilderness), much depends on the weather and available light when I finally get there. Time is always limited at these remote locations, and my fear is always I won’t get the light I want or something will otherwise go wrong that might prevent me from getting the photograph.

I did have a scare when I was in Iceland a couple of years ago chasing one particular photograph. I wanted to visit a deep blue geothermal pool in a very remote part of central Iceland known as Hveravellir. The road into this part of Iceland is one of the worst I have ever experienced. It’s 70 odd miles of rocky wilderness track that winds its way haphazardly through a very barren and remote part of the country and is capable of breaking pretty much any non-military vehicle.

I arrived at the location I wanted to photograph about half an hour before sunset. I set-up my camera and was fortunate enough to get some stunning light in combination with rising sulphur from the surface of the pool. With the shot I wanted in the can and the sky now dark, I decided I would turn around and immediately drive the 70 odd miles back to arrive at Gullfoss waterfall in time for sunrise. (I really don’t know what I was thinking at the time, as I was physically and mentally exhausted from more than two weeks of midnight sun photography without virtually any sleep.)

The problem was, a thick fog had descended and blanketed the entire area, reducing visibility to around 10 feet, and the climate had plummeted to freezing temperatures. I crawled for more than 4 hours, along the worst road of my life, while my Jeep’s suspension was falling apart, dropping bits along the way; the check engine light was on and I was running out of fuel. I don’t think that rental Jeep will ever be the same. Without my GPS I would have lost the track for sure and no doubt ended up broken down in a ditch and stranded in the middle of the Iceland wilderness. I ended up making it back to Gullfoss in time to grab an hour’s nap in the car before sunrise.


How do you manage out on the field with the elements changing so abruptly without warning?

It’s really about being adequately prepared for any situation that may arise out in the field. I tend to spend a lot of my time photographing in remote regions including Iceland, the Arctic and Antarctic and it’s therefore imperative to be equipped with the right clothes to stay dry and warm. Common sense, local knowledge and being able to read and predict the weather plays a very large part. You also have to have a good deal of patience to wait around for hours for the right light, which often can be fleeting and elusive.

How does having the right bag help you accomplish your shots?

Like any piece of equipment in my arsenal, my camera bags serve an important purpose to help me get my equipment in working order into the field and back again. I’m looking for equipment that is functional, robust and doesn’t get in the way or hinder me in the field. The right bag is critical—it ensures I can quickly and easily access my equipment in the field, transport it between locations safely and protect it when the elements are transpiring against me.

I would say they have been absolutely critical. Ever since I started using Gura Gear camera bags when they first came on the market I have had no trouble with airport check-in despite my camera bags frequently being significantly overweight for carry-on luggage. I put this down to the bags understated design (it doesn’t have flaps and buckles hanging all over it and doesn’t scream “camera bag” to non-photographers) and its ability to hold huge amounts of equipment for its size.Their clever butterfly design openings and harness system for hiking, makes them one of the lightest and toughest camera bags on the market in their class

How susceptible is your gear to damage from temperature and the general climate?

I am generally pretty hard on my equipment. I demand a lot from it in terms of the environments I shoot in and I expect and need it to perform. It’s common for me to have my cameras soaking wet in rain or waterfall spray or in sub zero temperatures for long periods of time. I shoot with Canon 1-Series cameras because they can handle this sort of abuse. I choose Gura Gear bags to store my cameras because they provide a level of robust protection and ease of use that I need in the field. When you are in the pouring rain at a waterfall waiting for the light to break through and the magic to happen, you need camera bags that keep your equipment dry, but easily accessible. Likewise, when you need to hike to the top of a mountain with all your equipment, you need a bag that is comfortable and functional. Once I am in the field I don’t worry too much about my equipment and just go for the shot.

Pot of Gold at Landmannalaugar

Can you elaborate on how the art of your photography is manifested through light?

My philosophy in landscape photography is that a good landscape photograph needs to have great subject, great composition and great light—two of the three isn’t good enough. So much of landscape photography is about the quality of the light and that is really what I am looking for when I am spending days out in the field on workshops and expeditions.

For how long have you been doing your photographic workshops? How and why did you start organizing them?

I started organizing my photographic workshops a few years ago. After my first trip to Iceland I started to get more and more requests from people to run workshops to wilderness areas. I discovered that there was a whole sub-section of photographers out there who wanted to travel to the same sort of locations I regularly do with other like-minded individuals. They want to be out in the field when the light is at its best and be part of a small team that is focused on producing great images. They are prepared to work hard for their images (and we do), but also have a great time in the process.

What does a typical workshop entail? How professional or experienced are those who attend them? 

My workshops are, first and foremost, about photography. There are no formal classroom sessions or lectures and no formal instruction. Rather, participants, the guide and I work side by side, sharing our knowledge, vision, philosophy and experience together in the field. We want those who travel with us to make great photographs; therefore the emphasis is on being out in the field when the light is best. I am always on hand for any advice or instruction anyone may need; we work together as a team.

Josh’s upcoming workshop

What are your future projects? Anything new coming up?

Right now I am very excited by the expedition I have just announced to Antarctica in November 2013 with Daniel Bergmann. This photographic workshop has been more than eight months in the planning and includes some really unique features, which I am really excited about.