Gary Yost Reflects on More Than 40 Years as a Photographer

In this companion piece to my interview with Gary Yost about his viral documentary short “A Day in the Life of a Fire Lookout,” I focus on Gary’s lifelong passion for still photography. Gary’s journey as a visual creative has seen him constantly evolving and reinventing himself – from the boy who first discovered the wonder of an old Leica 35mm camera to the software designer who published a series of 2D paint and 3D modeling programs to the pro photographer who created a mesmerizing time-lapse film capturing a fire-spotter’s 24 hours in the ‘catbird seat’ on Mt. Tam.

_Tell us about yourself, your background and your work.
_Gary: I’m 53 now, and have been interested in photography and filmmaking since my father taught me to use his 1944 Leica and his old Bell & Howell 8mm film camera when I was 10. The B&H 8mm camera had a shutter release that allowed for single-frame exposures (which I took heavy advantage of as a kid), so I’ve been shooting time lapse and stop motion for pretty much the past 43 years.

After attempting a career as a commercial photographer in my early 20s and not being able to make enough money at it to support my wife and daughter, I became fascinated with the possibility of making virtual images with microcomputers, which in the mid 1980s were quite crude. But the potential was obvious to me and I got a grant from Atari to study how to use microcomputers to help home-bound people with disabilities. That led to a job with an Atari-enthusiast magazine called Antic, where I started a publishing operation for user-created software. (As an aside, I remember meeting Russell Brown when he was at Atari in 1984 and being impressed with his graphic design skills and the crazy Cromemco computer he was using on his projects. Russell, thanks for everything you’ve done for our imaging community!) At Antic I became obsessed with my dream of creating virtual imagery, and that led to publishing a series of 2D paint and 3D modeling and animation programs. Autodesk became interested in what I was doing and we entered into a licensing deal in 1988 to develop a series of PC-based 2D and 3D tools for creating synthetic imagery.

During this period I had forsaken photography in favor of image synthesis, and it wasn’t until the mid ‘90s that I began to deeply miss the joys of capturing (actual) reality. It was time for me to go back to the future: family and photography. My partners and I sold all of the Yost Group patents and source code to Autodesk, and my wife and I began the process of adopting our second daughter (from China) in 2001.

The timing was amazing because digital cameras were just becoming available to consumers and I jumped straight onto that train with a Nikon D100. I spent eight years shooting like crazy and honing my skills and then in March of 2010 we found a nesting hummingbird in our front yard. I spent the next three weeks in a home-built bird blind, shooting her and her babies during the entire gestation and fledging process. Learning how to slow down and see through the viewfinder at the magic of nature unfolding was my graduation from a period of playing to a new phase of being much more serious about photography. I count those hummingbirds as some of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

After finishing the hummingbird project and selling quite a few of those images, I had the confidence to advance to the next level, and since then have been working on a combination of my own personal projects and selected commissioned works.

_How did you get started shooting DSLR video?
_Gary: Because I used a D700 until this spring I never was able to shoot DSLR video, but I’d been anxious to get into it. When I got the D4 I jumped into doing about a dozen video projects for my daughter’s elementary school, documenting various activities. It was a way of building up some experience quickly and giving something back to the school at the same time. After a few months making short films, I felt fairly comfortable with the medium. But video takes a huge amount of gear to get everything right. It’s an order of magnitude more complex than still photography.

_On your website you mention that you’re “looking for the mystery in life through a careful examination of the natural world.” Can you explain/elaborate on what that means to you?
_Gary: Henry David Thoreau wrote extensively about the importance of living an examined life. It’s powerful stuff. I attempt to be awake enough to notice the subtleties of what’s going on around me … particularly in the non-obvious. I usually fall short of being truly awake, but the process of striving to notice the little things is my meditation and keeps me sane.

Life itself is the biggest mystery, and in my photography I attempt to dig into that and root around a bit … uncovering its rarely-seen aspects. An example of this is the gallery of Bowling Ball Beach images that are on my site. This is a place in Mendocino where these unusual rock concretions aren’t even visible for most of the day, but at very low tide the ocean reveals them.

In many ways this natural process is a metaphor for what I look for in nature. (The nesting hummingbirds are another great example of revealing a hidden process.) But even if you look at my portraits, you’ll see that I look for this in the faces and stories of the people I capture as well.

_In addition to serving as a fire lookout volunteer, you are also a full-time photographer…what sort of subject-matter is your favorite to photograph and why?
_Gary: I vacillate between wanting to make images of people’s faces and images of nature, and you can see from my website that I’m a bit schizophrenic about it. To me, the human face is definitely the most interesting thing in the world and I am constantly challenged by that. There’s something incredible about being alone in nature and listening hard to what the universe is trying to say. The flow that comes from that activity is spectacular…I cannot describe it in words but it is profoundly beautiful; a feeling of pure grace.

_Which Adobe products do you use in your photography workflow and how do you use them?
_Gary: In my photography workflow (as compared to video) everything starts and ends in Lightroom 4. I love how well it’s integrated with Photoshop CS6 and I use “Export as Layers” frequently and also the “Open as Smart Object” function, which provides so much flexibility during the compositing process.

Of course, what’s amazing about Photoshop is how wide and deep it is. Even though I developed 3ds Max, which provides a toolset for users to create their own virtual worlds, I was intimidated at first by the characteristic of Photoshop that provides a dozen different paths to get any specific result. But what’s amazing is that the more I get into it, the more comfortable it gets. Now I do things without thinking in Photoshop that I would’ve been completely unaware even existed a year ago. I depend upon it heavily for compositing projects, which I’m doing more and more of, because they allow me to create a narrative without building elaborate sets.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with using Lightroom to do video grading, and the results are quite pleasing. Here’s an example of that, working with iPhone footage I shot for a new series of “4-minute iPhone portraits.” The concept for that series is another way of illustrating the “best camera is the one you have in your pocket” philosophy.

_What are the most difficult subjects for you to shoot?
_Gary: People. If you’re not a professional model you’re going to be self-conscious in front of the camera. A photographer’s job is to put subjects at ease and help them relax into the process. To really see the subject. That’s so hard!

Nature has its own challenges because I shoot the weather more than the actual landscape. That means I have to wait for the weather and usually it doesn’t cooperate the way I want. So I have to go back. And go back again. That’s why I’m much more of a regional photographer than a travelling-to-somewhere-else photographer. I feel that the only way I can go deep into the nature of a place is to live there…just scratching the surface isn’t satisfying to me. That’s why I shoot mostly in Marin County, and go back to places like Bowling Ball Beach multiple times.

_Describe one of your favorite photographs you’ve taken, and how you achieved the results you were looking for using Lightroom and/or Photoshop.
_Gary: Well, one of my most recent fun photographs is the first one in my Portraits portfolio. It’s a tribute to Edward Gorey’s illustration “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea.” I had to first find an old piece of driftwood that matched the wood in his illustration, and then enlisted a friend to wrangle it by throwing it in the ocean off Muir beach dozens of times so I could shoot it floating on a wave exactly the way it did in his drawing. I shot the girl standing on a similar piece of wood in the studio with a leaf blower tossing her hair and dress around.

In Photoshop I was able to turn a relatively calm, foggy morning into a stormy day with a choppy sea, and then composited her, rendered some rain and applied diffusion to various aspects of the image. The one problem with the shot is that her dress and hair weren’t wet, but I couldn’t figure out how to get her wet and have her hair and dress blow the way I wanted to.

I love the challenge of creating these kinds of narrative composites and want to continue making more of them. I’ve been tremendously inspired by my friend Bill Wadman, a NYC editorial portrait photographer who’s a master with the Photoshop toolset.

_Do you have any other creative projects in the works?
_Gary: Yes, I’ve been doing background research for a new project for the past month and am getting close to starting the production phase. One of the little-known aspects of the history of Mt. Tamalpais is that the Army Corps of Engineers blew the top 41’ off of its highest (west) peak in 1950 to construct an Air Force Station tasked with coordinating the nuclear Nike/Hercules missiles that were in silos all around the Marin Headlands. These missiles were meant to detonate within 28 miles off of our coast to stop a Russian bomber attack. Of course if this ever happened, or if a missile was launched by mistake, the prevailing winds would’ve rendered the entire Bay Area uninhabitable for thousands of years. What a folly. I have heard some very scary stories from servicemen who worked there regarding launches that almost happened by mistake.

The indigenous people of this area (the Miwok and Pomo tribes) believed that the peaks of Tamalpais were so close to the Great Spirit and so full of energy that they were completely off limits. And here we are, within a hundred years of wiping them out, blowing the entire peak off it. Yeesh.

When the Air Force decommissioned the Mill Valley Station in the 1980s, they never really cleaned the place up. By the end of the ‘90s most of the structures were gone but all the foundations and tons of garbage are still up there. I’m working on a 5-minute piece to illustrate some of this history and maybe help to convince some people in Washington and Sacramento that our desecrated lost West Peak needs some TLC. We need to clean it up and at least restore it to a natural state. What they should really do is restore it to its natural height and shape, but of course there’s no money to undertake that sort of effort.

I’ll be using historical photos, animated reconstruction of the mountaintop in 3D CAD, and time-lapse photography to tell this story, and with luck I’ll be finished sometime before next summer!

To see more of Gary’s photos and videos, be sure to visit his website at