Interview & Design by Gary Parker
We were enraptured by the photography of Forest Woodward when we first laid eyes on his work, which pays homage to the spirit of adventure, travel and nature’s bounty. Spending his formative years exploring the natural world, it’s little surprise that his work resonates a close connection with nature that truly speaks from his soul. Despite moving to one of the largest cities in the world, he’s managed to maintain a harmonious balance between work and spending time outdoors, and this undying passion continues to be a dominant theme in his work.
Tell us a little bit about where you grew up…
I grew up in the mountains of western North Carolina. My folks moved there from Atlanta, drawn by the mountains and rivers of the area. We grew up exploring by foot, bike and kayak. Our parents put an emphasis on experimental learning and encouraged us to spend a large amount of time outdoors, building forts in the woods around the house, catching crawfish in the steep creek that flows from a spring on the mountain, and learning to entertain and look after each other and ourselves.
Your name instantly speaks of the outdoors. Were your parents a big part of your love of nature?
With an older sister named Autumn and two younger brothers named Rivers and Canyon, it’s safe to assume that yes, our parents love nature.
“I remember the exhilaration of the first time I caught a wave, body surfing, the rush of being pushed forward, the giddy chaos of tumbling head over heels and popping back up to do it again.”
Where are you living now? And how are your surroundings affecting your way of life?
I live in Brooklyn now. I found it extremely challenging to adapt to the city and the difficulty of escaping her man-made confines. One of my saving graces has been surfing out at Rockaway. When you’re in the water it’s easy to forget about the bustle of the city. I have also learned to embrace the chaos of the city, to try and explore it with the same curiosity that I have for the natural world.
When and how did you discover photography?
Some of my first memories of being aware of photography are from my very early years, perched on a stool in the basement of our house, helping dad rock the developer tray under the warm glow of the safelight in our small homemade darkroom. Seeing my interest, dad gave me my first slr, a Canon AE1 when I was 10, and taught me how to expose, develop and print my own photos.
What was it about photography that you prefer over other mediums?
I found photography more intuitive than other mediums. My brothers and sisters were all very artistic and great at painting, drawing, sculpting, etc, but for me at the time when I was experimenting with photography I found I liked the more exacting and literal process of creating a photo.
Can you remember your first time in the ocean?
I believe it was on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. Our family has gone there to camp for the past 30 years.
How did it affect you?
I remember the exhilaration of the first time I caught a wave, body surfing, the rush of being pushed forward, the giddy chaos of tumbling head over heels and popping back up to do it again.
“If my work motivates a few folks to get up and walk around the block, talk to a stranger…and explore a deeper connection to this crazy world we live in, well then I am happy.”
There is a growing disparity between the time people spend indoors wired to technology and the time they spend outside enjoying nature. Our relationship with nature, with ourselves, has broken down. Your photography is heavily focused on the natural world. What is your vision for the work you produce and how does it affect people who view it?
I agree that our relationship with the natural world, and the inherent knowledge of self that comes through exploring this world has, in many ways, been compromised by our constant connectivity to the virtual world. That said, wireless technology has also created an incredible platform for sharing the stories of those who are getting out there and exploring, and my hope in photographing and sharing these stories is that it inspires folks to go out and explore the world for themselves. If my work motivates a few folks to get up and walk around the block, talk to a stranger, climb a hill in the park or a mountain in Alaska and explore a deeper connection to this crazy world we live in, well then I am happy.
To me your images convey a beautiful sense of adventure, really taking the viewer into the location. You really throw yourself into your work it seems. How do you try and achieve this?
Well I think it has been a trend in photography and advertising in the past decades to sensationalise and essentially ‘fake’ a lot of imagery. It’s somewhat ironic to me that things have gone this way because I believe it’s much more difficult and logistically taxing to fake people having an adventure or being genuine and candidly exploring the world than it is just to grab a group of friends and go explore. I am lucky to have a great crew of talented and adventurous friends, and when we go on a trip there is nothing fake about it. It allows for a sort of genuineness and gritty honesty to come through that I think, when done right, have a timeless and relatable beauty. I take the photos that I want to remember, silly honest moments, moments of struggle and of beauty.
Do you have any favourite or magical places you have been that you really connect with?
Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, and all of the Western Montana.
As our world is moving faster and faster, it is important for us to slow down, to recharge and smell the roses, so to speak. Living in New York, where do you find this in your daily life?
It’s tough! New York is such a crazy place to try to find balance. Lately I have been setting aside time each day to take a couple Polaroids, paste them in my journal and put pen to paper. It is grounding and comforting to create something that I can hold with my hands, a tangible record that we lived in a place where at times it feels that you are moving so fast you are invisible.
Do you try and live a simple life? If so what are some of the things your try and practice?
Yes, I try. Some days I do better than others. I live above a fish market, it’s cheap and I don’t need a fancy office or studio. I do all of my work there when I am home from trips. Practicing gratitude is something that is important to me. I try to focus on being grateful for all that I have, in terms of material possessions, yes, but more importantly in terms of relationships, opportunities and experiences in this world. I think that it is in my nature to constantly want more, to experience more, to know more people, to achieve more with my work. But it is equally important to simplify and focus on all of the good things already in my life, and to be present with the here and now.
What makes you happy?
Kind people, strange people, dark coffee, the magic hour, chance encounters, big hugs, the smell of leather, surfing little waves, climbing big mountains, the pull of a downstream current, long open stretches of road, traveling to new places, returning to old haunts, music turned up loud, the warmth in a glass of red wine, the feeling of complete physical exhaustion after a day of hard work or play, and the contagiousness of big laughs.
A friend of mine recently told me they were taking a group of kids into the mountains for an outdoor education expedition. On reaching the summit one of the kids said, “Is this it? I could have Googled this.” Kind of a scary notion. Have you experienced anything similar to this?
I haven’t experienced anything quite like that. Scary. That kid must be using a more updated version of Google than I am.
“Keep exploring. Keep creating. Keep cultivating community.”
As a photographer in today’s age, the internet and social media are both very important. What are your thoughts on all of this and how do you find your balance between the shooting and the business/promotion side of things?
It’s certainly important to be involved and engage with social media channels. But it’s important also to remember that the end of the day the goal is not to create photos for social media, it is to use social media as a way to connect, share and ultimately generate the support that keeps me going out on the adventures that I love.
Do you have a favourite project that you have worked on?
I spent 28 days in November/December of 2013 on a rafting trip with my dad and some other friends. Getting to spend that time with my dad was so cool, and being disconnected from the wireless world for that long was really refreshing. Instead of Instagram, each day I took 3-4 Polaroids and used them to create a big thick journal from the trip. It was really gratifying to work with just the film I brought, pen and paper and my hands to create something.
You also create films? Is this something new to you or something you have always done?
I started working on some short films back in 2009, but in 2011 I began working as the director of photography on a feature length documentary about farm workers in the US. This was the first time I worked on a project of this scope. It was a huge learning experience, and incredibly rewarding.
What is it about film that you love, and how do you find it different to work with than photography?
Film is much more of a communal endeavor and I really enjoy that aspect of it. When I am out shooting adventure sports it is a very solitary affair. But film requires more folks to make it happen, and with everyone working together towards a common goal it is possible to create something greater.
What about your plans for the future?
Keep exploring. Keep creating. Keep cultivating community. I’ve been fortunate to travel extensively and to meet a lot of amazing folks. For me the next step is not necessarily more travel, but more time with those friends, peers, mentors and muses who have been so important to my life and career in the past years. My hope is to continue to focus on doing more with, learning more from, and bringing together more of these wonderful folks.
Any final thoughts?
I’m a little out of breath.