7 minute read

Second Nature

In the breezy calm of open-air locales, John Stambaugh fashions a series of intimate portraits. Brisk and crisp, X-H2S expedites a distinctive process – characterized by organic interactions and heartfelt exchanges

Charles Lindbergh once said that ‘real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization’. Lost in the vast breadth of nature’s creations, John Stambaugh is a frequent occupant in that unleashed space – constructing a distinctive portfolio of wedding snaps and movies, candidly made amid verdant settings. Free from digital distractions, it’s a fruitful breeding ground for his art. Here, he records the dynamics of couples traversing the ups and downs of love.

“Telling those stories in the outdoors, that’s where my heart lies,” he says. “We want to do that in an unaffected way. Natural environments create honest, unadulterated connections.”

In this context, the ‘we’ refers to John’s long-running partnership with wife and fellow collaborator Liz. Balancing married life with artistic ventures, an affectionate link binds the two together. It’s the perfect predisposition when dealing with the many nuances of coupledom.

“We have a fantastic relationship, and the clients we work with recognize it – that’s really important. Couples interact more fluently when they understand that they can be themselves, and I think a lot of that has to do with the relatability of another duo, present during the whole process.”

Where there’s empathy, there’s comfort. Creating alongside a fellow couple emboldens a fluid, forthright response, as does the intensity of the scenery at play. It’s a mixture of these qualities that distinguishes John’s body of work.

“I love things that are real and tangible. Kindle just doesn’t smell the same as a book. There’s no sensory understanding. That desire is there in my life, constantly – expressions of the real,” he explains.

“When you explore what I’ve done, I hope it’s always a faithful representation of the landscape. Those we work with – they find value in the backcloth they choose to pursue in their session.”

Informed by the ways in which humanity and nature interlink, John takes a stand against the ‘connected’ irony of modern times, and how a complacent mindset can destroy meaningful relations.

“I believe that humans are generally connected to the world at large. It’s ironic that we live in the most sociable times, but observationally, some of the loneliest,” he reflects. “There’s a distinct lack of unprocessed connection. I’m aiming to change that. More people need to get outside and experience these wonders, preferably with the people they care most about.”

Embracing this attitude for his latest video project, John chose the subjects carefully. Disregarding trained professionals, he eventually opted for Adam and Ashley – a real-life couple facing a turning point in their marriage. The rawness of context provided a realism that complemented the intent of John’s original ideas.

“I didn’t want a hired set of models. It would have been meaningless,” he reasons. “Beautiful content, but superficial. By telling a real story, I think people identify.

“These guys were confronting a juncture. They’re moving home at present, back to Kansas. I was the videographer at their wedding, around two years ago. This film was an opportunity to provide a capstone to the newest chapter of their lives.

“It was a creative decision – I knew their correlation with this place would be meaningful. It’s been a time of transition. They’ve had to endure all sorts of struggles, supporting each other through various adversities and hardships. The strength of their bond is what made these pictures work.”

It would be easy to sneer at the corniness of John’s portrayals, but there’s a refreshing candor here.

“There’s no shortage of cynicism or skepticism in the world. We tend to be short on faith, hope, and love,” he says. “When you’re able to create that feeling in a genuine way, it’s so important. Sentiment tends to be discomfiting these days. We should all embrace it.”

It may be unashamedly romantic, but at the same time, unconventional cinematic techniques emerge throughout John’s short – offsetting expectations with embellishments of intrigue. Images are overlayed and reversed, conveying a sense of imperfection that contrasts the film’s delicate focus.

“Transitional elements are drawn from my appreciation of cinema, and its history. I really enjoy the analog process – the flaws and blemishes are built-in, much like any real relationship. When we digitize things, they become smoother and dreamier than reality. Transitions like these let the film feel. It’s supposed to jar. It’s a more interesting style that hopefully disrupts your idea of what a wedding/relationship film should be. Not everything needs to crescendo to a happy ever after.”

Taking place in Portland, Oregon, John utilized X-H2S. An aforesaid love of celluloid was an underlying influence in his choice of kit – the equipment had to equal the tactility and sensitivity he wanted to express.

“My love of film isn’t too dissimilar from my love of all things genuine. It certainly informs my color palette too. The earthy, grainy tones are something that the Pacific Northwest has in spades, but I needed a camera to bring that to life.

“I’ve always loved Fujifilm’s ability to replicate the filmic look. Whether it’s the simulations or advancements in F-Log, the dynamic range was an amazing benefit. The HDR of X-H2S competes with high-end cinema cameras. When you have ProRes and 14 stops, you can rest assured that the end results will compete, at a fraction of the price.”

Operating in rough, unforgiving environments, John found this addition to X Series a robust match for the elements. Pairing with the weather-resistant FUJINON XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, he relied on linear motor AF capabilities when fashioning these moments, keeping his subjects focused and clear. IBIS permitted an off-the-cuff, handheld approach – forming the very foundation of what John’s work signifies.

“I never use gimbals or stabilizing equipment. I want to feel the environment, so I’ve always got the camera in hand,” he confirms. “When you see movement happening in the end result, you acknowledge the user – the creative behind the lens. If the wind is blowing in the trees, I think the camera should correspond with that movement. At the same time, the footage shouldn’t be unusably shaky or blurred – that’s where the IBIS and autofocus components were invaluable.

“When it comes down to it, I could go on and on about the techy specifics. Recording 6K video at wide focal lengths was so useful, knowing I would be able to magnify those shots if needs be. The speed of that stacked sensor was also handy when we started moving around. It allowed me to be more instinctive.”

As well as appreciating the more notable specs, John offers his reasoning behind Fujifilm’s enduring presence in his undertakings.

“In the end, I place a lot of value on the intangible aspects of using a camera. I find other brands uninspiring in that regard – Fujifilm’s interface is simply a joy to use. I can’t see myself switching.”

Far from perfection, the splendor of the natural world happens in spite of its flaws and constraints. Love is much the same, and in the eye of John Stambaugh’s X-H2S, the photography reveals precisely that.

A couple embrace along the shoreline of Portland, Oregon

Photo 2022 © John Stambaugh | FUJIFILM X-H2S and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F2.8, ISO 800


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