Where wilderness meets the wild within: An interview with Cath Simard
Cath Simard’s work captures the universe’s vast, unsympathetic magnificence. It evokes those ephemeral moments when we’re overcome by the beauty in our own insignificance.
Born in Quebec, Cath Simard quit her fashion industry job in 2014, sold everything and bought a one-way ticket to Australia. There, while doing farm work, shots taken with her iPhone 3 where impressive enough to get her foot in the door of professional photography.
Since moving back to Canada and settling in its Rockies, Simard has transformed into a wholly unique landscape photographer. Layering composite shots meticulously (often returning to the same location multiple times over multiple years), she blends reality with imagination to create breathtaking artworks that stir something wild in the soul. See her minted work on SuperRare here.
I sat down with her for a short discussion about her artistic approach.
Patagonia, Peru (left to right)
LW: First, I want to talk about the mountains. Can you talk about what would drive you to want to push yourself physically in the pursuit of your art? Why hike until exhaustion, with limited food, alone into the wilderness?
CS: Over the years I have realized that pushing myself physically and mentally has a tremendous effect in grounding myself and clearing my mind. Pairing physical and mental exhaustion with being alone in the wilderness helps me eliminate the outside noise, gain clarity about who I am and therefore create art that is a better representation of myself. Pushing my limits helps gain personal confidence; by physically forcing myself to climb mountains and hike extremely long distances by myself, the focus increases, the mental sharpens, and the body toughens. It helps me getting into that deep creative zone and let my brain wander, unfiltered but focused.
New Zealand, Canadian Rockies (left to right)
LW: Is the risk and excitement that comes from being in such a powerful place a source of inspiration?
CS: Absolutely, and the inspiration found in these wild places always transforms into obsession for my entire process. When I’m in these hard-to-reach and often dangerous places, I end up with a high level of respect for life. It’s incredibly humbling to be somewhere and know that your life could end in a second with a single footstep. It makes me realize how fragile and precious life is and it inspires me to create pieces that convey these emotions.
The risk of being in these places also pushes me to spend a great amount of time and energy on making sure that the editing and processing of my composites match the level of effort it took to capture all their pieces. For example, the second image of my Genesis Collection titled ‘’PERSÉVÉRANCE’’ was captured on the second of two 70KM backcountry trips. When I returned from the area and began to process my image, I spent over 40 hours editing and re-editing to ensure that the photo was a perfect representation of the physical and mental work invested in this piece.
Scotland, Quebec (left to right)
LW: When building composite photographs, do you try to channel the energy and emotion of your experience in the mountains into the final product?
I do channel the energy and emotion from the experience into my art, but not in the way that most people would assume. For many landscape photographers, when returning from a trip, the adrenaline and excitement about the images captured pushes them to edit and share their work as soon as possible.
For me, it is a long, slow building and thoughtful process which starts even before reaching these locations. I call it the simmering.
The simmering usually starts with researching and scouting the places I will visit, which is an important part of my creative process. For the research, I use a combination of social media and google earth. The in-field scouting part may take days, weeks, months or years going back to the same location in order to come up with an idea on how to interpret a landscape with my own personal style.
The time spent on location is usually focused on capturing the necessary elements of my composite and enjoying the moment as much as I can. At this point, there is a rough sketch of the final composite forming into my mind, but still immature and incomplete.
The simmering then continues after unloading all my image in the hard drive, leaving them sit for multiple weeks at a time and sometimes years. It allows me to completely disconnect with the value attributed to an image that is purely based on the experience/effort and get a more objective perspective of my photos that starts with the visual components and then with the memories.
The further these memories are, the more gaps the brain will try to fill in which will allow me to use my imagination and inject a part of myself into these landscapes, creating artworks that live half way between reality and my imagination.
While these images sit, an idea slowly develops, and there will be a moment where I will feel an urge to bring these ideas to life; this is where the editing begins. I will start by assembling the pieces of the composite the way I had pre-visualized them and keep editing until all the emotions and feelings associated with the experience come back.
LW: Once you’ve scouted a place, visited and started capturing images, how many times will you return to get all the images you need?
CS: I am very persistent when it comes to my work, especially if I have a clear vision of the final product in my head. I usually come back to the same location as many times as needed in order to get all the pieces for my composite, no matter how far is the country or how long the hike is.
For example, I have a particular image in my portfolio from Patagonia for which I came back 6 times over a few years to get all the photos that I needed to fulfill my creative vision of this location. The final composite is made of different shots taken from the exact same viewpoint which includes a panorama of the mountain range taken in 2019, a moon taken in 2020 and a drone panorama of the foreground taken in 2020 as well.
Hawaii, Nepal (left to right)
LW: What equipment do you bring with you to shoot? Can you be specific?
CS: On day hikes, I like to bring my Sony a7rIII with 2-3 lenses: 12-24 f2.8 GM, 16-35 f2.8 GM, 70-700 f2.8 GM. On multi-day backcountry trips, I try to stay as minimalist as possible to save some weight and stick to my Sony a7rIII with the 16-35 f2.8 GM which is usually enough to capture what I need.
I occasionally use polarized filters and my tripod is the Manfrotto Elements which is lightweight and perfect for long hikes and multi-day backcountry trips.
LW: What does the post production process look like for you? If you are working primarily in Photoshop, what techniques are you using?
CS: The process usually starts in Lightroom where I import all my photos and pick the parts of the composite. After a few basic adjustments and some color matching, I bring all the images in Photoshop as layers. Then, I start merging the photos and creating the composite. I tend to prefer simple compositions with clean leading lines which helps guide the eye naturally through the image. Some techniques I use to assemble all the pieces include panoramas, focus stacking, focal length blending, blue hour/night compositing and using blending modes.
Once the base of the composite is done, I start focusing on the colours, the contrasts and the atmosphere. Little by little, using different selection techniques, I slowly change the tones and add light effects. The most common editing techniques that I use include dodging and burning, adding haze, painting light and colours and adding selective contrast.
These small incremental changes are mostly done over months and only a few hours at a time. Through the entire process, I pay attention to my feelings for each new edit I make and make sure that it feels ‘’right’’. The further the edit progresses, the clearer my final vision for the piece becomes.
Artwork analysis: PERSÉVÉRANCE
Can you tell me where PERSÉVÉRANCE was shot?
This composite was shot in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada.
Can you tell me about the process of getting to and from the site?
Getting into the park can be done in 2 ways, you can either fly in/fly out taking a helicopter or hike in which is around 30 km one way. The first time I visited the area, I did not have camping reservations and the campground was full. So, I ended up hiking in with all my camera gear and camping gear. After 9 hours of difficult hiking with my heavy pack, I finally reached the campsite only to discover that it was full. It is not permitted to pitch a tent anywhere in the park, so I knew that I would not sleep that night, despite the extreme exhaustion from the long day. I left most of my equipment by the shelter and hiked up a viewpoint called The Niblet, the most impressive viewpoint of the area. After a few hours of exploring, I found a small cave offering the perfect view over the scene. However, the weather was pretty bad and I ended hiding in the cave for most of the night. Because of the bad conditions, I didn’t take a single photo and hiked back in the rain in the morning but was determined to come back again the following year.
Why do you love that area?
The entire area is incredibly photogenic and very aesthetically pleasing, the pyramidal shaped peak of Mount Assiniboine itself is just the jewel in a crown of jagged peaks, surrounded with turquoise lakes and alpine meadows. The remoteness of the park keeps most of the tourists away, which gives you a true feeling of being in the wilderness.
What are you trying to capture with the piece?
Most of my pieces are high-contrast, cold and dark with a glimpse of light. They are, in a way a window to my identity and emotions, a visual representation of how I view and experience life. With this piece, I wanted to create a composite that would reflect my emotional response to the place, with all the highs and lows I felt and experienced during the trip. The deep darkness from the foreground represents the helplessness and isolation experienced being stuck in that cave all night, hiding from the elements.