Australian photographer Joshua Holko has built a thriving photography business from his passion for the polar regions.


On the way to the End of the World – Antarctica

Joshua Holko encountered his first iceberg in, appropriately perhaps, Iceland. It was 2006 and the Melbourne native was at that stage still earning a living in the corporate world. But when man met ice, a passionate interest was born that would lead him to a new career as a photographer of the world’s polar and sub-polar regions.

Asked what it was that first drew him to the bitterly cold and remote ends of the earth, he said, ‘It was a combination of factors. One of the big things was that when you’re that far north (or south), you have hours of golden light for photography. Where I live in Australia, we have really harsh, contrasty light most of the time. You only get nice soft light for two minutes or so at sunrise and sunset, whereas when you’re up high in the Arctic or down in Antarctica, the midnight sun just sort of comes down and hits the horizon and stays there. So you get hours and hours of golden light for photography.’

And then there are the icebergs.


Abandoned Blue-Berg

‘Every single one’s unique,’ he enthused. ‘They’re like diamonds, they’re just incredible sculptures of nature. No two are the same and they have beautiful tonalities in them. The blues can be really incredible, especially if you get overcast light. Overcast light tends to turn the ice very blue, whereas bright sunshine tends to bleach it white.’

Blue skies, he explained, are ‘kind of my arch nemesis. You can probably tell from my photography that I tend to go for dramatic lighting and weather. With blue skies the highlights on ice are just so hot that no camera can capture it and you end up with an image that looks like a postcard.’

You might think that clear blue skies wouldn’t generally be a problem in regions so renowned for their extreme weather, but Joshua says that it can in fact be quite common. ‘I’ve been down in Antarctica where it’s been blue sky day after blue sky day. In those conditions you try and chase weather. It’s usually the edge of weather where the most interesting light is. That’s where the drama happens, that’s where you get the collision of cloud, you get rainbows and other atmospheric conditions.’


HMAS Penguin Pool


Beauty is more than Skin Deep

The son of a keen photographer, Joshua has been using a camera since he was a kid.

‘I shot a lot of transparency, mostly 35mm of rock-climbing and landscapes, but it was really when digital came along that I could get the quality I wanted as well as the portability, and that’s when I really took my photography a lot more seriously.’

But it was that encounter with the iceberg that really set things in motion. His images from that first trip to Iceland did well for him on the Internet. ‘I became quite well known, particularly for one of my iceberg images taken at a glacial lagoon in Iceland.’

Before long he found that he was working harder on the business side of his photography than he was at his day job.

‘This is crazy, I should be doing this full time,’ he said to his wife at about this time.


Goø°afoss in Winter

‘I quit my job and I decided I was going to have three income streams to my business. One would be selling fine art prints, the second would be licensing images and the third, taking other photographers — people who were interested in going to these places — on dedicated photography expeditions where the focus was really on getting them to the best place at the best time when the light was right, and giving them enough time to make images.’

He led his first trip in 2009 and it was an instant success. These days he leads a dozen trips a year and thanks to a growing database of previous attendees, he says around half of these are fully subscribed before they even make it to his website.

‘I don’t call myself an instructor,’ Joshua said about his approach to leading the expeditions. ‘I don’t like the term. I think it creates a “them and us” situation. A lot of the photographers I travel with aren’t professionals, but they’re professional amateurs.

‘What I mean by that is that they have all the professional gear, they treat and approach their photography as a professional and they’re creating professional quality images. They’re just not being paid for it. Well, some of them are being paid, but they’re not being paid as a full-time career. They’re very passionate people who produce some truly incredible imagery. It’s really about giving them the best opportunities, which is what my focus has been.’

With such an intensive schedule, Joshua doesn’t expect to do much of his own work while he’s leading a trip.

‘I can certainly set up my tripod and make my own images,’ he said, ‘but my own photography is never the centre of my priorities. I can make time for my own photography between trips. For example, I’m doing two Iceland trips next week and I’ve got some time off in between and afterwards, and that’s when I’ll do my own photography.

‘If I didn’t do that, I feel like I’d be creatively starving myself,’ he said. ‘I’d need that time to shoot for myself. And my priority when I’m travelling with people has to be their own photography because these trips are expensive, they’re to remote parts of the world, it’s often difficult for people to get there because they’ve only got so much leave, or can only take so much time away from their business. It’s my job to make sure they get the most out of it.’

Resolutely a colour photographer (‘I don’t do black and white’), he nevertheless is drawn to the often near-monochromatic polar environment in part because it has such a narrow range of colour.

‘I’m very much a colour photographer. It’s just the way I see, but I like a limited colour palette. I don’t like to have colours that clash in my photography,’ he noted, adding, ‘The subject should speak strongly, the light is there to reinforce the subject. I don’t just want to be photographing light, I want to photograph a subject that’s being enhanced by the light. I look for three things to make a great photograph – an interesting subject, great light and great composition.

‘I think simple is powerful when it comes to photography.’ And what he strives for are ‘photographs that are not cluttered, that are not only well structured and simple but also have feeling and emotion in them.’

Joshua has the evidence of the market to support his case. ‘The prints that sell the best have feeling and emotion. Someone buys it because it makes them feel a certain way. When you have a photograph that’s emotive I think it’s much, much stronger than one that’s just a postcard scene. Postcard scenes get boring pretty quickly. Images that make you question and look twice are much stronger in the long run.’

The limited colour palette of the far north and far south appeal to him not only for their subtle variations, but because as he put it, ‘that to me says “wilderness”; it says something about nature and it says something about the human condition in those places as well. You know, to be there, to be making images in these incredibly remote places.


Aurora Borealis over Reykjanestá in Iceland

‘I’d like to be able to present an image of the world that looks like it was taken on another planet. I love when I can do that. That’s something I strive to achieve in my photography. It’s very difficult to do because the world’s such a visited place these days. If you can create an evocative feeling in an image and make it look other-worldly and alien, it’s almost always successful.’

Asked if he had noticed any evidence of climate change in the polar environment over the half dozen years he’s been travelling to those regions he responded, ‘Absolutely. Massive. Not small, massive. Every year I go it’s visibly noticeable how far the glaciers have retreated. Not just retreated, but how much thinner they are. The Vatnajø¶kull ice cap in Iceland is the largest ice cap in Europe. It’s huge and it has many glacial tongues that come down from it.

‘When I first started going, these glacial tongues were huge. They were thick, they had huge crevasses and all kinds of ice formations. Now most of them are flat and have seriously retreated back up toward the ice cap. The difference is not debatable in my mind.

‘People ask me a lot if I’ve noticed a difference year to year. A lot of people who come on these trips have a passion for nature and have a passion for wilderness so they have a strong view about climate change and global warming. It’s almost universally accepted [among his clients on these expeditions] that it’s man-made.’

Could it be that by bringing back photographs of these regions and the frighteningly rapid changes happening there, he is helping reinforce the awareness necessary to bring a concerted response?

‘I hope my work gets used that way,’ he said. ‘A lot of what goes on is out of sight, out of mind. These are remote places — particularly the Arctic and Antarctic — and people don’t think about it because it’s not in front of them, but I have to challenge them and do my part I guess.’

Toward the end of our chat, the conversation turned to equipment and its role. ‘The best camera is your eye, it’s not the equipment you have in front of you,’ he said. ‘I’m a very big believer that it doesn’t matter what you capture the image with, a good photograph is a good photograph.

‘I know photographers who are hung up on the technology, they’re hung up on which lens is sharper — and sure it all makes a difference — but Ansel Adams said it best: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy idea”.

‘The more you do photography, the better you get at it. And the more you do it, the better you get at seeing. Photography’s really about the art of seeing. And I think it’s important to pick up a camera often.’ The key, he concluded, ‘is to practice the art of shooting as often as you can Learn the camera so you don’t have to think about the technical aspects of it, so you can focus on the creativity.’  

Article by Don Norris  

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 62    

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