Drawing, painting and photography have been the driving force in Phil Sheil’s life for over three decades. He currently works full time as a University Professor teaching Art and Design at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. However, he is excited about his newest venture as co-owner of Creative Endeavors and looks forward to building it into a unique and highly respected center for the arts.
For more than 10 years, Evo’s career has been a mixture of the three areas in his life that he feels most passionate about: Nature conservation, outdoors guiding and photography. Ever since earning his license for mountain guiding, in 2004, he has shared his love for the beautiful Bulgarian trails with hundreds of nature lovers and hikers.
Between the years of 2006 and 2009, Evo worked full time in conservation in the Central Balkan National Park managing a project aimed at reintroducing the Griffon Vulture back into the park. It was during these years that he first picked up a camera and began taking his first shots of nature. So began his career in photography.
By 2009, Evo had already succeeded in winning several photography competitions and had become a regular contributor to National Geographic Magazine, Bulgaria. In fact, many of his photo-essay features became the best local edits for the magazine.
In 2011, Evo received a cultural exchange scholarship from the prestigious American Fulbright Foundation, which gave him the opportunity to spend 4 months on a Crow reservation in southeastern Montana as a photographer. Professionally the result was a solo photo exhibition, “Indian Summer,” and a feature for National Geographic Magazine, Bulgaria. However, personally the experience had a profound impact as well. In Evo’s own words:
“Besides the professional work and language practice, that summer was an unforgettable personal and spiritual lifetime experience which connected me with lots of new friends.”
On his return to Bulgaria in 2012, Evo took on the role of art director for National Geographic, Bulgaria and continued to work in this capacity until February 2017 when he became a new father. He does however, still continue to work on photographic assignments with National Geographic.
In 2016, he agreed to join Creative Endeavors as their mountain guide, photography instructor and general advisor to all things Bulgarian. He was instrumental in developing the itinerary for their first tours of 2016 and continues to lend his advice, knowledge and experience to developing the company’s future growth. If he has a free moment, he can be found scrounging for huge, old wooden beams for the barn he is restoring into a home in the Rhodope Mountain.
Built to celebrate a victory in 1878, which lead to Bulgaria’s eventual freedom from Ottoman oppression, the sheer scale of The Arch Of Freedom Monument can be difficult to capture with a camera. However, a few years ago while I was shooting there, a young girl walked into my shot and carried on through the arch to stand in front of me contemplating the view. It was the perfect moment to be there with my camera. The girl, dwarfed by the arch under which she stood, appeared to be contemplating the very notion of freedom itself. This seemed particularly poignant since Bulgaria had relatively recently thrown off the mantel of Russian Communism and was at this very moment in its history attempting to embrace the freedoms and restrictions that come with its newly awarded membership in the European Union. I love this shot simply because it was so un-planned, and yet it so perfectly solved a technical issue while providing a much richer image than I had set out to capture.
God is Watching
This picture typifies another of those moments when you happen to be in the right place at the right time. I was shooting in a spectacular cave in Bulgaria knows as God’s Eyes Caves, a name given because of the two eye-like holes in the ceiling. While I was shooting two un-planned and unrelated events occurred simultaneously. First, and for a few seconds only, a beautiful shaft of light came though one of the holes in the roof of the cave and just at that moment a stranger in a white shirt climbed upon a large bolder in the foreground of my shot. The contrast of the white shirted figure against the vast darkness of the cave provided scale for the scene and the shaft of light, for a brief moment, provided my picture with drama and I was lucky enough to be there and ready to shoot as it all came together.
Once again this is one of those happy accidents that I love to find. I was driving up a mountain with no particular goal other than to see where the road went. As we went higher it began to get foggy to the point that I thought I might have to turn around. However, just after a sharp curve in the road, this scene set itself before me and I immediately jumped out of the car and began shooting . This was a totally un-planned shoot and I loved the fact that I simply stumbled upon it totally by accident.
Do you have any formal training in photography?
Photography was an intrinsic part of both my HND and my BFA and MFA degrees. As Illustration students we were taught how to take photographs that would help create realistic drawings and paintings. These “reference photos” were quite different from “normal” photographs and often focused on details such as hands and faces – things that would be hardest to render. We also learned how to photograph products to later render as lush and sexy looking Product Illustrations. I used these photographic skills extensively as a professional Illustrator and further developed those skills when I later re-entered University as a painting and drawing student. As my portfolio developed it became increasingly more difficult to separate the photographic process from the painting and drawing process in my work and this trend continued throughout my graduate studies. Later I became interested in digital imaging and the division between photograph and created image became even more blurred as I began to paint realistic images using Adobe Photoshop. So photography has been a part of my artistic repertoire since I began making images and was an integral part of my post high school education.
Why do you create images?
This is a really interesting question and one that I have never been asked orthought about before. I have had a passion for images since almost before I can remember. Some of my strongest memories as a child are of images – drawings, paintings and photographs. I am not really sure where that love of images comes from to be honest, but I do know that images mark almost every meaningful part of my life – they are the things on which I hang the majority of my significant memories and experiences. I can remember for example pouring through my families’ collection of encyclopedias but, unlike my siblings, it is the images that I seem to remember most not the knowledge hidden in the words. My painting professor, John Hall, once wrote of me that “Phil Sheil has a passion for image making that is infectious” and having read this I think marked the first time I ever actually thought about my love of images. As a school kid I was often in trouble with the math teacher because the margins and empty spaces between the formulas in my exercise book would be filled with doodles and drawings. Images have always seemed to pour out of me like an over-filled cup and I still come out of almost every university meeting with a clipboard full of drawings. So, on reflection, I think I create images because I really don’t know how not to. I l love images passionately of course and I love creating them, but image making seems to be something I just do.
Where do you get your creative inspiration?
I get my inspiration from the world around me. It starts with my senses, a rich texture or color catches my eye, a sound flicks awake my imagination or a smell plays with my mind. It’s never a tangible thing, but rather a feeling about that thing, a sense of the history in a place for example. It can be a deep felt sense like the booming of a huge drum or it can have the light touch of soft rain on the skin, but once felt I always want to do something with it. Perhaps it’s how a golden retriever feels when its owner throws a ball. I don’t always do something with the feeling of course, life often gets in the way, but when I ignore it I always feel the guilt of having let something important go. I suspect all artists feel this way when it comes right down to it. Of course, when we do react, do something with it, we intellectualize that initial feeling as we attempt to mold our reaction towards the creation of tangible things (or sets of things) like images, music or sculpture, but that is more about communication than inspiration I think.
What is your creative process when deciding what to shoot?
Upon arrival at a site I look around and try to pick the spot for my first shots. I usually begin with the obvious. I try to get the ‘straight shot” out of the way right at the start of any shoot. I have a fear of wasting time trying to do something different while not doing anything at all. So I go straight in and get the obvious stuff out of the way in the first few minutes. Once the obvious shots are done I am then somehow free to move out, get away from that first impulse and more easily start looking for the less obvious – its very much like a brainstorming session, but with a camera in hand – block nothing and try anything that comes to mind.
What’s your favorite time of day for landscapes?
Like almost all landscape photographers I have to say the golden hour – that time before sunset or just after sunrise. Of the two I prefer the evening, but that preference is heavily tainted by the fact that I seem to develop a more profound love of my bed around the time of sunrise. To call it the golden “hour” though is perhaps not accurate though, since often the light seems to get really good about two hours before the sun sets. At that time the shadows start to stretch out and the contrast between light and shadow increases. It doesn’t hurt that everything becomes bathed in a warm glow at that time in the evening either.
How far do you go in post-production?
This always depends on the image I am working with and how I intend to use it. Sometimes, if rarely, I will get exactly what I want straight out of the camera and I love those moments. There are times that I have used my camera to create fictional images, pieces of art or digital paintings that only pay passing homage to the facts of visual reality. But I most often use the camera to create more traditional images, landscapes, portraits etc. Each context has its own set of conventions and these requirements change with the intended use. A photograph used as evidence in a court case for example would have far more editing restrictions than a digital image used in a Surrealist Art Exhibition. When it comes to Landscape Photography I am always trying to portray what I remember seeing. As a result I am most often satisfied only with the cropping and composition of my raw camera images. At the very least I will make minor tweaks to contrast, saturation and exposure. Sometimes however, I have to work a lot in post processing, especially when results are limited by the technology and night shots are a good example of this. It all comes down to one age-old problem, how much the technical limitations prevent recording what the human eye can see. As a result, I find myself compensating for this limitation during shooting (bracketing, cropping etc.) and/or in the post editing process.
Can you share 5 quick practical tips for landscape photography?
Always take your tripod with you and make sure it is a really good one.
Never leave home without your wide-angle lens.
Always have a spare memory card hidden away in your camera bag
Always have a lens cloth or two packed in your bag
Protect your camera’s sensor from dust. When changing lenses hold the camera with the lens hole facing down. Basically treat the open hole in your camera body like an open wound and don’t let any foreign bodies fall inside.
Where would you most like to shoot in the future?
I would love to go on a tour of the best waterfalls in the world. I went to Iceland last year and I really liked the light up there. Of course the Icelandic landscape is full of drama, great contrasts and wonderful light, but there are some awesome waterfalls there too and I loved shooting them. That trip made me start wondering about the world’s most picturesque waterfalls. I can think of nothing more photographically interesting to me than getting on an airplane with the sole purpose of shooting the most beautiful waterfalls in the world–this seems like the ultimate trip to me.