Stephen Alvarez Lighting Underground
Stephen Alvarez sees a direct connection with his home state of Tennessee and the subject he loves to photograph more than any other. “As a young man, we didn’t have snow or high mountains. If you wanted to do something adventurous, fun and hard, you’d go caving,” he explains.
The early cave exploration he did as a youth served him later in life, after coming across photos by Michael “Nick” Nichols, the National Geographic wildlife photographer. Alvarez saw Nichols’ photos of caves in Alabama, Georgia, and his own Tennessee. “They just captivated me,” says Alvarez. “I realized I can do something similar to that. I can go into these environments I’m very comfortable in and come out with images of the right mix telling a similar sort of story.”
Read and see more after the jump.
Cave photography isn’t the only thing they share. Nichols and Alvarez later became good friends. “He’s been a huge help in my career. It was his pictures that inspired me to pursue this work,” he says of his mentor. “Nick introduced me to my wife. He’s been a huge part of my life.”
Alvarez’s early life in Tennessee involved more than going caving with his buddies. He earned an undergraduate degree in Comparative Religion from the University of the South. During his junior year, he discovered his photography skills were strong enough to make him want to do this professionally. He credits the research he did while getting his degree as essential to his planning of photography excursions.
Eventually, he worked as an assistant to Santa Fe photographer Doug Merriam. “Doug is really the person who taught me how to light,” Alvarez says. “I always thought assisting was a much better way to learn than by going to school for photography.”
Moving back home to Tennessee, Alvarez became a magazine photographer, shooting portraits of financial businessmen. “I realized I can take the techniques I learned about lighting and take the same lighting gear I used for these corporate portraits and bring it all underground,” he says. “There was a period I would show up to corporate shoots with Pelican boxes with mud on them, which is probably why I stopped doing that work.” He has shot exotic locations around the world for National Geographic since 1995.
Shooting photographs in caves is far from simple. The environment is incredibly hostile to technical equipment of all kinds, from carabiners to DSLRs. “A lot of what I do is just try to keep equipment working,” says Alvarez. “A huge amount of my time and my assistants’ time is devoted to drying things out, putting them in Pelican boxes with silica gel at night, just to pull more moisture out of the gear. Often times, if something goes down, just to locking it up in the Pelican box with a lot of silica gel will bring it back to life. I’ve been very lucky with digital cameras like these. The film cameras seem to break all the time, but digital cameras seem to be much more robust. I think it is because you don’t have to open them up. A film camera, every 36 frames, you have to open the back of the camera. With digital you don’t really ever have to do that, so less stuff gets inside the camera.”
Alvarez shot his last photograph on film for National Geographic in 2004. Although he still keeps a Leica around for sentimental reasons, he has fully embraced digital technology, relying on Canon EOS 5D Mark II bodies.
Another critical component to Alvarez and his cave photography is the team of trusted assistants he has worked with for years. Fording underground rivers while carrying tremendous amounts of gear is not for the casual beginner. “Shooting underground is a team effort. I couldn’t do it without really, really good assistants,” Alvarez reports. “They can walk into a scene and begin to set things up without me telling them because we’ve worked together so much.”
In “the big rooms,” as Alvarez calls some of the massive caves he works in, “you can’t photograph without a lot of people because everyplace you have a light, you need a human being there to run it,” he says. This necessitates a substantial crew of assistants underground.
Not all of Alvarez’s photographic work is below the surface, although much of it suffers from no lack of natural drama. His series of images taken in Stone Forest, Tsingy de Bemeraha, Madagascar, document an area of the world few people know of. It consists of hundreds of square miles of limestone pinnacles which seem more at home in Tolkien’s Mordor of The Lord of the Rings. “I wouldn’t have believed it unless I had seen it with my own eyes,” he says. “It’s the hardest place I’ve ever tried to move around in because it’s just impossible to go anywhere. Everything there wants to hurt you. Try crossing Manhattan by climbing up one skyscraper, then pulling down the back side and then crossing the street, going up a skyscraper and going back down. That’s what it was like.”
Much of his non-shooting time keeps Alvarez busy. He proposes stories months in advance. If he gets a verbal agreement, he’s instructed to write up a one-page description of what the story is, what kind of photography will be used, and other broad details. If it’s approved by a committee at National Geographic, the next step is to prepare a budget, which requires intense research. Every item purchased or rented, costs for all personnel, and every other imaginable cost must be factored into the cost of the story.
Some single photographs themselves require intense planning, let alone the research for an entire expedition to a remote location. Alvarez had an idea to do a story on how original settlers got to all the islands in the Pacific. This included the famous Easter Island and it’s well-known statues erected by Polynesian colonizers approximately 500 to 750 years ago. “It’s very intimidating because every breaking photograph you could possibly take on Easter Island has been made,” says Alvarez. One group of statues represents the original seven explorers of the island. He got the idea to create a photo of showing those statues and the stars the first explorers used to navigate to get to the island. “I had never seen that picture, so I went to make it. I brought an equatorial chart of the stars and tripods, cameras, flashes—everything I thought I’d need. I arrived there and it rained. You could only make this picture during the new moon because as soon as the moon’s up in the sky or anywhere, even near the horizon, the sky washes out. I was there for ten days and I got six frames. Luckily one of them was pretty good, but I didn’t sleep. The sun would go down and I’d get up every twenty minutes to check the sky. If the sky looked vaguely clear, we’d drive out to where the Moai statues are set up, hoping it would be clear enough for the next frame.”
Living with his family in Sewanee, Tennessee, Alvarez feels fortunate the college town provides him a support system of friends happy to assist in the specialized research he needs when planning expeditions. Some assignments last ten weeks, and often have little room for sleep. He forewarns crews during the planning stages to make sure they’ll be able to handle the physical and mental requirements.
Much of Alvarez’s crew are responsible for the large amount of gear he needs on location. In addition to his Canon bodies and lenses, he uses an assortment of PocketWizard units to create light in places which never get sunlight. “I’ve got about ten Plus II units, and then I have these two FlexTT5’s I’ve just started using,” he says. “I use the Flex TT5’s with the Canon and a 430EX II, which is a great combination because you get so much range on it. There’s a lot of water in caves, and the PocketWizards are more reliable than anything else I’ve tried. It’s a hellish environment, and the fact they go off at all sometimes astounds me.”
Currently completing a book about his cherry-picked underground locations around the world, Alvarez is excited at the prospect of seeing his photos in a coffee table art book. What he has captured for two decades below the surface of what we are so familiar with deserves to see the light of day.
Written by Ron Egatz
EDIT: See and hear more from Stephen in this video he made
A video showing off my worldwide caving project. Locations include Tennessee, Abkasia, Belize, Oman and New Guinea.