Photographer Jonathan Irish on Capturing the National Parks, Life in the Outdoors

Jonathan Irish, US Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John

There is something special about nature. When you see it with your own eyes, it emits a beauty that can be hard to translate to another. Hence, when we saw the work of photographer Jonathan Irish, we quickly wondered how it took so long for our paths to cross.

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Jonathan specializes in outdoor, adventure and travel photography with a focus on active lifestyles, landscapes and cultures abroad and is based in Washington, DC. His work can often be found in National Geographic.

With a background like this, Jonathan seemed like a perfect fit to help the U.S. National Park Service celebrate their 100th anniversary. And, in honor of this milestone birthday, Jonathan, along with writer Stefanie Payne, set out on “The Greatest American Road Trip.”

This project kicked off on 1 January 2016 and runs through 31 December 2016, and it will see the duo visit all 59 U.S. National Parks via a 4X4 SUV and an Airstream trailer. Since these National Parks are not located just on the mainland, as they are also in Alaska, the Caribbean and the American Samoa in the Pacific, you are certain this truly is one amazing road trip.

Jonathan Irish
Photo: Jonathan Irish, Great Basin National Park

Although busy on this adventure, we got to catch up with Jonathan to learn more about his passion for photography, National Parks and the outdoors.

Photo: Jonathan Irish
Photo: Jonathan Irish
MalenDyer: How did you get into photography? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Jonathan Irish: I’ve always loved photography, but it wasn’t until I started traveling a lot that my interest turned into a real passion. I just love trying to capture the essence of a place through still imagery. A great photo has a timeless quality that I can’t get enough of.

MD: Going one step further, how did you find your niche in outdoor, adventure and travel photography?
JI: My passion for these specific focuses (outdoor, adventure and travel) directly relates to my personal passion in life. These are all things that I love, and therefore, all things that I want to photograph and share. I love travel and the outdoors.

“That is where the magic usually comes from – the unplanned wonders.”

MD: What came first – the love of the outdoors or of photography?
JI: Tough to answer. I think they stem from the same place and are so intertwined that I can’t separate them.

MD: Being a photographer where the elements cannot always be controlled, how do you deal or work with the forces of nature?
JI: I enjoy the unforeseen forces of nature and actually hope for that serendipity to happen. That is where the magic usually comes from – the unplanned wonders.

Jonathan Irish
Photo: Jonathan Irish, Acadia National Park

MD: How far have you gone to get that “perfect” picture?
JI: Far enough to make my loved ones worry quite often, but not so far that I put myself in undue risk.

MD: Moving on to your current adventure – The Greatest Road Trip. How did your involvement in this project come about?
JI: I’d been thinking about doing a long term project and had been traveling to foreign lands so much that I really wanted it to be based here in the States. The centennial of the National Park Service provided just the right opportunity.

Photo: Jonathan Irish, runk Bay, on the island of St John in the US Virgin Islands National Park
Photo: Jonathan Irish, Trunk Bay, on the island of St John in the US Virgin Islands National Park

MD: Considering you are visiting 59 U.S. National Parks in 52 weeks, how much planning had to be done to ensure you hit the parks at the most optimal time?
JI: There’s a ton of pre and ongoing planning happening at all times. It may look easy from the outside, but I am constantly looking at schedules and seasonalities and making both major and minor adjustments. It is one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever taken on!

“There’s a reason these parks were elevated to the National Park status, as they represent something really special that we must preserve and protect.”

MD: Did there come a point where you needed to step back from planning and be open to knowing nature may always have an element of surprise?
JI: That is also something that happens every day – the surprise of great adventures. We take it in stride and find a way to make it great no matter what the case.

MD: What has surprised you the most so far? Have you had a “pinch me” moment yet?
JI: It seems strange to say, but we are constantly surprised at how amazing each and every park is and how much there is to learn in each park. There’s a reason these parks were elevated to the National Park status, as they represent something really special that we must preserve and protect. Finding out what makes each one tick has been so surprising and fun. They really are all amazing in their own way.

Jonathan Irish
Photo: Jonathan Irish, Sequoia National Park

MD: Is there a National Park you were looking forward to visiting the most?
JI: I had always wanted to go to Death Valley and was absolutely blown away by it. Some of the more remote parks in Alaska (Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley) are high on my list as well, as I like to explore remote places.

MD: On a different note, when you aren’t behind the camera, what can we find you doing in your downtime?
JI: It’s rare that I don’t have my camera with me, but I love hiking, mountain biking, and relaxing in the outdoors around a campfire.

Jonathan Irish, Holbrook, Arizona, outside Petrified Forest National Park
Photo: Jonathan Irish, Holbrook, Arizona, outside Petrified Forest National Park

MD: What book could we find you reading right now, when you get the time?
JI: There’s a lot of driving time and we’ve gotten into audiobooks to pass the time. True crime has been something we’ve been listening to. We are almost done with “Helter Skelter” (about Charles Manson), and it is an amazing book.

MD: Any plans on publishing your own book?
JI: We get asked that question a lot, and I think we will. I see two books – one a travelogue about our crazy adventure and one a photo essay showcasing each park through imagery.

Jonathan Irish
Photo: Jonathan Irish, Mammoth Cave

MD: Lastly, what advice can you offer those photographers who are wanting to carve out their niche in outdoor photography?
JI: I get a lot of people asking how they can be a part of National Geographic, and I always feel like that is missing the point. Sure, Nat Geo is amazing, but you don’t get to work for Nat Geo by focusing on them as an organization. You get to work with them by putting all of your energy and passion into what you love. If you do that, they will take notice. That’s the best advice I can give to any photographer: work on developing your photographing eye/style, shoot a lot and put your heart into it. The rest will follow.

Jonathan Irish
Photo: Jonathan Irish, Zion National Park

Connect with Jonathan:
Instagram @jonathan_irish
Facebook @magnumji
Twitter @MagnumJI

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