Steven McBride is a visionary photographer whose work is widely seen, and shows Western North Carolina in all of its splendid beauty. Here’s his story.
It’s easy to be jealous of photographer Steven McBride. After all, who wouldn’t want to make a living traipsing through the wilderness, or jetting off to exotic locales to take pictures of beautiful resorts or people in blissful states. If you’ve picked up a copy of Blue Ridge Outdoors, Our State, WNC, National Geographic Adventure, Backpacker or the Official North Carolina Visitors Guide you’ve undoubtedly seen his work. McBride has traveled the globe from China to Costa Rica, British Columbia to the Caribbean, and coast to coast in the United States. Western North Carolina has a special place for McBride. Not only does he live here, he shoots here and firmly believes that the area stands equally with any other locale as a place of awesome beauty.
Apart from his outdoor photography, McBride’s work includes clothing, fashion, outdoor products and even tires. Diversity is a key to his success and McBride’s success is proof that with focus and determination one can achieve success in these mountains as a creative.
McBride’s path to photography in the mountains of Western North Carolina began with a childhood love for the outdoors. He grew up in the countryside near Henderson, and his back yard was nature, a playground with endless possibilities.
After studying advertising at Appalachian State University, and photography at Randolph Community College, McBride found himself living in Raleigh but realized that city life wasn’t fulfilling his need to be outdoors. His true desire was to live in nature, and use his work to reflect the beauty of the mountains and the active outdoor lifestyle that he loves. So 20 or so years ago, he and his wife packed their belongings and moved to Asheville, setting up a studio in what is now the South Slope area.
Asheville then was a far cry from what it is today and McBride’s career has grown with the area. His work has done much to shape visitors perception of it, working with the Chamber of Commerce’s Explore Asheville, the Biltmore and more recently Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC. McBride’s ability to capture the essence of the WNC lifestyle in a single shot has made him one of the most sought after and most visible commercial photographers in the area.
When it comes to visually representing the outdoor lifestyle of Western North Carolina, McBride captures the pure bliss and rush that comes from being outside. Nature is the backdrop for awe-inspiring shots of hikers on high mountain trials, kayakers on rushing white rapids, and cyclists riding along verdant single track. McBride has the uncanny ability to put the viewer in the shot, making one feel the rush, smell the air and be in the moment.
McBride is a big believer in WNC’s potential as a location for outdoors-related photo shoots, as well as a place for outdoor sports enthusiasts and companies. The more he has travelled across the globe, the more he has realized that Western North Carolina is equally spectacular. Beyond the commercial aspects of his work, McBride is a firm believer in conservation and is actively involved in preserving the beauty that brings so many to this area.
He is a member of Friends of Big Ivy, contributing his time and photography to this group which advocates the preservation of this unique and untrammeled section of Pisgah National Forest. With his studio near his home compound in Barnardsville, McBride enjoys life to the fullest with his wife and two sons. He can literally step outside his door and take a mountain bike ride in the forest — one of his favorite activities — and minutes later be working at his studio. Since the economic crisis of 2008, McBride has scaled things back, with less full-time employees, less overhead and less stress, allowing him the space to grow his personal vision and be connected with the outdoors. The best of both worlds. Jealous yet?
Metro Asheville’s Editor J.C. Tripp met with Steven McBride to talk about his journey to the Asheville and mountains, the inspiration for his work, and his vision for the future.
Metro Asheville: Let’s start by talking about why you’re here in this area.
Steven McBride: I’ve been here for about 18 years, we moved here in ’97. Moved here purely for the love of the mountains, outdoor adventure, you know. If I’m outdoors I’m good, doing a variety of things from hiking to mountain biking, which is my big thing. The mountain biking around here is just phenomenal. Anything outdoors we just love. The scenic beauty has a lot to do with that with my own photography, so it’s just a natural place to be.
So, you moved here not for professional reasons but for the lifestyle and for the mountains?
Both. I wanted to grow my business in a direction I wanted it to grow into. I didn’t want to have a studio in downtown Raleigh and shoot products and that kind of stuff. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to shoot outdoors, I wanted to shoot outdoor adventure, anything outdoors. As long as I’m outdoors I’m happy. I wanted to live in a place where I was happy, and do the kind of photography I wanted to do and that fit in a place around Asheville.
So, that was your vision.
Yeah, but it was one and the same. Personally and business, they were both going in the same direction.
And, had you established as an adventure photographer prior to that?
When we moved up here it was really the time that I was breaking out. I had been doing my own thing, and assisting some people in Raleigh and it was time for me to break out on my own and start my own business. And I wanted to do that where I wanted to live and also an area that was conducive to the type of work I wanted to do. We looked around at several different cities, we looked at Charlottesville, Virginia, Boone and here and some other places and just decided on Asheville. When we moved up here, we had no friends, we had no family, no contacts, nothing. It was a pure, cold move. We just made it work, and we’re here 18 years later.
Tell me about your growth and your background as a photographer. Is what you shoot purely a reflection of your interests?
Pretty much, yeah. I grew up in the country and pretty much always lived out in the country. I’ve had stints in town but when I’m in town I’m like ‘I want to head out to the trails’. Where we live now is out in Barnardsville. We can hike from our house straight into Pisgah National Forest. I can jump on my mountain bike and within a mile-and-a-half I’m on some single track of Pisgah. I love it.
I used to have a studio in downtown Asheville, on the “south slope”. Do you know where Dirty Jacks is and Green Man Brewery? Their bottling facility now was my studio. We had that studio for about ten years but a few years ago I decided I wanted to reduce my overhead because we rarely did studio work. It was a big building, it was great, I had five employees full-time so it was really just a place to operate out of, plus we were always travelling to do the shoot so we didn’t really need all of that space. Now I’ve got a separate studio in Barnardsville that I work out of. It’s beautiful.
Where do most of your photo shoots occur and who are they for?
The majority of time, our clients take us outside of Asheville. But we try to bring some clients here. We’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to bring adventure clients here to shoot and we’ve had some success with it. We did a catalogue shoot for Cabela’s, the hunting, fishing, hiking, everything outdoors store. And we’ve had some pretty big companies come here at shoot, like Lowe’s and National Wholesale, a woman’s fashion clothing company.
There are a lot of things you could shoot in the outdoors. You could shoot wildlife, you could shoot flora and fauna. Is there any subject matter that you are most interested in shooting?
I like the variety. I don’t want to be shooting one thing all of the time. I do location stuff, so that is one area of photography. In that area, we do a lot of stuff. Two weeks ago I was in Miami, shooting a fashion shoot on the beach, for a whole week in Miami. And before that we were in Canada at a ski resort up in Berri, Canada. So, we travel around, we do a lot of things. For example, we do fashion stuff, we do outdoor adventure stuff, resort/tourism work, and we do work for tire companies. So within that location stuff, we shoot different kinds of things, which keeps it interesting.
Now, that would be more for the advertising side of things. How about editorial, it’s usually somebody assigning you something. One shot of yours I really like was for Backpacker magazine and it’s an overhead of somebody up on one of the balds. How does a shoot like that come together?
For the editorial, like you said, it’s a mix of them calling and asking for specific stuff that I may already have. Or specific assignments I do for magazines, some regional and some national. Most of the time those are geographically based — but I’ve had a working relationship with a few of them for quite a number of years. And they know I’m in this area, and they know I know the terrain and the area. I can throw on a backpack and some cameras and hike on the AT for a number of days and get the shots they need, no matter the weather.
Have you ever had anything crazy happen, weather wise or bears coming into the picture?
Yeah. One that comes to memory is a shoot we did several years ago for National Geographic Adventure magazine. We did five days on the Appalachian Trail with the writer Charles Graeber. And this was several years ago when it was in a transition from film to digital and we had pretty much switched to digital but Geographic were still a little gun-shy on it — “we like the digital thing, but we’re not quite sure we want to take that risk” — so we ended up shooting both, film and digital. Which means I had two sets of cameras, bags of film, the digital cards, all that kind of stuff. Plus, we were staying on the trail, so we had to pack shelter, food, clothes, everything. Our packs had tons of gear, like 60 pounds, so we’re trying to cut off weight, we’re cutting handles off tooth brushes, that sort of thing. The usual stuff, but it was still like 60 pounds. We had very heavy packs, and one of the assistants that was with us wasn’t really used to hiking, so he got bad blisters on his feet. He actually ended up making the magazine, because I shot him on the trail with his feet up so, he’s actually in the magazine.
But we had a nice little bear encounter on that trip. After about the third day we decided that instead of hiking as a little group we’d split up. I left first and 30 minutes later Charles left, and 30 minutes later the other guy left. So, we had a day of hiking alone on the A.T. I was hiking up and went over the top of a little hill and I heard something messing around in the woods and I stopped and there’s a big old black bear across the valley. So, I backed up quietly and I got my longer telephoto lense and went back up to get some bear shots. After I got to the top of the hill I looked and he was gone and I’m like “where’d he go?” And then I heard him, he had crossed a creek and was on my side of the hill now. So, I was like “sweet, he’s getting a little closer”. And this is in the middle of the woods, so I’m trying to get him lined up but there are trees, rhododendron, so I couldn’t quite get him in. I kept watching, kept watching and all of a sudden I couldn’t get him in focus. I’m like “why is this not focusing?” I’d been looking through the camera the whole time and he had slowly been walking toward me and gotten so close that my lens wouldn’t focus that close.
So, when I pulled my eye back he was right there and he was big, at least 500 pounds. But the scary thing was, he hadn’t seen me yet so being that close I would’ve scared the hell out of him. And the thing you don’t want to do to bears is scare them or sneak up on them. But I remained very quiet and stood behind a huge tree, so I was on one side and he came up the other side and walked right by me. He didn’t even smell me until he was about 10 yards away and all of a sudden you could tell he smelled something and freaked and luckily ran the other way before he turned around and saw me. So, that was pretty funny. When you see individual hairs on his face you know that’s too close.
So, I guess you’ve really got to put yourself out there. When you doing, say, a mountain bike shoot, there’s that moment you’ve got to capture somehow. What is that moment that you’re going for when someone’s on a bike, what is it you’re trying to get?
It’s hard to describe and hard to put your finger on exactly but it’s definitely looking for that pinnacle moment and an expression that shows the joy and excitement of and the reason why they’re doing it. It’s the emotion, the adrenaline, whatever it is that they’re doing. What’s the right moment to shoot, that’s one of the big things. In the past 10 years there’s been a moving away from the more staged photography — “you ride through here and look that way” — you can’t do that anymore. We used to do that kind of stuff but now it’s all more “I’m just here to shoot you doing your thing”. Especially for the editorial stuff. “You do your thing, you ride where you want to ride, jump where you want to jump”, so it’s very unstaged. A lot of times it takes more time and effort to do that, but the results are a lot better. A lot more spontaneous and real, which is what we’re trying to capture is the realness of it.
This is a general cultural observation, but there’s something I find ironic about everybody with their smart phones. They want to capture their moments but a lot of them are staged. As a photographer or fine artist, you’re trying to capture the real moment, and then everybody else would rather capture a selfie rather than being in the moment. There’s something weird about that.
Oh, yeah. I wish I remembered where I saw it, but there was a little statistic somebody had done. It was a study of some famous place, the Eiffel Tower or something. But they had been there all day and recorded all of these people coming up to whatever it was and did these post-interviews after they gone up to it and done all of these selfies and then left. Versus people who didn’t take any selfies and just observed it. In these post-interviews they asked “describe what you just saw”. And all of these people who had done selfies were like “Well, it was…I have no idea”, like they hadn’t even seen the damn thing. They had travelled all this way to see it, and they couldn’t remember it. And all of the people who weren’t doing that could tell you exactly what they just saw.
That’s crazy. We’re really messing with our memory with these things.
Yeah, exactly. It makes me wonder, do I do that? Do I remember what I just shot?
With the internet, and with the ease at which people can grab images and use image search, does that become an issue for you? How do you combat that?
It’s hard, that could be a full-time job (chasing down illegal image usage) – it happens that frequently. Most of the infringements are web-based. So, they steal from the web to use on the web. It’s hard to steal a web image and use it in a print brochure because most online is 72 ppi, so it looks like crap when it’s printed. So, most everything is web-based, but it happens all of the time. Most of the time people don’t realize it because there are so many free images out there, it’s almost accepted that once it’s on the web it’s free.
How does all of your work come together as income, is a large part of it licensing, like stock imagery?
No, that’s a small part of it, the majority of my income is assignments, commercial advertising or editorial. Maybe 15% is stock.
Since you do travel a lot and can compare, how would this area as a natural place — do you see it on the same level as some of these really exotic places you go to? It must be wonderful to go half-way around the world, and then know that it’s just as beautiful where you live.
You know, I’ve told that exact line to so many people. When I lived in Raleigh we travelled quite a bit too, it was always going to these cool places and on the ride home it’d be like ‘ugh, I’m going back to Raleigh’ and kind of roll your eyes. But here, no matter where I go, whether it’s to the West Coast, or to Canada or to Costa Rica, on the flight home it’s like ‘yeah, sweet, I’m gonna mountain bike when I get home!’ Or I can go up to the Craggies and I love it, you know? I very much look forward to coming back home, no matter where I’ve been. That’s why we are trying to get more adventure companies to come here and shoot. I don’t mind going to Salt Lake City and shooting, it’s great, but we have the same thing right here. It’s just a different look, but we can do so much of it right here. And a lot of people are starting to realize that.
As far as Asheville location goes, is it that the infrastructure’s not there? I know when I lived in Miami, everything was there. All of the production companies were there, and I don’t see production vans driving around Asheville yet or anything.
It’s tough, it’s a catch-22. We’ve had some companies like that come in and offer things like that, but it’s all got to come together at the same time. We’ve had different elements of it but it’s just not ever at the same time. Back before the economy crashed, things were a little better. We had more production staff available for the bigger type of shoots. It’s a little tougher now. We’ve had some bigger shoots lately where we’ve had to bring in some people from Greensboro and Charlotte to help, because there’s not as much support here. But it is getting better, the economy is picking up, and the support crews are starting to grow again. Part of the price we pay for living in a smaller town like this.
Do you see growth then for the outdoor industry?
Yeah, the potential for growth is huge and I think it’s really starting to grow and hopefully my little piece of that grows as well. But the growth in outdoor manufacturing has grown quite a bit in the Asheville area. You know the Outdoor Gear Builders Association is here, they got started four or five years ago. Now they’ve got close to 30 companies that are all in Western North Carolina that are all outdoor gear manufacturers.
And it’s exciting because a lot of them are grassroots enterprises.
Yeah, like Liquid Logic, which are right down the road. They just started out making some boats and now they’ve had multiple years of Kayak Manufacturer of the Year.
In terms of your studio, are you at a level where you’re good, or do you want to grow your studio? Where do you see yourself down the line?
I have grown a lot since the beginning so, I’m at a good place right now. I used to have a large studio in downtown Asheville, had several full-time employees, we were booming. And that was great, we did that for about ten years but I really like where I am now. We have a smaller footprint now, but my clients are still about the same. I use more freelancers than I used to, so I like not having the constant overhead I used to have and the pressures that come with that. So, I’m happy where I am.
What are your upcoming projects that are exciting for you.
I always look forward to my outdoor adventure type shoots, we’ve got a fashion shoot coming up for a clothing company, some work for Asheville tourism, and a couple of projects for Nantahala Outdoor Center.