Beth Price: photographer with a focus on freshwater surf & environmental issues

I first met Beth Price in 2013 when she photographed my family along Lake Michigan in Frankfort. A few years later, I rediscovered Beth through her Instagram and fell in love with her outdoor photography, especially her freshwater surf photography. Beth’s passion and skill for capturing surfers in the Great Lakes and the inspiring beauty of the region is all her own, yet it often also reminds me of the way Chris Burkard pursues and excels in capturing surfers in cold, remote locations.

I equally appreciate that Beth is using her art to speak out for and protect the environment, particularly the Great Lakes. She’s using her voice to educate people on environmental issues and is fighting the things that threaten our beautiful natural spaces.

Beth’s art constantly takes me back to northern Michigan — my home, a place I love deeply. So when I started to think through Exploring Creatives and who I wanted to interview for this series, Beth was one of the first names that came to mind. Today, I’m thrilled to launch Exploring Creatives and share my conversation with Beth.

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•••••

Beth Price was born in Traverse City, Michigan. Growing up in close proximity to pristine freshwater and forests, she spent the majority of her childhood outside. She also dabbled in the creative arts.

“I was fortunate because my parents always fostered that,” she says. “I had a whole art area in my basement by the washer and dryer. I spent hours down there.”

When she was a teenager, Beth honed in on photography. Our conversation starts here.

How did you get started in photography?
I think randomly — and this was years ago — in downtown Traverse City there was a little photography studio that taught a black and white photography class. I was 14 maybe when I took it. We did film developing, black and white, all of that. From there, when I was in high school, I just kept dabbling with photography.

My dad’s friend sold us my first darkroom for $100 with an enlarger and all the things I needed to set up my darkroom. And I set up a darkroom in the basement. I was right in the laundry room with my little art studio. There was no ventilation, and I had access to the running water in the corner of the basement. I made horrible prints — but I still have a few of them — and I printed out pictures.

So that was kind of my basis. I didn’t know much more about photography at that point other than I loved to do it and I could manage to process a roll of film and print. I had the passion because I just loved doing it. We all have the friend with the camera — that was me.

What came next? What did you do after high school?
I went to Michigan State and was a James Madison major my freshman year, and during that time is when I realized — I did very well academically, but I just wasn’t enjoying it. So I’d heard Lansing Community College had photo classes, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll take a few photo classes and see if that’s something I’d want to do.”

I took those classes, learned more and decided that that’s what I really wanted to do and not pursue anything more at Michigan State. I kind of had an epiphany with one of my instructors. He said, “You just need to be done and go to school for photography.”

From there, Beth moved out to California to attend photography school at Brooks Institute.

What was it like going to photography school in California?
When I got to photography school, not only was I in Santa Barbara — which is gorgeous and inspiring — but I was falling off my chair I was so excited about learning. I spent hours in the labs; I worked for the school and worked in the labs. So I just really immersed myself in that for three years.

Beth quickly noticed some key differences between northern Michigan and California and felt compelled to focus her work on environmental issues.

I was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so many things we need to do to protect these spaces.” So I started revolving all my photo classes around environmental issues.

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The first year-and-a-half of my photography school was very technical, but then you move to the upper division and take more specialized classes. You get your essentials out of the way, and then you decide on more of a major. So when I was taking all of those classes for my major, I started gearing all of those projects around environmental issues.

I had a portrait class. The majority of the class went to LA and went to studios. I raised my hand and said, “Can I go to Patagonia?” Patagonia headquarters are a half-hour from Santa Barbara. So that’s where I did my internship, and it was really awesome.

I was also in a documentary program, and there were 20 of us that traveled to Southeast Asia for three-and-a-half months. We were studying the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, so I was trying to find more environmental impacts of the river and where they were damming.

I stayed out there for a few years after college and was involved in the environmental community, but I waited tables as well. I wasn’t really using my photography, and I started doing wedding and portraits for family and friends. And then, when visiting northern Michigan again, I really missed it from a natural perspective, but mainly, it was family that brought me back.

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What was it like moving back to Traverse City? What did you do?
I started my business in wedding and portraits and shifted more into commercial and editorial work. I was feeling a tug as though I wasn’t doing what I’d set out to do with photography. And I was taking on way too many weddings and portraits. It was just overwhelming. I could do them from a style perspective, but my mind was just like, “This is too much.”

I don’t like to — I guess I do like to admit it. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I don’t think my photography was poor, but I don’t think I was excelling. For example, I’d think, “Why are my peers I went to school with just rockin’ it? They’re leading workshops. They’re doing all these things.”

So that’s when I was questioning my career. I think we all do that at some point. “Is this really what I was supposed to do? This is all I know. This is kind of scary. This is what I’m really passionate about.” I started questioning all of that, and during that time is when I had a friend suggest that I pick up my camera and just do a project for myself.

So I did. I’ve always loved the water, and I heard that there was a freshwater surfing culture going on — people were surfing on the Great Lakes. So that’s what led me there.

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Pursuing the surf made me realize I love being in the water. So I bought housing for my camera to shoot in the water. I have wetsuits. I have all the gear to be in the water.

When I started shooting all the surf photography, I realized I hadn’t really been pinpointing what I loved, what I was passionate about. So that’s what led me to think about the water. And it gives me goosebumps because I was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s the water.”

I randomly watched a TEDx talk, I remember, and it talked about that. You need to find what you’re passionate about. It’s so amazing to me because when we started this conversation you told me what you thought about me and what you think I’m known for, which is exactly what I could’ve told you when I graduated college where I wanted to be.

It took me 20 years to get here — to figure out, too, what I want to work on right now. I feel like right now the Great Lakes need me, if that makes sense. Advocacy, spreading the word visually. The Great Lakes need a lot of voices. Mine just happens to be in the form of photography.

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What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I feel like photography is my life. So if I’m working on the water, I don’t feel that’s my spare time. It’s my job, too. So I kind of mix work and pleasure all the time. But at the same time, when I do take a break, I have a really close network of good childhood friends in Traverse City. I have different little pockets of friends, I guess I should say. I have my creatives. I have my women friends. Not to say those don’t intertwine.

I do a lot of working out in my spare time. I feel that I need to be strong in order to do my job more and more. If I need to put my wetsuit on and get in the water with my surfing friends, I have to be able to be fit enough that I can hang out for a couple hours. Because my goal once I’m in there is to be committed to taking pictures.

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From a physical standpoint, it’s important for me to be in shape. I have to get to where my athletes go. I want to work with athletes like runners and surfers and people out doing something dynamic from a sports-side of things and then I like to mix the backdrop of northern Michigan. It’s obvious I love the water most, but there’s definitely beautiful wooded areas and fields and — you know, northern Michigan.

What’s your favorite outdoor activity? Why?
I would say swimming. I love being in the water. If I had to choose one activity to do in the water, it would be swimming around. When I shoot surfing and I’m swimming along with them with my fins on and my housing. But then I love stand-up paddleboarding, and that I just found in the last couple of years. I like it when it’s calm. I’ve tried surfing. That’s good, but I’d choose to swim versus pick up a surfboard. I also love to run and hike.

What’s your favorite outdoor playground?
Lake Michigan. Heading out to Leelanau County or Frankfort — just being out on the “big lake.” That’s probably my favorite place to be because I feel most at home.

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I love living in Traverse City as far as it’s very outdoorsy. It takes me just a few minutes — you know, if I’m running, it can be in the woods on a trail. It doesn’t go on forever, but you can find green spaces and be on the water in Traverse City within minutes. If I had the time and I could go anywhere, I’d head out to Lake Michigan. It just depends on the day where I want to go.

What do you gain from time spent outside?
Clarity. I think it helps give me some clarity on life and perspectives. And removing myself because a great portion of my time is spent in front of a computer screen. I can’t avoid that at this point. I do as much as I can to alleviate some of that. For example, I get help with my retouching, some of my post-production, so that I can spend more time outside.

I think it also is an affirmation to me why I do what I do. It reminds me when I come back and sit down. For example, I want to be working more with like-minded businesses and companies that are pro-environment, support some of the environmental issues I support, that are aligned. It gives me that.

From health or healthy perspective, it’s very important to take care of yourself and to allow yourself to be in nature, to allow yourself to workout and be active.

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How does time outside fuel and inspire you?

I am inspired by the landscape of northern Michigan and the changing seasons and how the light falls onto these spaces because I was born and raised here and I know it so well. That inspires me. It keeps me creative. Every day is different; it’s changing all the time.

I say it’s bipolar, too. You just never know. It can switch on a dime. You learn to not depend on the weather report necessarily. It’s not like when I was in Santa Barbara, where it was pretty much the same all year.

Creativity-wise, getting in the water, it’s so sensory. You’re using your senses. When I’m in the water — the feeling of the water when you dive under, how the world just quiets down — I love that. I love to swim as far as I can underwater and then come up for air and just enjoy that peaceful moment to myself.

Sensory-wise, sand. Sand everywhere. I always say I’m happiest when there’s sand in my bed. All summer, there’s just sand. Some people might be annoyed with that, but I take it as a sign that I’m having a good time and that I’m outside.

What are the roles of community and solitude for you?
I was visiting my old elementary school, which is getting bulldozed, with a friend. We were in the art room, and I remember making a pinhole camera in that art room in elementary school. I remember the teacher, where I took it, where the darkroom was. There were these stacks of paint pallets — you know, with the holes — and now that we’re having this conversation, I just envision that pallet.

Maybe my friends are like the paint you put on it. You brush and dab where you need. I feel like that’s kind of what I do.

From my family and friends, I get tremendous love and support unconditionally.

From my group of photography friends, I get support in my profession, sounding boards, laughs. They understand the lingo, so sometimes it’s just sharing the mistakes you’ve made when no one else would understand it.

From my church, I get spirituality. I work with the youth group at my church. So there’s this dimension to that, working with teenage girls. Because I was once there, too, and was questioning and trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

I have running friends, outdoor friends, paddling friends and a huge surfing community. And then I have a really close group of girlfriends that we have a text string going on all the time. The majority of us have known each other from junior high on up.

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And then, once again, my family. For me, it’s important to have all those different avenues because it’s creative. I work alone quite a bit in my studio in front of my computer. I don’t have a bunch of coworkers around. I work with people, but it’s all virtually. We do everything through Dropbox or email. Occasionally, I’ll have phone conversations.

Do you have a daily or weekly routine, a balance you try to strike between your creative projects, time spent outside and the other happenings in your life?
I think, right now, no. I’m trying to figure it out because everything is shifting so much. I’m trying to work into that more. I know it’s really important, and I read a lot about it. I know I need to incorporate it more for myself. Right now, I’m just all over the board. I think I need a tiny bit more structure. But right now, I’m just embracing it. It’s working for me.

What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m really excited. I’m working on two phenomenal projects. One with Groundwork Center. They have the Great Lakes Business Network that they’ve started. It’s businesses that are opposed to Line 5. Hopefully it will grow, and hopefully Line 5 won’t be an issue for much longer. It could grow into something more. There are so many issues. There’s a whole list. We have Nestle that’s trying pay a ridiculously low fee to suck more water out of the Great Lakes for bottled water. We’ve got algal blooms on Lake Erie. There are issues everywhere.

So Groundwork has me doing the business portraits for the businesses. They chose me based on my love of the Great Lakes.

It’s pretty awesome when people start recognizing you for the water and hiring you because of that.

I’m working with FLOW on the “Shut Down Line 5” campaign with the surf community. It’s called “Save Our Surf. Shut Down Line 5.”

All these things I’m saying to you are awesome projects in terms of being outdoors and working with companies and individuals that are like-minded. That’s really exciting, and I really like it.

From where are you drawing inspiration at the moment?
The fact that I’m being recognized for freshwater photography, working in the water. I think that’s a huge driving force right now for me. And also the environmental protection.

It’s tough. Being a creative, being a small business owner, being on your own. Last week, I was in a funk. It was dark and dreary here and cold. I’m self-employed, and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Sometimes I allow myself to rest because when it’s the opposite and I’m working 16-hour days — once again, I don’t have a set schedule. I go with how my heart directs me in a sense, and when the phone rings.

What do you hope people take away from your creative work?
Raising awareness is always huge. I recently was just asked to do a show in Marquette first and then down in Traverse City. I had free control. They just said they wanted my water photography, so I ended up mixing athletes on the water, heavy on the surf, heavy on the stand-up paddling and yoga. Then I mixed in water — no one in the photo, just water landscape. Then I wove in an environmental message because that was really important to me.

So here are these beautiful images, but it’s also important to protect the lake. I took a couple of my surfing friends. We went and paddled out in front of Mackinac Bridge, and they held up “Shut Down Line 5” signs. So I made that [photo] big and had it in the show, and I had a “take action” poster that included some great quotes about the Great Lakes and protection, and it listed different places you could go online to get more information and take action.

So it’s very important for me to not only have people identify with my style. A friend told me once that my photography puts her out there, that she can feel it, that it puts her out in the environment. It speaks to her. I hope it hits people in that way and also brings awareness to the beauty that surrounds us and the importance of taking care of it and protecting it, of being good stewards.

I try to be very modest and humble. I get uncomfortable. It’s funny because I love talking about things and being in social groups talking, but I don’t like a lot of spotlight on me. So when you ask me what I want people to get out of my work, I would hope that they’d get all of these things, but I don’t want to sit here and say that I think I’m just this awesome photographer. Every shoot when I come home, I’m very hard on myself. I’m always looking to improve. I’m always looking at what I could’ve done better.

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Closing thoughts? Is there anything you’d like to add?
If you were to ask me to look down inside right now and what’s really speaking to me most, I have to be a voice for these Great Lakes. They need it. I think of The Lorax all the time because he says that he speaks for the trees because they have no tongue. And that’s how I feel. The lakes can’t march off to Lansing and be like, “Hey! We have a few complaints.” We have so many voices that are helping to protect in that way, and I love being part of that community.

I had a friend from India that came up last fall with his roommates, and the first day I had to work, so I sent them out to places along Lake Michigan to go swimming. The second day, I took them out on Old Mission [Peninsula], and we went swimming. We went to one of my favorite beaches out there, and my friend’s roommate was just enthralled. [Coming from India,] he’d never swum in freshwater. In Chicago, he swims in the pool, like at the gym, so he’d never been in an open body of freshwater. And he could just not believe it. That made me realize, too, the importance of sharing what we have and protecting it.

Big thanks to Beth for sharing her art, her voice and taking the time to talk with me. All photos in this post are Beth’s. The photo of Beth at the top of this post was captured by Chelsea Erwin.

You can find more of Beth’s work online.

Learn how you can take action to protect the Great Lakes on the following sites as well as Beth’s poster below.

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Introducing Exploring Creatives

Exploring Creatives is an interview series with artists and outdoor explorers — creative individuals who are fueled and inspired by life outside.

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Throughout the past few years, I’ve been tuned in to the creative community as well as the outdoor community. There are a lot of people talking about outdoor adventure and exploration, and there are many talking about creative projects and work. And while the two overlap in certain conversations and situations, there doesn’t seem to be a space that explicitly explores both and the influence each has on the other.

Through Exploring Creatives — conversations with individuals who dance in both creativity and outdoor exploration — I’m diving into that gap. Exploring Creatives explores the influence of time outside on creativity and creativity on time outside. The two definitely can and do live separately for many, but for a good chunk of us, there’s also a space where the two come together, where the two inspire one another.

Exploring Creatives is something I started to noodle on in summer 2016 as I was thinking about people, places and the influence of places on people. Once I was down in Argentina and listening to podcasts a bit more routinely, I started to seriously consider this series of interviews as I continued to notice a gap in the conversations people were having.

To be honest, at this time, I’m not sure what Exploring Creatives is or what it will be. It’s a bit of a selfish passion project as these are quite simply conversations I want to have and people I want to have them with. It’s a concept I want to explore, and I hope these conversations will be as thought-provoking and inspiring to those who read them as they are for me.

If you have an idea for an interviewee or Exploring Creatives in general, drop me a line.

Yours in exploration & creativity,
Emily