Artists and Craftsmen of the Great River Road
Henry Matthiessen of Stoned Art, near Galena, IL, is an artist who helps visitors bring the backwaters of the Mississippi River alive through photography.
Read the Podcast Transcript
Henry: I work the Mississippi River and I treat it with reverence. You know depending on arguments, it’s the fourth largest river on Earth. Which give us some bragging rights, in my opinion. There are a lot of different cultures along the River. Based on who settled it or where they came from, that I find super interesting. I also like the fact that, running into the people going up and down the River, I did a pop up art gallery in Savanna IL a couple years ago, and in doing that I talked to people from six continents who were traveling up and down the River. Totally interesting and in my opinion are people who are overlooked.
Interviewer: Henry Matthiessen III is Stoned Art Studio, is there art everywhere you look Henry?
Henry: Absolutely. Everything is art in my opinion.
Interviewer: What is your favorite thing to shoot?
Henry: I’m a landscape photographer. That’s my A game. I do portraits, think more of Andy Worhol though, I’m not the one who makes you say cheese. I’m looking at attributes from the days I used when I used to draw portraits to capture your soul. And that’s not from having you sit there. I kind of work at you. I have a different approach I think. Landscape though is my overall umbrella photography. Living in the Driftless Region, the Mississippi Valley, I’m very fortunate to be in a situation here where photography leans heavily into a romanticism photography. Getting the clouds involved and all that drama and motion. And if I can make the insignificance of man prevalent within my picture I go after that.
Interviewer: Well let’s talk a little bit about that with the Mississippi River Backwater tour that you offer.
Henry: Sure. My photography tours are mainly geared toward sunrise and sunset taking advantage of the best lighting. I like to go down into the backwater areas of the River and I like to be in those regions as we get the sunset and maybe an hour after. And then reverse for sunrise. I like to be on location well over an hour before sunrise. You get these lighting scenarios. And placed right, you can grab all that as a reflection in the River and it totally enhances the picture even more.
Interviewer: Henry the stuff that you’re talking about sounds magical, do you have a favorite spot?
Henry: A couple of my favorite places to go, would be on the Illinois side is Blandings Landing near Galena area. And on the Iowa side is the Green Island backwaters, where it just opens up. It’s an incredible area. You get off the bluffs into a huge backwaters area with a big sky being down low like that.
Interviewer: It sounds like the views there are gorgeous and breathtaking.
Henry: I like to go big. Up high, I’m generally shooting panorama pictures and in this area, that would be Chestnut Mountain which has a point called Grand View with a big sweeping view where the river is carving into the Illinois side. You are standing up above a 300 foot bluff and looking off into Iowa and the river drags from that side. You are talking about the river being 2 or 3 miles wide at that spot so the river drags well into that county on that side. Bellevue is right there. It gives you this incredible vista. It also demonstrates the power of the river as a geological force over time.
Interviewer: I see that you offer guided tours of the Mississippi backwaters. is it possible to teach someone that eye so they can catch and take good pictures?
Henry: Yes. I’ve spent an incredible amount of time in the outdoors. I go on road trips that are several weeks long where I’m out there, not just the Mississippi Valley, but across the United States. Mostly west. And there is a formula for sunset, a formula for sunrise. Once I explain it, you see the light bulbs go off in the people. There is an upper atmospheric lighting where the low clouds are not lit so you get this three dimensional drama going on. The sun goes down and underlights the low clouds and the upper clouds are white. There is all kinds of great things going on with the lighting and the distance the sunlight has to travel through the atmosphere. These are the things I talk about when I’m shoulder to shoulder with people.
Interviewer: Henry it sounds to me that the process is almost as important as the location.
Henry: Part of the photography process what one needs to think about, when they are making photos, is they’re taking a three dimensional visual, putting it in the camera and onto paper which becomes a two dimensional plane. The trick or the artist then, along with delivering drama and emotion, is to get that two dimensional plane to look as three dimensional as possible. Whether it is the use of color, the way the sunlight hits the clouds, perspective and leading lines. There is a lot that goes into an outstanding composition. I owe a lot of that to my art training. I drew and painted landscapes before I delved into the camera.