The lawn behind Steve Holmes’ house has a quiet beauty typical of rural New England.
It’s a manicured patch of grass and flowers, ringed by tall trees and small boulders. A distinctive double birch rises in a V behind a split-rail fence. A low stone wall curves around one corner of the yard. A sapling with dark red leaves pops against the surrounding greens. A dirt trail leads into the woods.
As picturesque as it all is, there’s also a commercial purpose.
“We built a lot of this with photography in mind,” Holmes said. Even some of the rocks were left “strategically,” to enhance family portraits and the like.
Holmes, 46, is a Keene-based photographer who, for about 12 years, has fused his love of nature with commercially sensible work like wedding pictures and senior portraits.
“New England is beautiful,” he said. “I love living here, and I love the community feel that it has. You’re in the trees a little bit more sometimes. So for me, that means sometimes just choosing the right locations or venues if I want things that are more open.”
In the Monadnock Region, he has plenty to work with.
His online portfolio is like a tour of local landscapes. A clean-cut young man sitting on a boulder in front of a misty lake. A bride and groom kissing in front of marshy grasslands. A family sitting on a stone wall under a branch of yellow leaves. Mount Monadnock makes frequent cameos.
So, sometimes, do animals. Holmes sometimes gets “wildlife photobombs.” “Deer show up — like behind a high-school senior once; that was pretty funny. And then a woodpecker a few weeks ago.”
Educator to artist
As a kid, Holmes lived in several East Coast states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia — before moving to Ohio, where he spent 7th through 12th grades.
He always had a passion for the outdoors. After graduating from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., with a degree in natural resources, he spent six years working at the National Outdoor Leadership School, a Wyoming-based nonprofit organization that teaches leadership, wilderness skills and environmental topics through outdoor excursions around the world.
“He’s just such an easygoing, friendly guy, who just knows how to do everything,” said his wife, Heather Holmes, who also worked for NOLS and led courses with him. “So I think students really just took to him.”
During that time, Steve and Heather lived in various scenic places — Wyoming, Idaho and Alaska among them. They spent a year in Kenya, working for NOLS there. They led programs for local teachers and mountain guides, as well as a 65-day course for Americans that included sailing on dhows in the Indian Ocean and backpacking on Mount Kenya, the second-highest peak on the continent at about 17,000 feet.
“It was pretty interesting, hiking on buffalo and elephant trails, and having hyenas come into our camp and steal our food,” Holmes said.
In 2000, the couple moved to Keene, where Holmes studied for a master’s degree in environmental studies at Antioch University New England. After graduating, he taught high school science at the Compass School in Westminster, Vt.
While at Antioch, he took up nature photography to connect with the outdoors in a new way, now that he was no longer paid to sleep on the ground in wild places.
Fiddling with equipment appealed to the “technical side” of his brain, but he also enjoyed the aesthetics. “I think I found a latent artist in myself that I never really knew existed,” he said.
When Holmes latches on to a new pursuit, he goes all in, according to Heather. “Whatever he sets his mind to, he becomes a master at it, whether it be kayaking or fly fishing or mountain biking or teaching,” she said. He doesn’t just learn to kayak; “he becomes an instructor of kayaking,” she said. “He doesn’t just go mountain biking; he becomes so obsessed that every book on his nightstand is about mountain biking.”
It was the same with photography, which Holmes eventually began to teach at Compass, she said. Photography books crowded out other ones.
Holmes started photographing people with the birth of his children — Eliza, now 16, and Rowan, now 14 — capturing pictures of them and their preschool friends.
Eventually, he said, “I just couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t ignore the passion for photography.”
While working part-time at Compass School, he started Steve Holmes Photography out of a spare bedroom in the family’s house, on a hill off West Surry Road in Keene. Nature photography’s an especially hard business, he said, so he focused on portraits and events.
“Living in a small town, oftentimes the strategy is to be more of a generalist, just to be able to get the clients you need,” he said.
The people skills he gained as an educator came in handy.
“Over many years, you start to develop just an intuitive sense of what is a real expression and what is not,” he explained. Eliciting naturalness depends on “being able to interact with people, have them be comfortable and have them be themselves.”
Portraits and landscapes
In 2009, a few years after he started his business, Holmes quit teaching to work in photography full-time.
By 2013, the business had grown enough for him to build a standalone studio behind the house.
A small reception room with a couch, coffee table and computer connects to the spacious hall he uses for photo shoots. The theme is “kind of ‘rustic barn,’ ” he said, albeit a clean, modern take on it. Dark wood beams rib the high, gabled ceiling, contrasting with bright off-white paint. Large windows fill two of the walls, letting in natural light. A large wooden rolling door separates the studio room from the entry space, with a projector screen where clients can check out their photos.
The studio, and its natural setting, recalls the New England landscapes and structures that often feature in Holmes’ work.
Capturing people in nature, Holmes said, requires both planning and flexibility. You need to be prepared with the right gear and know the best locations — but also to roll with what the people, and the weather conditions, give you.
It was drizzling before one fall wedding at Cobb Hill Estate in Harrisville, Holmes recalled. Just before the ceremony, the rain ceased, and the clouds receded. The winds continued, though, so Holmes used that.
The bride stood in a field of green and gold shrubs. Behind her were trees turning orange and red, and a blue horizon dominated by Monadnock.
Holmes had a bridesmaid toss the bride’s veil in the air as if it were a kite. “It stayed up for maybe six photos,” he said.
In the resulting image, the veil flows horizontally through the middle of the photo, undulating almost in unison with the curves of the horizon.
Out of challenges come opportunities. One couple planned to marry in a “huge open field in Marlborough that has a great view of Monadnock,” he said, before a storm forced them indoors. During the reception, Holmes watched the skies. When they calmed, he grabbed the bride and groom for a quick shoot.
In one photo, the young couple walks through a pasture, smiling at each other, absorbed in the moment. The groom’s holding an umbrella, tilted back casually, like a parasol in a French painting. Behind them, a grassy hill and a line of trees give way to the deep, solid blue of a storm-inclined sky. At the edge of the frame, a streak of lightning flashes amid purplish clouds.
Like a photo shoot, running a photography business requires hard work and adaptability. The rise of smartphones has created the feeling that “you’re kind of competing with everyone in the world,” Holmes said.
For him, the answer is to build client relationships and, above all, produce work that stands out. After all, there are some things iPhones, on their own, will never do.
“They’ll never be able to recognize what light is good light and what light is bad light,” he said, “and they’ll never be able to work with people.”