We had the good fortune of connecting with Justin Lowry and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Justin, what makes you happy? Why?
My vision blurs in and out briefly as I clench my jaw and muscle the pedals of my bike one more revolution. One more revolution… one more and another in a seemingly endless cycle of pushing my pedals and pulling my handlebars as I struggle to push my bike and I up the narrow, rough, winding road to Bown’s Peak.
The temperature at a scalding 118°F and choking smoke of not-so-far-off wildfires is making this ride interesting. I stop to eat some trail mix knowing full well if I keep pushing without some form of rest and refuel that I will likely fall over from heat exhaustion. I notice the road ahead seems to be ascending straight into the sky from the angle where I’m sitting. It’s a dramatic and simple scene – the road cutting across horizontally with the only other shape being the nearly perpendicular wall of stone it was cut out of years ago. I take out my camera, adjust my settings and start the self-timer when I am ready to get on my bike. Three or four cranks later, I hear the click of my shutter and return to see what it captured. the photo was quite beautiful. Simple, almost washed out by the sun, just like in real life – I could almost feel the heat coming through the image. I pack my camera back into its bag and continue up the hill, passing miles and miles of sandstone, cacti, and other creatures odd enough to be out and about during the midday sun. As I rise further and further into the treeline surrounding the Four Peaks, I feel the weight of my water pack decrease slowly but surely till I know I have to turn back lest I run out of water and again face the consequence of passing out by the road.
At the crest of another pass, nearly 4,000 feet above where I parked my car, my tires roll slowly to a stopI plant my left foot out to hold my bike and I up. I take one last look at the four towering spires of rock in front of me and set out to find a good angle for a photo before turning my bike down the 14 miles of two-track back to my car. The bike quickly reaches speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour which I am barely able to control with significant use of the brakes. Around one corner I skid to a stop to look out over a vast range of yellow and gold mountains, layering steadily into invisibility. The scene is cloaked with smoke from the extensive forest fires throughout Tonto National Forest that happened in 2020. My camera came out again, and the scene shone through my viewfinder till I snapped the shot and continued on.
Reaching my car, finally, around 7:00 PM, I was exhausted, hoarse from smoke and dust in my lungs, covered in soot I had used as a makeshift sunblock, and sunburnt nonetheless. My legs felt torn and my arms were shaky from absorbing the rattling up and down the mountain. My heart and my mind, though… they felt the warmth of gratitude, glow of awe, and inexplicable happiness that lasts even as I am writing this more than a year later. It was the last time I would be out in that part of the forest for the rest of the year, as two days later the road was closed by order of the Forest Service when the fire finally reached the base of the mountain and began its own ascent into the treeline. The next time I returned, the landscape had morphed into a devastated, ghostly scene of blackened trees and grey earth, covered in ashes of the once-lush plant life.
This is what makes me happy – outdoor adventure photography and the unforgettable, unique experiences associated with it. Since before I can remember, my family and I have been in the outdoors hiking, biking, fishing, or nearly any other activity that can take place outside. At 10 years old, I received my first camera – a gift that would fuel the next 14 years and hopefully many more to come with a passion for adventure and art. Since a very young age, I’ve been drawn to taking photographs of things that I don’t think get enough attention. My personal philosophy is that even in the most everyday situations if one looks closely enough, there is beauty to be seen. You just have to go out and look for it. In my photography, this often leads me to take extremely close-up shots of seemingly everyday things like snowflakes and insects. It’s fascinating to see the world from a new scale like the one in which these tiny objects and creatures exist. In adventure photography, this desire for rarity draws me into the hinterland, far away from civilized places and closer to the infrequently traveled paths of the wilderness.
On adventures, most often by bike or by foot, I seek out the most remote and otherworldly places I can find. The isolation and extremes experienced on these adventures give me time to think, to listen to sounds of nature, to explore experimental compositions through my lens, and to test my own limits in the process. Though sometimes the effort, the heat or cold, the physical injuries, and the fears associated with these can be quite heavy, I’ve found that the reward is immensely worth the cost. That’s because it’s not just getting to a destination that makes me happy. Happiness comes from the journey to get there, the shared experiences with friends, the unexpected sights, the feeling of accomplishment when reaching a summit, the overwhelming humility that comes when I can’t complete what I set out to, and the inexplicable drive to return and try again. It makes me feel more complete to have these experiences and helps me understand more fully who I am through character-building and the possibilities that lie waiting just beyond my own knowledge.
Photography allows me to capture those moments of extremes and emotions to share with my friends and the world or to remind me of the day and the timeframe around their origin. Photographic art gives me the chance to share that happiness either through photography itself or the ability to inspire other people to seek adventure and to start conversations. It brings me so much joy to enable other people to seek out and learn to responsibly enjoy beauty in nature, and adventure photography has been a tremendous tool in that process.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”
Although adventure photography is what sets me apart, I try to diversify my artistic skills in a multitude of ways so that I can pull different techniques into my projects. Aside from adventure photography, I also regularly practice extreme macro photography, portrait photography, product photography, videography, graphic design, and woodworking. Through all of these disciplines, I’d say the one thing that makes my work unique is the ability to take the bigger picture and find the small details that make it unique. I like to find places that nobody has seen or thought of for a photoshoot, and in places that are frequented, I try to focus on the smaller things that add up to the overall story.
To get to where I am now, I’d say the biggest key is consistency and determination. A lot of times, it felt like I was destined to work in a retail job or anywhere else that I couldn’t pursue my passion for the rest of my days. It was hard to feel that way, and a lot of times, I wondered if maybe I just wasn’t right for my dream. The biggest thing that helped me was the supportive people in my life during those times. Having a group of people or even just one person in my corner encouraging me to keep going was all that kept me going at times when I really felt my goals were too far off to reach.
After getting my first client, it was my obvious priority to make them as happy as possible with their experience, and I just kept looking for my next client. Really it took a while at first to start getting momentum, but once I got a few photoshoots booked, I started recognizing the process a little bit more and it started getting easier, especially as my professional portfolio grew (turns out pictures of bugs and wildlife don’t sell weddings that easily). It wasn’t always easy, and I’d say it’s still not. It is always worth it though when I get to do what I love and see it continue to grow.
The most important thing I think I’ve learned is that if you don’t believe in yourself enough to ask for work or put yourself out there, nobody else is going to believe in you either. Again, times when confidence is low are exactly when you need a supportive person or group of people to keep you going. Even if it’s just for fun, keep doing what you love, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t see your goals realized right away.
For my brand personally, my eventual goal is to shoot with the top adventure photographers in the world and try to share that experience and passion with as many people as I can while documenting the stories of other amazing people in this world of ours.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Hahaha, you know, I’ve gotten that question a number of times, and it’s one of my favorite to answer. For me, the best places to visit have always been the ones that have the most wilderness and discovery possible. In Phoenix, there is plenty of wild lands to explore if you have the strength and the will. If you ask me where to go, what to do, where to eat, etc while visiting Phoenix, I’d say this: Day 1 – Go to South Mountain Preserve and hike or bike National Trail. It’s a fantastic welcome to Phoenix weather and Arizona mountain biking or hiking. After you’re done there, Taco Sahuaro is a great place to get burritos before camping in Tonto National Forest way out to the east of the valley.
Day 2 – Visit an offroading two-track in Tonto National Forest. I’d highly recommend biking up Four Peaks road or driving to the top in a 4×4 and hiking to the summit. It’s another good place to camp, but it’s hard to access, so you avoid some crowds. Enjoy some beer from Four Peaks Brewing Co. I’m a fan of their Double Knot IPA personally. Warm Ramen Noodles and fresh cut onions and jalapenos make for a great way to warm up before bed or stargazing.
Day 3 – Pack your bags!! It’s almost 100 miles outside of Phoenix to reach Mayer, where the Black Canyon Trail starts. I’d recommend taking Day 3-6 and packing 3 days of food on your bike to ride this gnarly 90-ish mile trail back down to Lake Pleasant. There are beautiful canyons, prairies, rivers, cliffs, mountains, cattle ranges, and plenty of desert wildlife to soak in for the 3-day trip. It’s gruelling though, so don’t underestimate it, and you’ll also need a shuttle to get back to Mayer, or have someone drop you off in Mayer and pick you up in the Lake Pleasant area. Huss Brewery Moon Juice is a nice little pick-me-up to keep you on the saddle, but be sure to hydrate! Also, there’s a saloon near Bumblebee, so don’t pass that up! 😉
Day 7 – At this point, you should probably go to Sedona and cool off in one of the several creeks before heading back to Phoenix to catch your flight, but before you get on the plane, be sure to get some burritos from La Canasta, just south of Phoenix.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would not be who I am or where I am today without the support and comradery of my friends and family. Before I even owned a camera, my parents have taken me out into incredible places around this country to inspire a love of exploration and the outdoors. Even my first camera was a gift from them. After that, a series of incredible friends have been beside me helping me find new and incredible experiences from Boy Scout pals to hiking and biking buddies.
My wife, who I met as a hiking and biking friend, has been pivotal in encouraging me to take the leap into making photography my career, and there is no way I can ever thank her enough for her support, encouragement, advice, and adventures that she has shared and continues to share with me every step of the way.
Peter Jenkins also helped inspire me during the two times that I read his book “A Walk Across America.” I think that was the first time I realized there’s not much stopping anyone from just going on an adventure other than their own unwillingness to let go of what’s “expected.”
All images are my own – Justin Lowry Photography