If the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve were some otherworldly landscape within the Star Wars universe, then Mike Gere would definitely be Yoda. A longtime local and photography guide, Gere helps amateur shutterbugs learn how to wield and capture light even during the blackest of hours. He also uses a lot of tools that look suspiciously like light sabers.
Although he has photography tours that cover many different subjects—sunrise, sunset, waterfalls, and more—his night photography option is his most popular. This may come as a surprise, considering the jagged mountains that helped make Jasper famous take a back seat in images snapped after dark. But the national park also happens to be the second largest dark sky preserve in the world, having received official designation from the Royal Astronomical Society in 2011 for its lack of light pollution and commitment to preserving the night sky.
“The sky’s the limit for creativity with night photography,” Gere says. “With long exposure photography you have the ability to bend time.” Whereas day photography deals in fractions of second, at night you can condense multiple minutes into a single image.
Using a technique called “light painting,” Gere combines Jasper’s surreal setting with surreal storytelling. Sometimes called light drawing or light graffiti, light painting uses long exposures and a moving light source (for example a flashlight, smartphone, or light tube) to add unusual dimensions to photographs. It’s a delicate choreography of movement, light, and time, in which calculation meets experimentation and results are hard to replicate. Gere is one of only a small group of photographers in Canada who specialize in light painting. And he’s almost certainly the only one who's hiked a light tube more than 20 kilometres into the Tonquin Valley backcountry to light paint against a backdrop of the Ramparts mountain range.
The light painting started as a way to bring more creativity to his night sky photography and in-case-of-clouds flexibility for his astrophotography tours. But it’s also grown to be an outlet for his ‘maker’ side projects. He’s always been fan of fantasy pop culture (think: Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc), and often integrates mystical themes into his shoots. A self-described pack rat, former toy-dismantler and jack of all trades, Gere delights in making the costumes and props that feature in his photography. He sews, welds, mechanizes, scavenges, and paints many of the elements that are then posed in stark contrast against the wild mountain landscape.
Because some of his photos look so out there, people occasionally suspect the images have been digitally rendered. But Gere assures that each image has come straight from his camera (watch the video below to check out his creative process).
“I’m not adding anything that wasn’t there, and I’m not removing something that was,” he says. Sometimes he’ll layer two separate exposures of the same scene, taken on the same outing, in order to balance out the dynamic range within an image. “Everyone’s got their own artistic license of what they’ll do or not do with a shot, but that’s mine.”
It’s been 25 years since he took his first pictures of the mountains. It was during a trip to Jasper in his mid-teens with his mom and grandma and sister, and he’d bought a disposable camera. He put the shutter to work, taking tons of what he assumed were glorious photos of a glorious place. But when he got the photos developed back home in Ottawa, he was disappointed to find the subjects looked distant and overall underwhelming compared to his real life memory of them. “I wondered what I’d done wrong,” he says.
“The sky’s the limit for creativity with night photography,” Gere says. “With long exposure photography you have the ability to bend time.”
He came back to Jasper for good at 18, when a one-month ski vacay turned into a series of odd jobs, which turned into this is home now. While working at the SkyTram he got a camera from the lost and found box and started taking pictures.
From there it was a gradual building of skill and confidence. Friends began admiring the 4x6 snapshots on his wall. One pal asked him to shoot his mom’s wedding. “I thought ‘hey I could make a living off this,” he says. He shot around 100 weddings in Jasper before growing tired of the repetition. He was still working full time and the extra time spent in front of the computer editing photos was wearing on him. Enter: photography guiding.
At this point he’d been working as a raft guide on Jasper’s rivers, a guide on the Maligne Lake photography cruise, and also as a seasonal guide working on polar bear photography tours in Churchill, Manitoba. He realized there wasn’t any independent, specialized photography guides in Jasper. “It appealed because I could just go out and take pictures, talk to people and not come home with a memory card full of obligations,” he says with a laugh.
Although he enjoys the solitude of night shoots, he found he really liked teaching. “When you show someone how to do something and you see their eyes light up and realize ‘that’s how that works,’ it’s so freaking sweet,” he says. “It’s kind of like watching one of your favourite movies that you’ve seen hundreds of times with someone who’s never seen it before.”
Speaking of movies, Gere has always been a fan. Halloween is his Christmas. One year he made a Wolverine costume, and embedded spark makers and a hidden hack saw into the claws so that when he scraped them together he’d release a dramatic shower of sparks into the air.
For another costume he made a replica of Han Solo’s blaster using a toy gun, broom pole, top of a ketchup bottle, and more. He recently scavenged an old printer he found in a back alley, knowing there would be axels and gear bands inside to repurpose. Sometimes his girlfriend will be waiting for him outside a grocery store, waitingwaitingwaiting, and he’ll finally come out carrying a plastic skeleton. "I get a little carried away, a little obsessed. It’s very time consuming.” The skeleton is now laying beside his cereal boxes on a high exposed shelf in his kitchen. Flick a switch and its eyes glow red—another Gere modification.
Cosplayers and fandoms sometimes throw him likes through social media, but he says he gets more appreciation from the light painting community. This small, skilled and eccentric community inspires him to reinvent concepts more commonly done in the prairies or city. Instead of an abandoned warehouse, he has Maligne Canyon. Instead of twinkly skyscapers, he has mountains.
“I try to be a bit of a steward for the national park,” he says. “I don’t think I’d ever leave Jasper. I’ve carved my own comfortable niche here.”