I first saw Joshua Simmons unique take on astrophotography when I saw his work in The Milky Way Chasers Group on Facebook. Being slightly obsessed with astrophotography myself, I know that an interesting foreground is the key to slick looking night photographs. Simmons seemed to understand that as well, since most of his photos used some truly bad ass military equipment, which perfectly meshed with the glowing Milky Way overhead.
I came to find that Simmons wasn’t taking these photos at a military museum, but rather right in the heart of Fort Hood, Texas, where the Air and Missile Defense Warrant Officer is now stationed. I was already both impressed and intrigued by Simmons’ story and photos, but I then came to find out that Simmons had only picked up photography as a hobby eight months ago when he received a consumer level Sony that was passed down to him from his mother-in-law. The married father of three (fourth on the way) immediately became obsessed with photography, especially when the skies are dark and clear. Soon, he was able to invest in a Fuji X system which he feels has really helped him improve his craft.
I was very impressed with Simmons work, especially considering how new he is to photography, so I was and was beyond excited when he sat down with me for an exclusive interview.
What was the actual event that inspired you to pick up photography as a hobby? Was there a specific photo you saw on social media that gave you the thought, ‘Hey, I want to try that?’
My wife and children were away in Minnesota visiting family around October of last year and I was back at our home in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sitting around the house I started to think of particular constructive hobbies that had piqued my interest throughout my life. We were already involved in woodworking (my wife still is to this day) but I wanted something that would force me to get out of the house on a consistent basis. I have always enjoyed taking photos but it wasn’t until I began to study the technical and artistic craft of photography that I learned how to make a photograph.
My introduction and subsequent foray into astrophotography began while watching Elia Locardi and Fstoppers’ cityscape photography tutorial “Photographing the World”. From that point on I was full drive into gaining all the information I could on what went into composing beautiful nightscapes and astrophotography. This eventually lead me to phenomenal photographers such as Michael Shainblum, Royce Bair and Tracy Lee and the wonderful work she does with the Milky Way Chasers group. So at this point I was full of inspiration, project ideas and a passion to learn and perfect my craft. However, it was October and the Milky Way “hunting season” had come to a close. And so began the long wait until the summer months came and the Milky Way reemmerged.
It seems you were immediately drawn to astrophotography. What is it about photographing the night sky that gets you creativity flowing more than other forms of photography?
It has to do with the epic and cosmic scale of the genre. The idea of being brought face to face with the vast expanse of the galaxy, capturing its beauty and displaying it as a central theme in an image is as captivating as it is terrifying. The relatively random observation of comets streaking through the sky, the immovable Polaris encircled by trails of stars or the Milky Way and a lone tree all sing the same tune of ordered beauty. My aim and desire is simply to play the role of the artistic conductor to the glory of God.
A lot of your work is on base in Fort Hood, Texas where you use some impressive military equipment as foreground for your Milky Way photos. Do you need to get permission to photograph some of the things on base?
Thus far I have not needed any special permission to utilize any of the equipment I have used. My Milky Way photos feature equipment that belongs to my unit and I am always ensuring that I do not overstep my privilege in their use by showing anything improper. My star trail images that use military equipment are from museum artifacts open to public view.
With an early wake-up call every morning, and the Milky Way being visible after 1am right now, what is your normal schedule like when you want to shoot? When do you find time to sleep?
When I was shooting these images I would normally bed down for the night at around 10 or 11PM local time, wake up at around 1AM, compose images and capture them by 3-4AM. I would then head back to my office, sleep until 6 or 7AM and go about the rest of my day until it was time to do it all over again. Moreover, at the time of these images, we were in the field and so it was conducive towards the making of these images night after night. During the New Moon phase I like to block off an “Astro Window,” 4 days prior and 4 days after to focus on astrophotography. During my work week when I am not in the field, I only ever do star trails as Milky Way shots would require me to travel long distances in order to get to dark skies. So when I am not in the field I will do my Milky Way photos on the weekends of my “Astro Window” so then it becomes paramount that I take full advantage of these moments when they arrive!
Have you ever been deployed, or based anywhere other than Texas in your 11 year career?
I have been deployed to Southwest Asia on a few occasions and spent time in South Korea. My wife and our sons have been stationed at Fort Bliss (Texas), Fort Sill (Oklahoma), Fort Bragg (North Carolina) and now Fort Hood, Texas.
Are there any places that are on your travel bucket list, especially for photographing the Milky Way?
Where do I begin? To start, I want to visit all the darkest skies (Bortle Scale 3 and lower) that Texas has to offer, beginning with Big Bend Ranch State Park (Class 1!). Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Natural Bridges National Monument, Death Valley, Denali National Park, Bryce Canyon, all of Scotland, Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand, the Sahara, Iceland and Australia. So many dark skies still left in this world, you just need to work to get to them. I imagine the list will only grow from here!