WORDS: CHAU MUI / INTERVIEW & PHOTOS: ALEXIS STEMBER COULTER
YOU'LL KNOW WHEN YOU'RE SPEAKING WITH A MODERN DAY EXPLORER.
The inflections in their words begin to sound musical. Their eyes light up more than sparklers on July 4th, and suddenly, you too have instantly been transported to a place that up until a few moments ago never even crossed your mind. MODERN DAY EXPLORER is a new series featuring ordinary people on extraordinary journeys. These are their stories.
The word, "explorer" often consumes my mind. I spent countless hours in fourth grade history class, imagining myself, a 9 year old girl from Brooklyn in an iron suit of armor with a gaudy mustache in search of adventure in far, far away lands. Even today, it's those thoughts that bobs into my head on the airplane. The dream never lasts long. It seems as though all lands and waters have been tagged, marked and "Google Mapped" already. Perhaps there is no such thing as an explorer anymore.
That is, until I met Alexis Stember Coulter.
In a former life, Alexis would have been commanding a ship on some fantastical voyage. But even in present day, her life actually reads like the textbook explorers my fingertips once curiously ran over. I met Alexis at an advertising party a few years back. She was known as the producer who got shit done. When there was a project that needed to be shot, produced and delivered on time and under budget, she was the person to call. Outside of work, however, her persona was more telling.
Alexis once sailed 2,500 miles from New Zealand to Tahiti with her fashion photographer father, narrowly escaping the fury of a typhoon. Another tale details a cancelled flight turned all night road trip from Bangor, Maine to NYC in a blazing red Camaro with her photographer husband, Dylan.
This is the story of Alexis, modern day explorer.
To tell the story of how Alexis became a modern day explorer, I have to rewind to her humble beginnings. I’m a firm believer that passion runs in our veins, passed down from generation to generation. If we were to look into Alexis' chemical makeup, I imagine her genetics are comprised of black and white film negatives and old compass parts. Her grandfather was a WWII photographer who flew around Europe photographing potential sites for bombings. Her father, John Stember, is a world renowned fashion photographer with a penchant for sailing around the world. It was John that built her a darkroom at the age of 14.
Her mother, a Swedish supermodel, took Alexis traveling for years as a child. Some of her earliest memories are sitting in the cockpit on the pilot's lap as she traveled to meet her father in some exciting new city around the world. In one adorable account, Alexis recalls taking a tape recorder to the airport and walking around interviewing people. She'd get so caught up that she even missed flights.
"I'VE ALWAYS BEEN CURIOUS, I THINK IT'S BEEN MY DRIVE MY WHOLE LIFE"
It was this curiosity that compelled her to study written journalism in school. She took to journalistic photography and became enamored with the documentary photography of Dorothea Lange, famous for capturing the faces of the Great Depression. Alexis took to the streets to photograph. She hasn't stopped since.
Despite a massive collection of cameras (even Dylan, a professional photographer working in the biz was impressed by her collection when they first met), Alexis had a love and affinity for shooting with film. Her collection of photographs can be seen on her website, "A Return to Film". Shot mainly with her Mamiya 7ii, Alexis' lens catches small details easily overlooked by another one's eyes. In my mind there are two types of photos, ones that tell stories and ones that let the stories unfurl. Alexis’ are the latter.
When I ask Alexis what is her dream job, she tells me it is to pursue story core, the process of capturing oral history and photography, much like Edward Curtis, the famous Seattle photographer. Curtis took over 40,000 photographs of the last remaining Native Americans between 1899 and 1929 and captured some of the only voice recordings of their language. Nearly 100 years later and armed with a Mamiya 7ii film camera, Alexis would tread the very landscape that Curtis once called home during her six day road trip.
" Edward Curtis... came to Canyon de Chelly frequently and shot what is arguably one of his most famous images, "Cañon de Chelly," here. On our last stop of our last night, we stood at the edge of this sheer 1000 foot cliff and watched the full moon rise over Spider Rock in awe. One day we'll come back with our daughter and show her the beauty of this incredible and ancient place."
In my opinion, Alexis is already practicing story core. She's already telling stories with her photographs, we just get to write our own oral stories to go along with them. Last Thanksgiving Alexis, pregnant in her third trimester opted for an epic twist on the All American Road Trip; photographing Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in a 6 day “Babymoon" with her husband, Dylan. For most people, a babymoon is a final dash of freedom before the baby comes. A typical babymoon destination is an all inclusive resort in an exotic island with soft, dip your toes in the sand with calm, blue seas serving as a backdrop.
But for Alexis, her babymoon was anything but. The sand she saw was not surrounded by calm waves of Turquoise. Instead, she ventured across the arid Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas in Donald Judd's art town of Marfa, the White Sands of New Mexico and the Painted Desert of Arizona, capturing all the vivid pinks, blues and orange skies of the great American West.
In every aspect of her life, Alexis has managed to include travel and photography into her life. Within each mini break, work trip and weekend, the shutter of the Mamiya ceases to rest. Her weekends, many now spent in her home of Brooklyn, have taken her across the ends of the Earth. Her first trimester was spent hiking through Iceland and Alaska. It's apparent to me that the thrill of photography and travel has run wildly through her veins even before the day she left her home in a small artist's community in Iowa the day after turning 17.
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT LIFE WOULD BE LIKE WITHOUT TRAVEL AND TO BE FRANK, I’M NOT INTERESTED IN FINDING OUT”
After we parted ways, I realized that this entire time I had an outdated vision of an explorer in my head. Explorers don't need to be mustachioed in metal garb backed by some European lord. All that it takes to be an explorer is to have an unquenchable curiosity and an undying desire to follow your passion, regardless of the obstacles. That is after all, what the olden explorers were doing. Alexis has always kept her two passions, travel and photography in the forefront of her life, despite all the other little facets that make up life, and that I admire.
Here's to you, Alexis.
To see more of Alexis' work please visit: