Waterfalls and Wi-Fi Give Photographers a New Perspective

Professional photographers April Johnson and Jeff Miller help others develop their craft in a scenic setting.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Nestled in 20 lush acres of mountain forest, the high-end retreat Mountain Lens, owned by April Johnson and Jeff Miller, offers photography workshops to students from across the country. Though Miller started the business in the early 2000s, the retreat center in its current form began as a brainstorm between the two only three years ago, and is now thriving. Participants and instructors gather on the property for long weekends of photography, classroom time, and immersion in nature. The campus offers luxurious lodging, high-speed Wi-Fi and high-def TVs, and meals, as well as a classroom for digital editing and instruction. Asheville Made sat down with the duo to learn how it all developed.

How did each of your personal ventures lead you to this one? 

Johnson: I started with visual arts and corporate photography. I wanted to do something different here, so I created Asheville Pet Photography in 2009. With people and pets, I work to create Rembrandt-lighting portraiture.

Miller: I’m a geek at heart. I came in through the technology door and felt right at home with digital imaging. Early on, I worked with people who were using computers for the first time to support their photography habit. That’s how my teaching began, with the tools. 

Johnson: We’ve both shown in galleries and been published, but Mountain Lens really feels like jelling all of our life experience and the passion we have for art. It enriches us. We meet wonderfully talented people and people who are curious and want to learn and grow, just like we do. And that just feels good. It really is a community.

The campus isn’t urban, but it’s not a rustic wilderness experience either …

Miller: [We have] groomed trails, a large and small pond, and two streams that converge, as well as a waterfall steps away from the classroom. The campus is large enough so that people can find their own places to be inspired and to photograph, and also gather to share and inspire each other. Others arrive with places in mind like Biltmore [House] or the [Carl] Sandburg [Home], Pisgah [National] Forest or DuPont State Forest. 

Do the surroundings influence the workshops?

Miller: It’s not an intimidating place for people experimenting with new ideas. Everything about this environment, from the natural setting to the small group size, lends itself to developing and expressing creativity.

Tell me about your instructors.

Johnson: Diversity is important to us. We have people creating photography books, doing texture photography and macro photography on flowers, and smartphone photography. Bryan Peterson will be holding a workshop with us next April called the Ultimate Nature Lovers’ Workshop. David Simchock will lead students to area waterfalls and wild areas this fall. It’s been fun to reach out to a lot of well-known artists to bring them to the area. 

Any surprises as the business evolves? 

Miller: Though we were originally focused on photography, we find that artists, musicians, yoga instructors, and other professionals have envisioned bringing their instruction here, as well. 

Johnson: I’d like to see writers here. There’s so much space and quiet.

The semi-rural Henderson County retreat comes with luxurious amenities. Photos by Karin Strickland

Mountain Lens, 6356 Willow Road, Hendersonville. Mary Louise Ravese teaches  “Digital Black and White Photography: From Capture to Print” Thursday, Sept. 27 to Sunday, Sept. 30. For more information, call 828-691-5367 or see mountainlens.com.

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