The Long Road to Photography

Mon Aug 07 2017


As long as I can recall, I have had a camera or been around cameras. My father deeply enjoyed photography as a hobby, as well did his father (who also did some paid work as a photographer on the side of his appliance business). There is a very classic photo my father took of me when we lived on Guam (he was stationed there as part of his Air Force career), where I am sitting atop a large lava boulder on the shore in the surf at Tarague Beach.

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic X-15. You know, the kind where you clipped in the film and used a four-flash cube that looked like an ice cube. I recall carrying that thing around starting around age ten as I explored various parts of my home town of Rapid City and the nearby Black Hills. Photography was a part of the journey, documenting the scenery, plants, even rocks. When I was fourteen, a friend and I were hiking within Rapid Creek to get through an area with thick foliage on the bank when I slipped and fell – but I thrust the hand holding my camera high into the air as I fell so that the camera would not get wet. It was the only part of me that did not go underwater. I learned early the importance of protecting gear, even if it was cheap gear.

By high school, I still had that Instamatic, but I was starting to take pictures for the school newspaper and yearbook, using a camera provided by the school. It was not until I was in the Navy that I owned my first single lens reflex camera.

When I joined the Navy, it never occurred to me to join as a photographer. The rating at the time was called Photographer’s Mate (now combined with the Journalist rate to become a Mass Communications Specialist). Inspired I think by my father’s service in the Air Force, I wanted to go into avionics. But there would be a long wait for the next avionics A-School (training school) opening, so I took the rating of Operations Specialist. My job would be to operate radar and tactical data systems to plot and track air and surface targets and provide analysis of potential threats. But somewhere during the first year of my first command – an ammunition supply ship stationed on Guam (the U.S.S. Haleakala AE-25) – the call went down the chain of command for someone to volunteer to be the ship’s photographer. We were too small of a command to have a Photographer’s Mate stationed on board. So, I volunteered.

My role as photographer would have two primary functions. First and foremost, my job would be to serve on the ship’s SNOOPIE Team and photograph any encounters with Soviet aircraft or ships, then send the undeveloped film along with a written report to Fleet Intelligence Pacific at Pearl Harbor (I had turned down a post at Third Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor to serve on the Haleakala, so there was some irony there). To ensure I was properly trained, the Navy flew me up to the naval station at Yokusuka, Japan, to spend three weeks in a combination of photography training (including learning how to process black and white film in a wet darkroom) and intelligence training (so I would know how to identify ships and aircraft and what to look for when taking photos). Later, I would receive additional intelligence training as part of another duty I assumed as the Enlisted Intelligence Assistant to our ship’s intelligence officer.

That really put the photo bug in me. I reveled in the opportunity to photograph things that were dramatic and exciting to ordinary. I documented shipboard life, drills, visiting admirals, and ports of call. Later, on my next ship – a Spruance Class destroyer (the U.S.S. David R. Ray) – I would have the opportunity to photograph weapons firing like Tomahawk, Sea Sparrow and R.A.M. (rolling aeirframe missile) missiles along with 5-inch guns and the 20mm CIWS Phalanx weapon system. Though I had no formal training in it, I developed a photojournalistic style as a by-product of my subject matter.

And yet, by the time I was in college, it did not occur to me to pursue a career in photography. I took an intro photography class and an advanced photography class that focused on the Ansel Adams Zone System. It was through these two classes that I developed a solid foundation in exposure and the technical aspects of photography. It was not until after college, when I worked as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, when I truly started to take my photography seriously, to consider the possibility that this is something I would like to do professionally.

And it was the act of being in nature, in the deep wilderness of northern Minnesota, that finally brought together all the elements that developed a foundation for a passion for photography. Part of my job as a guide was to also become a naturalist, so I could explain the natural world around us to our guests. And it was developing that knowledge that led me to want to explore natural subjects photographically, to find a way to capture them as part of sharing the wonders of the natural world with others. And like anyone else living in the north woods of Minnesota, I started to read the writings of Sigurd Olson, then Walt Whitman. I saw and admired renowned Minnesota photographer Jim Brandenburg use his photography to protect the Boundary Waters from increased motorized access. Photographing nature started to take on even more of a role than simply documenting the beauty of nature and sharing it. I started to think more about why I should share images of nature with others.

Today, I call upon 30 years of experience in how I capture the world around me. In my recent book Where Water is Gold, I look back to my photojournalistic origins in documenting the subsistence way of life and commercial fishing in the Bristol Bay region. I think of Jim Brandenburg’s works to document the amazing watershed and ask the overall question, “Should a mine be in a place like this?”

There is a whole world out there that few will see. Being out in it to photograph it puts me in the path of a wild machine that is constantly churning out the seasons, moving from one to the next and all the change that comes with it. It allows me to have countless experiences from chance encounters with wolves to the struggle of life and death at dusk as bats swarm to consume hundreds of moths. I write more broadly on these themes in my related post Why Wilderness is Important to Me as an Artist. But one of the things I love most about being a photographer is simply how I see the world. You come to see how light affects objects and the landscape, you see details that non-photographers miss. You are more aware of the change in the world around you, especially if you have been photographing in the same area for years. You develop a relationship with the land, a sense of connection, that is somewhat similar to the experience of meditation. Capturing the photo is an act of connection. Some indigenous people believe that photos take away their soul. As a photographer, when I am out in the field and taking photos, it fills like the act fills my soul, rather than diminish it. It is that connection that also drives me to use my photography to fight to conserve our special places. Because everyone should have the opportunity to fill as enriched as I do when immersed in the natural world.

Sea Sparrow launching