Two things have been constants in my life, the outdoors and visual arts. Growing up on a wheat and cattle ranch near the Northwest’s Snake River, the environment wasn’t an abstract concept, it slapped you in the face each morning when you stepped outside to start work. Cattle and horses to be fed on Christmas morning, calves to be delivered in February, hay to be stacked on the Fourth of July and wheat to be harvested in August.
A camera was my great escape. It allowed me travel both inward within my mind and outward to better assimilate the world. To ask me when I first learned to use a camera is like asking me when I first learned to ride a horse; both happened when I was so young that I have no recollection of either.
The first camera I remember was an old bellows Kodak my folks had from the 1930s or 40s, then came my sisters’ Box Brownie in the early 50s, a rectangular cube capable of eight fuzzy images per roll. Not that quality much mattered, they were better than the ones out of the old camera with the leaky bellows. Electrical tape patches didn’t work very well on the old camera, and we hardly ever had any film for my sisters’ camera anyway.
Still, I became fascinated with cameras, spending countless hours “dry-shooting” hundreds of pictures with an empty camera, just like my peers fired off “dry-rounds” with their fathers’ hunting rifles. Finally, somewhere in the early 1950s I got my own Brownie Hawk Eye camera, complete with leatherette case, close-up attachment and a yellow filter. I read every book on photography I could get (not many) and poured over black and white images within Life and Look magazines. (I still have that Brownie Hawk Eye and the old bellows Kodak.)
The die was cast; I became a photojournalist and writer. A photographer because it was what I loved and a writer because it paid the bills. I started freelancing and my first big break came when Grant Cannon, Editor of The Farm Quarterly (FQ), a big, slick national circulation magazine headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, offered me a staff position.
I bought a new camera and moved with my wife and two small children to Cincinnati where I learned magazine journalism and became a pro. FQ prided itself on high quality photo work and it offered a a wonderful “swim-or-sink” environment. When an editor sent you out for a week to some distant part of the country, you either came back with the goods or you didn’t last. At first I went out on assignment with established photographers who shot the visuals while I wrote the words and pushed any of my own pictures I could sneak into the article.
Two generous pro photojournalists helped teach me: Joe Munroe of Orinda, California and Thomas D. Lowes of Buffalo, New York. Bill Barksdale, the magazine’s Executive Editor, also became my mentor in many ways; he went on to become one of North America’s premiere agricultural photographers and writers. Art Director Barron Krody, now a well known Maine artist, gently taught me the necessary elements for a good photo essay, “Where’s the head-shot? Is that the only establishing shot you have? What about the graphic details? Doesn’t the guy have any wife or kids; where are they; what about…?”
Thanks to those wonderful teachers and many others, I went on to shoot assignments for the Peace Corps, U.S. Department of Agriculture and numerous corporate clients and magazines. My work took me all over the Americas, Africa, Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea and the Middle East.
Today, I keep learning; I shoot a few good shots, some not-so-good shots and way too many “WHAT was I THINKING?” shots. When an great photograph slips into the mix, it’s still magic, just as it was back when I was capturing images of protesting siblings, parents, horses, cats, dogs and cows.
I look for the emotional content of the scene, an image-within-the-image, the sinews of the action, the truth behind the veil, the shimmering reality beneath the surface, the beauty of the implied. It’s about capturing the glue that bonds the universe. I keep learning, there’s a lot to explore.