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Shooting the Shooters

What goes into the making of a photograph? I took a pilgrimage across Texas to photograph some of the best wildlife and outdoors photographers in the nation as they ply their trade.

By Scott Sommerlatte

I'll confess: I pick up a magazine, flip through the pages to check out the photos and, if nothing captures my attention, I'll move on. But, if an image does happen to grab my eye, I might spend the next hour perusing the pages of the publication so as to learn more.

The simple fact is, humans respond more quickly to visual stimuli than just about anything else. It is for this very reason that photography is such an important part of any publication and a hallmark of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. In no small part, much of the credit for these images goes to the four photographers listed on the masthead of this publication as contributing photographers.

While many great photographers have graced the pages of Texas Parks & Wildlife, the work of Grady Allen, Wyman Meinzer, Earl Nottingham and David J. Sams seem to take up as much space as the text. While each one of these individuals is a master of his craft, each brings his own perspective to the magazine's pages. And, while they each contribute their own certain style or "eye," they all have one thing in common: their images are Texas, through and through.

To really appreciate their work, ask yourself, "What is a photograph?" Some would say it is no more than a moment in time that has been captured forever, through the wonders of science, to be preserved or cherished for a lifetime. Others would say it is a method of communicating with others or, better yet, art. A literal translation from the Greek language, combining "photo" and "graph" translates as "light drawing." Taking it a step further, I would call it "painting with light."

As with any great drawing or painting, a great photograph takes work, dedication and skill. It also requires a knowledge of light and equipment, preparation and, in some cases, more patience than the average person can muster. These attributes, combined with an eye for composition, are what make a photograph great. I visited with each of this magazine's contributing photographers to learn more about his unique perspectives.

Grady Allen

Speaking of great photos, how many of you noticed the awesome photograph in the August 2002 issue by Grady Allen of an alligator, its head raised above the water, staring down a piece of meat on a hook? This kind of powerful image makes Allen's work stand out in the world of wildlife photography.

While Allen's name is usually associated with up-close images of Texas' majestic wildlife, this El Campo resident has another claim to fame. He is a champion calf roper and the first left-handed roper ever to make it to the National Finals. To hear him talk about it, it's no big deal; but to hear a few longtime El Campo residents tell the story, well, you might think differently.

Allen's love for the outdoors becomes evident as we speak, especially when we start talking about conservation and the turn that hunting and fishing has taken in the last two decades. This is what sparked his interest in and love for photography. A longtime deer hunter, Allen became disenchanted with how commercial hunting had become. Feeling that high fencing and big money leases had turned what used to be hunting into shooting, he put down his gun and picked up a camera.

Now a veteran photographer of 25 years, Allen has spent most of his life making a living off the land as a rancher and farmer, an occupation that has provided him with many valuable connections with landowners. These connections, along with a pleasant demeanor and a genuine respect for the land, are why Allen is welcomed with a smile and a handshake at ranch gates all over the state.

A self-taught photographer, Allen has seen his wildlife images published in Field & Stream, Gray's Sporting Journal, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield and many other major outdoor publications; his aerial photos of the excavation of the French explorer LaSalle's ship in Matagorda Bay appeared in National Geographic and several European magazines.

Allen takes a different approach to photography than most: he shoots about one-tenth of the film many other photographers expend. With the quiet serenity of a Zen master, Allen will carefully compose and meter his subject, ensuring that everything is perfect before he releases the shutter.

Someone once told me, "Grady Allen has the patience of a rock and the determination of a buck in rut." After many years of admiring and studying his work, then spending some time to get to know him, I can assure you that these qualities are the fuel that propels the incredible images that he produces.

TIP: "Proper exposure is everything," says Allen, "and it's not something that you just pick up a camera and get every time - even with the new high-tech cameras today." He also added, "If you are really interested in getting into serious photography, take classes and learn the technical aspects of photography."

Wyman Meinzer

As a lad of 12 with his first camera, Wyman Meinzer couldn't have known that one day he would be honored for his work by a future president. After the 75th legislative session in Austin, then-Gov. George W. Bush bestowed on him the title of Official State Photographer of Texas.

Known mostly for his dramatic images of wildlife and powerful landscapes, Meinzer, a self-taught photographer, truly is master of his world. And, while he has a degree in wildlife management from Texas Tech University, where he now teaches photography, he attributes most of his knowledge about wildlife and the land to his childhood work with a camera.

As a youngster, Meinzer spent time hunting, trapping and exploring the countryside. He became fascinated with coyotes, and in college he received a grant to study the animals. His professor loaned him a 35mm camera and in 1973 Meinzer bought his first "good" 35mm camera, a Canon TL. In 1979, he sold his first image. His career as a wildlife photographer had just shifted into high gear.

Throughout the '80s and early '90s, Meinzer continued to create quality wildlife images that peppered all of the first-rate national outdoor publications, including Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield. It was during this time that he shot one of his most popular images.

Setting out to shoot prairie dog photos after a January snowstorm, Meinzer captured the image of two yellow eyes, belonging to a burrowing owl, peering over a snowdrift. This memorable image is just one of many spectacular wildlife photos he has created over the years. In the late '80s, however, the photography market became saturated with images of caged animals and high-fenced deer and Meinzer's interests shifted somewhat.

"I guess that's why I stopped shooting wildlife and have shifted my focus to landscapes and more scenic subjects," Meinzer says of his most current work. "I like for my work to mean something and I like to shoot subjects that will have an impact." This shift is definitely evident if you look at some of his most current books. Texas Sky and Texas Rivers contain some of Meinzer's finest work. One of my favorites is an image of a single lightning strike framed by a brilliant rainbow against an orange sky. Recently, when talking shop with Meinzer, I chortled at his boyish enthusiasm when I mentioned that photograph. "I can't help it," he said. "I get excited whenever the light is right."

Currently, Meinzer is traveling around the state photographing windmills for a new book. As with any of his work, his appetite for the project knows no bounds.

Tip: "When you set out to take pictures, have a goal and know what you want to achieve," says Meinzer. "Great pictures don't just happen. They take hard work and dedication."

Earl Nottingham

Black-and-white photography is a powerful medium for conveying a mood or sense of romance. It was for this very reason that Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine photo editor Bill Reaves and art director Mark Mahorsky selected one of Nottingham's black-and-white images from the shores of Lake Lydia for the February 2000 cover. Arriving at the East Texas lake on assignment for the magazine, Nottingham determined that black-and-white photos would best capture the atmosphere of the location. It is this ability to capture - or in some cases, create - different moods on film that attracts my attention as I peruse the pages of this magazine.

As a young man, Nottingham enjoyed photographing the house cats around his neighborhood. He soon found that not only did he enjoy taking pictures, he had a knack for it. His growing passion for photography propelled him to college, where he studied at the Art Institute of Atlanta and eventually received a Bachelor of Science degree in photography from East Texas State University.

After graduation, Nottingham worked as a freelance photographer. His photos appeared in publications such as the Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, Texas Highways and, of course, Texas Parks & Wildlife, as well as numerous wildlife and seasonal calendars. To supplement his magazine and calendar work, Nottingham tackled commercial assignments.

In 1996, Nottingham accepted a position as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's staff photographer. In this varied and demanding role, he often can be found working in environments and situations that test his knowledge of photography to the fullest. He may be trying to capture the image of a unique or rare bird one day, and documenting an awards ceremony the next day. Versatility and dedication allow him to rise to the occasion. His images not only showcase his skill with a camera, they also reflect his love for the outdoors and Texas.

Talking with Nottingham, I immediately see that he loves what he does, and is dedicated to the conservation and preservation of natural Texas. When asked if he had any career goals or aspirations, his response was quick and simple: "To continue to use photography as a tool to positively change people's perception about the outdoors and conservation."

Tip: "If I had one piece of advice it would be this," says Nottingham. "Study your subject and get to know it before trying to photograph it."

David J. Sams

Every photographer is known for a certain quality that shows in his work - whether that work appears in a book, magazine or any one of a number of other media. For David J. Sams, it is his ability to capture the interaction between people and nature. While portraits and still-life images are part of his portfolio, his true passion is for people in the outdoors.

Sams, who has been shooting professionally since 1986, studied journalism at San Antonio College and Sul Ross State University. After a brief stint as a newspaper photographer, he realized that he could accomplish much more on his own. Sams began his career as a freelance photographer, and hasn't looked back. He created Texas Inprint Photography, Inc., a successful stock agency, and markets his images not only to numerous publications but to advertising agencies and corporate clients as well.

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, Sams is always looking for a new perspective or twist on an old theme. This relentless search is why we see his work in the pages and on the covers of so many publications. Whether it's Field & Stream (where Sams is also recognized as a contributing photographer), or such stalwarts as Newsweek, Sams' work always stands out - so much so, that it was only a matter of time before he began showcasing his work in books.

His first solo project, a coffee table book entitled Engulfed, is a compilation of images that highlight Sams' passion for the Texas Gulf Coast. The book demonstrates his uncanny ability to capture magical moments on film and attests to his dedication in recording the interaction between people and the resource. Engulfed also is a testimony to the relationship between the photographer and the subject, whether the subject is human or animal. This relationship is never more evident than in two of my favorite photos. The first - the image for which Sams is best-known - is a redfish tail protruding above the water with the sun glistening. The second is of his daughter, Mimi, awkwardly holding a fly rod on the beach; Sams has lovingly entitled this photo, "Okay, Papa, teach me."

I recently experienced the appreciation that Sams has for his friends and their efforts in making his photographs possible. After a long day on the water guiding, I returned to my fishing camp to find that Sams and his friend Perry Lowery, a contractor from Dallas, had torn out my old bathroom. In a trailer out front was a brand new shower stall and toilet. When I asked him what he was doing, he smiled and replied, "Just trying to show a little appreciation for all of the help you've given me over the years."

Tip: "Light is everything," say Sams. "Getting up early, staying out late, and learning to use your flash correctly are all key elements in quality images."

More Texas Parks & Wildlife Photographers

Kathy Adams Clark has been a professional nature photographer since 1995. She runs a small stock agency that represents the work of eight outstanding nature photographers. Her photos appear weekly in the "Wonders of Nature" column in the Houston Chronicle, written by her husband, Gary Clark. She teaches photography in the Houston area, and presented more than 50 slide presentations to clubs and organizations in 2002.

Larry Ditto lives in McAllen and is a regular photo contributor to Texas Parks & Wildlife . For more than 25 years, his work has appeared in books, magazines and calendars. Ditto often appears at nature festivals and outdoor events to lead nature photography seminars. Much of his spare time is devoted to wildlife habitat conservation in South Texas, assisting the Valley Land Fund and Friends of the Wildlife Corridor.

Charles Edmiston III grew up in the Pineywoods of East Texas. After graduating from the University of Texas he spent time traveling, before going to culinary school. He worked as a chef in Austin before moving to Alaska for four years. He became interested in photography while working in the cruise industry there. He now does freelance photography for Texas Parks & Wildlife and lives in Austin with his wife and two children.

Russell Graves began photography while still in high school. His images have appeared in numerous nationwide publications, but he insists that Texas Parks & Wildlife is his favorite. Graves is an agricultural science teacher at Childress High School, and in 2001 he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year and was runner-up for the national title. Recently, his second coffee table book was released: Hunting Dogs - A Photographic Tribute.

Glenn Hayes is a freelance wildlife photographer living in Markham, represented by KAC Productions. He was a member of a photo team that placed in the top five in the 1996, 1998 and 2000 Valley Land Fund Wildlife Photo contests and in the Coastal Bend Land Trust Photo Contest in 2001. He hopes that his photography will in some way help promote the preservation of the wildlife and habitats of Texas.

Larry D. Hodge has been photographing and writing for Texas magazines for more than 20 years. His photographs have appeared in Texas Highways, Texas Sportsman, Texas Monthly and Texas Parks & Wildlife. Two things have helped him improve his photography more than anything else, he says: acquiring auto-focus cameras and talking photography with Wyman Meinzer and David J. Sams. Hodge serves as wildlife editor of this magazine.

A self-taught photographer, Joe Mac Hudspeth has turned his hobby into a part-time job, with his photos being published more than 700 times. In 1993, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for Natural History awarded the "Grand Prize for Wildlife" to one of his photographs. He works with and supports wildlife organizations around the country and his first book, published by University Press, is scheduled for release in fall 2003.

Gary Kramer is a freelance photographer based in Willows, Calif. His photographs are regularly published in many nature magazines, plus books and calendars. He is the senior correspondent for Bird Hunting Report and a contributing photographer for Sports Afield. For 26 years, Kramer was a biologist/refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1999, he retired from the service to pursue his photo career full-time.

Greg Lasley enjoyed a 25-year career with the Austin Police Department, retiring as a lieutenant in 1997. He is now a freelance wildlife photographer and also leads bird watching trips for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Lasley has traveled over all of the United States, much of Mexico, Central and South America, as well as Antarctica photographing wildlife, primarily birds. His photos have been published in scores of magazines and books.

Gibbs Milliken is a professor of art and Latin American studies at UT Austin. Research projects and creative efforts take him to remote locations all around the world. His articles, paintings, drawings and photographs appear in numerous exhibitions, periodicals and books published by Time-Life and UT Press. As an avid sportsman and product editor for Texas Parks & Wildlife, he field-tests, reviews and photographs the latest innovations in outdoor gear.

Laurence Parent was born and raised in New Mexico and received a petroleum engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1981. He is now a full-time freelance photographer and writer specializing in landscape, travel and nature subjects. He specializes in 4x5 landscape and 35mm outdoor sports images and has stock from 48 states and provinces. His two latest projects are the large-format color books Wildflowers Across Texas and Texas Mountains.

Dave Richards became interested in photographing wildlife more than 25 years ago, in the marshes and swamps of South Louisiana. Hundreds of his photos have been published, with many gracing the covers of numerous publications, including Texas Parks & Wildlife. Richards has traveled thousands of miles, photographing most of the big game species across the American West. His primary love, however, is still our big South Texas whitetails.

Mike Searles was born and raised in Dallas, where he still resides with his wife and two children. He is a full-time freelance photographer specializing in North American game animals and birds, and his images are used regularly in more than 35 different magazines. He started as a hunter and now thinks of himself, "not as a photographer who photographs animals, but a hard-core hunter who chooses a camera for a weapon, most of the time."

Lance Varnell started working in the darkroom at the age of 13 when his father offered him his first part-time job. With a love of the outdoors and hiking, landscape photography quickly became his passion. While growing up in Indiana, Varnell honed his skills in the national forest and hills of the southern part of the state. He now lives in Houston and never tires of exploring and photographing the varied scenery of Texas.

Native Texan Rusty Yates is a frequent contributor to Texas Parks & Wildlife. His work has appeared in numerous other magazines, as well as exhibits and award-winning advertisements. A lifelong passion for observing the natural world inspired his interest in photography. Says Yates, "If my work brings awareness to the incredible beauty of our world and the need to be wise stewards of our natural resources, then I have been successful."

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