Rising Photo Star
To win major photography contests, Rolf Nussbaumer draws on a range of skills, from bird identification to carpentry.
By David Sikes
A kneeling Rolf Nussbaumer presses his palms onto moist ground and lowers his right cheek to gaze across the surface of a fabricated puddle toward a would-be focal point on the other side.
Behind him is a photo foxhole just wide enough for a seated man. Covering the recently shoveled burrow is a wood framed structure draped in camouflaged fabric with a center slit cut in-to the panel facing the puddle. Soon a camera lens would fill the opening. And as night falls, Nussbaumer would settle snuggly into his foxhole and remain there for three hours or longer.
But first there was work to be done, manicuring transplanted tuffs of native grasses at puddle's edge, disguising its plastic liner from ?camera view, then finally skimming tiny debris from the pool and brimming it just before showtime for a flawless reflection of a furry figure. Such is the glamour and ?tedium of competitive nature photography.
For every striking wildlife photograph born from serendipity, there are tens of thousands of award-worthy images with hours of rigorous preparations behind them. Under few circumstances would this be more evident than during wildlife photo contests, when time constraints and unfamiliarity with venues loom large during intense competitions to please judges.
Proof of this can be found on the pages of Images for Conservation Fund's book of award-winning photos from its 2007 inaugural Pro Tour of Nature Photography competition. Actually, volumes of quality Texas images have filled many contest books for more than a decade, starting with the Valley Land Fund's photo collection and more recently with the Wildlife in Focus series from the Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest.
And within these colorful volumes, the artistry of Rolf Nussbaumer is prominent. Almost immediately, Nussbaumer earned royal ranking among the talented and competitive nature photographers who come from many states and several countries to compete in Texas. He's been competing for only six years.
His stellar record includes winning five of the six major wildlife photo contests he has entered. Nussbaumer began turning heads by winning the 2002 Valley Land Fund contest while still a resident of his native Switzerland, where he dabbled in photography and made a living crafting fine wood furniture.
Fellow competitor and friend Bill Draker, an award-winning nature photographer from the Texas Hill Country, met his Swiss colleague during his first Valley Land Fund contest. At the time, there was a perception that only local photographers familiar with the region and with access to large properties could win this prestigious event.
During the three-month competition, several photographers would meet each Saturday at a local cafe to swap stories and compare notes. As the new guy, Nussbaumer was the target of a mild practical joke loosely concocted by several veteran shooters. A few weeks into the contest, these contestants secretly agreed to weave more and more fiction into their weekly reports on photos they had shot. The goal was to unnerve the rookie. A wide-eyed and somewhat naive Nussbaumer, then 32 years old, believed the fantastic tales without actually seeing any of the photographs they described. But the plan backfired. Rather than instill anxiety, the trick apparently strengthened Nussbaumer's resolve.
Nussbaumer, who had spent very little time in South Texas, obliterated the misconception about home-field advantage when he was crowned champion that year.
Draker attributes Nussbaumer's consistent success to his unwavering determination and keen insight into animal behavior. It's important to note that nature photography in general does not necessarily require setting up shots to the extraordinary degree demanded by these intense competitions. As a result, these contests tend to muster a greater measure of innovation and imagination from photographers vying for prize money in exchange for elusive winning images. They're competing against the clock, sometimes primitive conditions and often fairly harsh elements, not to mention a very talented field. In this format, luck can play a role in winning, Nussbaumer said in his trademark tone of humility.
Draker has no doubt that Nussbaumer creates his own luck. Draker said Nussbaumer's uncanny ability to visualize shots is complemented by his willingness to do whatever it takes to make them happen. Draker recalls a time when he was partnered with Nussbaumer during a Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest on the Welder Wildlife Refuge near Sinton.
"Rolf got it in his head that he wanted a backlit shot of herons and egrets flying toward him against a setting sun," Draker said. "So he takes a day to build a blind, another day to set it all up and it just didn't work.
"But most of the stuff he tries works, if not today then tomorrow or the next day. ?Sooner or later he gets the shot. He worked me to death during that contest. Watch out when he gets quiet. That's when he's thinking about how to get some critter on camera. I sure learned a lot from him."
During a more recent contest, Draker watched Nussbaumer navigate a floating blind through alligator-infested waters with time running out.
"He wanted to get a gallinule walking on a lily pad and a grebe with a crawdad in its mouth," Draker said. "But it was the last day of the ?contest. Still, I was convinced he could do it. And of course he did. Not only that, I'm sure both of them will be winners. You should see the images he got."
About a year after his first big win, Nussbaumer married a native Texan named Karen Kadlecek, who he had met at a bed and breakfast during the winter of 2000 while photographing eagles in Alaska. Rolf and Karen have a home in New Braunfels, where she was reared.
Karen Nussbaumer sees her husband as a complete artist, one who is patient yet never satisfied, meticulous yet intuitive, sensitive yet willing to get down and dirty. And he's got a boyish charm that never fades.
"Garden clubs just love him," Karen said. "And they're mesmerized by his photos."
Speaking engagements notwithstanding, the unassuming Nussbaumer seems most comfortable in the field. His smile is quick and easy when speaking about nature or when attempting to capture an insect, flower, bird or mammal with his Nikon. Despite his diligence and near obsessive attention to detail, Nussbaumer appears almost casual when practicing his craft. Perhaps that's confidence.
He might not admit it, but folks close to him say that behind Nussbaumer's grin is indicative of an acute sense of awareness of his surroundings. Conversations with Nussbaumer in the field often are interrupted by his recognition of natural sounds or the sighting of potential photo subjects. His photographic eye – or his ear – is never in the off position.
At the Fennessey Ranch, a 4,000-acre Refugio County property on the Mission River, the perpetually observant Nussbaumer would pause mid-sentence, cock his head toward a subtle chirp or hold up an index finger to alert a conversation partner to the tiny voice of a hummingbird nearby. Nussbaumer taps into his previous experience as a bird identification instructor when searching for photo subjects and for years has been an avid reader of books on nature and wildlife behavior. These make up the foundation of a successful nature photographer.
Nussbaumer suggests that nature photography at this level requires that shooters be about 30 percent naturalist with a knack for conditioning animals to come into camera range.
In addition to being a wild animal trainer or wildlife manipulator and behaviorist, Nussbaumer lists patience, innovation, focus, perseverance, vision, sweat, good fortune, emotional commitment, strategy and attention to detail as key elements of his art form. Equipped with these, Nussbaumer said odds are that a skilled photographer will capture the glint in an animal's eye if not the favor of contest judges.
Nussbaumer, by blind drawing, was teamed with Fennessey owner and renowned conservationist Brien O'Connor Dunn for the 2008 Pro Tour of Nature Photography. Fennessey ranch foreman Mog Arzola received a firsthand view of the Nussbaumer process during the entire month of April. Arzola said he had no clue going in what was in store. In addition to some light excavation work to prepare photo sites, Arzola dutifully helped capture a small alligator and a variety of critters that included a venomous water moccasin.
And on the final day of the contest, while discing a field, Arzola glimpsed a leopard frog in a ditch. Knowing that Nussbaumer wanted shots of a variety of amphibians, Arzola climbed off his tractor and chased the slippery frog, eventually trapping it under his cap.
"I'm not sure if he used it or not," Arzola said. "But he said he wanted one."
The ranch near Refugio is one of only a few established photo ranches in Texas. This relatively young and innovative way to squeeze money from wilderness properties while preserving habitat is what the Images for Conservation Fund is all about. John and Audrey Martin of Edinburg, who also helped create the Valley Land Fund and its long-running photo contest, founded the Images for Conservation Fund and its traveling photo contest.
The inaugural pro tour was staged in the Texas Hill Country, where 20 ranches teamed with 20 photographers. Nussbaumer won it.
Because more than 90 percent of Texas is private land and much of it is wildlife habitat, the Martins are part of a conservation movement that seeks to market the broad wildlife diversity of Texas ranches to a growing population of amateur nature photographers willing to travel and pay for the opportunity to shoot digital images of native wildlife and pristine habitat. By adding income from nature photography to profits from cattle and hunting operations, ranchers might afford to keep their properties intact as family legacies while maintaining habitat for generations of wildlife. Many competitive wildlife photographers share this noble goal. They consider themselves messengers bent on showing the world in pictures the beauty of what is at stake. Often this enlightenment process begins with the land stewards who open their gates to photographers.
In many cases, participating landowners discover aspects of their properties of which they previously were unaware, said Rosemary and Cleve Breedlove, who own The Inn at Chachalaca Bend near Los Fresnos, where Nussbaumer has competed and won.
"He's so creative and passionate," Rosemary Breedlove said. "You should see the images he's captured here. In just a short time, he's captured stuff on our place that we've never seen or never would be able to see. And we've been here a long time, since 1973. Snakes and little spiders and stuff most people would never take the time to find. And we consider ourselves nature lovers."
A large framed print of one of Nussbaumer's award-winning chachalaca photos will grace the Breedloves' inn as a tribute.
"We think so highly of Rolf as a person and as an artist," Rosemary Breedlove said. "We're honored to have him and Karen associated with the inn."
Nussbaumer said that if not for the conservation element of these photo contests he probably would not compete. But he admits that photo contests provide enjoyable opportunities to hone his skills, boost his reputation and build his portfolio while making a little cash to offset his expenses. And toward these goals, Nussbaumer not only has learned well how to catch the eye of judges, but he also has earned the respect of his colleagues.
It's common for these photo competitions to span several months, requiring hundreds of hours in the field to shoot a list of required photos. A scheduling conflict during the 2006 Valley Land Fund contest prevented Nussbaumer from shooting the first month. But he still won it with dazzling images that fellow competitor Bill Draker said have helped raised the overall quality of photos required to win the major photo contests.
"He's made all of us better," Draker said. "You can't win anymore with bird-on-a-stick photos. We delete those now."