Great Fountain Geyser in Yellowstone National Park is lit by the sun, giving it an orange glow. (photo ©Leon Jenson — click to enlarge)
By Ruffin Prevost
CODY — More than 3.6 million people visited Yellowstone National Park last year, but there’s no telling how many millions of pictures they took while there. Photographing Yellowstone — from Old Faithful and Lower Yellowstone Falls to wildlife like bison and bears — is a daily rite of passage for tourists by the busloads.
But for some enthusiasts lucky enough to live at the doorstep of America’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park is an endless reservoir of inspiring natural images that serves as both a focus and a point of departure for a community of diverse photographers.
There’s no doubt that photographers are drawn to Yellowstone Country, but “this area creates photographers — it created me as a photographer,” said Meg Sommers a nature photographer and president of the Cody Camera Club.
Sommers and other members of Open Range Images, a cooperative fine art photo gallery, helped organize a show last week of work by more than 30 local photographers. Though the eclectic display included everything from the birds of Costa Rica to Death Valley scenery, it was mainly filled with images of wildlife and natural landscapes from around Yellowstone Country.
Sommers worked as an attorney and justice of the peace for 20 years before leaving the law to spend her time photographing Yellowstone.
“I was just drawn to the park. I was enthralled with it. I loved it,” said Sommers, who spends three weeks in Yellowstone each winter and up to 16 weeks there during the summer season, moving her camper trailer from one campground to the next.
She’s part of a collegial group of dedicated photographers who regularly prowl the park in search of wildlife and scenic shots. Many of those Sommers knows live in the area, but others come from around the country, and often schedule yearly vacations to coincide with prime picture times in Yellowstone, she said.
“You might be waiting for six hours on a badger den, waiting for the mom to come back, so you get to know people pretty well. It’s quite a community and I love it,” she said.
Leon Jenson has been photographing Yellowstone for years, and sees the park as just a small part of a vast expanse of wild country in Wyoming that makes up a photographer’s paradise of stunning landscapes.
“What people are used to seeing is mostly Yellowstone and the Tetons. But when you think about all that’s out there in the Bighorns and the Beartooths, this area is really still an untapped resource,” Jenson said.
Jenson has contributed photos to numerous outdoors magazines, but like most photographers around Cody, he must maintain a day job to pay the bills. He regularly schedules time off from his job at Wal-Mart up to eight months in advance to shoot sunsets, for instance, at just the right time of year in Utah’s Zion National Park.
His painterly images of warmly lit natural landscapes come from being at the right place at the right time, Jenson said. He relies on tips from fellow photographers, data from the Internet and even reports from local hikers to track everything from seasonal wildflower blooms to summer thunderstorms.
For Greybull photographer Drew Toland, staying in the same place has been the key to compiling a unique collection of Wyoming images.
Toland, a trainmaster for BNSF Railway, watches over an ever-changing stream of images arriving from across the country, as railroad cars covered in graffiti pass through the company’s rail terminal.
“I’m looking for anything that seems to take a lot of creative and artistic talent,” said Toland, who has been photographing rail car graffiti for more than two years.
“There’s a real skill to a lot of it, and I like to capture it because some of it won’t be around for long,” he said.
Like Toland, Powell photographer Rob Koelling keeps an eye out for unconventional Wyoming images.
“I like to take photos of the ugly parts of Wyoming,” joked Koelling, a professor of English at Northwest College, where an acclaimed photography program adds to the many skilled shooters in the region.
Koelling has an eye for capturing the beauty in badlands, and has lately focused on the juxtaposition of natural landscapes and remote drilling rigs or wind turbines.
“I also like taking bird photos because, for me, it’s a lot like hunting, but it’s a lot less messy,” he said.
Elijah Cobb, one of 15 members of the Open Range Images gallery, said he helped organize the show to offer a forum to the diverse range of photographers around Yellowstone Country.
Cobb’s images include studio still lifes made using unconventional lighting techniques, but he also draws inspiration from the natural beauty of the area.
“To me, the ultimate is if you see a slide show or portfolio and feel like you’re looking out through someone else’s eyeballs,” he said. “That is the coolest thing a photographer can do.”