I always appreciate the moments in life that present opportunity for reflection, and find that returning to places where significant chapters of our stories have played out can provide great windows to recognize the influences of our past.
Last weekend I was in Montana for the Whitefish Arts Festival. Most who know me will recall that this town holds a special place in my heart. Many have probably heard, or read, ad nauseam how I moved out there for a taste of the mountains when I was younger; tales of my days as a liftie on Big Mountain, and of hiking adventures in Glacier National Park. Outside of Iowa it’s the only place that I’ve ever truly felt like I belonged. It’s a place that I was drawn to in answering the calling of my spirit. It’s a place where I worked hard to prove myself, a place that I found friendship and acceptance, and a place where even now- twenty years after I first moved there and, God… a dozen since I moved away- that people still remember me and say “welcome home.” I can’t even begin to explain what this means- to know that a place exists where on each return I’m greeted by the unconditional assurance of friends reminding that no matter where life takes me, I am always welcome here. Add to that the magic and wild character of Whitefish and Northwest Montana to begin with, and it’s a place that will always keep a firm grip over pieces of my soul.
What I maybe haven’t done a good enough job of recognizing, however, is the influence that Whitefish had on my photography career. I’ve always loved taking photos, but until I landed in the Flathead Valley in the early 2000’s didn’t think it could ever be more than a hobby for me. I’d had a couple of publications in my community college literary journal, but otherwise never received any encouragement outside of my family, and perhaps a 4-H judge or two that threw me a bone by means of a red ribbon at the county fair. I was entirely self-taught, save for one elective Intro to Black and White Photography course, where the professor expressly dissuaded me from trying to pursue anything in the nature or landscape field.
“It’s far too competitive,” she said. “You’re just wasting your time.”
Still, I loved it. I was always kind of an outcast, so at a time in life when I found I no longer fit in with peers who began to pursue families and careers, I took to the road. These were still the days before digital cameras, and all I had was an old Olympus point and shoot film model, but I would drive all over the country visiting as many national parks and scenic areas as I could. I loved to push the limits and see how far I could go. I lived off of bread and peanut butter so I could spend all of my money on gas, holding back just enough to buy rolls of film, and of course splurge on one hour photo processing when I got back home. I would then sit with my Grandma, showing her pictures of all the places that I’d seen, and each year for Christmas make her a scrapbook featuring the best of my travels. That was the entirety of the purpose behind my photography- just the experiences I had and the smile on her face. And frankly, it was all that I needed. I know there was part of me deep inside that wished and dreamed there was a way I could make a living doing this, but I had no idea how one would go about that. To my knowledge at the time, National Geographic was the only path to success in nature photography- and while I know my Grandma would have been more than happy to send the editors one of her scrapbooks to convince them of my merit if she could- the industry sadly doesn’t work that way.
I think it was 2002 or 2003, I’d returned to Montana after a couple months working seasonal labor back home, arriving just in time for the Whitefish Fourth of July fireworks. This remains one of the coolest shows I’ve ever seen. The fireworks are launched from a barge in gorgeous Whitefish Lake against a backdrop of silhouetted mountains, and patrons line City Beach to oohh and ahhh. Kids splash in the shoreline water, play with sparklers, people gather with friends and family- it’s just an awesome atmosphere that really seems to embody the spirit of this incredible community. I’d never photographed fireworks before- but tried to that night, and drove the single roll of film down for processing in Kalispell the next day.
When I returned to Target to pick up my prints, the girl at the photo counter greeted me with a big smile.
“We’re not really supposed to comment on people’s pictures,” she said, “but these are amazing!” A co-worker came over and chimed in agreement. I could feel myself blushing, being taken fully off-guard. I wasn’t even sure if any of the shots would turn out. I certainly didn’t expect compliments.
Over that summer and the years to follow I grew more confident in my photography. The photo girls at Target came to know me by name. I started making post cards out of my prints and sending them to extended family and friends. When I eventually got into long distance hiking I made the transition to digital, and used my photos to compliment online journals and better share the story of those adventures. By the time I made the decision to move back to Iowa, I was regularly visiting the Whitefish Farmers Market, and the annual art festival and Huckleberry Days. There in Depot Park I discovered many talented photographers sharing their work, selling it in the form of prints and note cards, and couldn’t help but wonder if just maybe I could do this too.
Coming home I saw an opportunity- knowing that though underappreciated, Iowa is also beautiful. I started making cards from my photos of local scenes and offering them for sale at the Iowa City Farmers Market. They were a hit. In time, I expanded to start selling my work at larger art shows- first in Iowa, then adjoining states. The rest is history, as the cliché goes- or at least a story still in progress.
The other night, after loading up to close out the 2021 Whitefish Arts Festival, showering and grabbing a bite to eat, I debated whether to head into to town for the fireworks show. I hadn’t been back to see it in years. Going into the weekend I’d had every intention of doing so, but I also get pretty bad social anxiety about shooting in public settings and started to talk myself out of it. I get caught up on silly things- like the worry that someone might get upset over my tripod being in their way- and am just really self-conscious when attending events alone in general. But ultimately I forced myself to do it, and I’m really glad that I did. It was so great to take in that scene again; to be a part, even if from the shadows, of this celebration in a community that I love. I soaked it all in, and remembered doing the same all those years before. I thought of the weekend's art show, and how rewarding it was for me to have had this opportunity to come back now as a professional, traveling artist. To share my own work in the same venue that first sparked thoughts of “what if?” nearly two decades before.
The photos I captured that night weren’t particularly stunning, but the feeling of circling back after all this time was pretty special. Much as certain shows in Iowa provide a benchmark for me to compare how my career has grown year after year, I look forward to adding Whitefish with regular stops on my schedule, knowing full well the role this place played in setting me down my career path to come.