Rather than tromping in, assaulting nature, Tom Bean, the renowned wildlife photographer, slips in to find his place, sensitively becoming aware of the scene before observing it. One can never understand anything, much less portray it, unless one understands it from within.
Setting out to photograph wildlife in a thicket of Russian sage in my front yard, Tom quietly walked through a throng of bees, looking for that moment when a grasshopper and the purple of the Russian sage coalesced, forming a frame. He almost became a part of the thicket, waiting for a vibrantly colored grasshopper to settle on a succulent tidbit. He set up his equipment, moving cautiously and gently, and then he awaited the moment. Click, click, click, and it was all over. It was a moment of stealthy gentility. Tom is a gentle man.
In an odd way, he has made his name for his work amongst the mountains of the west and their flora and fauna, but his favorite landscape is the prairie’s undulating hills and grasslands. It is almost as though he were a seafarer searching the furthest horizons beyond the rolling seas, letting his imagination “dance the skies,” or as the Psalmist wrote, “take the wings of the morning.”
Perhaps, his favorite experience is the morning after a rain storm when the skies are still clearing with dark and light clouds drifting through the sky. He likes to stretch his imagination, but then, of course, he is an artist and that’s what artists do. His imagination takes him beyond the “surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Another of his favorite experiences is on one of those rare days in the high country when there are mists in the meadow. He sees them first in the draw below his house. He immediately races over the few miles to the upper reaches of Walnut Canyon to experience those mists in the deeper and bolder canyon. He likes to immerse himself in the experience. He does not just “get a picture.” He waits to experience the picture before photographing it.
It’s the horizon and what’s just beyond it that draws his attention, but it’s also the tiny and the particular. His mind seems to vacillate between the two, at once talking about the sky and then in the next minute talking about the composition of a bee, a flower, and a bush.
A tall man with a full head of wavy grey hair, a splendid mustache, and a magnificent set of eyebrows hovering above inquisitive grey eyes, he is from the prairies. A graduate of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, with a degree in wildlife biology, he began as a naturalist and interpreter with the National Park Service in the Black Hills of South Dakota. What better place for a plainsman to become a mountain man than the Black Hills, that curious anomaly of a mountain range smack dab in the middle of the plains. At the park there was a camera and some film, and thus began by fits and starts his life as a photographer, making slides for the presentations to park visitors at what were called “campfires.” So a wildlife biologist begins to become a photographer of wildlife and the wilderness.
Eventually, he roamed around most of the National Parks in the west from Alaska to Arizona, photographing as he went, learning from other photographers and the wildlife he photographed. He says that he always focuses on the eyes of his subject, be it a grasshopper or a human being. After that he sees the composition of the photograph even moving his stance to eliminate things like tree branches that don’t belong in the photograph. In addition to becoming familiar with the scene, he waits until the wildlife feels at ease with him.
Married to the well-known nature writer, Susan Lamb, he has a soul mate on his pilgrimage through the wilderness.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2012