Award winning nature photographer, Stan Osolinski, considers it a huge plus that he never took a photography class. In fact, he didn’t pick up a camera until he was twenty-six, maybe twenty-seven, years old. He says, “No one I know started as a nature photographer.” One friend was a house painter. Another, a PhD. Stan taught science to third graders for ten years and used photography to bring nature into the classroom. His brother worked in a photography store and mentored him on what equipment to buy. Along the way, Stan looked at the pile of nature magazines he subscribed to and decided to save up all that subscription money and use it to fund school-break travels, “doing it instead of looking at other people’s work.”
Extraordinatry images happen in unusual circumstances.
Nearly forty years later, Stan’s images have been showcased internationally, and he is a past winner of the prestigious BBC “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” award in bird photography. Over the years, he was a runner-up in the plant division, had dozens of highly commended images, and for three years he had more acceptances for the contest than anyone else in the world. It was an image taken at first light that won Stan the Photographer of the Year Award. Taken in the Everglades, the image was of the American Anhinga or Snake-Bird, a bird many people wouldn’t consider photographic. “It’s a bird of the swamp, dark, grayish black,” Stan explains. “It’s primitive, looks like a living fossil. Its feathers aren’t like the feathers of other water birds that shed water. It has to hang its wings out to dry, exposing them to the sun. I have a shot taken during the first light of the day of one sunning its wings, and the bird is a golden, root beer color.”
The first day Stan saw the bird, in setting up he had to set one tripod leg down in shallow water. It splashed when he did it, scaring the bird off. “I thought, that’s it. I lost it.
“But, I did get a second opportunity. I went out the next morning and got the shot.” He tells the story of that success with lingering wonder, that the bird was there again, and that it stayed while he photographed it. Therein lies an essential truth: It doesn’t matter who you are, or how gifted or passionate a photographer you are. If you aren’t there, you won’t see it. In addition to the thousands of images he has taken and published,
Stan has written books and taught workshops internationally. He has a network of buddies around the world that he can call, say “I’m coming,” and find a place to stay. He offers that same generous welcome at his Bozeman, Montana home, hosting friends and associates from around the globe. “Photography,” he says, “is our common denominator.” So is a love of nature that propels them out of bed at 3 A.M. for first light.
In a world gone digital, Stan continues to shoot film. At 65, he doesn’t want to make the change. Film provides a tangible piece of reality he can touch. He loves the vibrancy of the color. Mount Velvia film as a high quality slide, project the slides on a screen in a black room, “and there’s nothing like it for color and saturation.” He says, “It used to be that when people saw an incredible shot, they thought, I wish I’d been there for that. But digital calls in to question the integrity of a shot. People don’t believe it when they see something that really happened.”
He describes a possible shot of a bird in a tree. When he frames that shot, he notices a line leading to the bird from a tree branch. That juxtaposition makes the image more than the bird. “It tells a story about how the bird lives, what it eats.” In this he says, lays the distinction between taking a picture, and making, or composing one by sensing what is most compelling in a particular scene.
Yet, “Photography is nothing compared with reality. When you sit down to lunch, you don’t want to do that with a photograph of a friend in the chair across from you. You want their company. It’s the same with nature.” He says, “I’m just a spectator. Mother Nature is the artist"
Stan remembers how on a cold morning in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, he might be alone in photographing a small herd of elk. “Now, there might be twenty elk and 120 photographers.” Later he describes the impact of those legions of new nature-photographers.
“The competition is so staggering, some people are comfortable with creating a shot, an opportunity, at a cost to the wildlife itself.” And, the “resulting glut of images grotesquely exceeds the demand,” driving down prices.
The weight of his discouragement is palpable. Still. He can’t help himself. “I lived the Golden Era of nature photography. I saw the first cameras that automatically loaded the film. The first auto-focus. Velvia.”
Because he has returned to the same places over a sequence of seasons, or years, he knows how over time the magical shape of a particular tree will change. Favorite trees have fallen. Like photography itself, things change. His passion for nature photography, for life, flaring, Stan insists, “There’s no such thing as one and done. You can’t say, I got a photograph of an elk and I’m done. You’re never done. What if today that elk is fighting? What if there’s a calf nose to nose with it? Even if the elk is dead, its carcass might be surrounded by flowers. You have to keep watching. “I think the reason I love photography so much is that it combines art and science so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Jenna Caplette is employed by F-11
Photographic Supplies, Bozeman, Montana.