Being Thankful

It seems that everyone wants everyone else to know what they are thankful for at this time of year.  Companies are even using that thankful spirit to promote their product, like Lexar Media having a competition on their Facebook site, asking fans to post what they are thankful for and promising a chance at some free products.

I am usually not one of those people who joins on the bandwagon, trying instead to make it a regular practice to say thanks as needed throughout the year.  But this year, I think it is time to take the time and say what and who I am thankful for, and why.

When I responded to the Lexar “give your thanks” challenge, I stated how thankful I was for wild places in the United States.  Whether national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, or even state or city parks, there are so many places we can go to find solace and renewal, and experience a sense of awe we sometimes feel we left behind in childhood.  I am thankful that I live in a country that was forward-thinking enough to recognize the value in setting aside such places.  How anyone could watch Ken Burns’ “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” and not come away with a renewed sense of love for this country is beyond me.  And I am especially thankful for those wild places because of the creative inspiration and opportunities they provide me as a photographer.

I am thankful that I discovered photography.  Granted, it was not an accident.  My paternal grandfather, Carl Leonard Johnson, was a photographer.  While it was not his full-time vocation, it was something he did for enjoyment and the occasional extra dollar for his family, along with owning an appliance store in downtown Stillwater.  My father, Bruce, felt that influence and took up the camera early, running around so much with one in high school that he earned the name “flash cube.”  From the pictures I have seen, his hair cut probably helped that name along (think the style of the late fifties and you get my drift).  My dad joined the Air Force and became a fire control systems electronics expert, but still managed to find time to enjoy his photography.  I remember him using an old medium format camera without a viewfinder; you know the type, viewing your compositions by looking down into the camera and seeing the world in reverse.  He also pursued stop action film making, from growing plants to action with my G.I. Joe.  It was the subtle influences of these two that likely led me to using my first camera, an old Kodak Instamatic X15, and purchasing my first 35mm camera at the BX in the Navy (a Minolta X700) and volunteering to be the ship’s photographer for the U.S.S. Haleakala, while maintaining my regular duties as an Operations Specialist (radar operator).  From there, as they say, it was all down hill.

I am thankful for the artistic expression of those who picked up a camera long before I did.  Many are still around, but some have passed.  I would say my first influences in nature photography were close to me in my home at the time of Minnesota, working as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  Those photographers would be Craig and Nadine Blacklock, as well as Craig’s father Les Blacklock, and Jim Brandenburg.  For the Blacklocks, they gave me the opportunity to find extreme beauty and complexity in the boreal forest.  For Jim Brandenburg, he inspired me to buck conventions, challenge myself, use my photography to promote conservation issues, and once told me in person that I was “tenacious.”  I can never thank Galen Rowell enough, and wish I could in person but he died in a plane crash in 2002 after a visit to Alaska, for challenging me to get out and explore the backcountry with my camera, to seek the extremes of wild places and to combine my passion for writing with my passion for photography.  I must also thank Art Wolfe, for his awe-inspiring passion for using photography to help save the world, and for being an incredibly gracious, funny and generous person to talk to.  I also want to thank Amy Gulick, renowned conservation photographer who produced the award-winning Salmon in the Trees for her incredible support and mentorship in helping me to develop my Bristol Bay project.

Over the years, I have lived in many places, held many hats.  But one of the constants through life is friendship, and those we are fortunate to develop such a bond with.  Many of these friends offered so much, from great times of fun and craziness to foundations of support and encouragement during the challenges in life.  I can also be thankful that, with the advent of such things like that series of tubes known as the Internet and some of its tools like Facebook, it becomes easier to maintain contact with them over the years.  Such great friends include Jeff Volk of Rapid City; the Minnesota friends – Tad & Kimberly Johnson, Alex Neff, Kari & Barry Thoe-Krone, and Andrew VonBank (also a superb photographer and great photo companion); Nick Fucci of Big Fork, Montana (a mighty master of the moose); and a great many friends here in Anchorage, such as Cathy Hart, David Cottrell, Jon Woodman & Cheryl Duda, Joe & Brook Connolly, Jon Pope, and Phil Hedges & Jennifer Tobey.  And I may never have even thought of moving to Anchorage were it not for my friend Ben Hohman, who lives in Aberdeen, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula.  My visit to him during law school exposed me to the wonders of living in an urban area on the coast near mountains; I just felt that Seattle was a little too crowded.  Then there are my park service friends, who have helped me to learn and explore America’s wildest national park, Gates of the Arctic: Tracy Pendergrast, Seth McMillan, and Peter Christian.

I can give thanks to my mums for the good cook that I am today.  Yes, I said “mums.”  Mary, my stepmother, starting making me make the family dinner when I was in high school, which helped me to truly learn to cook for myself.  But even before that, my mother, Leslie, exposed me to exotic foods such as carob and homemade pasta, taking the fear out of the unusual and giving me the courage to eat all sorts of strange things on street carts much later in Pusan, South Korea.

But the most thanks I can possibly give is to my wife, Michelle.  I met Michelle six and a half years ago when she wandered into a small gallery I used to have in downtown Anchorage.  A few days later we met for drinks and have been a couple since.  Michelle in so many countless ways challenges me and supports me to be a better person, a better photographer, and a better man.  She shares with me and supports my vision for my photographic future, and increasingly finds ways to surprise me in that area.  She is a wonderful companion in general, laughs at my jokes, and is so wonderful to share the most simple and most elaborate moments with.  From exploring wine country in the Texas Hill Country near Fredericksberg to enjoying a nice, cold margarita in our spacious backyard, she always makes every moment complete.  And, she has also brought to me late in my life the pleasure of remodeling, for we are literally making a new home together as we remodel it room by room.

And I could not sign off without thanking our cats, who make for such wonderful smaller companions and are a heck of a lot easier to manage than human children.

May you think long and hard about people that you can be thankful for, and always find ways to thank them.


Leave a Reply