Travels and Travails of a Magazine Photographer

By Jack Olson

[Ed. Note: This article was first printed in the April-May 1996 issue of Rocky Mountain Outdoors.]

I recently had a magazine assignment which I thought might be of interest to members who are aspiring photographers. It seems pretty funny now that some time has passed but it didn’t tickle me too much at the time. Experienced photographers in RMOWP will probably recall similar stories of their own.

The magazine was Historic Traveler. Members who attended the Keystone, SD Conference in 1995 may remember I spoke about that magazine as a potential market. Although it’s no longer published, I haven’t changed my mind; it was an excellent magazine. And it fit one of my specialties – historic locations.

I was called in late October 1995 and asked, on a couple of day’s notice, to photograph Mesa Verde National Park for the cover for the March 1996 issue. They had lined up a couple of models from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe who would meet me at one of the ruins. I chose the Spruce Tree ruins because we could work there at will and suggested a 3:00pm time to meet in order to get the best light. The magazine arranged for a permit from the Park Service. I was excited.

So far so good. I drove down to Mesa Verde, close to 400 miles from Denver. But at 3:00 the models weren’t there and I watched with increasing unease as the shadows began to creep into the ruins. The models, a man and his young son, showed up near 4:00 and there was precious little light left in the ruins. I chose about the only structure left with good light and fired off two rolls of film in 15 minutes. I was pretty happy that I’d salvaged the shoot. Wrong!

I Fedexed the slides, which appeared very good, with excellent light on the one structure and the models. The next day I got a call from the editor, who I had not dealt with before. He said he understood that I’d had a problem with the models’ late arrival, but that the pictures weren’t working. My heart sunk. He said he didn’t want to insult me but the structure looked like a bridge abutment (sigh). He asked me if I would go back down to Mesa Verde and do it again. And he wanted me to use the Cliff Palace this time. I guess he wasn’t upset with me or my photography, or he wouldn’t have asked me to go back, but his demeanor couldn’t be confused with warm.

This time I asked the models to show up at 2:00pm, hoping for 3:00. The magazine got me another filming permit. And back down I drove in perfect weather. As I got to the Cliff Palace my heart sunk. I was getting used to that feeling. A large cloud bank was moving in and it looked like it would stay for the day. And the magazine wanted good light. I sort of prayed.

Lo and behold, the models showed up right at 2:00. The park ranger guide held things up a bit and gave me time to instruct the models. They went down into the ruins and I got photos with a telephoto from the overlook in the last dwindling light. Then the ranger arranged for me to go into the ruins with the models, with no other people around and make additional images. I felt pretty good, but was concerned about the light quality.

It was a nervous time waiting to see what the magazine would think about my photos. A week passed and I finally broke my rule about not bugging editors. I called. And to my relief I was told the pictures had worked out well. I would have the cover and several photos in the article. Jubilation!

We’ve had concerned discussions about photographing in national parks and other federal lands, so I’d like to briefly address that point. Since I was going to be bringing a tripod into the ruins and requesting consideration in allowing me some unobstructed photography, I asked the magazine to arrange for permits on both occasions. Those permits were faxed to me within an hour or so from Mesa Verde. The rangers on duty in the ruins could not have been more cordial or helpful.

The issue came out and I was very happy with the way the cover looked. I also had five photos inside. Historic Traveler was one of the best customers I’ve worked with. The art director and associate editor were great. The problems were no one’s fault. Just the mischievous Photo Gremlin that keeps our lives from ever being perfect.