If you’ve picked up our August issue, you know all about photographer Tom Bean. Bean, a longtime contributor to Arizona Highways, specializes in photos of Arizona’s grasslands — areas that might not get as much attention as our state’s deserts, mountains and mesas do. But they’re no less spectacular, as Bean demonstrates in Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, and in the photo above. We asked Bean a few questions about the portfolio, the process of shooting it, and how beginning photographers can get into shooting grasslands. (And if you haven’t picked up our August issue, what are you waiting for? It’s on newsstands now.)
How did Where the Deer and the Antelope Play come about?
In January 2012, Photo Editor Jeff Kida invited me to submit a selection of my images for a possible portfolio. He remarked that I have a “non-bombastic” style that would work well in the magazine. I brought a collection of my photographs into his office shortly after that, and together, we identified that I had an unusual collection of grassland images. I think Jeff saw this theme as a quieter sort of beauty; he said he could not remember ever seeing a portfolio like this before in the magazine.
When I first began photography, I worked as a park ranger on the prairies of South Dakota. Since that time, I’ve taken a special interest in photographing that sort of wide-open country. I’d spent many weeks driving and exploring and photographing the vast horizons of the Great Plains region, from Texas to Saskatchewan. Somehow, it had not occurred to me that I was also drawn to the grasslands of Arizona and that I had the beginnings of a good collection of Arizona prairie images. So I spent quite a bit of time during the summer of 2012 visiting some of my favorite local sites to complete my work on the portfolio.
Did you have a vision of what you hoped to accomplish with this portfolio?
My goal was to celebrate the beauty of this landscape — the big vistas, but also the delicate beauty of the tiny wildflowers and grasses that make up the prairies’ plant communities.
What was your process of scouting locations to shoot?
Most of the images were made within a 30-minute drive of my home on the southwest side of Flagstaff. I had visited these locations before, so the scouting was really about taking note of the weather every morning and late afternoon during the summer. I also needed to take note of blooming wildflowers and other ever-changing details of the natural environment. When the lighting, weather and blooms all seemed right, I would jump into my car and head out to one of these nearby locations to see what was going on.
What challenges did you encounter while shooting these photos?
The challenge, and the fun, of this type of photography is trying to guess when the weather will be ideal. For the wide landscapes, I’m usually hoping for dramatic clouds and sunset light. For the quiet fields of flowers and close-up details, I’m hoping for very calm conditions with no wind. Often, the best time is a morning after an evening thunderstorm. You can get pretty wet crawling around in a wet meadow at dawn.
What is so special about Arizona’s grasslands?
We live in a state renowned for its classic vertical elements: deep rocky canyons, soaring sacred peaks, and tall pines and saguaros. Yet our native grasslands have their own, horizontal splendor. Here, we feel a different sort of grandeur, with its openness, its absence of close horizons and its iconic sound of a meadowlark calling across a vast expanse.
If a novice photographer wants to make grasslands photos, what advice would you give them?
The best time for visiting our native grasslands is often in the summer, during or just after the summer rains have come. It’s then that the grasses are greenest and the prairie wildflowers are at their best. The storm skies of summer can produce dramatic vistas, but be aware of the danger of lightning during the thunderstorm season. To find the grassland areas, consult a map of the vegetation types that occur across Arizona. The Plains and Great Basin grassland type is found in broad bands and scattered pockets, mostly across the northern half of Arizona.
Where can people see more of your work?
I have several thousand of my photos at www.tombean.com. I’m also a frequent contributor to Arizona Highways, so there is a good chance you’ll find more of my work in past or future issues of this magazine.
—Noah Austin, Associate Editor