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Q&A With Photographer Tom Bean About His Beautiful Images of Grasslands

Tom Bean grasslands Aug 13

Photograph courtesy of Tom Bean

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


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Photographer Karen Shell Talks About Her First Assignment With Arizona Highways

Photo by Karen Shell

Photo by Karen Shell

In the January issue of Arizona Highways, we introduced a new photographer to the magazine: Karen Shell. Karen photographed one of our scenic Sunday drives: Payson-to-Springervillle. We loved her work. Karen’s photographs captured these wonderful moments in time. Her shots at the Payson Rodeo are fantastic examples… and then there’s the little girl splashing around the waters of Christopher Creek. Truly “wow” moments. Below, Karen talks about her assignment and why you should hit the road:

This was your first assignment for the magazine. What went through your mind when Photo Editor Jeff Kida called you?
When Jeff said to me, “We want you to shoot whatever you want, your way; just do your thing,” I was absolutely thrilled to have such a fun opportunity. I had been wanting to shoot for Arizona Highways for a long time, and I was excited to be offered such a great assignment. I couldn’t wait to hit the road.

How did you prepare for this assignment?
I did a little research online to see if there were any events happening along my route. I found the Prescott Rodeo was taking place, so I started there. Beyond that, the best plan for this type of shoot is to have no plan at all.

For the most part, you had free rein in terms of what you shot. How did you go about finding your shots?
I found my shots two ways: talking to the locals and exploring the area. I engaged many people along the way in conversation, asking about the area and what they found interesting. I also continually scanned the roadsides as I drove, so much so that I wondered if I was driving safely with my eyes off the highway so much.  I investigated many side roads.

Did you have a vision of what you hoped to accomplish?
I wanted to capture the flavor of the people and places along the way.

You captured some very human, very tender moments. How did you capture those images?
I really enjoy people. I find approaching and interacting with people in a genuine and playful way is the best way to capture or create a genuine moment.

Of the photos that ran, which do you love the most and why?
My favorite images of those published are the two at the rodeo and the one of the little girl splashing. I like the mood created by the depth and shapes in the rodeo images.  When I photographed little Moriah, I saw her transform from shy and uncooperative to enthusiastic and jubilant when I asked her to splash in the water. The image captures her energy.

Did you run into any challenges along the way? How did you overcome them?
The volatile monsoons kept things interesting, and the number of miles to cover made for some really long days, but I wouldn’t consider either to be a real challenge.  Only once did I need to pull off the road during a storm, and it provided a perfect opportunity for a short car-nap to help me through the long day.

What did you love most about this assignment?
I loved having the freedom to roam, to explore and to create my own experience. It was an invigorating sense of adventure.

Name one place our readers MUST visit should they take the Payson-to-Springerville drive.
I had not been to Springerville before and would say it was my favorite area of the trip. Wild sunflowers were growing everywhere. The air was cool and crisp — such a contrast to the sweltering temperatures in Phoenix at the time. The local businesses were charming. Visit Java Blues and the XA Saloon when you’re there.

What kind of camera did you use?
I used two Nikon D3’s, most often juggling both cameras at the same time. I kept both bodies handy, one with a long lens and the other with a wider lens, because I didn’t want to miss any shots while switching out lenses.

—Kathy Ritchie



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