C&I talks with acclaimed international photographer Joel Sartore about photographing in his home state.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve travelled all over the world photographing in amazing places for National Geographic and other acclaimed publications. What keeps you in Nebraska?
Joel Sartore: My family live there, and my wife’s. Plus it's quiet, and I like that. I get enough excitement from my job.
C&I: What’s visually compelling for you and your camera in Nebraska?
Sartore: The views are grand, there’s usually a lot going on, and the people are trusting, friendly, and modest. That’s a perfect combination to be able to shoot freely anywhere I go.
C&I: Tell us about photographing the sandhill cranes and how you’ve captured them over the years. ...
Sartore: I’ve worked primarily at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary near Gibbon, Nebraska. They have fantastic crane viewing there, including blinds that wildlife photographers can stay in overnight to try and get very close up shots of the cranes. It’s really fabulous.
C&I: Besides the sandhill cranes, what are some of your other favorite spots and subjects in Nebraska to photograph?
Sartore: I love going to Calamus Outfitters near Burwell in the spring to photograph both the greater prairie chickens and the sharp-tailed grouse. This is a working cattle ranch in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills that also runs eco-tours, and the viewing of grouse doing their mating dances on the wide-open prairie is amazing. The best time to go is in March, by the way — the same time as the best crane viewing.
C&I: What are a couple of your favorite stories and images from your Nebraska photography?
Sartore: I like the Burwell Rodeo, which happens each July in the town of Burwell, Nebraska. The wild-horse race is an epic event that’s not to be missed.
But there are a lot of great towns here in the Cornhusker State. The State Capitol building in Lincoln is one-of-a-kind. We have “Carhenge” up in Alliance. And the buffalo roam at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. In other words, the state is quirky, fun, and interesting.
C&I: Your website shows the wonderful Burwell Rodeo panoramic and tells the story of how you achieved it. What other rodeo or ranch photography have you done in Nebraska and why do you find it interesting?
Sartore: I’ve done lots of images of ranching/cattle drives and brandings in the Sandhills near both Whitman and Burwell. Several generations of each ranch family I visited there do much of the work the old way, on horseback, and have been extremely gracious in allowing me in. With a lack of trees to block the light and the views, the picture-taking is pretty easy if you pay attention.
C&I: When a landscape is more subtle, how do you go about “looking” and “seeing” to find things to put in the frame?
Sartore: I find an anchor to hold the scene for the viewer. This is very important. It could be an old farm truck out in a field, or a church sitting high on a hill. Or it could even be cows dotting the landscape. There’s plenty of beauty here if you keep your eyes open and just think about it a bit.
C&I: Any tips for photography hobbyists for capturing wildlife? If you can’t look them in the eye as you have made a point to do with your famed Photo Ark portraits, what’s the best approach?
Sartore: I’d try to find animals that are very used to people, such as at a wildlife refuge or even at your local zoo. Just go somewhere that the animals might be a bit used to people, and try to shoot at eye level. Making eye contact with the subject is really key to “hooking” viewers on your photos.
C&I: How about tips for landscapes?
Sartore: Be there at sunrise and sunset for the great light, and take a tripod and a cable release so you can really keep your camera steady in low light.