In 2009 I was an “Honorary Photographer” for the Montana Office of Tourism. At the time, the MTOT was building their photo library for their “Get Lost” campaign (I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper stickers). They chose me and another photographer I really respect, Dusan Smetana, to document the Montana we love. Dusan was asked to shoot outdoor adventure in and around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, and I was assigned to hit the state’s blue highways to capture off-the-beaten-path food, towns, events and people.
What a dream job—getting to spend days on end shooting what I love! The job also included being featured on the ‘other side of the camera’ in the inaugural Get Lost in Montana television commercials (rough cut above). In it, I talk about eating my way across the Big Sky.
I treated the program like a grant, clocking hundreds of hours staring through my viewfinder at plates of food, funky hotel rooms, dusty bars, ranch rodeos, and cowboy diners. Food & travel, food & travel, food & travel. I saw plates of huckleberry pie and Rocky Mountain oysters in my dreams.
I shot the running of the sheep in Reedpoint, canning jars filled with Bloody Mary’s at the Marysville House, the Pit Spitting contest at Chokecherry Fest in Lewistown, breakfast at the Virgelle Mercantile, the Jefferson County Fair. I shot farmers markets in Miles City, Glasgow, and Seeley Lake. I went to Terry, Nashua, Havre, and Ovando.
I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, in which he claims it takes “10,000 hours” of intense practice to become an expert at something. By the end of 2009—when you add up all of the travel assignments I’d shot prior to that year—I’d accumulated enough hours behind the glass to reach 10,000. I felt like I’d seen just about everything the subject of food & travel could throw at me: I’d experienced and conquered countless tough lighting situations, knew intuitively what starting angle would be best for a burger vs a slice of pie vs a draft beer. And I trained myself to be really, really fast.
My camera started to feel like it was floating in my hands. I could walk into a busy business and size it up immediately—identifying my details, wide shots and portraits in a blink. I became adroit at weeding through chaos quickly and could work my way into a shot twice as fast as before. I could look at a stack of pancakes—or a table surrounded by cowboys—and bend and shape the scene into what I wanted by grabbing the right lens on the first try. I swear my eyes started “seeing” in 120mm and 50mm focal lengths.
The Honorary Photographer program afforded me the opportunity to shoot what I love and enabled me to sharpen my skills in way that would have otherwise taken several years. I’m proud of the work I did. I love where the project has taken me.