Photographer John Toppenberg captures a side of nature that few get to see

Posted: Sunday, February 02, 2003

Catching a glimpse of John Toppenberg at work on the lake in front of his Sterling home would naturally raise several questions from a curious passer-by.

The first question -- "What is that guy doing?" The camera in his hands makes it obvious he's a taking pictures.

A more difficult question to answer is why is he doing what he's doing. Why would a 6-foot, 5-inch man get up before dawn, cram himself into a small inflatable Zodiac and spend hour after cramped hour ghosting silently around a lake after various birds, when he could just as easily put a zoom lens on his camera, snap some pictures from shore and go back to bed?

The answer is simple: to get a better picture.

Getting a better picture means getting a shot that better captures the beauty and character of the animals he photographs. For Toppenberg, that's what photography is all about.

"(I am a photographer) to share the beauty I experience in nature," Toppen-berg said. "... To capture our link with the natural world, with those creatures out there. I don't attempt to portray them as vicious, I attempt to portray their life cycle and the beauty of it."

Nature has been a love of Topp-enberg's since he was a child, and his interest in photography grew from it.


Photographer John Toppenberg.

Photo by Phil Hermanek

He was born in Iowa. A self-described loaner as a kid, he spent his time wandering through the woods.

"My dad and grandad were woodsmen. They hunted and fished," Toppenberg said. "They loved nature, and I also evolved to love it -- in a slightly different way."

Different because he didn't develop the interest in hunting that his father and grandfather did. Toppenberg admits he feels a certain instinctual appeal for hunting that comes from the thrill of the chase and the intellectual challenge involved. But he satisfied that urge through his first career in law enforcement and later with photography.

Toppenberg went to a few years of college in Iowa and studied zoology and forestry, with the ultimate goal of going into marine mammal research. But he never quite took to any of these fields, so he quit school. He moved to Colorado and took up social work for a while. He left that to pursue a career in law enforcement.

"It seemed like the thing to do, save the world and all that," he said. "But what I discovered in law enforcement is that the world didn't really want to be saved."

Toppenberg became a detective based out of Fort Collins, Colo. His beat covered homicides and major crimes, which gave him his fill of the chase.

"When I was young, I was raised hunting and fishing," he said. "After I became a cop, I lost interest in that. I became sympathetic to wildlife and the life they lead. The inclination to hunt and the challenge of hunting was more than taken care of by the criminals I hunted."


A brown bear interrupts its dip to glance take a look at Toppenberg and his camera.

Photo courtesy of John Toppenberg

Though Toppenberg found the work satisfying at first, its appeal wore off as the years wore on.

"When I would get called out it was exciting, challenging. Internally, I knew there was exciting stuff out there, but it got to be routine, nuts and bolts, like a person in a factory."

The lifestyle of a cop began to lose its luster for him as well. His wife of nine years, Peggy Conway, is a certified nurse midwife. She would get called out in the middle of the night to deliver a baby about as often as he would get called out to find a murderer.

"If we got a call in the middle of the night, we kind of knew somebody had either died or was coming into the world," Toppenberg said. "It got to be something we both wanted to move beyond. ... I got to thinking about a different lifestyle, more laid-back. "

It was during this time as a law enforcement officer that Toppenberg got into photography. Continuing the practice he began as a child, Toppenberg would go for walks in the wilderness of Colorado and took a camera along to document his journeys.

"Then I thought, 'Maybe I can switch gears and take pictures for their own sake' -- not to document the adventures I have, but for documenting the beauty of nature and my fascination with wildlife."


A red-necked grebe and chick in their nest on the shores of Loon Lake.

Photo courtesy of John Toppenberg

His experiences in nature and developing interest in photography served as a balance to the sometimes brutal realities he dealt with in his job.

"I was using photography as therapy," he said. "In the wilds of Colorado, that was my therapy."

Toppenberg is a self-taught photographer. Other than a few photography seminars he's attended, he has never had any formal training in the craft and learned through his own personal research and experimentation. Through his wilderness wanderings, his skill and interest in photography grew to the point where he considered making a career out of it.

At 51, after 22 years as a law enforcement officer, Toppenberg retired. He and Conway began looking for a new place to call home.

"Alaska seemed like the place you could escape to, the place to do (photography) and maybe be a little closer to nature," he said.


A loon and chick in Loon Lake.

Photo courtesy of John Toppenberg

Six years ago, Conway saw a job advertisement for a certified nurse midwife in Soldotna. The couple planned a trip to investigate, although they weren't seriously considering moving to the area at the time.

"We decided before we came that we didn't want to do this, but we could come for the trip and write it off on our taxes," Toppenberg joked. "What happened was we really just fell in love with it."

During their trip in September, they decided they would make the move to Alaska. They returned to Colorado to set their affairs in order and moved to Sterling in May. By the beginning of July they had moved into a house on a lake in Sterling, which Toppenberg calls Loon Lake for the birds that make it their home. The house is everything a nature lover could want: wood floors and walls decorated with Toppenberg's photography and Conway's nature-themed quilting, a deck and windows overlooking a lake, and plenty of room for pet dogs to play. The couple has two golden retrievers named Gretel and Dovie (short for Seldovia) that "allow (Toppenberg and Conway) to live with them."

Conway went to work for Dr. Bobbie Behrens in Soldotna, and Toppenberg found himself having to temper his dream of being a full-time photographer.

"The retirement program (from the police force) was not a good one, I couldn't live off that," he said. "Photography was not my instant full-time profession. It was something you do with a day job."

He started out working as a school bus driver. About four years ago he started working for Central Peninsula Counseling Services. He left that job for about 10 months to work for the Department of Corrections in Seward but hated it and returned to counseling, ultimately getting placed as part of the counseling program at Kenai Alternative High School.

"It's very good work," he said. "I love the people I work with, the kids are great at that school. There's a lot of good things about that job."

One of the best things about the job is that Toppenberg gets summers off, which he fills with his photography. Though he has done a few weddings and special assignments, Toppenberg is first and foremost a nature and wildlife photographer.

His portfolio looks like a zoologist's guide to the wildlife of Alaska. Many of his shots have been widely reproduced and marketed throughout the state. Even if someone doesn't know who John Toppenberg is, there's a good chance they've seen one of his pictures before.

His work has graced the covers of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce's vacation guide for the past five years and the cover of the Kenai Peninsula Marketing Coun-cil's vacation guide. He's won first and second places in Alaska Magazine's photography contest in the wildlife division. He sells prints of his works and started a line of photo magnets that recently has been mass produced and marketed across the state and in the Northwest.


Two harbor seals bob in the waters of Geographic Harbor

Photo courtesy of John Toppenberg

Toppenberg also is the primary photographer for the Alaska Zoo, which carries his photo magnets and prints. When a new animal is brought to the zoo, Toppenberg goes behind the scenes to photograph it.

His wildlife pictures cover the size spectrum of land-dwelling animals from bears and moose to porcupines and rabbits. When it comes to aquatic creatures, everything from whales to seals have been in the view of his lens.

It is his photography of birds however, for which he is most widely known. Toppenberg specializes in loon photography, mainly because of his proximity to them. In the six years he's been in Alaska, he's spent hundreds of hours on the lake in front of his home, learning how the loons move and behave, what makes them dive and swim away and how they communicate. From this observation, he's learned how he can get close to them without them spooking and moving away.

"I worked with them so they would accept me into their world and not pay any attention to me."

During his first summer on the lake, Toppenberg took pictures of the birds from shore. For the next two summers he took a canoe out onto the water and shot from that. For the four past two years, he's used an inflatable Zodiac with a silent electric trolling motor. The boat stability and ease of travel this setup has provided has dramatically improved his photography, he said.

Loon Lake has provided Topp-enberg an accessible opportunity to photograph red-necked grebes as well. Since he's been on the lake, there have been three to four pairs of that have nested there every summer. Last summer, however, that population was reduced.

By June there were three nests with eggs, Toppenberg said, until someone with a boat and 35-horse power motor spun circles in the lake, which created wakes big enough to swamp the nests. Two pairs of the birds left the lake permanently, Toppenberg said. One pair renested and was able to hatch one chick by the end of the summer, but that chick did not survive.


Two trumpeter swans along the Parks Highway make a Valentine's Day pose.

Photo courtesy of John Toppenberg

Toppenberg's love for nature has evolved into an ideology of environmentalism.

In Colorado, he was on the board of directors for an environmental organization. In Alaska, he is on the board of directors for the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and a member of the Kenai Peninsula Photography Guild and the Alaska Society of Outdoor and Nature Photographers. Even though environmentalism can be "a fairly evil word up here," Toppenberg said, the protection of nature is too important to ignore.

"I fear that this disregard for wildlife in the name of amusement is going to have a negative impact on Alaska," he said. "I hate to see it negatively impact my photography, but that's a minor technical point in comparison to what it represents for the long-term welfare of the state.

"Alaska is the last, best chance this nation has to retain some of the natural world, and I'm not sure we're doing as good a job as we could."

Through some of his business ventures, Toppenberg has had a chance to travel to several unspoiled parts of the state. Since 1998, Toppenberg has guided some photography tours, where he takes groups of photographers to different parts of the state to photograph certain landscapes and animals. He's guided trips across Cook Inlet to Geographic Harbor, the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, the Katmai Coast for bears and to Southeast Alaska for whales.

In the past year, Toppenberg has guided for a company called Alaska Photo Tours, which also does tours to the Pribilof Islands for sea birds and fur seals, to Prince William Sound and to Denali Park.

Just a few weeks ago, Topp-enberg purchased the company with Steve Freno of Anchorage and Jenny Jonak of San Francisco. Now he's looking forward to being more involved in the business. He plans to lead road trip-oriented short tours in the Kenai Peninsula and Anchor-age areas.

The company offers an expanding line of international and national photo tours through Discovery Tours as well, which Toppenberg is not currently guiding for, but hopes to sometime in the future. Some of the spots on the destination list include Japan, Patagonia, China and East Africa.

A photography book about the wildlife of Southcentral Alaska lakes is on the horizon for Toppen-berg as well. He also would like to get into stock photography.

In the next two years, Toppenberg is anticipating he will switch to digital photography to keep up with advancing technology. The photography business is so competitive that no matter how good someone is with old technology, they won't be able to compare with a photographer using new technology, he said.

Advances in technology allows photographers to spend more time taking pictures and less time dealing with technical aspects, Toppenberg said. In that respect, he thinks advancing technology and digital photography is a boon to the business.


A photographer on a photo tour gets up close and personal with a bear.

Photo courtesy of John Toppenberg

"I think digital will change photography and has the potential to change it for the better," he said.

Technology also has the potential to change photography for the worse, however.

Digital technology, especially, makes it very easy for photographers to significantly modify an image, a practice which Toppen-berg does not approve of if the resulting picture isn't labeled as a digitally manipulated image.

Toppenberg said he has no problem with modifying a small element of a picture, like digitally removing an out-of-place stick, but he does quibble with the practice of significantly modifying a picture and not labeling it as such. A major manipulation would be, for instance, combining pictures to make it look like there's a pod of whales in a picturesque mountain lake.

"To me, pictures portray what's actually happening in nature," Toppenberg said. "It's one instant of a dramatic moment in the actual world. ... The downside (of digital photography) is it's so easy to dramatically manipulate pictures. It enters the realm of dishonesty and I'm not comfortable with that unless it's labeled as such."

A home in Belize may be in the future for Toppenberg as well, although down the road five to 10 years. Before moving to Alaska, he and Conway did some research and traveling to find a spot to retire to. They bought some land on the Caribbean in Belize and hope to build a home there.

That way they can spend the summers in Alaska, winters in Belize and travel back and forth in an RV to visit family. Toppenberg has two daughters and a brand new granddaughter in Colorado and Conway has a daughter in Colorado, a daughter in Arizona, a son in Washington and two grandsons.

Whatever locations his future plans take him to, it's a safe bet Toppenberg will have his camera with him, whether it's floating after loons on a lake in Sterling, wandering the woods of China for a shot of panda bears or taking pictures of sunsets from his beachfront Caribbean property.

"I enjoy (photography) as much as ever," he said. "Every year I seem to find more areas of interest connected to photography. ... I have the ability to share the art of nature. I don't consider myself capable of one-upping nature. I am not a full-fledged artist, but I do my best to capture nature artistically."

Communing with wildlife 101

At 6-feet 5-inches tall, sneaking is not a movement you would think John Toppenberg capable of.

Lucky for him, sneaking is not the way to go about getting good wildlife pictures.

The Sterling nature and wildlife photographer has spent years perfecting his ability to get close to wild animals to take their pictures.

He comes from a background of woodsmen -- his father and grandfather taught him how to hunt and fish in Iowa -- but the tactics of hunters are vastly different than those used by wildlife photographers, he said.

Popular wisdom dictates that the best way to get close to an animal is to creep up to it unseen. Yet that is not the case, Toppenberg has found.

"You never sneak," Toppenberg said. "Always stay fully in view. You do things opposite of what hunters do. I try to behave as if I'm a respectful guest in their home."

Toppenberg said he learned his strategy through trial and error.

"I was surprised to find out that if I didn't sneak around, I didn't scare them. If I did it slowly enough, they stayed. When I sneaked around or moved quickly -- bam, they were gone. Even I can figure that out."

Another trick he has learned is to talk to the animals he's approaching.

"If I see external signs of nervousness, I stop and talk quietly. There's something about talking quietly that puts wildlife at ease."

Toppenberg said it's the same theory as talking to babies. It's not what you say that matters, but the tone of voice you say it in. If the tone is angry, threatening or excited, the animals pick up on it and get spooked. If the tone of voice is calm and soothing, however, they are less likely to run away.

"I see no reason for it to be the slightest bit different with wildlife (than babies)," he said. "I think they can just tell if this is a threat or isn't a threat."

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