Being a nature photographer requires an appreciation of the beauty of the great outdoors, knowledge of what resides in it, as well as the photography skills necessary to capture it.
And patience. Lots and lots of patience.
It’s the last one John Demske sometimes runs short on. But what the Soldotna optometrist and amateur photographer lacks in patience he makes up for in creativity and a big birch tree.
When Demske is looking for a sure shot close to his home off Cardwell Road between Soldotna and Kasilof, he’s a five-minute walk away from a subject that never fails to hold still for him.
“The tree’s just always there. You just go over there,” Demske said.
His neighbors, Ron and Debra Walker, have a wooded lot that fell victim to spruce bark beetle destruction. Over the years, Ron cleared the lot of the dead trees and seeded it, leaving one lone birch tree in a sea of grass.
Demske has been admiring the landscaping through his camera for about seven years now. He used to shoot the tree from the gravel road that borders the field, until the foliage along the hand-made log fence grew up enough to obstruct his view. Now he just walks though the trees to get a good view.
“We’ve been neighbors for 23 years,” Demske said of the Walkers. “It’s not like I’m walking in their front yard.”
The tree hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s a little taller, perhaps, and the leaves come and go. Nevertheless, Demske has managed to produce an impressive variety of images from that one unchanging tree.
He’s shot it in all seasons and conditions, from snow to sun, in black and white and color. It’s shared the frame with auroras, stars and planets, interesting cloud formations, fireweed and the occasional wandering moose or caribou.
The surrounding field and woodlands slope down away from the tree, giving Demske a view of the Kenai Mountains beyond. They’re on the wrong horizon to participate in a sunset, but he’s captured the scene at sunrise, and with alpenglow adding a blush to the peaks.
The tree itself has been documented in every stage of dress from spring buds to full summer plumage, ablaze in fall color and stark naked against the winter snow.
Dr. John Demske
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“Because it’s out in the middle of a field it’s really windy. All the other trees will be coated with snow but that will be bare,” he said.
The concept of documenting the affects of changing seasons on a single slice of nature isn’t a new one, a la Claude Monet and his haystacks. But Demske had no such endeavor in mind the first time he trained his lens on the tree.
“It was just practice,” he said. “I don’t know. It just, just happened. I didn’t have any project in mind.”
But a project it became, so much of one that a meeting of the Kenai Photography Guild wouldn’t seem complete without the latest installment of “John’s neighbor’s tree.”
“As long as I can remember I’ve seen his neighbor’s tree pictures and he has a different take on it all the time,” said John Tobin, a guild member who lives in Nikiski. “ ... He’s been doing it for quite a long time and it’s kind of funny, actually. It’s, I guess it’s sort of expected that he’s going to show that tree, but ... I would say it’s never boring. I don’t get tired of seeing it.
“I’ve seen good and bad but mostly they’re fun,” Tobin said.
Picking a single subject to photograph regularly is a good way to improve your skills, Tobin said.
“Its first appearance you might think it’s simple and boring but if you look at it in different light and different seasons you learn a lot about it and photography,” he said.
The tree may test Demske’s photography skills but unlike fickle wildlife, it doesn’t test his patience. Demske took a road lottery trip to Denali National Park earlier this year. He and a carload of other photographers came upon a lone injured caribou and thought they’d have the rare luck to see a wolf-caribou encounter in the wild. So they set up their gear and waited.
Four-plus hours later they gave up and were moving on to more promising vistas when the wolves made an appearance. The photographers hurried back to the site, got their cameras set again and waited, again.
Nothing. After they’d packed up for the second time a wolf made its move, but it was too fast and too late for the photographers to get any decent shots.
“How often do you get to see a wolf-caribou encounter, and they never showed up, and then they did show up and didn’t do anything. Then this lone wolf decides to attack the caribou, so we quickly set up the cameras and snapped one or two shots, but missed the best one,” Demske said.
So it goes.
“A lot of it’s luck of being in the right place at the right time and a lot of it’s knowledge of what might happen,” Demske said of what it takes to be a good nature photographer.
“For wildlife photography especially you have to have an amazing amount of patience, and I’m not sure I have that,” he said.
When Demske has more than five minutes, he puts the lessons he has learned from the tree to use in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge his extended backyard. He steps out his door and is in the squishy vibrancy of the area’s wetlands, which gradually firms into rolling hills topped with the snow-capped Kenai Mountains beyond that, offering plenty for an outdoor enthusiast to point a lens at.
“I live on the edge of a swamp. I can walk out the door and in 10 minutes be walking on the refuge,” Demske said. “It’s easy to walk out the door and get lost.”
Demske is a fan of the, as he puts it, “walk out your back door and take a picture, see what you can find” approach to nature photography.
If he feels like wandering in search of wildlife, he has miles of wilderness in which to roam. For variety, he enjoys the Russian River valley, and the Homer and Seward areas.
The self-taught approach has been Demske’s standard since a friend first got him interested in cameras in college. It was a natural hobby for him photography, like his chosen field of optometry, is all about optics. Even though the two disciplines share scientific principles, the differences between them afford Demske a welcome change of pace from the office.
“If you’ve ever had your eyes examined it’s in a windowless room ... so all day I’m working in a room with no windows and focusing on eyes,” he said. “And when you do nature photography you’re out and about, especially landscape photography, looking at the big picture instead of a little eye. It gives a little balance to my psyche, I guess.”
The Wisconsin native learned to shoot on his own as he finished school in Oregon and embarked on his first few optometry jobs. He read books and magazines, talked to other photographers and bought a small dark room set.
“That’s where you can really learn photography,” he said.
He dabbled in professional photography, but “one wedding every 30 years is about my limit. It’s where the money is but I have no desire to do that.”
Being an outdoorsman, nature photography held more appeal.
“I enjoy getting out, hiking around and taking a camera,” he said.
Demske also likes to travel. After an ill-advised decision to brush his teeth with some less-than-fresh water in Central America a few years after college, Demske found himself recovering from hepatitis. During his convalescence he saw a book on Alaska, which inspired him to set off on his next journey, to Bethel in 1978.
“It’s totally unlike any place in the Lower 48,” Demske said. “It’s just kind of a unique place.”
After five years of “unique,” Demske moved his family to Soldotna in 1983, where he set up his own optometry practice.
In the years since, his business, family and other interests mushing, most notably took precedence over photography. But about seven or eight years ago the languishing Kenai Photography Guild reorganized, which rekindled Demske’s interest in the craft. He even dug out the old dark room kit and set it up in the bathroom vacated by his two kids when they went off to college.
“Dust is the arch-enemy of dark rooms. Two days of doing prints I knew why it sat in boxes for 20 years,” he said.
The dark room set relocated to a buyer in Georgia and Demske eventually made the leap to digital photography. That led him take his first ever class in photography, from Jayne Jones at Kenai Peninsula College two years ago.
With the mushing team farmed out years ago and his kids grown, he’s put his optometry practice up for sale. After decades of looking at other people’s eyes 23 years of which were spent in Soldotna the 58-year-old is ready to turn his eyes to new vistas.
“Different places I’ve never seen before, different countries, different continents, there’s an endless list of places I’d like to travel to,” he said.
And the tree? What would it do without its own personal paparazzi?
“I’m sure it’ll carry on.”
Jenny Neyman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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