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Looking Through The Lens

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

The magazine you're holding rates as one of my favorites, and I can't resist turning its pages to look at the photographs before I read it.

My family and I have subscribed to the Missouri Conservationist for more than 20 years. Whether popped through a mail slot on Primrose Lane in England or stuffed into a rural mailbox on a Virginia hilltop, the Conservationist always brought us back to Missouri with its photographs and features.

Now that we've settled in the Missouri Ozarks, we especially look forward to seeing the photographs each month. These photos range from those that take the reader up-close and personal to the faces of birds, insects and other wildlife, to the breathtaking scenics that merit a whispered, "Wow!"

I was surprised to find out that only two photographers produce most of the photographs in the Conservationist. Not only do these two photographers shoot film for the magazine, but they are also responsible for taking the photos seen in other Department of Conservation publications.

Jim Rathert is one of these photographers and has worked at the Conservation Department for 27 years. Born and raised in Columbia, Rathert likely was influenced to become a photographer as he watched his dad work as a photographer for the University of Missouri-Columbia. He attended the same university, majoring in art education with a special interest in the natural sciences.

While attending MU in 1968, Rathert purchased his first camera from a fellow student, journalism major Jim Domke. After he graduated, Rathert worked in wildlife research at the Missouri Department of Conservation in Jefferson City. He spent 11 years setting up and photographing wildlife research projects. He described the job as "photography inter-meshed with the research projects."

In 1981, Rathert left the Department to sell insurance in Illinois, but he missed working outdoors with his camera. After two years, he and his family moved back to Jefferson City where he applied for a job, any job, in the Department that would fit his talents. In 1984, Rathert was hired as a full-time photographer, a job he calls "an absolutely comfortable fit."

Rathert says his background in natural science contributes to his success as a photographer. For example, when he was assigned to photograph dragonflies for a Conservationist cover, his knowledge of the dragonfly's behavior helped him obtain the necessary images.

"Dragonflies have hunting perches," Rathert said. "If you see them working in an area, they'll probably light on the same perch repeatedly so you can walk up and get in position.

"Dragonflies are all eyes," he added. "They're difficult to photograph. Just walk slowly through brushy areas near ponds. If you're lucky, they'll get dew on them, and then you'll get a magical photograph."

Although he photographs all types of animals, birds are his favorite subjects. In fact, he confesses that if he is not careful, he could fill the photo files at the Conservation Department with pictures of birds. He also loves to photograph fish, and he's set a goal to photograph all 200 species of Missouri fishes. He'll even put on scuba gear, if necessary, to photograph fish.

Rathert explained how his mind has to see the photograph that he wants before he snaps the shutter release. He keeps a mental log of photographs to shoot for upcoming issues and covers. For his efforts, Rathert receives an incredible amount of fan mail.

One admirer of Rathert's work is Cliff White, whose name appears with Rathert's on the Conservationist masthead. White has been capturing magic on film for the magazine for about five years. A native of Blue Springs, White became interested in photography in his 10th-grade geometry class.

"The guy who sat behind me always brought his camera to class because he had photography class before geometry," White recalled. "I was more interested in his camera than in geometry."

White asked his parents for a camera at Christmas that year and received a Pentax K-1000, which he described as a good, basic manual camera. By the time he was a junior in high school, he worked part-time as a photographer for the Blue Springs and Independence Examiners. When it came time to enroll in college, he chose the University of Missouri-Columbia, but a career with the Conservation Department wasn't in his plans.

"When I first started school, being young and in the frame of mind that most people are when they're young, I was pretty sure I wanted to go to Bosnia, or wherever the hot place was at that time, and get shot at being a roving photojournalist," White said.

After a couple of years he met his future wife, Molly, and quickly started rearranging his priorities. As time progressed, a life on the road seemed less and less appealing.

"Yeah sure, I'd like to see the world, but the truth of it is, this is my home," White explained. "My family is here, and everything I like to do is here. I really started evaluating it. I was always the outdoorsy type-hunting and fishing."

After graduation, White worked as a manager in a photo lab at MU. In 1996 a friend mentioned a job opening at the Conservationist. Since the deadline was only a week away, he initially considered forsaking the opportunity, but he quickly changed his mind. Scrambling to put together a color portfolio to meet the deadline, White was flattered to receive an interview. The day after his interview, he was offered the job.

White says his talents dovetail well with Rathert's, and combined, they help produce the Conservationist's unique personality. Most of the time, White photographs people and Rathert photographs wildlife. When White goes into the field, people always ask, "Do you know Jim Rathert?"

"Rathert's been around for 20 years, and his stuff is pictures, like bluebirds, that people get excited about," White said.

In contrast, White approaches his craft in workmanlike fashion.

"I've never really considered my stuff to be art; I was always a journalist," he said. "One of the things I pride myself on is not setting up pictures too much. When I show up at a shoot, somebody will say, 'Well, what do you want me to do?' and I'll say, 'I want you to fish.'

"A lot of photographers will put people where the best light is, and that's okay for them," he added, "but with my journalism background, just the way I like to shoot, I don't preconceive pictures in my head. I see what's there and then I see the composition or angle."

Rathert, too, likes spontaneity. The sudden appearance of a photo opportunity is enough to pique his creativity.

"I don't like to keep a schedule," Rathert said. "Right now, I'm taking photos of a rare orchid that my son found. I'm confident that it's a possible calendar shot or cover shot. I get a feeling about that and I'm optimistic. I like to think most every subject out there has a higher potential than what many people might think."

Both photographers estimate they spend two or three days each week in the field, working with their cameras-underwater, in forests, and sometimes hanging out of a helicopter. When not shooting film, they're back in the office processing film, cataloguing slides, editing, and making appointments for future shoots.

"It's a constant struggle for me to keep ahead of the game on organization," Rathert acknowledged. "That's the part of the job I enjoy least.

"My typical work week is always atypical," he continued. "It couldn't work any other way. If one started at eight and worked until five, especially in the summertime, your best pre-light hours would be gone and after five o'clock, your best four hours are coming out."

Both men thrive on the spontaneity and the variety that being a photographer for the Conservation Department allows. Both live full lives when not on the job. Rathert loves to be in the outdoors with his family. An avid birder, he delights in finding new species of birds and calling to them. He also hikes with his son, Josh, who is an amateur botanist. White is a pilot and owns a share in an airplane, so he takes to the sky whenever possible. When back on the ground, he plays the hammer dulcimer.

Rathert's ability to see the image in his own mind's eye is one of the keys to his success, while White's ability to take what he sees and turn it into a statement is a strong asset. After meeting the photographers, I'd have to say that these two Missouri boys have done a good job of combining their talents and skills, while managing to keep their self-deprecating senses of humor. As a result, we sense the photographers' personalities in their photographs, and that's a large part of what keeps us waiting for the Conservationist to arrive every month.

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