Saturday, 2 July 2011

Where The Buffalo Roam


Steve Seegers and I were good friends living in Hawaii in 1976 when we decided on a whim to try to produce an article for National Geographic about the American bison, better known as buffalo. Steve would do the writing and I the photography. We contacted the magazine and were told we could submit such a story "on speculation."  Being novices to the publication world at that time, we thought this was an invitation to fame and fortune and adventure. Many years later I now know that on speculation actually means "Yeah, send it to us, but the chances are a million to one that your story will ever see the light of day."

So we quit our day jobs in Hawaii and returned to the mainland and set off in search of the remaining bison herds in the US.  We were a little late--the last large herds were killed off exactly one hundred years earlier on the plains of Texas and Kansas--but that fact didn't phase us.  We were full of nostalgia for the Old West
and in our minds, at least, it still lived on.  There was no Internet or Google back then and it took some digging to find out where buffalo still existed. We headed first to Moiese, Montana where Teddy Roosevelt and his buddies had established the National Bison Range in 1908, hauling down some bison from Alberta to get things going.  We visited at the time of their annual roundup and got to watch former employee, Ernie Kraft, help corral the herd for vaccinating against brucellosis and for the subsequent auction.

The NBR is large, but it didn't feel wild enough. So we headed first to Yellowstone
National Park and then to Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota. We were never able to get near the herd in that park and drove south to Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  In Wind Cave we got our first taste of how it feels to have dozens of bison at once come after you. Both Steve and I wound up hiding in the branches of the same pine tree for forty-five minutes until the herd below us finally moved on.

We visited Ft. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, which also felt too tame, before finding the photographic crown jewel of our entire journey, Badlands National Monument (upgraded since to  National Park status) in South Dakota.  It was by then early December and quite cold in that part of the country.  We based out of a motel in the town of Wall and before sunrise one day we drove into the Sage Creek Wilderness area at the western end of the badlands.  I had in mind getting a sunrise shot, with the sun coming up right behind a bison.  In those days I was big into sunrises and sunsets, using the backlighting to capture silhouettes of every conceivable critter and object, from horses to sailboats. 

I carried my Nikkormat camera with a Nikon 300mm/f 4.5 lens around my neck and no tripod. I  used Kodachrome 64 film back then. Those were the days when Kodachrome was everyone's favorite, before Fujichrome and Velvia took over as most wildlife photographers' film of choice. The temperature was probably 10F, and maybe colder than that. We parked along the dirt road which overlooks the Sage Creek Wilderness, a vast grasslands that stretches out below to the Badlands Wall in the distance. With binoculars, in the dim pre-dawn light, we located a few bison grazing about a mile out and we hiked towards them. They were three bulls, spread out from each other. To get the image I wanted I knew I had to have a bison standing broadside on a flat area so the sun would have the opportunity to rise right behind him.  One of the three bulls happened to be standing in just such a spot. 

I positioned myself where I needed to be to fill enough of the frame with the bison. Steve and I were both a little nervous, considering our Wind Cave NP experience, and the fact that there were no trees anywhere around us at the moment for protection. But no guts, no glory, as the saying goes. I wanted this image badly.
Steve stood well off to my right and we waited. My fingers got colder and colder as the glow on the hroizon became brighter.

By the time that the sun started to crest the distant horizon my fingers were totally numb and I could no longer feel the shutter release button on the camera. I had to stab at it. The Nikkormat had no motor drive. It was one shot at a time. From previous experience I pre-set the camera settings to shoot at f16 at 1/1000 second tro obtain the silhouette I desired. I  had to control my breathing so as not to fog up my glasses and the viewfinder of the camera in the cold.
I was on a level with the bison. Since it was December the grass was very short and allowed for the nice clean light of the sun brightening up beneath the bison without any vegetation in the way. This same photograph would not be possible in the tall grass of summer. As the sun rose I poked away at the shutter release with my numb fingers, hitting it correctly only some of the time. I shot a series of images, the best of which is included at the beginning of this article.

It took weeks before I had the film processed and got to look at the results. The sunrise silhouettte was even better than I had hoped for. I was thrilled. I was certain that National Geographic would use the image on their cover.  It seemed like the perfect cover shot.  Steve Seegers wrote up his story and I organized my images and we eagerly mailed the package off to the magazine.  We knew we had a hit. 

One month later we got a form letter telling us that this material was not what they were looking for. 

Steve and I went our own ways after that effort. The upside to the story is that I went to New York City and found my first stock photo agency to work with, an organization called Animals Animals. It was owned back then by Nancy Henderson and Eve Kloepper and the agency is still around today, 35 years later. They looked over and liked my then-limited portfolio of wildlife images--including the bison shots--and signed me up. Eight months later, in December 1977, Audubon Magazine used my bison/sunrise image on their cover. It was the first photograph that I ever had published.

Mark Newman

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