Sitting still, under cover of his blind, countless hours have been invested in waiting for the right moment. A visage of fur creeps into the line of sight and he prepares to line things up. His practiced eyes are glued to his optics as his finger rests tensely on the trigger.
So much has led up to this fleeting moment: a journey through well-practiced research, scouting and waiting. As his target steps into view, he takes a deep breath, tightens his grip, and–gets the shot.
Within a couple of days, his trophy will be mounted and on display, in a newly-opened space on Main, for all to see. Claude Steelman is perhaps among the best hunters of his kind: one that shoots with a camera rather than a firearm.
Don’t feel too misled. Steelman attributes his ability to capture candid wildlife shots to his years of bowhunting. Thirty-five years ago, he just chose to put away the bow and shoot with a camera.
Now, he’s settling into his new gallery–which celebrates its grand opening on March 24–at 842 Main Avenue. He hopes, over the next three years, this gallery will provide the kind of nest egg he needs to retire.
It’s starkly different than his first gallery, which opened in the Gardenswartz building 28 years earlier.
“It was pretty small. It was more like an office with some pictures hanging on the wall and nobody came upstairs–it was upstairs. But I called it a gallery,” Steelman recalls.
The new space is open and bright, offering ample room to explore landscapes and wildlife alike through Steelman’s lens. From large sweeping panoramas to aptly-named “foot-prints” (12×12 canvases), it’s an impressive display of the esteemed photographer’s work.
Though he’s practiced photography as a hobby for as long as he can remember, it wasn’t always a staple in Steelman’s life. He hadn’t originally set out to take photos for a living.
“It just kinda happened by accident,” he said. “I was working for a mining company in Northern Colorado and I hated going to work every day so, one day, I just went in and quit.”
He came home, sat down on the couch, and began perusing a book of wildlife photography that a friend had lent to him. Sitting there, with the weight of his decision to leave mining behind, he decided that that’s what he wanted to do. He decided he’d become a wildlife photographer.
“That was 35 years ago and that’s what I’ve been doing since,” he said.
Using the skills learned through years of bowhunting, Steelman found he could capture uniquely intimate photos of wild animals.
“At first I just primarily photographed big game because I was shooting a lot for magazines–for hunting publications,” he said. “Elk and deer, anything you could hunt.”
Since then, the camera has taken him to destinations like Denali National Park in Alaska and the rainforest canopies of Central America, photographing everything from waterfowl to wolves to orca whales.
“I’ve had some close calls with grizzly bears in Alaska,” Steelman said. “I don’t know how much danger I was really in but they really get your attention when they’re 20 feet from you.”
It’s stuff like this that conjures the image of Steelman: pepper spray in one hand and camera, shaking, in the other–all to capture the shot.
By contrast, his current project is actually reliant on him being far from his subjects.
“Right now, what I’m doing is setting up camera traps to get . . . some wild mountain lion stuff,” he said. “That’s kinda my thing right now. I may never get it, but a lot of this stuff is challenging.”
Steelman counts mountain lions among the most elusive animals he’s photographed in the wild. They share that title with the wolves and orca. His lenses are trained exclusively on wild subjects, hence his gallery moniker Wildshots, which doesn’t allow him the luxury of capturing captive or game preserve animals.
“There is a lot of time that you’re just waiting for the light or waiting for an animal to show up,” Steelman said. “I couldn’t sit and watch a baseball game because that would bore me to death, but I can sit in a blind all day. I guess it’s just where your interests are.”
As a successful photographer, with a gallery of his own no less, Steelman’s advice is occasionally sought by amateurs looking to make it themselves.
“I had a young guy in here the other day asking for advice and I told him to marry a rich woman.” he laughed. “That’s the best advice I can give someone that wants to be a photographer. That’s what I wished I’d done.”
By Steelman’s account, there are no shortcuts in his profession. After quitting his job at the mining company, Steelman started down a long and arduous path towards success as a photographer.
“At first I struggled for a long time and ended up living in my car and traveling around and trying to sell a picture here and there. I was mostly selling to publications then. At the time I was single and didn’t have any responsibilities so I could live pretty cheaply–you know, drive an old Subaru eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
He eventually ran into a film crew in Rocky Mountain National Park and got hired as an assistant, a job that allowed him to work on documentary films for two and a half years and pursue wildlife films of his own afterward.
“So once I started doing that I pretty much figured that [photography] is what I’m going to do. And I quit doing films and went back to doing stills,” he said.
The still photography allowed him to work independently, chasing down the type of work he wanted without answering to anyone else.
“With films, you’re working for producers and a production company and I’d rather be working for myself than for someone else. And the equipment. This was back in the 16mm film days, so you’re carrying so much equipment around that it’s just–it’s like real work,” he laughed.
And so Steelman put down the film camera and went back to capturing stills.
“The most rewarding part of it is being my own boss and doing my own thing,” Steelman said. “There were a lot of really slow times where I’d thought about giving it up, but it seemed like every time I’m just about to quit something happened that pulled me back in–a big sale or something.”
Steelman has had some big sales, too. Not only does he have a following of collectors that he’s built up over the years, but he was approached by Frontier Airlines, who now features three of Steelman’s photographs on the tailfins of their planes.
“It’s taken me 25 years to get to the point where I’m actually making a decent living. I’m not getting rich but I’m making a living and doing what I love.”
That kind of success certainly doesn’t come overnight for most. Starting from scratch, no one knows your name and you have to work hard to establish yourself.
“At first it’s really difficult because you need a lot of pictures to really make a living at it. It’s taken me many years to accumulate the stock that I need to be successful,” he said. “I figure I have about 100,000 35 millimeter slides and I don’t know how many digital pictures.”
And even if you’ve got the talent and images to back it up, you have to know how to market yourself and get noticed.
“I belonged to the Outdoor Writers Association and they put out, each month, a ‘wants’ list from different publications, and there was something called the Guilfoyle Report that I subscribed to–this was back in the old fax days–and you’d get a fax every day of all the publications that wanted pictures,” Steelman said.
Steelman also recalls referring to a book called Photographer’s Market, which is still in print, that lists major publications and buyers. Today, though, we live in a world forever changed by the internet.
“With the internet, it’s changed everything as far as the marketing. I used to be with stock agencies and they would sell your work and take a percentage. With the internet you can do as well on your own as you can with a stock agency, I found.”
In 35 years, the internet is certainly not the only innovation the photography industry witnessed. The days of film photography, where Steelman first earned his wings, are now part of a bygone era.
There are certainly photographers who still romanticize film photography and others that tout the importance of learning the fundamentals from film. Steelman, however, advocates the contrary.
“If you’re competing with everyone else doing digital I wouldn’t advise anyone to start out with film,” he said. “The way I learned is just by trial and error, going out and taking a lot of pictures. In the film days, that was expensive because you’d take a lot of bad pictures before you’d get a good one.”
Digital cameras have surpassed their film counterparts in quality too, now.
“When digital first came out it wasn’t very good,” he recalls.
Nowadays a digital image can be enlarged significantly more than the film equivalent without losing quality. Digital photography can also be more easily manipulated in programs like Photoshop, though an argument could be made that the best photographers don’t need to alter much.
“I primarily just crop things and work with the exposure a little bit. I don’t do very much,” Steelman said. “I try to make it look like what I saw and what I remember, to make it look pretty much the same.”
His talent and tact show. Step into his new gallery and you’ll find yourself immersed in the vibrancy and drama of landscapes and wildlife alike. His canvasses are bold, but not overstated. What little editing he does enhances the subject and lets it shine through.
While you’re in there, keep an eye out for his images of stallions. One in particular, “Untamed Spirit”, has become one of Steelman’s most iconic shots.
About the image, a portrait of a wild black stallion, his website reads “From the first time I saw him I knew he was special. He exuded strength and beauty like no other animal I have ever encountered… I consider the image of this untamed spirit to be among the best photographs I have ever taken.”
“I’m still hoping for that next shot, but that one has been pretty good to me,” Steelman said when asked whether he feels “Untamed Spirit” will be the pinnacle of his career. “It’s been my signature piece.”
He cautions, though, that when you’re a photographer it’s easy to get too emotionally attached to certain pictures.
“They’re sorta like your children, you love them all but there are some that will stand out more. There are other shots that I have spent more time and money and effort to get, that I really like, but you have to learn to not get too emotionally involved with your pictures,” he said. “Just because you love it doesn’t mean the general public is going to. You have this personal connection with it and you know how difficult it was to get, whereas some chipmunk you took on the side of the road might be a better seller than something you spent three weeks on trying to get.”
“Right now I’m in the business of selling pictures and so I need to put out what sells. And he sells, so I like him,” he added.
And for the next three years, selling is going to be Steelman’s main focus as he prepares for retirement.
“Well I just have a lease for three years, and I’m not getting any younger, so I need to try to make as much money in the three years to kinda retire. That’s my goal, and to go down to the Keys in the winter and lie on the beach.”
The camera, though, will always be a mainstay in Steelman’s life.
“I don’t play golf or have any hobbies; this is pretty much what I do. Even if I retire I’d go take pictures,” he said. “I’ll eventually retire from the gallery business but I’ll always have some kind of presence somewhere.”