Photographer, educator, writer and mentor George D. Lepp will receive NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show in Las Vegas, NV.
To nature photographers and his long-time fans, Lepp needs no introduction. As the awards committee noted, he is “one of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers. His passions for natural beauty, technical precision, cutting-edge technology, and environmental responsibility are revealed in his beautiful and compelling photographic images. He is also widely recognized for his unique dedication to sharing his photographic and biological knowledge with other photographers through his seminars and writing. In both realms, George Lepp is a leader in the rapidly advancing field of digital imaging.” First trained in wildlife and wild lands management, George later earned a BPA and honorary MS in Professional Photography from Brooks Institute. He is a columnist and field editor for Outdoor Photographer and, with his wife Kathryn Vincent Lepp, is the author of many articles and books. He is a Canon Explorer of Light and a founding board member of NANPA.
George and Kathryn, a writer and editor herself, live in Bend, Oregon. Recently, we had a chance to ask him a few questions.
NANPA Blog: With a Lifetime Achievement Award in the offing, it’s only natural to ask where you feel you’ve made the most lasting impact.
Lepp: It’s probably in the amount of teaching I’ve done over the years. From early in my career I was an instructor, long before it became the way for a lot of photographers to make a living. I was teaching in workshops and seminars from the beginning. Almost everything I’ve done over 50 years has involved teaching photography. That, I think, is my legacy.
NANPA Blog: You’ve seen a lot of changes in photography during your career. What’s the biggest change?
Lepp: I’ve been surprised at the way that photos have failed to hold their value. I was with good agencies from the beginning. We used to think of our stock images as our retirement. Not anymore! I look back at what it cost to get some of those images, in terms of time, money and equipment. And now look at how their value has changed. Images sell for next to nothing!
We really pushed to make nature photography popular and to get people interested in the outdoors. Now, so many are taking pictures. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. More people taking pictures, getting outside, connecting to nature—it makes them look at nature differently. And that’s good. But too many people don’t have the desire or the motivation to find new places.
About 40 years ago, when I went to Mono Lake for the first time, I was alone. Three or four years ago, I led a Canon workshop there and had to contend with three tour busses of people. Tourists were walking in front of our cameras, trampling over restricted areas and the quality of the experience was degraded for everyone.
In the Marine Corps, we had a saying, “Don’t stand together in one place. A single grenade will get you all!” We have to find new places.
Throughout my career, photography has been full of changes. Photographers have always had to adapt to what’s happening in the market. I’ve transitioned several times. I am fortunate to do writing and was able to make a market, through writing, for some of my images in those articles. With stock payments cratering, those images wouldn’t otherwise bring much income. I was doing workshops and seminars before a lot of photographers turned to education to make a living. I once had a school teaching digital imaging, but now that market, too, is saturated with schools and videos. My keynote presentation at the 2019 NANPA Summit is all about transitions.
NANPA Blog: Looking ahead, into the future, are you excited about where nature photography is going?
Lepp: The thing that excites me most is the way we are making more people closely observe the natural world around them. After a workshop, people look at an area in a whole new way. The more nature photographers we have, the more they’ll want to protect those areas.
As we see the hordes of people going to familiar places, we’ll look for new stuff, the plants, the smaller mammals, new locations. I teach a lot of techniques to look, in more creative ways, at what we think of as the more mundane things that are close by. It’s important to get more and more people involved in documenting their surroundings. As the equipment keeps getting better and more sophisticated, it opens up more areas and ways to photograph. You see that in the quality of Showcase images: they get better and better every year.
NANPA Blog: You were one of the founders of NANPA, back in 1994 and are still involved, serving as one of the Showcase judges this year. What is it about NANPA that keeps you engaged and active?
Lepp: There are so many good people involved! Early on, NANPA was a cadre of professionals, a veritable of who’s who in nature photography. Later, the lines have blurred. Some of the pros have passed and, every year in Showcase, we see the absolutely incredible quality of images from photographers who aren’t “pros.” That’s inspiring!
I’ve also strongly supported high school program. Of course, we’re not trying to make all of the kids professional nature photographers, (they’d starve!) but there are so many ways they can use photography in other things in life as they grow. I once met a kid named Gabby Salazar (who later became president of NANPA). She was in the audience at one of my talks. Afterwards, she came up with her dad and asked if I’d look at some of her photos. I told her about NANPA’s High School Scholarship Program and she applied and was accepted. Now she’s a scientist and nature photographer.
NANPA Blog: It seems only natural that a NANPA Lifetime Achievement Award profile of George D. Lepp should begin and end with education.