By Stacy Walenter
For many of us, finding what we want to do with our lives can be a constant stream of false starts and diversions. For Donald M. Jones, it would almost seem that he was always heading straight toward a camera, toward nature, and toward Montana.
Despite growing up in suburban Chicago with views of concrete and skyscrapers, Jones could still be found with a bird book and binoculars, searching out the available wildlife nestled into the city. When he wasn’t birdwatching, he liked to read Ranger Rick, that familiar kids’ digest so full of striking imagery of creatures in their natural habitats.
Jones later put down the binoculars and picked up a camera and found joy shooting the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Though he loved animals, he mainly photographed sports and dreamed of being a photojournalist.
In 1970, Jones’s brother moved to Montana. Starting in 1972, for nearly five consecutive summers, Jones would spend two weeks to two months visiting his brother in Missoula. At age 13, Jones’s brother took him to the National Bison Range. The range left a lasting impression on his heart and mind. Little did he know then that later he would publish Buffalo Country: America’s National Bison Range, a photographic love letter to the place that had left such an impact decades before.
It wasn’t just the bison range that Jones fell in love with, but Montana itself. Not content to merely visit, Jones moved in with his brother to complete his senior year of high school, enrolling at Loyola Sacred Heart. As a requirement for graduation, Jones had to take home economics. When he entered the classroom, full of sewing machines and all-female classmates, this product of a previously all-boy education, backed out of the room and, subsequently, out of the school. He later returned to Chicago to finish high school.
The bond he had with Montana was delayed, but not broken. After three and a half years of college elsewhere, Jones returned to his beloved state to complete his forestry degree at the University of Montana.
After college, many of his friends found employment with the United States Forest Service and they urged him to join them. Jones moved to Troy and began work as a fire prevention tech with the USFS. In Troy he met and married his wife Tess and they had two sons together. Eventually, all his friends moved away, but 33 years later, he’s still here.
At the time, Jones’s Forest Service work was only seasonal. Jones took pictures on the side and it was Tess who initially asked him if he thought he could do photography full time. With her blessing, Jones embarked on his career. 25 years and 800 magazine covers later, it seems his wife’s insight has paid off.
Family has always been a priority to Jones. He was never gone for more than 15 days and, if he was, his family joined him. Last weekend, Jones had a book signing in Missoula, then continued on to Wyoming with Tess to shoot wild horses, Tess’s favorite.
Sharing in Don’s passion for photography has been something that the two have shared since their first date.
So far, Jones has published twelve books. He does not feel that there is necessarily big money in books, but he likes them as a collection of work and he can credit Rocky Mountain Elk Portfolio for a Columbia Sportswear contract that allowed him to pay off his mortgage.
Although he has an artistic eye for capturing wildlife in lush, scenic, and sometimes amusing ways, Jones also realizes this is a business.
His work ethic is apparent in his prolific publications. Any request that an editor may make is added to the Rolodex in Jones’s mind.
“You build little piles,” Jones said. “That is your library.” Jones’s library consists not only of the standard animal shot, but things on the periphery. Whitetail fur on a barbed wire. Elk, but not during the rut. And, yes, even scat.
“The best thing is an editor who says, ‘I didn’t think you’d have that.”
Even though his photos are always of the utmost quality, Jones’s work is less about the perfect shot, and more about respect and observation. One would think that a man with over 10,000 published photos would surely have amassed numerous tales of close calls with bears or even an experience or two of wondering whether he’d end up being some large predator’s dinner.
But Jones’s tales of danger and peril are strangely lacking.
His hairiest encounter did involve a bear. Coincidentally, the location (an hour outside of Kodiak, Alaska) was also where bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by bears in 2003.
As Jones and two associates watched a mother brown bear and her three cubs feeding at a creek approximately 40 feet away, the three cubs began to walk behind the trio. Their gazes followed the cubs until Jones’ fellow photographer alerted him to the mother’s new location, which was two feet in front of him.
From his kneeling position, Jones could only look up at the mother and repeat, “No. No. No.” Despite the frightening proximity, the mother was only interested in her cubs and left Jones alone.
“I love the animals. I really do,” Jones said. “I don’t want to hurt anything. It’s easy to get greedy. You just have to back away at times. I never want to be that hungry for [a shot].”
It is this commanding respect for the wildlife he photographs that diverts situations before they occur.
Jones only has two tales of drawn blood. And, considering his travels and the terrains he has covered, they sound pretty tame. One was a bird in the Arctic Circle. The other was a dusty (blue) grouse who bit him in the face.
Jones has also been charged by elk or an upset moose, but rather than pursuing the shot, he simply leaves the area.
Instead of wreaking havoc on stressed animals, Jones observes. Like their human counterparts, animals have personalities. With repeated viewing in the same areas, those personalities emerge.
This means that Jones can follow a single deer from a yearling to old age. It means he goes to see one of his favorite pheasants like an old friend, even if it’s a friend you have to ditch because all of his beautiful plumage is missing. It means during spring when bears scratch themselves against spruce trees, he knows to wait for the perfect shot of the bear reaching up and pulling on the tree like its own personal back scratcher. It means he knows that goat kid will rear up like a ballerina in the rhapsody of a snow pile.
From a technical aspect, Jones always tries to shoot his subjects at eye level. While tight shots are cute and candid, ideally he likes to include a background of habitat. Jones said background is often what sets the photo apart. He only keeps three to four percent of what he shoots and he will delete anything that does not meet his standards for sharpness.
The most unique shots are also serendipitous. Page through Wild Montana and see the perfectly placed berry between a bird’s beak. The wasp just behind the hummingbird. The two rams that look like one four-eyed beast.
His many years of experience and patience guarantee these exceptional images. His deep respect means he can go back for more.
“I like to go back because I feel like I’ve never done it all,” Jones said. “I’m more excited about my second trip because the first is full of logistical errors.”
His errors, though, never involve disrespect, as he realizes that sensitivity is a benefit for all. Photographers who constantly disturb animals could mean more management of wild areas.
As a photographer, Jones doesn’t necessarily have a bucket list of subjects. He loves birds of prey and has, rather serendipitously, spotted a peregrine falcon lately. He admits it’s a bird he has yet to photograph. He named his business “Great Gray Imagery” after his beloved great gray owl before he ever viewed one in real life.
One may wonder, for a man with such a plentiful catalog, what is his favorite photo?
“I haven’t taken it yet,” Jones said.
His favorite experience, however, was photographing in Nome, Alaska. Though his eyes froze shut three times, he was able to shoot musk oxen. To this day, he continues to sell the photos.
Many of his best experiences are tough to convey because, though an image may be beautiful, a viewer might not realize the hard work that went into capturing it.
His proudest moment is garnering the cover of his childhood favorite, Ranger Rick. The now-faded volume is the only publication he has kept in his home office.
Jones said that his work is winding down. In many ways, he feels he has peaked. As the internet affects the tangible, and monthly magazines like Field and Stream or Outdoor Life start publishing quarterly or every other month, the opportunities for income decrease. A half-page in a magazine could pay $450, whereas a photo used on a website only pays $50.
After last year’s hectic schedule, including northern Canada, Florida, Costa Rica, Alaska, and Arizona, Jones plans to stick closer to his home in the Kootenai, even though this valley sometimes robs him of the golden light of an early sunrise. It is this lack, which makes his favorite shooting location not his hometown, but the Rocky Mountain Front.
Jones’s clients include the British Broadcasting Company, Ranger Rick, Field and Stream, Time, Outdoor Life, Newsweek, Cabela’s, the World Wildlife Fund, Columbia Sportswear, the Canadian Wildlife Federation, L.L. Bean, and Frontier Airlines. And he has achieved this all having never taken a single photography class.
The lessons his photography career have taught him translates well to life.
“There is no next year. No next week. No tomorrow,” Jones said. The shot not taken now can’t be recaptured later.
Don Jones’s revamped collection Wild Montana is available at Booze ‘n’ Bait, Kootenai Drug/True Value, and RAW in Troy. You can also order a book, view his portfolios of work, or alert him to prime wildlife viewing in your yard at www.donaldmjones.com. Jones will hold a book signing and reduced-price print sale at RAW later this spring.