To hear old school Mississippi wildlife photographer Stephen Kirkpatrick tell it, the passion began while duck hunting with his father in Louisiana swamps but quickly evolved. Countless hours immersing himself in neck-deep water, getting eyeball level with wild ducks in a home-made muskrat hut, changing film rolls with frozen fingers, snapping photos a single frame at a time culminated in 1989 with “Whistling Wings,” the first-ever-of-its-kind book depicting only wild ducks in flight. Kirkpatrick reminisces those good ol’ days, describing differences in print film versus digital photography, detailing his photography journey from beginning to present, sharing pearls of wisdom. Like a brightly lit drake mallard lifting off in a colorful display of shimmering greens, bright blues and silvery spray, this episode is certain to inspire hunters and photographers alike.
“My favorite memories aren’t so much single events as lasting impressions. Film “remembers” the split-second events. What I remember is the oxygen-rich air in the Amazon, the warmth of the sun on my face in Alaska, the refreshment of the water in Hawaii. The feeling of my senses brought to life.” Stephen Kirkpatrick
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, today I’m in Mississippi meeting with a longtime friend, kind of an influencer of sorts. At one time, I’d even give him heroic status. Joining me today is Mr. Stephen Kirkpatrick, Thy Marvelous Works is the name of his company. Stephen, how the heck are you, man?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I’m doing great, Ramsay. How are you?
Ramsey Russell: I’ve known you for a long time and I’m glad to finally have this conversation. We’ve been talking for a few minutes before the show, we’ve talked for 30 years, maybe. How many speech and engagements have you given over your career?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I’ve done over 3000.
Ramsey Russell: 3000. All about your work photography.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah. It was a vessel to share inspirational stories, to give information, lots of times just about photography in general and then exposure to the outdoors for a lot of people that don’t. That don’t necessarily get there.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to start with this. First off, I’m going to go right here first, I brought a book that I learned was your second book called Whistling Wings, The Beauty of Ducks in Flight. 1989, you said that this book was published?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: 1989, yes.
Ramsey Russell: What was the significance of that book when it hit the market?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, that was the first book ever done on flying waterfowl. Cover to cover, it’s just flight. Every form of flight, taking off, landing and everything in between. My enjoyment of waterfowl has been since I was a little bitty kid and they are masters of the sky.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: That’s where it came from. I just love watching them.
Ramsey Russell: I love pictures of ducks, I really do. But I’ll kind of break it into like a taxidermy. There’s a lot of poses you can put a duck very beautifully while he’s sitting or swimming. But the magic of ducks, to me, has always been the fact that they own the sky, they fly. And when they bank out and you see the colors and the behavior, the way they’re setting their wings and dropping their feet, moving their head, just how they moved, that’s the magic of the captivation. What captivates somebody as a flying duck? It’s hard to believe that 1989, there’d never been a book specific to flying waterfowl.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, there was very few books about any kind of waterfowl. Photography, wildlife photography, nature photography was still in a bit of an infancy. Obviously, photography has been around a long time, 150 years plus. But nature and wildlife photography didn’t start happening, still photography didn’t start happening in a serious way till probably the 80s.
Ramsey Russell: What camera and film were you using when you were back in the day making? How many books have you done?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: 14.
Ramsey Russell: 14 books. But in 1989, what kind of camera and film, and I bet a lot of guys listening right now. I know for a fact there are listeners that were born since film became a dinosaur, they live in a completely digital age. So we’re talking film, what was your setup back in those days?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, the first camera I ever got was a Nikon FE, which was a manual camera. My father gave it to me out of the blue, I didn’t ask for it, it wasn’t my birthday or anything like that. With a Vivitar 70 to 210 millimeter lens and a leatherette bag, I never will forget it.
Ramsey Russell: Genuine artificial leather.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Genuine artificial.
Ramsey Russell: Slide film.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah. Kodachrome was the first film. I used several different films in the beginning, but Kodachrome was the standard bearer.
Ramsey Russell: For those listening that may not have an appreciation for old timey photography, like just a few decades ago. What’s the distinction? What was the distinction of then versus now? Because back in those same days, I shot. Because of your inspiration, I shot Kodachrome film, 64 ISO or 25 ISO and that took a whole lot of different doings than today’s digital age we’ll get into. Describe why you chose that film and what some of the subtle nuances were to getting proper exposures.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, first of all, you had two different films you could go with. You could go with a negative film, which you would be shooting a negative and you would make prints from a negative. And then you had positive film, which is transparency film, which was called slides. And the advantage of that was that slide film was so much more tighter grained and so much more accurate in color and also the ability to have something that wasn’t grainy.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And so 25 was a bit slow. Now, for those who are listening, what we’re referring to when we’re saying 25 and 64 is ISO.
Ramsey Russell: The speed.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: The speed on your digital camera nowadays, your perfect place where you get some of the best exposures is right around 400 ASA. But you can go up to 25,000. When Kodachrome says 64, it means you shoot at 64.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And you could push it or pull it, which maybe give you one stop, which would put you to 125, but you lost so much. Whereas today, the light was the limiting factor because it was just too dark in the mornings until it got relatively bright and in the evenings way before sunset, unless you were shooting directly into the sun. Nowadays, with a digital camera, you can shoot into dark.
Ramsey Russell: To me, digital versus print film speeds, ISO, the speed of that film or the speed of that medium is almost like a 64 or a 25, 64, 100, 400, it was a reactive agent that was on the cellophane, I think it was silver and 400 had bigger silver crystals embedded in it, versus 25, which was very fine. And that would equate, almost, in my mind, just for descriptive purposes, as pixelation, the higher you go in grain, the less pixelated it becomes. And it’s very similar. So if I was shooting a 400 speed, I’d never be able to blow it up as accurately without getting some grainy or some texture in it as I would the slower film, but the slower films, how in the world did you take pictures of flying ducks with 64 speed film?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: It was difficult. Some of the early cameras, I just had one click and you had to wind and one click and you had to wind. And you’re not taking nowadays with electronic shutters, you can take 30 frames a second.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I mean, you can rattle off the one wing beat with 30 frames in a duck and I was hoping to get the shot, I got one shot at it. And I remember teaching a workshop one time and it was waterfowl and I had a guy tell me, he says, I think I got the shot, I think I got the shot. And I said, like the shot? And he said, the shot? He says, because I saw it. And I said, well, if you saw it, you didn’t get the shot, because in a camera, the mirror would go up, this is an SLR.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: The mirror would go up and then the shutter would go off because the mirror is in front of the shutter. Well, if you saw it meant you were looking through the mirror and it wasn’t up yet. Now, if you didn’t see it, there’s a chance you might have got it, but you still don’t know that. But if you saw it, I can tell you, you didn’t get it because the shutter was not releasing at that point. So it used to be a little secret, I’m telling and I did it for myself. I’d be out there shooting anything, I mean, ducks, deer, birds, alligators, it doesn’t matter what it is. And if I saw it, I knew I missed it.
Ramsey Russell: You’re bringing back memories of a long time ago. Because of your inspiration, I got a camera and I was going to that Camera store down in Atlanta. If you shopped hard, you could buy a good used nice camera and I did buy a Nikon. And I can remember buying packs, 10, 20 rolls of 64 Kodachrome, put them in the freezer and it was hot down in Texas, where I was working and going out in the afternoons and taking pictures of deer and birds and just whatever I was doing, huddled up, sitting in a blind and waiting on these deer to come in and taking some pretty nice pictures at times. But I never knew what I took because then I’d go back when I burned this roll of film and I wasn’t running fully auto, Steph, I was running absolute manual, even though that camera would go automatic because it was only 36 frames.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Oh, absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: And I didn’t have money to spare on wasted frame. But I’d come back and unload it, wind it up, unload it, put it in this little old bitty envelope, not even the side of a postcard and put it in the freezer. And then when I had a bunch of them, I’d go drop them in the mailbox and off they go to Kodak. I didn’t know what I had for weeks until it came back, my slides came back, I had no idea what I did.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: It was one of the most critical things with film, especially not so much with digital was exposure. And nowadays you can take a shot, look in the back of your camera and you can see what the exposure is, whether it’s right or wrong, fix it and then go after it. When we tried to measure exposure with light meters, and I just got to where I could guess at it pretty good. You didn’t know whether you got it until a week or two, however long took to get your film back. But the whole reason I was in it was not because of film and cameras, it’s because I love those ducks out there, I love those deer, I love those alligators or a frog or a bug.
Ramsey Russell: You love nature.
Lens to Life: Nature’s Beauty Unveiled in Every Frame.
And when I was submerged neck deep in water so I could get the frog’s eye view of a duck or an alligator’s eye or whatever it was in the water.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I loved nature and I had something in my hand that I could record it with. And that was the only purpose for that camera and that lens and that tripod and whatever other else gear I had, which was very little, because I wasn’t a gear hound. And when I was submerged neck deep in water so I could get the frog’s eye view of a duck or an alligator’s eye or whatever it was in the water, that whole experience had nothing to do with cameras, it had something to do with being immersed and getting nutritch all over my entire body because I’m down in the mud or feeling that water on me, just like the animals were feeling it and trudging through that mess. And just even young before I had a camera, because I didn’t get a camera until I was almost 27 years old, I remember I was a duck hunter, it was my favorite thing, I hunted everything. But it took 15 years before I understood as a kid that a Remington 870 was not a walking stick, it was actually a gun. Because I hunted in the south Louisiana marshes and it was floating marsh and all he ever did was sink and I don’t think I ever had a pair of hip boots or waders or whatever that weren’t soaking wet every time I put them on because we were always wet. And it was just the experience of getting in that situation and feeling the elements and the emotional feeling of trying to capture that duck at the perfect second when it turns and it banks or it puts down the landing gear in the wings cup or the head’s cock because he’s looking, trying to where he goes and just see that it gets me excited right now talking about it. I love seeing it, it just turns me on. And then I had a camera in my hand, and I want to be able to, not only do I want to capture this so eventually other people can see, but I want to capture it so I can go in my house and look it on a slide or make a print of it so I can look at it myself, because back then you couldn’t get pictures, you couldn’t find stuff like this.
Ramsey Russell: You talk about being immersed in the environment, some of the photos I’ve seen of you personally over the years, you were literally neck deep in duckweed. Talk about how you got close to nature and some of the ways some of your techniques of immersing yourself in that environment as you were out there taking pictures.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, I got my first camera in 1981 and the first hurdle I had to get over was I had something in my hand that I had never owned a camera in my entire life, that I had to figure out how to use it, number one. And that was a challenge, but I did. And then I was on a beach, this was 1984, so I’d had a camera about 3 years. I was on a beach in Orange Beach, Alabama and it was a little short vacation to go down there and I remember sitting on a beach chair and I don’t do well sitting on a beach chair because I’m too antsy and I can’t just sit there and suntan because I just don’t see it and I can’t read because I don’t have enough patience to read. And so I’m enjoying the pelicans and the birds flying around and this and that and the other and I watching these ghost crabs, you know what a ghost crab is on a beach? They’re the ones you see running around, they dig a hole and they throw the sand out and there was one not very far from me, 8ft or 9ft from me and I’m watching this ghost crab and I’m thinking, well, that’s cool, this is a ghost crab because I’m on the beach supposedly taking a vacation. And then I lay on the beach, I get out of my chair and I lay down on the beach and try to get eye to eye with the ghost crab to see, like, what is he looking at? I want to be the ghost crab. And I remember laying down and I was eye to eye with the ghost crab and he’d come out of that hole and he’d look at me and I’m looking up, like he’s looking up and I remember thinking, this would be a great photograph. The average person does not see this, they’re looking at it from a chair, they’re looking at it from above, nobody’s going to put their mouth in the sand and get eye to eye with a ghost crab. Well, the reason I said that is because I said, wow, I need to get eye to eye the stuff. I need to look at stuff like it sees each other. Well, I need to apply this to everything. I need to apply this to ducks in the water or alligators or frogs or anything. So as soon as I got home, that was the summer of 1984, a month later, I was in a swamp, in the Pearl River swamp here outside of Jackson, Mississippi and I said, I’m going to try this. I don’t know how to do this, I know the biggest problem I’m going to have is camera can’t get wet. I get in the water, the bottom soft, I’m going, okay, I’m not sure quite how to do this, but I like the angle I’m looking at and I said, what I need is some kind of inner tube and so I went and got a tire, a truck tire tube, covered it with camouflage, put a net over it, got in it and started wading around with an inner tube. And then I’m eye to eye with these ducks, literally eye level with ducks and frogs and alligators and stuff like that. And then when I got those pictures back from all that work I’d done, I mean, it was months and months of shooting, I sent them to a magazine or I can’t remember exactly what happened and I got more calls for, we’ve never seen anything like this before. Because you got to do something nobody else has done.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And they had never seen anything from that particular, especially in swamps. Lots of times I was shooting, the water in the swamp would be right below my bottom lip, just barely below my bottom lip.
Ramsey Russell: How did you keep your cameras and stuff dry?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, I had them on this inner tube.
Ramsey Russell: I see.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Because if I did step in a hole or something, at least I could hang on because there’s stump holes on which you trip over stuff on all these dead logs.
Ramsey Russell: All those duck hunters know that.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: How many times I’ve fallen down, gotten soaking wet, but I didn’t want to get this camera wet. Well, this one particular morning, matter of fact, it was in one of my books, I think it’s Wild Mississippi, it was in. I’m sitting there and it’s wintertime, I think it’s November, I’m not sure winter, it’s December, I can’t remember. And I’m posed and this ringneck duck is in front of me and of course I just look like the moss to them, I’ve got camouflage over.
Ramsey Russell: It’s like a little muskrat.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, a little muskrat hut. And I just look like a log over there on the side and so I had stuff just crawling all over me. I had things land on me.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah. I mean, birds would land on me, thinking it’s just a pile of brush or something like that. Anyway, I had this ringneck duck out in front of me. And of course, I don’t have a big lens at the time, I ended up getting a bigger one later in life, but at this time, I still had this – I think I had a little 300 lens by then.
Ramsey Russell: You got to be pretty close to get full frames with 300.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: You got to be real close. I don’t think the average person understands how close you have to be to nature, even with the big lenses, they always think he can magnify anything. Anyway, he’s sitting in front of me and I’m composing a shot and I’m trying to figure out exposure and I mean, this is not digital, I’ve only got 36 shots of film in this thing and I don’t have any other film other than this. I figured out a method later where I’d get a little bag and I’d set it on top of my head with film and then when I ran out of film, I had to change the film and unzip that bag and put that one in the canister and get another canister and open it out and get in that hole and, oh, man, you talk about a mess. So I’m sitting here in this inner tube and I’m looking at this ringneck duck and I’m just loving it, man, I’m slobbering, it’s like it’s a duck, it’s right in front of me. And I’m going to get a really good close up and they got those really pretty eyes and the sheen on their head can change from that greenish purple to that black. And I’m getting real close and it’s just kind of sitting there and it’s kind of sitting there looking at me like, what is that? And right about the moment that it all was fixing to happen, I get rammed by an alligator from beneath.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, fun.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I was right over a gator hole, had no idea. And for those people who don’t understand gator holes, gators will go underwater and dig a hole in the mud and they can hibernate like a bear and they only have to come up, they can take their metabolism down so slow that they can come up for air every 24 hours. What just so happened, this dude was coming up for air while I was looking at the ringneck duck.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And he was right under me and didn’t see me and he hits me, smashes into me. And at first of know, I always had fish running through my legs and all kind of stuff would hit you underwater, but nothing this big. And that big black tail came up, threw the inner tube up, scared me to death, my camera goes in the swamp, Pearl River swamp. This is my first camera that could not swim and I’ve had a number –
Ramsey Russell: I bet you have.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: They don’t do the backstroke, they don’t do anything, they just sink. And lost the whole thing, ended up getting my camera and lens back. There’s a shot of that duck that I had on the previous roll of film that I put up, it wasn’t the one I wanted, but it was something, at least had a record of it. And of course, ruined all the film and the camera and everything else and it was my first, like, this is going to be an interesting way to work.
Ramsey Russell: But you loved every minute of it.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Oh, yeah. I kind of liked getting hit by the alligator. I mean, it was stimulating.
Ramsey Russell: Talk a little bit about – you did not grow up in Mississippi, you’ve been here in Mississippi forever.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Forever, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: But where did you grow up? Where were you born? Where’d you grow up? And how did you find your path into the outdoors?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: My father was in the air force and my father and mother are both from Louisiana. I was born in Dover, Delaware, at Kent General Hospital, my father was stationed there. As soon as I was born, he was transferred, him and my mother and myself, he was transferred to Anchorage, Alaska at Elmendorf in Anchorage. And he was a fighter pilot, he was a border patrol fighter pilot for the Russian border. And I grew up the first 3 years of my life there. I have a picture of me camping at a small lake near Anchorage. I’m sitting in a stroller and there’s a campfire and there’s my father and I’m 11 months old. My father tells a story, when I was about 3, we were in a tent somewhere in Alaska and a bear walked through the tent. And he said my reaction was because we were going to sleep or waking up I can’t remember what the story was. And he said, I started yelling, bear daddy bear. It’s a bear walking through you 3 years old, a bear walking through your tent. And from there, I ended up in – well, my family ended up in, my dad retired from air force, and we ended up Morgan City, Louisiana. And that’s where I grew up, went to high school 1st through 12th grade and then a couple of years after I graduated, I went to LSU.
Ramsey Russell: I see. What was your major? Nature, wildlife?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Aeronamics.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, aeronamics.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: You know what that means?
Ramsey Russell: No idea.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Taking up space.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Okay.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: No, I told a school paper that one time and they banned me from the campus of saying anything anymore because they published it. Like, he’s an aeronamics major, everybody’s going, what is that? It’s like taking up space, embarrassed the interview or whatever. I had varied interest, I was an art major, I was a music major and I was a speech major and a math minor. And later in life, I used the art, which was photography, I used a speech, which was speaking engagements and I used the music, which composing, doing stuff, I was in a band, actually, for a long time, but composing stuff for my multimedia presentations that I used to do always had a lot of music in them.
Ramsey Russell: How’d you use math?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Trying to figure out how to make money.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, no doubt. Were your parents creative?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, my mother was an amateur actress and did a lot of stuff and my father, even though he was an air force pilot, if you fly in a jet like that, you’re usually pretty artistic about what you’re doing, but he played music. And I have some other family members, cousins and aunts and uncles and all that kind of stuff, a lot of them are very talented.
Ramsey Russell: And you were 27 years old when you got your first camera. What was it about it? Why? When did you say, I want to take pictures of these things? Because you were doing some painting and stuff.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, I did painting when I was younger because I wanted to paint ducks, but there was no thought of a camera back then because why would I need a camera unless I was going to be in the camera club in high school.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
From Hallways to Marshlands: A Transformative Photographic Journey.
Nikon FE, I think I can take pictures of wildlife with this thing. And that’s where it all came together.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And that’s taking pictures of people walking down the hall and it wasn’t a thing back there. If I’d have known there was nature photography and a camera, because I had a camp in the marsh and I lived out there, I mean, constantly. At one point, I was going to quit high school and just be a trapper. And my dad taught me a very good lesson about that, which I’ll talk about in a second. But there was no cameras and nature stuff, if I’d have known as an option, I’d have loved it, but it just never came to me. And then my father when I was 26, almost 27 years old, brings a camera home from somewhere on a business trip and he gives me this Nikon FE and this little Vivitar lens and this leatherette bag. And he said, I just saw this, thought you might want it, out of the blue, totally out of the blue. And I started fiddling with it and you know what? I think I can take pictures of wildlife with this thing. And that’s where it all came together and I had no idea. I wish I’d have known it when I was 10, I’d have been doing it, but I didn’t know anything about it.
Ramsey Russell: You started off in the Pearl River swamp, the alligator came up, knocked over your camera, you obviously got another one. And then how did you progress from 1981, 1982, it was only 8 years later that you had your second book, the first ever Whistling Wings published, you had another one before that. What was pulling you into this? I mean, big time.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, I had a gallery in Highland village. I opened a gallery in 1986, middle 80s. I had a gallery and I sold other people’s work, but one of the main things I wanted to do was sell my prints and we did framing, that kind of stuff.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And a guy walked into the gallery one day, you wonder every once in a while are there angels walking around? You get these messages and he’s looking around, he says, I want to come see what you did and he’s looking around the walls of the gallery and he sees a bunch of my work up there. And he says, you got some good work. I said, well, thank you, I appreciate it. But you know what they say? And I said, what do they say? He said, if you want to take a lot of pictures, you got to sell a lot of pictures or you’re not going to be taking any more pictures. And it’s about as simple as you can say it. But I remember thinking, you’re right.
Ramsey Russell: That’s the truth.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Taking them is one thing, selling them is a whole different story, now we’re talking about business. And so I published my first book, I learned how to do all that, learned how to lay it out, learn how to take care of all the technical parts of that. I haven’t published every book I’ve done, but I published all the personal ones I’ve done. And I said, well, I need a way to make money on photographs and individually printing photographs and the photographic printing technique, which you do it one at a time and you pay X amount for a print and then you sell it for X amount and you make double your money or $20, you sell it for $40, whatever it is. But that’s not enough. There’s too much cost in the print and I was one of the first people that ever did this, too. I said, I need to find a way to do it. Because in my gallery, I sold clay prints and lithographs from paintings. I mean, we had a lot of people with paintings, I said, well, how come a photographer can’t do lithographs? And so I called somebody and they said, well, anybody can do a lithograph. So now I can print 2000, 1500, however many prints I want of the same thing and print them for a dollar apiece and sell them for $80. Well, they took a certain point to break even, in other words, I couldn’t sell 3 pictures and make money. But if I figured out I could sell 20, pending what I was retailing them for, because in the store, I’m fully retail. If I have a really good shot, I know I can sell 20, I can sell 100, I can sell 500. And so I started making lithographs, cost me a dollar apiece, I’m making $85 a print or whatever it was. And, okay, well, there’s the way for me to make money right there. There were limited editions, signed and numbered and all that kind of stuff and that was a big deal for a long time. And so I just found every little angle and then I was sitting in my gallery one day and a guy walks in there and asked me about doing a job and it just happened to be Bill Walker. And Bill Walker had seen one of my presentations and he found me in Highland Village, he walked in my gallery and he said, Stephen, I saw your program a couple nights ago and I did a program for somebody and he was on the board, I can’t remember what it was. And he says, I want you to do one of those for me, this is a private, personal assignment. And I said, okay. He said, I’m here to discuss cost, I’m here to discuss possibilities, I’m here to discuss ideas, you got time to sit down? I said, sure, let’s sit down right here. If somebody walks in the gallery, I’ll talk to them. But we sat down, worked out a plan, shot 19 months at Cottonwood, put together a whole multimedia program for him and all he wanted to do was look at it and show his friends. And then I got a call before that, I’d gotten a call from somebody that said, a woman called me, she said, I heard you did speaking engagements? Well, I’d never done speaking engagement in my life, presentations on your photography. And I said, yes, that’s the answer you’re supposed to give, right?
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I say, yes and then figure out how to do it later. I said, well, yes, I could do a speaking engagement. We want you to come to Brookhaven, Mississippi to the Optimist Club. And it was in January of 1985, I think that’s the first speaking engagement I ever had. And I went there and did the presentation, it was Optimus Club and it was a lunch meeting and there was a lot of people there, I mean, a couple of hundred people. And from that one meeting, I probably got 10 speaking engagements and then it went from there.
Ramsey Russell: Using this book, Whistling Wings, for example, you’re shooting at extremely slow film, you’re talking about, you got 36 frames on your roll of film, how many days did it take? How many rolls of film would you shoot on a morning or an afternoon while you’re putting together these books? I’m just trying to put it in context, because today these cameras rip off 30 frames a second and I can pick and choose and get some stuff and delete the rest and go. But back in the day, when you’re down there taking pictures of them ringnecks, you got roll of film, you got some other roll of film. How many hours were you spending lip deep in the water and how many frames were you taking?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, there’s two problems there. The first one is I’m in the water and hypothermia sets in pretty quick. Because water disperses your body heat rapidly, about 30 times faster than air does. So depending on the temperature of the water, I started with a ski suit, water skiing suit, which is kind of like a wetsuit. I had one of those from somewhere and I put that on, well, that would keep me warmer in a decent temperature water, I could last 5 to 6 hours. In December water, I could last an hour and 15 minutes, maybe, but I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the camera set up where I could – a friend of mine teaches workshops nowadays with digital people and he does some waterfowl stuff. And I asked, I said, Doug, one of you guys on your workshops, how many pictures do they shoot like, over the weekend on a workshop? 5000. 5000 digital shots. You can take 400 in 20 seconds, he says they’ll shoot 5000. Okay, I could get 100 or maybe. Because I’ve only got 36 exposures on that roll of film before I’ve either got to change it or put another roll in there and I don’t have so many rolls because I got to buy the rolls of film now, I got to go pay to get them processed. So you double the price of whatever you got, it’s going to cost that much, I was broke, I was poor and so every one of those shots was important.
Ramsey Russell: Had to count.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Had to count. I was hoping out of 36, I would get one or two that would just useable.
Ramsey Russell: Just knock your socks off.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: No, usable.
Ramsey Russell: Usable.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Usable. Knock your socks off would be 1 out of every 10,000. But if I got one out of a roll that was usable, I was more than happy.
Ramsey Russell: Talking about that in that old print film day and how you were trying to make every frame count, every single frame count, just reminds me of those old stories, you hear these old timers say the granddaddy give them 4, 22 bullets and they better come back with 4 squirrels, that kind of stuff. Because money was tough.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And that’s the way it is, isn’t it? You were saying earlier that your nature experiences down in Louisiana and Alaska really helped you, more than cameras, it was about your ability in nature. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: To me, for a nature photographer or cinematographer, whatever it may be, I’m not a camera expert. I’m not a gear guy, I have good gear now, I do cinematography now for BBC, Nat Geo and Discovery Channel and right now we’re working on something for Netflix. And most of the stuff we use is rented because the camera lens and tripod we use cost $175,000. If you’d have told me that back then, I was going to use something that costs $175,000 because a good Nikon an F3 was $400.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And that was top of the line.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a lot of money back then.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I know. And I had to think about spending $400. My memory card for the camera I use cost $1,200, my memory card. So anyway, my expertise was nature and I understood and knew nature and not just ducks, but anything to do with the outdoors. I spent every waking moment of my young life outdoors doing something. It could have been fishing, it could have been frog gigging, it could have been hunting, it didn’t matter what it was, if I was outdoors and I was in the swamp or bayou or somewhere, because I grew up in Louisiana, I was happy. So I understood nature, so all I had to do is figure out how to use this camera. I don’t have to be an expert, but I got to use the camera and I can get around that nature out there. And the question was, well, you don’t have one of these big lenses, because I didn’t start off with big lenses because they were expensive.
Ramsey Russell: They still are.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, but they were out of my range, there was no way I could buy something like that. And so my whole thought process was, okay, I’m good at nature and I understand nature and I understand what these animals do and why they do it and that’s your advantage. Because you’re trying to get a shot of something unique. And if you understand what they do and when they do it, you can predict with the shutter, with that one shot, as soon as this happens, click. I’ve got to take the shot right then, because I know what they’re going to do with their head, I know what they’re going to do with their wing, I know what they’re going to do with their foot, whatever it is. And my philosophy was, well, I only have a 200 millimeter lens, that little Vivitar 70 to 210. I got a 200 millimeter lens and a 400 millimeter lens would be like, great. But what’s the difference between a 400 millimeter lens and a 200 millimeter lens? It means that I can shoot, like, a 400 millimeter lens if I can get twice as close.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And my philosophy was, I don’t have a 400 millimeter lens, so I got to get twice as close.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And that’s just my thought process. And I would get twice as close. And with Whistling Wings, when I was working on that book, one of the unique shots that you saw back then that you never saw, you see a fair amount of them now, is that minute that duck, mallard, especially a puddle duck explodes off the water when they shove those wings down and push up and go straight up. Well, one of the little secrets that I learned just from observing ducks is that when a duck is sitting still on the water and they got their wings folded on their back and they’re just kind of looking around and you can see them kind of get ticky, they do a little tick-tick kind of motion when they’re getting a little bit antsy and you can tell they fixing to bust. I wouldn’t watch the duck and I wouldn’t watch his head and I wouldn’t watch his bill and I wouldn’t watch his anything, I’d watch the primaries on his wing that were laying on his back. Because the first thing that moves on a duck when he’s fixing to take off is, here’s his head, here’s his body, is that primary does that? He’s fixing to unfold that wing like this?
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And as soon as I saw that primary bust, I was on him and I just watched that wing. And as soon as that wing started to do and of course it was split, I mean, bam, they’re gone, it wasn’t like a slow motion move, you had to catch it. That’s why you had to catch the wing going up, because by the time you hit the shutter, it was already going down. And just that one little secret, let me capture shot after shot of what knew exactly when they were fixing a bust and where those wings were going. And so just understanding nature helped with photography because it helped in a predictive way. I know what they’re going to do, I know this animal is going to turn left or turn right or they’re going to stop right there, they’re going to turn around, they’re going to do this, whatever, simply being around. And every once in a while they fool you, they do something weird. But for the most part, they’re creatures of habit.
Ramsey Russell: One spring, I committed myself at 8 frames a second old canon digital camera, during the digital revolution, I wanted to take pictures of flying ducks and that’s difficult, it’s dawning, it’s a lot to figure out, you want the sun lower than the animals and things of that nature. But 10,000 maybe pictures to get 40 or 50, ones that I was proud of. But I tell you, sitting in those shadows in the afternoon, man, I’d take off work and drive over and get hidden up in my spot and those ducks, watching them through the lens, okay, they’re swinging, they got to be right here to get these pictures I’m looking for. And you could see that duck’s head just, you could see his eyes, he could see that big piece of glass. But when nobody’s shooting at him, I was still, it wasn’t moving. You see him nervous, but he’d talk himself into getting closer, doing whatever he’s going to do, I’d call to him a little bit, maybe, if I had to. But the whole point was this connectivity, this relationship, seeing things in ducks, some of that behavior you’re talking about, like their eyes, looking at them through a lens instead of over the top of the shotgun, it was very rewarding in a way that shooting them is not. And that was one spring I did that and I really enjoyed that. I felt way deeply connected to those birds. Now you’re talking about being lip deep in a swarm, swimming with them and swimming up to them, that had to been exciting in that same way, just connected to them in that way, fully immersed with. But now I’m with the ducks.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I’m part of the world. Yeah, I’m like another duck looking at him.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Like I said, I hunted ducks as a youngster a lot and when people ask about photographing, especially ducks in flight, which is difficult, I said, you got to understand, it’s not like taking a shotgun and a bird’s coming in and you whipping around and at that split second, depending on the angle of ducks moving, coming down, up, sideways, whatever, where you’re going to lead him, are you going to be out in front of him 2ft or if he’s coming at you, you’re going to be in front of him, whatever it is. I said, that’s one thing to be swinging a shotgun around and getting that lead. As long as you got it on him and you’re leading him, you’re going to get him, as far as shooting him. With a camera, I got to get on him, I got to slightly lead him and move with him. But I also have another problem you don’t have with a gun, I’ve got focus.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: So I can’t be too far out there or too short focus, you got to be dead focused. So while all this is going on, you’re trying to focus. Now I’m talking about manual focus, nowadays you got some pretty fancy.
Ramsey Russell: With 64 speed, you must have been shooting especially in some lower light when ducks are active, you must have been shooting some real shallow depth of field too.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: All of it shallow depth. Always shot wide open.
Ramsey Russell: As shallow as could get.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, always shot wide open because you needed the light. But you had to follow duck, you had to get on him and you had to get focused and then within all that scope of that work that you’re doing to try to get the duck in focus, because let’s face it, if he’s out of focus, no matter what you got, it’s worthless, no matter what. It could be great composition, it could be great light, it doesn’t matter, if you’re out of focus, it’s done.
Ramsey Russell: And I learned back in the day, taking pictures of deer, somebody told me one time and it’s never been truer, the eye. The eye has got to be sharp, if the eye is soft, the whole picture is off. Am I right about that?
Sunrise Spotlight: Leveraging Natural Light for Dramatic Shots.
And it’s brighter when you get closer to the sun over here where it’s rising or it’s darker over here.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: If you’re taking that kind of shot, there’s creative shots you might want to do something else with. But what I was saying was, okay, you got a duck flying to you, coming by, pass a shot, whatever, you got to get on the duck, you got to get that lens on him, you’ve got to pan with him, you got to get focused and within all that technical stuff, you got to get right. Now you got to compose a shot to get something cool looking. Like, where are you going to place him in the frame? Is it sunrise? And it’s brighter when you get closer to the sun over here where it’s rising or it’s darker over here, where are you going to do that to use that kind of light for the backlight or the front light or whatever you’re using. And I’m getting one shot, I’m not getting 30 per second I’m getting one. I got one opportunity and after that one, a few seconds later, which is usually too late, I’m going to get another one. It’s over by then, right? Is it over a couple of seconds later?
Ramsey Russell: You ain’t got 30 frames a second.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I got one.
Ramsey Russell: How did the digital revolution change this type of photography for you and in general?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, I have a philosophy, and I think it’ll play out if you debated it. I have a philosophy about digital and film photography. I think film photographers are pre photo thinkers. You’ve got to have everything right before you put imagery on that film. Digital photographers are post photo thinkers. I can get something, I can get it pretty close, I can get it within the realm of acceptable and I can fix it in Photoshop, as the saying goes. So I think you got a pre photo thinker with a film, because you got to get it right or you don’t have anything. And with digital, you’re not thinking about getting it so much right the first time, if I get something pretty good, I can fix it.
Ramsey Russell: You can fix it, go into lightroom and do some work.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: You can do all kinds of stuff. You can crop, you got enough pixel tightness, you can recompose it, you can relight it, you have somebody that thinks after the fact and somebody that thinks before the fact. And I had to think before the fact my entire life with film, which actually made me, I think, a better photographer because I had to think through things a little more thoroughly.
Ramsey Russell: Did you fight the digital revolution.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I fought it like you can’t believe. I didn’t get my first digital camera till 2012. And I was at the very least, 5 years behind everybody.
Ramsey Russell: Why’d you fight it?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, purist, part of me just being a purist. But the other part was the film we were using to me was better resolution than the early digital cameras.
Ramsey Russell: That’s true. Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: They couldn’t handle highlights and they couldn’t handle shadows. And now they got it pretty good now.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, boy, do they.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Back in the day, if you had highlights, it will wash, you lost everything and the same thing with dark, shadowy kind of blacks. And until 2012, when the Nikon D800 came out and the price had come down, I know people that paid $5000 for that first Nikon camera and it was 2 pixels, 2 megapixels. And now there’s a million choices now every kind of thing and cameras are always evolving and changing.
Ramsey Russell: Now my iPhone’s got way more pixels than that. I take a lot of pictures and videos with it.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: You know how much better this quality was than that Kodachrome film?
Ramsey Russell: I’m telling you, man.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Oh, my gosh. And it’s in my pocket.
Ramsey Russell: Steph, you’re an older guy, old school, back in the day of print film and everything else, what would you think? What do you think about today’s digital revolution, today’s photography? There’s a lot of young people and there are some amazing photographers out there. Doing what you deal with more like a light machine or a computer than an old camera, but still, having tried to take pictures like that, you can’t just point it up in there and pull the trigger. I mean, it still take a lot of technique and a lot of skill set to do it and it’s just amazing what it’s done. But boy, a picture used to really be worth 1000 words and in this digital revolution of all these streaming apps, a picture is not quite worth that. I mean, you can’t go and do a lot of stuff like you used to could. The demand for coffee table books is not near as high as it used to be.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Not at all.
Ramsey Russell: Where would you see a couple old dinosaurs like me and you, where would you see yourself now? If this is the world you’d grown up in, what might you have done differently, if that makes sense? Or how would you have done it? How would you have been Stephen Kirkpatrick in today’s day and age?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I don’t know. To me, you just said a picture is worth 1000 words, nowadays to me, 1000 pictures I have one word for.
Ramsey Russell: Exactly, because it lasts about as long as it takes you to look for 2 seconds and swipe your thumb.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: So 1000 pictures worth of one word. So that’s a kind of different way of looking at it. It’s gone totally another way, which I wouldn’t have been comfortable with back then anyway. But it’s all about influencers and you got so many people. Everybody’s got a phone’s got a camera, everybody’s a photographer. And magazine work is pretty much non-existent.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. The print media is a dinosaur.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Even if it is existent, it doesn’t pay enough to even worry about as far as making a living. See, my problem was I wasn’t just taking pictures, I had to make a living.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: It was the only thing I did. That’s why I did so many different aspects of it. It’s because I’ve got to find a way pay bills with a camera and that was not easy, especially when the only subject you have is nature. So nowadays it’s all about influencers, it’s about how many likes, it’s about how many looks, it’s about how many views, it’s about maybe you got something that’s really special and a corporate person might pick it up, but it’s one out of a gazillion.
Ramsey Russell: And it’s way more competitive. I think that space of just say, waterfowl photography is way more competitive than it was back in your day. I mean, there’s a lot of kids and a lot of young people out there with varying skill levels that are slinging those lenses and taking just a lot of pictures.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: As you said, just get Mr. Google on the line and type in mallard photos or something it’d be 1 billion of them. But the one thing I do see that lacks sometimes is the artistry. And then I can’t tell even when I do see kind of a creative shot, if all that was done on a computer.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And if I couldn’t do it with just the duck and the sky and the atmosphere I was shooting in, I didn’t have any other way to fix it.
Ramsey Russell: And by artistry you mean like composition?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, and the look of the light and the structure of the animal in flight. And you can take a lot of pictures of animals, of ducks, but there’s the ones that you know that, that’s the position, that’s the magic position. Some people just don’t understand ducks or deer or whatever, don’t always understand that. They don’t always understand just that musculature in the shoulder of a deer or a certain position of wings with ducks, whether they’re coming in or banking or something, if you get in 30 frames a second, that’s 30 shots within 1 second. One of those, if it’s in the right position at all, one of those out of those 30 shots and they all probably almost look exactly alike, there’s one that’s good and the other 29 are not. Now, that’s a 30th of a second that out of 30 shots, you would think, well, I’m looking at 30 shots and they all look the same to me, it’s like, well, no, there’s one that’s better than the rest.
Ramsey Russell: You told me one time you had a goal, a life goal of putting together a book with a single roll of film, that’s 36 perfect exposures. Did you ever do it?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I tried it. The project was called on a roll. I was on a roll, this was right when I was converting from film to digital. And it was another way of me to hold on to film because I had a reason for shooting film then, because that’s the project. And what I wanted to do and I did not accomplish it, I probably could go out and try it again, but I did not accomplish it. And part of the reason was it was taking up a lot of my time and still, again, trying to make a living, you’re forced to do a lot of things. But the purpose was to publish a book with basically 3 rows of film, which is basically 100 pictures and to do an exhibition. And what I was trying to do and to accomplish is you take that transparency film of 36 and when I was working on it, I would have them develop the film roll, but not mount it. Because if they’re mounted and cut up, you can’t tell, well, you could have took that anytime, you could have took that last year. If they’re all in one continuous roll of film, I’m looking at 36 shots in a row that all has to be perfect. I get one shot at each thing and I had to think about the 100 shots, but I did them 36 at a time, that they would all be different. I don’t want 36 shots of a turkey, I don’t want 36 shots of a mallard, I want a great duck shot, then I want maybe a fantastic alligator eyeball, then I want a good looking cattail at sunrise, then I want something with a wide angle lens that’s just really creative. So I wanted all 36 shots to be like you would put in a book. I didn’t want a duck book, I wanted a book of fantastic pictures. But I got one shot at each one of them. And as I did it, I had to start. Once you mess up number 17, got to start over, got to get another roll and start all over or number 36, that’s the one really hurt bad. Messing up number one through 5 and you’re not taking these all at one time, you’re taking them once every day, once every one a week, looking for the right thing before you ever push that trigger, pre photo thinking, you got to nail exposure, you got to nail the composition, you got to nail everything. Because there’s no computer manipulation after this, if it goes into an exhibition and all the pictures are hanging on the wall and then I was going to display the roll of film, where you could look at the roll of film and see there was no cheating. It was all intact, they were all together and you could see what the original looked like in every one of them. And you couldn’t mess with them too much, you could do little tiny things, probably get exposure right when you’re printing and stuff like that. But it was going to be ideal to show everything. And even if there was one mistake, that kind of played into it because you’re going to make a mistake. And I worked on that and I shot and number 17, I’d screw up, I’d have to start all over.
Ramsey Russell: But you didn’t know it until it came back from Kodak.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, I did.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, did you?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I could tell.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Quality Over Quantity: The Painstaking Review of Each Roll.
Sometimes I shot an entire role and get back and go, well, there’s two on here that unacceptable. So I got to do it all over again. It took 6 months to do 36 shots.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I mean, I couldn’t see it, I guess, in my mind I knew. And yeah, sometimes I shot an entire role and get back and go, well, there’s two on here that unacceptable. So I got to do it all over again. It took 6 months to do 36 shots. Well, how many 6 months do I have to keep doing this over and over and over again? I did accomplish it in a sense, for my own personal pleasure, but not good enough to put in front of the public and say, here’s a mastery work of art, I did not accomplish it. And at some point I had to give up because I had to move on. I had to shoot and I had to get in a digital world and I had to go to work and make some money. Nobody was paying me to do this, by the way, I was just doing it on my own.
Ramsey Russell: Do you have of your entire photographic print film career? Is there a single photo that you’re proudest of?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Gosh, I get asked that question all the time. It’s like, what’s your favorite child? And it’s the one that’s behaving right now.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the ones that stand out the most, some of the hardest to get or just some of the ones –
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, let me preface that by this. Back in the day, when you work with a magazine, you had slides and you put them in sleeves of 20, I have them in filing cabinets now, you’ve got thousands, tens of thousands in sleeves, plastic sleeves. And when they were looking for something, magazine was looking for something, they would say, this was before email and all that, you get a phone call or a letter and said, we’re fixing to do a story on XYZ, we need to see some of your shots, we know that you do this kind of work. And so you would put 20 or 40 or 60 or whatever, because you usually filled up the sleeves with the shots that covered that subject matter and you would mail it to them or FedEx it or UPS it. And they’d have to get the physical slides and they would put them on a light table and they would look at them with a loop and they got to look at each one. And I remember Natural History magazine out of New York had called me and said, the editor called me and said, Mr. Kirkpatrick or whatever they called me at the time, could have been Stephen, could have been, hey, you, we’re looking for this, can you send us some work? Sure. So I got some stuff together, FedExed it to New York and waited to hear from them. And at some point, this editor called me and she said, you got some really nice images on here, we might be able to use some, but you’ve made one big mistake. I said, what’s that? She said, I’m just telling you this for the future, you sent stuff that ruined the really good images, you put too many on here. You sent some images that I can’t use, it wasn’t so much that the quality was bad, it just didn’t match up with what she was looking for. And she says, in the politest way I can tell you, you’ve wasted my time. Because I’ve got to look at a bunch of stuff that for some reason you thought I needed to look at. And I’m telling you I don’t and it ruins your submission. And she says, let me tell you this, there are some pictures on here, I bet that you love, that you think are the best shot you ever took of this particular thing, whatever it was.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And you know what? Maybe it is. And I bet you had to walk 4 miles and sit 17 days and lose 2ft to frostbite to get this picture, but I don’t care. I don’t care how personal it is to you, because you accomplished something that nobody else has accomplished. I can only see one little tiny frame and it either matches my story or it doesn’t. I don’t care how many miles you walked or if you died doing it, but you do. When you look at that picture, you feel that, you feel that. You go right back to that place, you can go right back to that moment, you can go right back to that feeling that you got when you were there and it does something for you. And I said, you’re right. She said, separate yourself from your work and you’ll do a lot better.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a great answer.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: That’s why it’s hard to pick one because there’s a lot of stuff that I like that nobody else could give a crap about.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a great answer. Man, I didn’t know where that was going when you started off.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I didn’t know either. I’ll give you another example of one other thing, too. You got time?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I got all time in the world.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: So I had this gallery in Highland Village and I hung other people’s work, mostly paintings and some sculptures and just kind of artwork. And so this woman called me and I got calls from quite a few people and sometimes they’re photographers, sometimes watercolorist, sometimes they’re an all painter, sometimes they had a sculpture, sometimes they did whatever. And this woman called me this one day and said, Mr. Kirkpatrick, I would love to be able to exhibit some of my paintings in your gallery. And she says, what do I need to do? And I said, well, I have to see your work, so if you got a chance, come by, I should be here most of the time and call me before you come, bring me some of your work and let me look at it and I’ll tell you whether it works in our gallery or not. And it wasn’t so much quality, it was kind of the subject matter, it was a wildlife gallery. I didn’t want two guys standing on a street corner in New Orleans shaking hands, it just didn’t work into what I was doing. So she says, okay, she says, I’m coming this afternoon, whatever. So she shows up in my gallery and she has this big square thing, obviously a framed painting or something in a velvet bag with a draw string at the top. So she’s got it all covered, so we’ll get scratched and all that. So she walks in and she introduced herself and I talked to her for a minute and she says, okay, now, there’s one thing I need to tell you, if you don’t like my painting, I’m never going to paint again.
Ramsey Russell: No pressure, nothing.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And I don’t even know where this wisdom came out from her, I looked at her, I said, don’t take it out of the bag. And she says, what? I said, I do not want to see it. And she says, why not, I came here to show you what I do. I said, no. I said, if my opinion stops you from painting, you are not a painter.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And she stormed out.
Ramsey Russell: Really? She couldn’t separate herself from her work.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, if you’re an artist, I know you want to win an Oscar or an Emmy for something, but if that’s what you do, that’s what you do.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Regardless of whether somebody thinks it’s good, bad or indifferent, if that’s what you do, you go do it. You go do it to best your ability and it might be the greatest thing. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not good. Anyway, that was the end of that.
Ramsey Russell: Do you have a favorite duck? Was there a favorite species of duck either personally or just to take pictures?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I love wigeon.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I love wigeon. For some reason, I love wigeon. That little green flash through the middle of his head, I like that little whistle. It’s just something about a wigeon. And I like them all, believe me. But something about a wigeon, I don’t know what it is.
Ramsey Russell: What are you doing these days, Stephen?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I’m doing cinematography for the big boys.
Ramsey Russell: Who’s that?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: BBC, National Geographic, working on a Netflix thing right now, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Disney plus.
Ramsey Russell: What’s the difference in the medium you’re working in now versus your background? Or is it all the same?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Totally different. I had to change everything about my way I looked at things, the way I thought, way I composed, the way you think through a shot, because now it’s a sequence of shots that are moving. So a still photo is a very particular skill set and cinematography doesn’t relate. And the camera equipment matters a lot more than what they did before.
Ramsey Russell: But you still got to have that relationship with nature to get it.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Absolutely. I’m new to this. I’ve only been doing it for these big boys 3 years, I started in 2019 when I decided to change over and just kind of challenge myself to produce a short film. But when they call me, the first call I got, I’m a novice, I don’t know anything and the call was to help another cinematographer who was one of their leading cinematographers, because I had knowledge of an area we were going to work in and I had the expertise, I was a photographer, they knew that I just wasn’t a cinematographer, which is a whole different thing. And ever since then, I’ve just worked and worked and shot and worked and now I’m more than happy to shoot these jobs.
Ramsey Russell: Well, a video is just a lot of pictures strung together.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Not really.
Ramsey Russell: You showed me a video before we started a project of swans over in Mattamuskeet in 2022 and it was as beautiful a footage as any I’ve ever seen on any program. The swans backlit by a rising sun and then throughout the day and taking off and swimming and vocalizing and their behavior and this, that and another and then shots of them flying slow motion and faster and then backlit by the sunset and then backlit by the moonlight.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Exactly.
Ramsey Russell: That was amazing. It was incredible, Stephen. Now, honestly, like I told you, I’ve watched so much of this stuff, I was a backspector to see one of them wide up with a shotgun shot, but it was utterly amazing to watch that. That’s the kind of stuff you’re doing?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah, that was a self assignment. I was working on some projects and just putting stuff out there for other editors and publishers and production people, when they hire you, they want to see you work. And when you’re brand new, you don’t have any work. So I’ve done a lot of stuff on my own to get work out there and also to practice and I love filming, but I also love editing, I love storytelling, it’s gone into a whole another area for me. Plus the fact I got to be out there with swans for a week and a half and it’s just like I could sit here and never turn the camera on, I’d just be happy as I can be just listening to them, watching them. I just get so much pleasure just being there, just among them.
Ramsey Russell: Do you still duck hunt at all?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: When I picked up a camera, I put down a gun.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I remember the moment it happened. I was in Colorado on an elk hunt, I had had a camera about a year and I was sitting on a ridge in Rifle, Colorado and sitting on a ridge and I had a rifle and I had my little leatherette bag and my camera and a $50 slick tripod. And I see this movement down in the valley and it’s kind of a mist and you know how it is in the hills, the lights up top, but down that valley, it’s going to be dark down there for a while and I got all these limitations I can’t shoot, it’s not light enough. And I’m wanting to take pictures because I’m just a year into this, but I’m pretty serious already, thinking, well, maybe I can do this. And so I got a rifle, it’s a nice bull down there with his harem, I’m trying to make a decision. Do I shoot? Do I wait to take the pictures? Because if I wait a while, they’re going to be gone, long story short, I got nothing. I didn’t get a photograph, I didn’t get a shot with a gun, I got nothing. Because I was sitting there trying to make a decision for an hour what to do. And I was trying to tell myself, I’m going to be a serious photographer, I need to wait for the shot of these elk and this harem and something that was kind of unique to me. I mean, I’ve been hunting all my life and the rifle just that wouldn’t push on me as hard, I hunted everything pretty much. And I walked into the lodge that day and I just told myself, I said, the gun’s going back in the gun case and I’m making a choice right now, camera is the only thing I’m going to carry because I’m not going to have to make a choice from now on. I got one choice, the camera and taking the pictures and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. That day it was over.
Ramsey Russell: That’s admirable. You come to a fork and road, you got to take it. To be a photographer or a hunter, you got to pick one or the other. I’ve been in those situations back in the day, trying to have pictures with getducks and I carried big cameras, I’d have a camera in one hand, a shotgun another. So I’d shoot for a little bit, film for a little bit and it just wasn’t the same. I got to tell you the story you made me reminded me of, I was down in Durango, Mexico, I had shot a gould’s turkey, I brought some clients into camp and I decided I was going to get up that morning and go take pictures and as I was leaving, the outfitter said something in Spanish and they brought, I said, no, I don’t want a gun, he says, you really ought to take one. You can take pictures and hunt. I said, I think I’m just going to stick with my camera this morning. And it was a place, a pine tree had fallen and like a foxhole, perfect. I could sit in it and I could lean back right up just like that and look on a bill of my hat and see what I needed to see and get back down completely invisible. And I heard the turkeys up there and I looked up, and there was a freaking gould’s turkey with a 16.5 inch beard. And I got 3 frames of him before he walked off. Let me tell you what, right now, I wish I’d had that shotgun. I mean, it was just a world record turkey with a 16.5 inch beard sitting right freaking there and I got some pictures of him.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Make a choice.
Ramsey Russell: You got to make a choice. Thy Marvelous Works is the name of your company. Where did that come from and why?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Thy Marvelous Works comes from the book of psalms and the scripture is, I will praise thee, o lord, with my whole life and I will show forth all thy marvelous works. And it was just my heart, as a Christian, I loved creation forever and I’ll just call it that creation, nature and there’s a number of places in the Bible where it talks about, you don’t need any other evidence of me except what’s out there. And that’s true, at least to me.
Ramsey Russell: As a Christian, did that name, going back to that first photo shoot, 36 frames, lip deep in the mud, the alligator, before the alligator came up, was your company already named that or did that evolve after just immersing yourself into your career in photography?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened because I can’t remember this far back, it’s 40 years ago, but it happened early on because I can go back and look at my literature because I have old things that I’ve done and with Whistling Wings, it was already there. So by 1989, it was in place for sure. I had a gallery and the name of the gallery is Thy Marvelous Works. So that was in place by 1986, I would have to go back and see kind of where it popped up somewhere. I needed something, a name to kind of – You want your name to reflect who you are and what you’re trying to do. And it was like, I love you and I’m going to show forth all that stuff you made that’s kind of how I felt.
Ramsey Russell: All the hours, all the pictures, all the time you spent out in nature, I mean, in some way, living up to that piece of scripture is a form of gospel. Sharing his marvelous works with all of humanity that can’t get lip deep and swim up on those ducks. Do you ever felt that?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah. The 3000 speaking engagements I did were based around that. I had multimedia programs that were about 20 minutes and they were music, slide projectors, multiple slide projectors, back in the slide projector days, before video and projectors and all that, these were slide projectors, which is carousels. And I had multi projector presentations that, back in the day fascinated everybody with music and narration and everything. And each one was a different subject because I had several different programs, but they were all about nature and that was it. There was no political agenda, there was no religious agenda, there was no nothing, this is nature. And my guiding light to doing a speaking engagement was kind of an introduction, then doing a program, then saying a few comments. I always went straight to Q&A and one of the reasons I went straight to Q&A is because I wanted this audience to be involved in what we were doing.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And you can sit there and talk for half an hour and never entertain or inspire anybody because that’s not what they’re thinking. Because every group is different, by the way. Every group has a personality, every one of them. And so when they started asking questions, I knew exactly where they were. If it’s kind of a photographic oriented group, they were going to ask questions about cameras and lenses and films and how’d you do that? If it was a waterfowl group, they were going to want to know about ducks. If it was a conservation group, they want to know what this stuff was doing to help save the planet or whatever it came. So as soon as they started asking questions, then I knew where to go and I would go right into their basket because that’s what they’re here for and that’s how they’re going to be. Three things they had to do. My presentation had to, three things. It had to inspire, it had to entertain and it had to educate. And once I did those three things, it was done, it was complete.
Ramsey Russell: Back in the 70s, there was a John Denver and George Burns movie called Oh, God.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yes.
Ramsey Russell: And a lot of the religious groups were as sacrilegious, whatever else. But it’s been decades since I saw that movie, but at the end of the day, they came up with a marketing thing. Thank God. As a duck hunter or a photographer, how can you be out in that and not see the sunrise, see the birds, the way they shine and not be cognizant of a higher being? I feel people articulate this in different ways, but I kind of do feel like I’m in church. I feel like I’m in the presence of something greater than myself to be in nature like that.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, that’s the whole thing. You’re in something bigger than you are. And we always are the ones that are bigger than everything and we want to be in charge, I’m talking about human beings and we are so not in charge.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Go stand and get stuck in a mud hole somewhere and see how in charge you are. The power of a sunrise – and see, most people that go outdoors will understand, Ramsey, I know you will. What is one of the most beautiful sunrises or sunsets that you can see? What is one of the elements that really makes it special?
Ramsey Russell: The color?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Clouds.
Ramsey Russell: Clouds. Yeah, that’s good answer. Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Well, clouds and weather usually mean it’s not perfect in our eyes. And so in life, some of the most beautiful stories you will see, some of the most moving things are going to involve some part of it is going to be either tragic or challenging or somebody that’s pushed through something to accomplish something because it was so hard, because of they had some kind of handicap or they didn’t have any money or everybody told them they couldn’t do it and so those are the clouds. And it gets brilliant when clouds light up, when that sun sinks and it starts reflecting off the bottom of those clouds about 15 to 20 minutes after the sun goes down, you got to wait at least 20 minutes or you going to miss it. When there’s nothing there, it’s pretty, it’s a clear sky, but it just kind of goes away, it’s like perfect there’s nothing there but give it a little bit of resistance. I love fog.
Ramsey Russell: I do, too.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: I just love fog. Well, that’s just a different kind of atmosphere. Everything’s not the same all the time. And as you know, any expert on any kind of whatever it is, hunting, fishing, calling, whatever it is, they might think they’re an expert and write the book as an expert, but tell me that nature doesn’t very seldom does the same thing twice. We were here yesterday and everything – my autobiography is going to be called, “You Should Have Been Here Last Year” or last week or yesterday. Because I’ve been told that 9 million times, you need to come to my place, I got this, I got that, you’re not going to believe what you’re going to see, we had ducks, we had whatever it was. And I’ll get there, make a special trip, spend a lot of money, journey to this place because it’s the best place every man, he should have been here last week.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Should have been here yesterday.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Should have been here yesterday.
Ramsey Russell: Yes.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: You should have been here this morning, right?
Ramsey Russell: That’s life. Stephen, how can the listeners connect with you? Social media? Are these books still in publication?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: No. Everything I have is sold out. You probably can find them online. There’s always somebody selling a used something. And sometimes these were $30 and $40 and $50 books originally, you might get one for $5.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: But my instagram is Kirkpatrick Wildlife and Facebook is Stephen Kirkpatrick. There is a Kirkpatrick Wildlife page, but there’s actually more information on mine. And the website is kirkpatrickwildlife.com. It’s pretty simple.
Ramsey Russell: Is that where I would go to see that swan film you showed me? @kirkpatrick.com?
Stephen Kirkpatrick: That’s on vimeo.
Ramsey Russell: Vimeo. Okay.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Yeah. I have some stuff on Vimeo that’s called Swandering, that particular one.
Ramsey Russell: Okay.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: And it would be Stephen Kirkpatrick on Vimeo. Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you very much for coming on board, I’ve enjoyed it.
Stephen Kirkpatrick: Thank you, Ramsey. I appreciate it. And hope all your listeners had a good time.
Ramsey Russell: And folks, thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.
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