Capturing the Drama of Nature
December 25th, 2015 by Christopher Gaylord
Sunrise at Thor’s Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Photo by Dennis Frates

Sunrise at Thor’s Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
Photo by Dennis Frates

Landscape and fine art photographer Dennis Frates lives for the moments that only come around once

Sunlight reflected on a canyon wall above a small waterfall for a matter of minutes. The curvature of a dune’s spine in Death Valley just after sunrise, the sand taking perfect form just seconds before blowing away with the wind. The clouds scattered across the sky in an impossibly alluring blend of shapes and vibrant colors over a remote spot in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. All of them are moments few could ever hope to witness in person, and all of them fleeting—beautiful and breathtaking—but gone as quickly as they came.

Through all the thousands of photographs Dennis Frates makes, those are the scenes he truly lives for. And they don’t come around every day.

“I’ve captured some really nice wave shots where they come up and they turn translucent, and they’re turquoise, and they twist and they do all these things, and no one’s ever going to get that shot again,” says the Wilsonville, Oregon-based photographer. “It’s unique. I’m never going to get that shot again. Shots like that, that are very ephemeral, that go away very quickly—that’s what excites me the most.”

During the past 30 years, Dennis has travelled across the world, eagerly in pursuit of nature’s most dramatic moments—typically, intense and unusual weather conditions—to bring emotion to the lives of others. But years before his images landed on the pages of Ruralite, National Geographic, Sierra Club, Audubon, and countless other magazines, books, catalogs, calendars, posters, greeting cards and advertisements, Dennis gave up on photography altogether.

At age 11, Dennis ditched his first camera, which he had bought with money he saved from his paper route. The dazzling images of photographers such as David Muench and others he had seen in National Geographic and other magazines lured him into the photography world. For a year, his exuberance and passion carried him. He quit after what he considered his failure to make images equally as stunning. He put his camera in a closet and went fishing.

“I said, ‘The heck with this,’ and I gave it up. I was either with my camera or my fishing pole—one or the other—so, yeah, I guess I went fishing for a number of years,” Dennis says, laughing.

It was while fishing, more than a decade later, that his passion for photography came thundering back. He was fly fishing on the Madison River in Montana when the feeling came out of nowhere.

“I can remember exactly on the Madison River where I was standing,” Dennis recalls. “It just came to me. I said, ‘You know, I’m going to do this professionally when I get home.’”

At first, the return of photography in his life started as a way to supplement the income from his full-time job as a fifth-grade teacher, so he could fund his fishing and backpacking trips. But as time went on, it reached a point where the camera was far more important to him than his urge to fish. That was saying something for Dennis, who had fished with a passion since he was a kid.

His teaching job allowed him to spend summers traveling to new places and capturing the surrounding scenery. When he returned each new school year, he would bring a garbage bag full of 35mm slides into his classroom and dump them onto a table in front of his awestruck students.

“I’d say, ‘Those are all my mistakes,’” Dennis says. “‘There’s a few that I got that were good, but look at all these mistakes. I had to do all this to get those.’”

It was a way of teaching his students the mindset he had adopted through the years and now sums up as “failing your way to success”—the reality that many achievements come with time, and with many mistakes and failures in their wake.

But through all of Dennis’ perceived mistakes, he has emerged with some truly breathtaking images—such as his favorite photo of Crater Lake National Park, a scene in which rows of puffy clouds streaked side-by-side across a blue sky are reflected in the lake.

“I’ve been to Crater Lake a zillion times, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” he says. “It was absolutely windless, and the mosquitoes were eating us alive, and those clouds came in and lasted for a good half-hour, and that’s just so unique. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me going.”

Such shots are gems along the paths of Dennis’ travels. Since retiring from teaching, he has more time to shoot. In the past 18 months, he has shot all around Oregon. He also has visited Bryce, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks in Utah, Hawaii, Lake Tahoe, Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada and a 10-day trip in the desert Southwest.

Typically in search of unusual weather conditions and intense moments, he spends most of his time shooting during the very early morning and late evening hours to catch the most unique lighting.

In recent years, as Dennis made the transition from film to digital photography, he has sharpened his focus on making images that evoke emotion, using what he calls the creative license—the ability to enhance photographs with the help of computer software—to produce an ideal and special picture. As an example, he points to an image he produced of koi in a pond. He layered multiple photographs on top of one another to create an image with more fish in the pond.

“They were all there but just not at the same time,” he says. “Some people may call that cheating; I call it creative license. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it at all. It’s the creative license that digital gives us. I could never do that with film.

“A photo can go from a zero to a one to a 10 just in your processing, and that’s a neat feeling.”

With the advantage of digital photography, Dennis now approaches his shoots differently, thinking more creatively about not only what scenes would make good images, but also what he can do to bring out something extra in them, ultimately with the goal of making people feel something.

“If someone feels inspired and it lifts them, that to me is worth it right there,” he says. “I want people to look at these images and be inspired and feel an emotional connection.”

Dennis says he once concerned himself with which photos would sell best, but years later—with his family grown and finances less of a focal point—it’s all about the experience.

“Whether it sells or not, it just isn’t as important anymore,” he says. “The joy of being out there—that’s what it’s all about.”

Recently, Dennis’ 35-year-old daughter has taken a fondness to photography and professed an interest in continuing Dennis’ business after he either stops or passes on. He gave her his best fatherly advice: “Just have fun and do it because you love it.

“That’s been my mantra my entire life,” Dennis says. “I’ve never done anything I didn’t really feel. It just isn’t a good way to live. Do what you love. Do what your passion is. Do what moves you. That’s what’s going to make you create the best images.”

To see more of Dennis’ photography or order prints, visit www.fratesphoto.com.