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Wyman Meinzer exists almost without definition. But if we had to pin him down, there’s no word that describes him better than Texan. A hunter, trapper, marksmen, outdoor pioneer, and official photographer for the Lone Star State, Wyman captures the dig-your-heels-in determination and appreciation for the land that can be found in those that call Texas home.
Wyman Meinzer is the only official State Photographer of Texas, named so in 1997 by the Texas State Legislature and then Gov. George W. Bush, an honor he still holds today. He was raised on the League Ranch, a 27,000-acre ranch in the rolling plains of Texas. Since then, he has traveled to every corner of this great state and all points in between in search of the first and last rays of sunlight in its magnificent sweep across the Texas landscape.
Post graduation Wyman spent five years as a professional predator hunter on the big ranches of the rolling plains. During this period he worked to perfect his photographic skills and now, after 33 years as a professional photographer, Wyman has photographed and /or written 24 large format books, and his images have appeared on more than 250 magazine covers throughout America. His images have appeared in Smithsonian, National Geographic Books, Natural History, Ebony, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Audubon, Sports Afield, Field and Stream, Outdoor life, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Highways, Korea GEO, German GEO, Das Tier, Airone, Horzu, BBC Wildlife, and a host others.
Leading up to the release of the YETI’s film profile of Wyman Meinzer “Chasing Light,” we caught up with him on photography, Texas, coyotes, and flash floods.
Q. When did you get started in photography?
A. Wyman: In ‘79 I believe it was when I was first published. As with any writer or photographer once they're published, I was hooked. They may as well have taken a shot of heroin or something because that's all you want to do is be published again. And so then I set my sights on New York. In ‘80 or ‘81 I started selling to Field & Stream and Sports Afield and after that it was… it got wild and crazy. I was traveling all over the western United States, and Canada. In 1985 Sports Afield named me with three other guys I believe it was as the new breed of photographers in America. We were highlighted in the magazine as the new breed. Who's gonna turn back at that point?
So you just keep going and then by the early 1990's I kind of lost interest in the magazine market. Then I just started working the books and I published my first book in 1993 and since then I've done I think 27 books on Texas and one on a ranch in Wyoming.
Q. The film talks a little about when you first got published and how at first you were rejected. How did you feel when you were first published?
A. Well I still have my first rejection slip from Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. I believe it was in ‘77. I looked at it and you know, you knew just starting out that I wasn't going to be a instantaneous hit obviously, but it sort of aggravated me. I thought they were pretty good images and I had been looking at the magazine and I was pretty sure they were as good as the others. It really made me resolve to continue to be better. Then of course the second rejection slip really pissed me off. I knew that I was going to actually someday be good enough to where they were going to want my images. They were going to call me for my imagery. So I really set out on a mission at that point and started studying the style that they seemed to accept in the magazine.
Of course at that point came my hunting experience, because I grew up hunting. Whether deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, or ground squirrels. In those days you didn't have elevated deer stands. So all of my hunting was down low on the ground, sometimes on my belly and elbows, the prone position. When I started shooting, it was natural for me to shoot with a camera just like I shot a rifle. That was a new look. Then when I first was published in 1978 or ‘79... I think it was ‘79 with National Wildlife. I remember it was a roadrunner holding an American collared lizard that he'd killed and was taking it back to its nest. I was absolutely elated. I realized also at that point that I could never go back. I could never accept anything less in quality than what I had already achieved. That's something I tell my classes, once you achieve that level, you can never ever consider anything less. In fact even today after 35 or 37 years of work, I try to exceed my expectations.
Q. You've shot so much in the state of Texas. Do you have a favorite location in Texas that you’ve captured?
A. Well, you know if I go several days in a certain region, say for instance West Texas and the Big Bend region. You know I love that. I think it’s great and I appreciate the desert. Having an educational background in wildlife biology I see things that other people may not recognize just because of my upbringing and my education. But also if I go over into East Texas and the forested region of the state and get on the Neches or Angelina river, that fascinates me as well because you have a whole different set of habitats, a whole different culture. If I had to be pinned down and my life depended on it, I would probably have to point my finger to the northern panhandle region along the Canadian river.
That country absolutely fascinates me. The history, the lay of the land, the Old Historical Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Old Greg Expedition, Fort Bascom. You can still see them from the air, even from the ground in certain locations. There’s a tremendous offering of archaeological locations with rock art. Dating from Comanche all the way back to the pueblo era. I believe they call them the antelope culture. So it’s all up on the Canadian along with big ranches, huge ranches. That's what I love, the big wide open country and land masses that are owned and protected by men and women who also appreciate the history of the land. Not just using it just to abuse it or overgraze it. They also protect archaeological sites and those locations that should be appreciated by everyone in the state, whether you're an archaeologist, paleontologist or whatever.
Q: It seems that even with the many things you’ve done in you’re life, you’re most passionate about the actual land itself, specifically in Texas. It’s a pretty unique passion. What do you think that's born from… hunting? Photography?
A: Yes there's no doubt. I was thinking about that yesterday… about how much hunting, even the cowboy work that I grew up doing as a teenager all contributed to my passion for the land, history, and the light that drives my desire to continue photographing. I remember as a youngster being out in the ranch being fascinated with great thunderstorms and watching the light change and the color that it gave the land as that last ray of light shone through a dying thunderstorm. So it all began way back when as a young boy, probably before I was even 10 years old, because I was constantly out in the field hunting and trapping and working cattle. So it definitely had a strong influence on what I do now and how I appreciate the state of Texas and why I appreciate it.
Q. Do you think you’ve become a part of Texas history? How important is that to you?
A. Of course I'm a big history buff. Even when I was a young boy I was fascinated by the stories of older men and women and in growing up in this region of the state - the rolling plains. That's where I lived and at the time I didn't have such a broad appreciation as I do now you know for the state. But history has always been a big thing for me.
Often times I’ll sit on the porch in my chair and watch the sun go down and watch it play light on the house and watch the colors. I think about life and what’s important to people. I remember my daddy passing away in 1983 and I had the feeling that perhaps he didn't feel like he had contributed enough. I feel like at this point in my life I have given to the people of Texas, if not a lot of America, through the imagery that I've offered. People have said that I can tell a story through my imagery that they appreciate and look forward to. So I think that I established myself… [Pauses] I would like to think that I have established myself as a piece of history that is very important and someday could be looked upon as significant and something that should be appreciated to the next several generations.
Also we are going through a transition now throughout America and I was very fortunate being raised during a time before great changes in the land and in the people. So I was able to create images that define this part of the state especially before some of the big changes that occurred. You know the big ranches that are now breaking up is a very sad part of history that we are experiencing right now. But I was able to do that and I think that's a legacy to leave for future Texans to appreciate.
Q. How important do you think it is for an aspiring photographer to also have the appreciation and respect for the history of the places that they capturing?
A. Well I think it’s very important. To go out and shoot a pretty image... I mean a lot of people are capable of doing that. But if there's a way in which you can incorporate an element that shows that change that has occurred... it could be something that's a hundred years ago or just make your image to where it appeals to people and makes people want to ask questions - How did it get there? Why is it there? What geological phenomenon took place or the people that lived there? How did they even... how were they even able to survive there? Anytime that you can do that, then you start forcing people to thank history and those that are interested enough will delve into it, studying the land and the life that has been a part of that land.
Q. If you had to pinpoint an attribute or a personality trait of a successful photographer as advice to somebody that's trying to figure it out, what would you tell them to develop?
A. Well I'll tell you that you have to be a people person in order to get along. Whether you're teaching a class or whether you are dealing with landowners, you have to not be aloof. I know that I have met photographers that are aloof and think that they need to hide a secret. I feel that if there are people interested enough in my work and that want to spend time with me, then I am willing to share all of my secrets, if you want to call them secrets. They're just things I've learned through trial and error, through life because I wasn't trained as a photographer. Everything is kind of hit or miss and trial and error. So you have to be a people person and listen. You have to be a listener and not be negative.
Speaking of dealing with private landowners, and Texas is 98% private landholdings; you have to speak the language. If you go in with a bit of arrogance you're not going to get along very well. Having been raised on a ranch I can speak the language to most landowners. You talk about the land, about the grass, how good their cattle look or you wish it would rain or it looks like you got plenty of rain for a while. They understand that you appreciate the hardships and the obstacles that they face. Then whenever you explain to them that you would like to go in and document some of that, by and large most of them are real open to any suggestion that you might have or any question that you might offer.
Q. What's your favorite Texas Animal?
A. Probably the coyote. They're tough, they're resilient, and they are very adaptable animals. They're very difficult to photograph and I just love them. I think that the coyote probably is my favorite. I love to photograph whitetail deer, but whitetail deer it seems that way too many people are raising deer and buying high fences and they'll photograph these bucks that are juiced up, so to speak. If I'm going to photograph whitetails I'm going to go out in open country, no physical boundaries that will stop or impede the travel of the whitetail. When I see big bucks or decent deer in that kind of habitat, that excites me a lot. But day-to-day I love photographing coyotes.
Q. You’ve spent some time with coyotes… quite a bit of time. Is that an understatement?
A. When I graduated from Texas Tech in 1974 there were not any jobs I really wanted as a wildlife biologist. I decided to spend a year or a winter hunting coyotes for a living. I moved out on the Pitchfork ranch and lived in a little half dugout that was constructed in 1948, right after the Pitchfork purchased that landmass form the Matador ranch. It’s a real big area, real rough country. They call it the Croughton Breaks. I lived out there for three winters trapping coyotes. That gave me a lot of insight into the life way, the natural history of the animal, along with the research I had conducted when was at Texas tech, as well as those years as a teenager when I began coyote hunting at the age of fourteen.
Q. What’s still on your bucket list?
A. You know, I look forward to photographing coyotes because I know that every time I call one up they're going to give me a different look. Whether it’s body posture or it’s a facial expression. I love rattling in whitetails. I’m headed down to the San Antonio Viejo in mid December to rattle in whitetails for about a week. I dearly love that because it’s calling wild animals in and you're not baiting or anything like that. You're actually going out and pitting your skills against a creature that lives 365 days in the wild using his nose, eyes, and ears in defense.
Also one of these days I hope, and I've gotten several small ones, but I want to photograph a flash flood. I know that sounds silly, but I want to see a wall of water about three feet tall coming across land. That would really thrill me. I've gotten some of these but they're smaller, but I really want to get one that's dramatic. That would really top my list right there.