Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Big shots — Eruption photographers find their work appearing far and wide

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Just like any good news photographer, David Wartinbee didn’t waste time celebrating the good luck that put him in the right place at the right time with a camera in his hand as a spectacular mushroom cloud bloomed over Mount Redoubt on Saturday afternoon. He lifted his camera to his eye and started shooting, and didn’t stop until the eruption subsided.

Then he went straight to his computer and filed his images. Later that evening they started showing up in media venues across the state, and soon, the nation and world.

All in a day’s work for an intrepid roving news photographer.

Except Wartinbee isn’t a news photographer. He doesn’t work for a media company or wire service; doesn’t have a press pass or journalism credentials. He’s a biology professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus with a recreational interest in photography whose front porch in Soldotna faces out across Cook Inlet, and who happened to be pulling into his driveway just when the mountain started to go off.

But through the power of digital cameras and the Internet, and a world that’s becoming insatiable for instantaneous imagery, Wartinbee and other central peninsula residents were deputized as newshounds that day, by virtue of having cameras, having something spectacular to point them at, and being willing to share.

Shots seen ’round the world
Until Saturday, Mount Redoubt hasn’t been terribly cooperative with photographers in this round of activity. Other than some visible steam plumes, most of the volcano’s many eruptions since March 22 happened at night or were shrouded behind clouds and haze. Redoubt hadn’t produced anything nearly as visually exciting as the iconic image that came from its last eruptive cycle in 1989-1990, when a massive, red-tinged mushroom cloud spread over the mountain April 21, 1990.

Saturday was different. Clouds lifted, the air was clear and the mountain was visible from the Kenai Peninsula around 2:30 p.m.

“Kathy (Wartinbee’s wife) and I came home from whatever we were doing — I think we did something exciting like go to the dump. When we came back and were driving down the road to our driveway, I could see that the mountain was visible, and we hadn’t seen it for days,” Wartinbee said.

He got out his camera to take a few shots, and showed Kathy the spot where he’d taken a photo of Redoubt venting at sunset on March 15.

“I started taking pictures from the deck and as I did I could see something was going on. I said, ‘Hey, there’s a bubble there, and it’s growing.’ And it was growing very fast and we just sat there and watched this thing blossom. We were absolutely dumbfounded by how fast it happened, how fast it went from a little bubble to bang, this thing is there. It wasn’t 15 minutes from the time it started to the time there was this huge, anvil-shaped cloud that was moving toward us,” he said.

Wartinbee’s first shots were dark as the ash cloud was low on the horizon. As it gained altitude it caught the sunlight. By the end of the event Wartinbee had to zoom out to get the spreading ash cloud in the frame.

He went to his computer and downloaded the images, then sent some to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which posts volcano images on its Web site, www.avo.alaska.edu. The photos are free to download and use, and media sources can print or air them, but must include the photographer’s name. Wartinbee also sent a few to news sources in the state, thinking they might want some eruption shots.

KTUU TV aired one of his photos in its late newscast Saturday, and the Anchorage Daily News ran the same shot in its Sunday edition. From there it was picked up by The Associated Press, a content-sharing membership organization for media outlets worldwide. And that’s where it went — worldwide.

Wartinbee did an Internet search for the photo Sunday, and found it on Web sites for National Public Radio and several newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and papers in a Syracuse, N.Y., Buffalo, N.Y., Taiwan, South America and Finland. It’s also on the U.S. Army Alaska’s Web site and numerous blog sites — all with his name attached to it.

“I just thought, ‘I wonder how far this thing has gone? If they (the Daily News and KTUU) picked it up, I wonder if anybody else did?’ And it’s amazing how far it’s gone. It’s like, ‘Wow, how many people are interested in this little news item?’” Wartinbee said. “My 15 minutes of fame.”

Jaden Larson, of Nikiski, is enjoying her 15 minutes of fame, as well — one for every year she’s been alive.

The Nikiski Middle School eighth-grader was driving home from a movie in Kenai on Saturday with her sister when they noticed an oddly dark cloud creeping overhead as they were passing The Salvation Army thrift store on the Kenai Spur Highway.

“We just kind of thought it was an odd-looking cloud so I got some pictures because I didn’t know what it was,” she said.

Jaden and her sister continued driving north, but stopped around South Miller Loop to take more photos as the dark ash cloud spread overhead. When they got home, Jaden’s mother called the Alaska Volcano Observatory about the ash fall, and the woman they spoke to encouraged them to e-mail photos that AVO could post on its Web site. Jaden sent about 26 pictures, and eight or nine were posted on the Web site, she said. The photos spread from there.

“We saw one actually on National Geographic, their Web site. It was also on the Anchorage Daily News. We’ve been looking around. It’s pretty cool,” Jaden said. “It’s exciting. My mom was calling all our family to go look. Everyone at school was like, ‘Did you see your pictures online?’”

Jaden said she enjoys photography, and is starting to turn it into a moneymaking endeavor doing portraiture, especially maternity and newborns. She posts her work on her site, www.smilineyesphotography.weebly.com.

“I’ve always liked to take pictures and my parents bought me an expensive camera so I’ve been doing more of it,” she said.

Jaden said she likes portraiture, and hadn’t considered going into news photography in the future, which is still a long way off, considering she’s in middle school. But if she ever does, she’s already got a widely circulated breaking news shot to her name.

For Wartinbee, Saturday fulfilled a dream he’s long had — to see a volcanic eruption in person.

“I’ve seen pictures from years ago, and a friend from up here in Alaska sent me ash in ’89, and I’ve always wanted to see one,” he said.

Now he’s not only got the memories and photos to prompt them, he’s also got some notoriety to go with the experience.

“One of the blogs (that posted his photo) said, ‘Beautiful picture by David Wartinbee.’ Well, that’s cool. Thank you very much.”

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