Tupper Ansel Blake is glad he listened to his heart, not the doubters.
"If I had listened to people who said, 'You'll never make it,' I wouldn't be me. I was young and brass. I told them, 'You just watch.' "
Over the decades, people watched Blake develop into a nationally honored wildlife photographer. Few people make their living only through their photography. Blake is one of the exceptions. His images have been featured in major magazines, limited edition and fine art portfolios, major exhibitions and five books. He's been honored by wildlife groups.
And earlier this month, Blake, 74, celebrated another honor, induction into the California Waterfowler's Hall of Fame.
"I'm very proud of that," he said from the living room of his Marsh Island Ranch home, part of 160 acres that he and his wife, Madeleine, bought in 1987 and have converted back to wetlands. The property is bordered by the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge just south of the Oregon-California state line. "Every day I thank the stars for being here, surrounded by wildlife."
Blake’s enchantment with the Klamath Basin refuges began in 1975, when he visited after being told of the region's abundant waterfowl. On a fall night he parked his Volkswagen camper near a refuge, but was unprepared for what happened the following morning.
“I woke up and I could not believe it. It was dark, but I could hear the birds, the varieties of the callings. Then it got light and I could see the birds flying — thousands of them in the air, thousands in the water feeding and preening. It seemed like every bird in the Pacific Flyway was here.”
He was awed by the numbers and varieties of birds, which led to frequent return visits.
“I just couldn’t get enough of it. I’d come at different seasons to take some images, for sure, but even more because I just liked the idea there were more wildlife than people.”
Blake's Hall of Fame induction was the organization's way of formally thanking and recognizing him for his decades of calling attention to and educating people on protecting and conserving wildlife and their habitats. As his induction notes, the Hall of Fame was created in 2006 "to recognize those individuals who have made significant contributions to enhancing waterfowl and their habitats in California."
Blake's contributions go far beyond California. Since beginning his career as a professional wildlife photographer in the 1970s, he's traveled across the nation and world. He spent five years in the 1980s completing a comprehensive photographic survey of the Pacific Flyway, traveling from the tropics to the tundra. The survey led to a book, "Tracks in the Sky: Wildlife and Wetlands of the Pacific Flyway," and a Smithsonian traveling exhibition shown at major museums in the U.S. and Canada.
From 1989 to 1994 he completed another photographic survey, the entire 1,936-mile length of the U.S.-Mexico border that resulted in another book, "Two Eagles/Dos Aguilas: The Natural World of the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands," and another Smithsonian traveling exhibit.
His focus shifted to the Klamath Basin. He and his wife, who is also a photographer, collaborated with writer William Kittredge, who grew up in Lakeview and Klamath Falls, for "Balancing Water: Restoring the Klamath Basin" in 2000. The trio teamed up for another book about conservation efforts in California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 2005.
"I was like a hired gun for the conservation groups," Blake said of his career, noting, "I stayed away from politics."
Blake credits his interest in wildlife to a sometimes difficult childhood. Born in Texas, he was 4 years old when he moved with his widowed mother to San Mateo, California. His mother remarried. To avoid his stepfather, Blake hiked and bicycled in nearby open areas, eventually following a fox to its den where several young foxes crawled over him.
"I was in hog heaven. That was really the spark," he said of developing an interest in seeing wildlife in their habitats. 'But I didn't get the photography part until years later.
Blake plans to detail his growing up and later years in a biography, "Wind in My Face, Sun at My Side: 40 Years of Wildlife Photography and Conservation," that will also feature his photographs.
He retired 11 years ago, after the switch from film to digital photography led Kodak to discontinue producing his favorite film, Kodak Kodachrome 64. "I was so used to that film and the equipment I decided it was time to retire."
This time, instead of only using photographs, Blake will use his photographic memory to tell his story with words.
— Reach freelance reporter Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.