Friday, January 23, 2009

I'd Like To Introduce Myself

With Yonkers. The last of my championship sled dogs.

Photography has been with me since my high school days. Thumbing through copies of Modern Photography magazine in an English/literature teacher’s room sparked something in me and I soon had my first camera, a Pentax ME Super. I loved that little camera with its blinking color lights inside the viewfinder that told me what the meter thought the exposure settings should be. Through my college years and beyond I’ve always had a camera close at hand and for a time, seriously considered taking a shot at being a true professional, making my living as a photographer and reaching for the highest level of the craft and art. Instead, I basically chickened out and played it safe (or so I thought) with a career in the printing industry.

After just a few short years I was realizing that the Kansas City printing industry wasn’t offering much fulfillment and I found myself wondering if it was really the direction my life should be taking. Even though I was living in the city, my farm boy upbringing kept me outside much of the time with camping, hiking and some fairly serious rock climbing. Several climbing partners and I explored as many sheer rock faces as we could find in trips throughout Missouri, Arkansas and extended weekends in Colorado. One of my buddies had a neat dog he had adopted from an animal shelter and before long, I was on my own search for the right kind of dog that could accompany me on hiking and climbing trips. One day I encountered a young adult Siberian husky at the Kansas City Animal Shelter. He ended up going home with me. I named him Panda and had no idea how he would change my life.

What happened from there ends up being a long story, so I’ll do my best to relate the short version. Through a series of chance encounters and coincidences, I came into contact with a Siberian husky club. Through the club I met a fellow dog lover who lived with his family on a small farm outside of Kansas City. He had a small kennel of huskies that were direct descendents of some of the original Siberians brought to Alaska from Russia in the early 1900’s. Our friendship developed quickly and over the next couple years I ended up with half a dozen dogs and a deepening desire to find out what this sled dog thing was all about.

I figured I was young enough and single enough to try just about anything and in early 1993 I moved to the very northern tip of Minnesota to spend an extremely challenging year working for a well known and successful musher. (That’s what sled dog people are called: mushers. And running a team of sled dogs is called mushing.) After that year, I built my own racing team, was immediately competitive and in my second year of racing won the first of several championships across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. I have a natural talent with dogs and I spent every waking moment and many sleeping moments thinking about any aspect of what it takes to build a fire breathing racing team. I was good and thought the rest of my life would revolve around sled dogs in some way, shape or form. Funny how things can change.

Somewhere in that mix I met a woman I thought was going to be that special ‘one’ we all look for. Instead, in a few short years she had reduced me to a wreck, both financially and emotionally. It’s not often a man has to admit to being the victim of an abusive relationship. If so many people hadn’t told me that very thing, I’m not sure I ever would have fully realized what had been done to me. It’s been some years since I managed to get clear of her and it finally seems as if I’m coming out of what was a very dark time.

In trying to get my life back to some semblance of order and worth, I took a stab at returning to competitive sled dog racing. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the incredible amount of work and sacrifice it would take to reach the place I wanted to be was more than I had the heart to deal with. I still had a desire, but something was definitely wrong. A friend who has also raced sled dogs in his past gave me his opinion one day. “I think you’re done running dogs. Your fire’s gone out.” Someone else suggested that “She” had killed part of my spirit. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself and for the most part was just drifting from day to day, directionless and lost. Something a character said in an episode of a very popular tv series seems to apply here. "It's not enough just to live. You have to have something to live for."

A little point and shoot digital camera may have ignited a new fire. It’s amazing what 4 megapixels can do. I never could have guessed they could have such healing properties. Randomly snapping shots here and there, I began to notice the incredible detail and color in the images. I started squeezing every bit of creative control I could out of that little camera, experimenting with composition, exposure, focus and whatever its limited functions would give me. It didn’t take me long to want more and in early 2008 I took the plunge and purchased my first digital SLR. When I was researching different kinds of cameras and talking about it to the point of possibly being annoying, a co-worker pointed out that in the time she has known me, it was the first time she had seen me act truly alive. Now I’m trying to develop (no pun intended) the technique and expertise to be worthy of such a camera as well as carry on what that co-worker had noticed.

The digital revolution and internet have brought incredible changes to photography. The opportunities may be endless . . . but then again, so is the competition. It’s certainly a different world than the one I knew back in the film days. I’m getting older, but I think I may have enough fire left in me to reach for one more dream. I love images. Photographs for some reason top the list. The color, composition, detail, mood, energy or lack thereof all combine to stop me in my tracks so often. My hope is to create an image here and there that will stop other people in their tracks. I’m sure it won’t be easy. It kind of reminds me of standing on a sled behind a team of huskies as we streak along a snow covered trail. Should I be putting so much of my life out in front of the world in this way? It’s hard to say, but it feels right.

I’ve been wanting to get a web site up and running for a while now. You pretty much need to be visible on the internet to get anywhere. A computer guru friend suggested just days ago that maybe I should consider a blog. My response was huh? I’m still not that computer and internet savvy. A blog is free he pointed out, fairly simple to do and gets me and my work in front of the world. Seems like a good way to start.

I’ve been a printer and graphic artist, a published writer, rock climber, champion sled dog racer, wildland fire fighter, helitack crewmember with fire fighting helicopters, volunteer structural fire fighter and First Responder with the local EMS system. My name is Mark Dunlap. Among other things, I’m a photographer. And this is my blog.

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