Longtime Alaska photographer Mark Kelley says his goal has always been to share Alaska one image at a time. Recently, 10 of his images did just that — and more.
Last month Kelley was named the winning photographer in the 2022 portfolio category featured in the National Wildlife Magazine photo contest, an annual competition that receives more than 30,000 photos submitted by over 3,100 photographers with images coming in from across the globe.
Kelley’s winning portfolio featured 10 photos taken over the past 13 years, documenting the abundance of black and brown bears that live within the Tongass National Forest along Anan Creek, about 30 miles from Wrangell. The creek supports one of the most robust pink salmon runs in Southeast Alaska and is one of the exceedingly rare locations where both black and brown bears coexist close to each other.
“It’s a real honor,” Kelley told the Juneau Empire. “I was blown away — I think for a wildlife photographer it’s the world’s highest compliment.”
Kelley is no stranger to award-winning shots — he’s won dozens over the decades he’s lived and worked as a photographer in Southeast Alaska.
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Although he’s originally from Buffalo, New York, Kelley said he considers himself a “Southeast guy.”
He always thought his love for photography growing up was just a hobby, not something he could turn into a career. That changed when he began taking photography classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks after leaving the Lower 48.
“I left for Alaska with a pickup truck and a couple of thousand dollars with no great plan,” he says.
After graduating, Kelley was able to successfully secure a photography job in Juneau and after moving to the capital city in 1979, he never looked back.
“I fell in love with Juneau,” he says.
Kelley says he was drawn to Anan Creek and the animals surrounding it because the location is distinctly Southeast Alaska. He said each photo depicts the constant rain, towering trees and flourishing green of the forest that makes the region unlike other parts of Alaska. But, beyond the location, what brings the area to life is the abundant wildlife that lives among the rainforest.
“I go to Anan because it’s so much fun — forget the picture — it’s so much fun watching these bears and how they interact with each other. They show all the emotions of a human being — I just never wanted to miss anything,” he says.
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Kelley estimates that for each of the chosen 10 photos taken over those 13 years, thousands were taken to find those exact moments. Each visit included three to four days standing on a viewing platform in hopes of catching those special moments.
“I learned to be really patient,” he says.
And that patience paid off.
“The winners presented here, from each of our nine different categories, reflect nature in all its rich variety, from moments of raw but life-giving predation to a parent’s tender embrace, from lofty cliffside perches to placid undersea meadows,” the contest website states. “Whether avid amateurs or longtime professionals, nature photographers who share their gifts help the rest of us see the world through new eyes — and inspire us to save what we see.”
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Kelley points to one photo where a mother and cub are seen walking behind a group of people as they look in the opposite direction, completely oblivious to the scene just feet away from them. Moments like that come in the blink of an eye, but when captured, it makes all those long hours of waiting worth it.
“It was just a wonderful moment, those people who were looking for the thing that was happening right behind them,” he says. “I just wanted to show the range of emotions, a range of views, wide and tight, I was looking for moments showing the caring nature of bears and illustrate what it’s like there.”
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