By Hunter D’Antuono
Whether he’s tracking a wildfire up a mountain or walking the streets of his hometown, Kurt Wilson, takes shots that amaze. While most of us are still blinking, the veteran photo editor of the Missoulian has already captured the moment with his camera. MJR photo editor Hunter D’Antuono asked Wilson for his secrets. Read the answers, in Wilson’s own words.
We were sitting in the driveway of a house up Lolo Creek, watching this forest fire coming down the hillside. Nobody was home. We didn’t have cell service, so we’d stopped there, looking for a landline to call the newsroom.
There was a sticker on the door that alerted any emergency responders to “save our pets” and we could see two dogs inside the home.
And this woman drove up in a truck.
I wouldn’t say she was panicking, but she was in a very determined state of mind. She was there to warn residents to get out. She pulled up and opened the door of the truck, and while she was waving her arms and telling us it was an emergency, I was photographing her. Rob Chaney, the reporter I was there with, took her name and, between the two of them, they saved the homeowner’s dogs.
I like it when things are happening and I’m not trying to set something up. I’m working situations that are real and are going on, just as they would if I weren’t there.
Worst case is if I get to a place and people are saying, “What do you want us to do? Where do you want us to stand?” When I start trying to arrange things, it generally gets worse, not better. I would rather things arrange themselves and let me work around them.
My secret to photography? Here’s what I feel I’m able to do, and I don’t know if it always works: I watch things. I’m patient and I’m able to anticipate what might happen next to make a good photograph.
In some cases, that’s not even all that hard to do. One day, we heard on the scanner there was a bear in a tree, pretty close to downtown Missoula. Fish, Wildlife & Parks were going to dart the bear, and all these guys from NorthWestern Energy were holding the edges of this net to catch the bear so it wouldn’t just hit the ground if it fell from the tree. I’ve seen bears darted before, and I figured it would fall, so it was just about finding the spot where I would have a good view of it.
The whole thing was like a rescue scene, with somebody jumping out of a flaming hotel window and the firemen down below. The way his legs are positioned, the bear almost looks like a human. And those guys with the net are really just taking care of another living thing, which is something we can all appreciate. That’s what I’ve always loved about that picture.
When I edit sports, I look for peak moments and the juxtaposition of players; how they fit together into a nice composition. But most of all, it’s about anticipating something just before it actually happens.
When I first interned at the Missoulian, it was under Carl Davaz, who came from The Topeka Capital-Journal. He brought to the newspaper the idea of how photographers should act. He wanted photographers treated like journalists and to have a voice in the newsroom equal to writers. I still think the Missoulian is one of the best picture-newspapers in the country, and it has always offered me the opportunity to accomplish most everything I’ve wanted to do.
As for starting out these days, it feels like on the one hand it is harder, as there’s a lot less opportunity in newspaper photography. On the other hand, people are maybe more visual than ever. If you are the kind of person who has an idea of your own at least every other day, I think you’ll get opportunities that come your way, because you’ll recognize them. If you’re a good photographer, who can make a nice picture out of any assignment but doesn’t really have any ideas, that’s going to be harder.
In Montana, we don’t get the big, crazy stuff going on. We don’t cover war and conflict. But I could live my whole life in a community that doesn’t have a school shooting to cover. I’ll be really happy to not have to do that.