Editor’s Note: Twenty years ago John E. Marriott photographed a bull elk. Like a needle in a haystack, amongst millions of other photos, this image has stood out as one of his most successful. Here’s the story behind the photograph, and what its simplicity has taught one of the Canadian Rockies’ most well-known photographers.
It feels like ages since I took it, but there it sits in my slide photo cabinet: a photograph labelled “Elk0003-Bull Elk bedded down in the Canadian Rockies.”
I have probably taken a million photographs in my 20-year professional career since, but back in 1993, before I’d ever sold an image and long before I owned expensive camera gear, the third elk image I ever took (and kept) was this one.
This elk wasn’t photographed with a fancy digital camera or a $10,000 telephoto lens. I captured it with my first-ever SLR camera, a mid-range Canon A2E camera body loaded with cheap slide film and outfitted with a used 80-200mm f2.8 zoom – my biggest lens at the time. Most iPhones have bigger zooms on them now.
I’m not sure I even thought much of the shot at the time I took it, though I distinctly remember being there in that clearing just off the Lake Minnewanka Road in Banff, slowly walking behind the big bull until he settled down by the trees. I recall sneaking towards him, trying to get close enough with my little zoom to take a meaningful shot, yet being careful not to disturb him.
“Elk0001” and “Elk0002” in my slide cabinet are shots from slightly different angles, but it was this photo that stood out when I put it on the light table a week later. I hadn’t even noticed the snow falling off the trees in the background until I viewed the developed film, but that extra bit of moody, winter bluster separated this shot from the others in the series, making it my favourite of the three.
Despite being one of the earliest photographs in my career, I soon learned that the elk image resonated with people around the world. Some people said it is the “peacefulness and tranquility” of the photograph that draws them, while others have told me they like the image’s “subtle beauty”. Soon after I turned professional in December 1996, Canadian Geographic used the photo as the cover for their 1997 Christmas catalog, triggering a 20-year cascade of usages that has included book covers, double-page spreads in magazines, limited-edition prints, calendar spreads, posters, greeting cards and even a billboard. To date, the image has sold for more than $25,000, making it one of the most successful and profitable images of my career.
In 1995, two years after I took the image, I upgraded my camera gear across the board, selling my beloved yellow VW Vanagon to buy my first big telephoto lens, an $8,500 Canon 500mm f4. Yet even today, when I teach wildlife photography workshops to budding photographers, I point out the value of leaving the big lens at home or in the car, and capturing more than just the animal they’re photographing. This image has clearly illustrated that patience and good light are more important to a successful wildlife photograph than owning the fanciest gear will ever be.
Twenty years later, I don’t always heed my own advice. But one glimpse at “Elk0003” reminds me of those simpler days when it was just me and my wild subjects, with the camera gear in my hands being secondary to the experience in front of me.
Looking back now, I can see that this image taught me to keep things simple and uncomplicated in my photography, and to trust my instincts. If I could step back in time and chat with my 1993 self, I would probably point to the success of this photograph and say, “You know, John, you’re on the right track. Keep doing exactly what you’re doing.”