What does it take for a small town Montana nature photographer’s work to be recognized as one of the best in the world? You only have to look as far as Seeley Lake to find out.
In October, the winning images for the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition were announced by the Natural History Museum in London. Among more than 50,000 submissions, from photographers in 95 countries, Zack Clothier’s “Grizzly Remains” photo was selected for the winning photo in the “Animals in their environment” category of the longest-running nature photography competition and the most prestigious in the world.
“Your eye goes to the rib cage, moves to the woods, and then receives a shake from the large grizzly head that appears,” Jury President Roz Kidman Cox said of Clothier’s photo. “It’s a picture of history – the harsh winter environment, the bear coming out of its hibernation den to use whatever food it can find. But what gives it the edge is the bear expression. You can’t help but smile. “
Clothier describes his achievement in simpler terms.
“Hard work, determination, patience and even a little luck all played a part in capturing this image,” the 38-year-old said when describing his gratitude to the Montanica! Website. “I am more than delighted and honored to report (this).”
Clothier grew up in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. As a teenager, he spent his days dreaming of wilderness adventures and honing his skills as a wildlife stalker and photographer.
“I am a self-taught photographer,” he said. “I learned on my own by reading books on the subject.
Clothier’s first “camera traps” were crude, homemade constructions, cobbled together from pieces of wrecked electronics.
“I was using a motion sensor taken from a set of garage door lights and a car door solenoid switch. When motion was detected, the solenoid would trigger the shutter on the camera. housed all of these cameras in metal ammo boxes which were nice heavy and bulky pieces of equipment. “
Throughout his teenage years and into his twenties, Clothier dreamed of coming to Montana. In 2006, he attended a backcountry summer seminar, probing the wilds of Yellowstone National Park to learn the art of hunting wolves and bears in the high Rocky Mountains. The experience convinced him that Montana was where he wanted to be and that he would do whatever it took to get there.
“As a kid, Montana was always in my head,” Clothier said. “By the time I met the (animal tracking) group, I had already convinced myself that I had to find a way out of here.”
It came a few years later. By 2011, he had made the transition, moving throughout the western part of the state; Bozeman, Cooke City, the Bitterroot Valley, wherever the opportunity presented itself.
In 2017, he bought a house with his wife, Cortney, and moved to the Seeley Lake / Swan River Valley in western Montana.
At first Clothier’s photography largely focused on wild landscapes, but over time he regained his interest in photographing camera traps; this time with the advantage of modern digital equipment.
“I photographed a lot of landscapes when I lived in the northeast,” he said. “Once I got here I started to get more interested in the animal side, going back to my tracking roots and using my skills to find animals.”
Clothier makes regular trips to the backcountry, often accompanied by Cortney and the couple’s furry baby, the dog Husky Mya.
Although his gear is lighter than when he was a teenager, the multiple cameras, lights, tripods, motion sensors, and basic survival gear still weigh heavily.
“It’s a lot lighter than the old ammo boxes, but it’s still a lot of stuff to lug around,” Clothier said. “My backpack typically weighs 40 to 50 pounds when filled with a camera trap. Usually I spend at least six or seven hours setting up just one.”
In the winter of 2019, Zack and Cortney were on a cross-country ski trip when Zack spotted an opportunity.
“I was skiing with Cortney and Mya, and we happened to ski around the turn where there was a buck moose right in the middle of the track,” he recalls.
By this point, the elk’s body had already been largely cleaned by predators
“There was not a ton left,” Clothier remembers. “It was picked out fairly cleanly. There were wolf tracks all around, so at least one wolf was coming back and picking up the things that were left.”
Clothier set up an extended camera trap at the carcass site, taking advantage of a tree shaft to hide his main camera low to the ground and directly in front of the moose’s skeleton. He wasn’t expecting much.
“Over the next two months, I came back once to change the batteries and check the camera,” he said. “The wolf never returned. Instead, I captured a variety of other scavengers; foxes, martens, crows, and even snowshoe hares were all regular visitors to the carcass.”
“As winter has passed into spring, it has become more and more difficult to access the camera due to the deteriorating snow conditions,” he continued. “I stayed out of the area for as long as I could before I had to come back to change the batteries.”
Signing day arrived in the second half of April 2020. The weather had been unusually hot that week, and Clothier was concerned that if he waited any longer, his camera batteries would die.
“I waited for a cold day because of a creek that had to be crossed on the way,” he said. “I loaded my skis and decided to put on my snowshoes too, just in case.”
Alone, Clothier walked to the carcass site.
“Everything was melting away,” he said. “The snow conditions had deteriorated dramatically.
Clothier arrived at the creek which had been frozen a few months before.
“It was a small stream, but after the spring melt it was really raging,” he said. “I must have spent a few hours trying to find enough of the felled logs to build a makeshift little bridge across this stream.
“After building the bridge, I switched to snowshoes and hiked the rest of the way on snowshoes. As I walked back within a hundred yards of my camera trap, there were these huge Grizzly tracks heading straight for the carcass. And they were fresh tracks. “
Clothier cautiously checked the surveillance camera he had set up a few hundred yards from his main trap camera to see how long the bear had been visiting the site.
“I didn’t know if he was still there on the carcass or not,” he recalls. “I was really a little uncomfortable being in this place. The last thing I wanted to do was get into a grizzly bear on a carcass. I just started making a lot of noise, trying to scare him if he was back there. “
“I didn’t hear anything,” Clothier continued, “but I waited probably a good 25 minutes before returning to the camera. There were grizzly tracks all over there, and the camera was about below. water. When I looked inside the tree – the camera was flipped up in the air and pointed skyward. There was a bunch of slime on the lens, so I knew that the bear had attacked him. “
Clothier had low expectations for capturing convincing photographs, noting that in his experiments “bears have a weakness for camera traps”.
“Even before the camera trap goes off, bears are approaching things and pushing them around,” he said of his experience. “Knock them down, drool all over the front of the lens. It’s actually pretty rare that you walk away with a decent picture of a bear just because of all of that. I just thought the bear had come from. side or from behind and I had managed to neutralize the camera before taking decent pictures. This is usually what happens. I did not have high expectations when I saw the camera under this form.
But there was a surprise on the camera’s memory card – with a collection of hares, foxes, and martens – a single image of a grizzly staring at the camera before trying to destroy it.
After that, everything was black and blurry. One amazing image, and that’s all it really takes to win an international competition.
Yet Clothier did not have high expectations. He had already participated in the Natural Museum of London competition in 2020, winning “Highly Commended” recognition for his “Ends of the Earth” photo.
Why should things be different in 2021?
“I didn’t really have any expectations,” Clothier admitted. “I knew I was against the world, and there are so many photographers doing amazing things. I didn’t think a guy from Montana who goes out in the woods and hangs out with animals would have a chance to do it. . win a competition like this. “
Then he learned that his photo, “Grizzly Remains” had won the photographer of the year award in the “Animals in their environment” category.
There was no call from London, no surprise congratulations from a dignitary or celebrity. The message arrived in an email.
“They sent an email,” Clothier recalled, essentially “Congratulations you are a winner”. Just an email. “
Although the recognition comes with a cash award, Zack and Clothier and Cortney Clothier were denied the excitement of traveling to London to receive his award due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Last year Kate Middleton (Duchess of York) announced the winners. That’s how prestigious this competition is,” Zack noted. “Kate didn’t call me.”
Yet the accolades are sure to go a long way towards global recognition as a small town Montana nature photographer. “
“I’m definitely getting noticed more now,” Clothier said. “I have received emails from all over the world from people wishing to purchase prints of the coin.”
David Murray is a natural resources / agriculture reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or ideas for articles; email [email protected] or call (406) 403-3257. To preserve quality and in-depth journalism in north-central Montana subscribe to the Great Falls Tribune.