Shoot first, inspire questions later

From seeking out rare wildlife encounters to finding his voice in the conservation movement, nature photographer John E. Marriott strives to make the correct exposure on the animals he loves while simultaneously exposing their plight to the public.

In June of 1993, John Marriott figured he had something special in his Pentax ME Super. He’d just been photographing grizzly bears near Marmot Basin and he couldn’t wait to develop the film.

“It was a beautiful female grizzly with two cubs. I was super excited,” the Canmore-based photographer recalled.

When he got back to the darkroom in Banff, however, Marriott saw that his shots weren’t sharp. He hadn’t properly tracked the bears’ movement with his manually-focussing camera and the results were blurry. He was disappointed.

“I realized my gear was holding me back,” he said.

Twenty-four years later, camera gear has come a long way. But far more than just upgrading his quiver, in the last two decades Marriott has gone from amateur shutterbug to a powerhouse in the nature photography industry. His images of Canadian wildlife—be it through his best-selling books, magazine covers or his original business venture, greeting cards—are among the most widely-distributed and sought-after in the Rockies. His workshops sell out months in advance, and his social media reach is expansive (130K followers on Facebook). That exposure has allowed him to not only share the stories of his favourite furry and feathered subjects, but it has given him a platform from which he can raise awareness of conservation issues.

“For me, the important part of photography is getting information out, whether it’s the grizzly bear trophy hunt or the poisoning of wolves,” he said. “I’m not necessarily going to be the one who makes the overwhelming change but maybe I can inspire some people to help do that.”

Marriott has certainly been spreading the word. He is currently on a tour to promote his new book, Tall Tales, Long Lenses, travelling from Calgary to Vancouver Island with a dozen or so stops in between, including his home town of Salmon Arm, B.C.

In a sense, that’s where Marriott’s interest in photography originally began. When he was six-years-old, Marriott’s parents bought him a Kodak Instamatic camera. He still has an album shot with it, a collection which documents a family trip to the Canadian Rockies wherein a young Marriott captured big horn sheep and black bears on the side of the road.

However it wasn’t until his early 20s, while working for Parks Canada in Banff, that Marriott’s interest in photography began in earnest. Inspired by Calgary wildlife shooters such as Terry Berezan and the Japanese luminary, Michio Hoshino (who was mauled to death while photographing bears in Russia), Marriott spent his days off driving up and down the Bow Valley and Icefields Parkway, looking for wildlife. His big break came in 1997, when he sold a photo of a grizzly bear to Canadian Geographic, but it wasn’t until he got more serious about the business side of photography that he was able to scratch out a living doing it.

“Going pro, besides having a fantastic portfolio of whatever subject you’re passionate about, you’ve got to have some form of business skills,” he said. “That’s what makes the difference.”

Soon, Marriott will be doling out friendly advice to photographers in these parts. On December 12, he will be presenting Tall Tales, Long Lenses to a Jasper audience when he brings his stories of his most memorable wildlife encounters to the Habitat for the Arts (7 p.m.). Then, in January, Marriott will host his annual Jasper National Park winter workshop and tour, bringing five guests to his favourite locations to learn what it takes to spot and photograph some of Jasper’s most elusive and beautiful beasts. Marriott says besides technical tips and composition techniques, he focuses on the ethics of wildlife photography.

“I try to teach my guests to give animals space,” he sad. “The best wildlife encounter is the kind where the animal doesn’t notice we’re there.”

If successful, not only does the photographer have a chance to create an authentic image, but the animal remains undisturbed.

As it turns out, that’s also the conservation message Marriott wants to drive home.

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