Getting out in Durango Country
Photographer’s new book showcases local landscapes, lifescenes

“Dew on Lupine,” an image from Claude Steelman’s latest book, Durango Country.

by Jules Masterjohn

From the dangerous to the benign, Claude Steelman has photographed it all. Waist deep in the rushing waters that die-hard kayakers love or fully submerged in a quiet pool “catching” a shy trout, the Durango photographer experiences water – as well as earth and sky – in all their forms, in pursuit of images that reveal the quintessential Colorado experience.

A self-taught photographer, Steelman hadn’t thought much about it as a profession until one day, some 25 years ago, he walked out of his job at a mining company and never looked back. From there on out, he focused his sights through a camera lens.

Though his familiarity with photography needed exploring, his knowledge of nature did not. Since his childhood, Steelman has loved to be “out in it.” Today he admits, “I feel more comfortable in the wilderness than I do on the highway.”

Born in North Carolina, his family relocated to Florida where he spent his formative years and developed an affinity for the natural environment. It was through bow hunting that Steelman discovered nature, spending hours walking stealthily through grasslands or sitting in groves of trees, waiting quietly. The practice of hunting trained him for a career in wildlife photography. He reflects, “Photography requires the same techniques in getting close to animals that bow hunting does.”

When he was photographing for his last book, Colorado for the First Time, he set out to get some intimate images of fox pups. He constructed a blind and each day moved it a bit closer to the fox den. “After about three days, I had a fox pup come up and start chewing on my shoelace,” he recalls with a chuckle and a glint in his eye.

Steelman was introduced to the Colorado landscape after returning from military service. His sister and her husband owned a dude ranch in Winter Park, and he took a job as a wrangler. There he learned the ropes, literally, of wrangling and fell head over spurs in love with the cowboy mystique. With daily caretaking of the horses and other ranch animals, and proximity to the surrounding wildlife, he gained insight into animal psychology.

“Every animal has a fight or flight response … after spending enough time around certain animals, I can tell when an animal is getting spooked – well, usually.” For those occasions when the term “wildlife” lives up to its name, Steelman carries bear repellent.

The dude ranch experience lent itself to his identification with the cowboy lifestyle, and he spent some time “doing the rodeo thing … roping and riding.” A short-lived hobby, it was primarily his compassion for the animals that steered him away from the rodeo circuit. Or, as he puts it, using his characteristic humble sense of humor, “The reason I could quit rodeo was because I wasn’t very good at it,

A climber surveys the view of Durango from atop a rock spire in “X-Rock climber” by Claude Steelman.

and I was spending as much time in the doctor’s office as I was on the horse.”

His familiarity with horses has taken him a long way in his career as a photographer, enabling him access to places that would be difficult to reach on foot. In order to take some of the photographs for his latest book, Durango Country, Steelman and a friend rode for days into the Weminuche Wilderness.

Horses are one of many forms of transportation that Steelman uses to get to his subjects. “I’ve used snowshoes, cross-country skis, a chair lift, kayak, stagecoach, glider, horse-drawn sleigh, dog sled, train, swimming, walking … oh, and I tripped occasionally through the forest. After getting bifocals last year, I had a hard time adjusting to distances. A few times, I ended up with my face really close to nature.”

The book offers the kinds of images that are Steelman’s specialty – pristine landscapes, wildlife and close-ups. One intimate photo, “Dew on Lupine,” captures a transitory state in the relationship between water and flower. If one is not up and out before sunrise, seeing the perfect spheres of dew edging a lupine’s leaves, will be missed. Steelman is there for us, his camera in hand and his curiosity of mind.

Durango Country also includes images that are part of our community’s life-scenes from celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo, Fourth of July and Taste of Durango. The photos document places and people from Pagosa Springs to Silverton, Vallecito to Mesa Verde. “Making the book was fun because I got to shoot subjects other than animals.”

Now that the book is complete, Steelman is back following his bliss. The last few weeks he has been up by 5:30 a.m. to catch the dew fall on a large spider’s web outside his home.

Nature photography requires – no, demands – patience and perseverance from a photographer. One morning in 20-below temperatures in Yellowstone National Park, he waited for three hours in his car, motor off, shivering, to catch a pack of wolves he had seen a few days earlier. “I still have soup on the headliner of my car from when I threw my soup aside to grab my camera and get the shots. I spent 10 days looking for wolves, and then I had six seconds with them.”

When not in the wilderness these days, Steelman is honing his skills as a wildlife painter. He estimates he has gathered “20 years of good visual references” for spending his later years with brush in hand. Nearly 60 years old, he foresees a time when he may no longer want to spend hours – maybe days – waiting for just the right light or that elusive animal. As he reflects on the future, Steelman muses, “I can just see myself at the nursing home with a bunch of old ladies painting watercolor pictures every afternoon.” •

Claude Steelman’s book is also available at Eco Home Center, Gardenswartz Outdoors, Karyn Gabaldon Fine Art Gallery, Maria’s Bookshop, and Trinkets & Treasures.