Capturing the American West, One Frame at a Time

Photographer Norman Riley has been spending his summer exploring Glacier National Park as its artist-in-residence

By Justin Franz
Glacier National Park artist-in-residence Norman Riley, pictured July 30, 2015. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

WEST GLACIER – Norman Riley has been attracting a lot of attention recently in Glacier National Park.

Frankly, it’s been hard not to spot the 61-year-old photographer from Bellingham, Washington with his massive 8-by-10, large-format camera, perched atop a sturdy metal tripod. For the last month, Riley has been exploring Glacier as the park’s artist-in-residence.

Every summer for the last decade, the National Park Service has invited an artist to stay in Glacier and work in the park for four weeks. In the past, painters, writers and photographers have all spent time in a cabin on the shores of Lake McDonald.

Riley, who has been a photographer since the 1970s, said he first visited Glacier last summer and knew instantly that he wanted to partake in the artist program.

“Glacier is such a majestic place,” he said. “The mountains and landscape are just astonishing and I say that coming from the Cascades, which is pretty, too, but this place is just amazing.”

Riley began shooting portraits on 35mm film but later moved to still life when he made the jump to large format photography. He said shooting motionless subjects was a lot easier with a massive 8-by-10 camera that often needs more than a few seconds to capture an image. Later he moved on to landscapes and that has been his primary focus for a number of years as he tries to create a body of work in the same style as Ansel Adams.

Adams was well known for his work in national parks and he made a trip to Glacier in 1942. One of the spots Adams photographed was the south end of Lake McDonald. Riley said he recently visited the same spot and recreated the image. He won’t know how the new version compares to the original until he returns home and processes the image in his dark room.

Courtesy Glacier National Park artist-in-residence Norman Riley
Courtesy Glacier National Park artist-in-residence Norman Riley

Riley’s days have started in much the same fashion since he arrived on July 5. He wakes up, has a cup of coffee and is out the door looking for new locations and photographic opportunities.

“Sometimes I know exactly what I’m looking for but on most days I’m exploring and looking for the right shot,” he said. “I’ve tried to find some unique views.”

While Riley has spent plenty of time driving up and down Going-to-the-Sun Road, he’s also got off the pavement to hike. He recently visited the Granite Park Chalet, no easy task when you’re lugging a tripod, large-format camera, lenses and film.

Riley was expecting to return with nearly 475 photographs covering about 100 different scenes after this summer. He said if he comes away with three or four “outstanding” images he would be happy. Riley often sets up for one photo and will wait hours for the clouds to be in the right formation or the light to be in the right spot before pressing the shutter.

Riley could take many more images with a digital camera, but he chooses to shoot black-and-white film because he enjoys the process of developing the film. He said 8-by-10 film also yields sharper and richer images than a digital camera.

“It’s a lot of work, but the results are just outstanding,” he said.

Some of Riley’s images from his time in Glacier will be on display at museums in Canada and the United States, including the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell. He said that photography has been important in promoting Glacier Park since its creation and hopes his images from this summer will add to that long tradition.

“I hope the images (I create this summer) contribute to the important visual record of this park,” he said.

To see more of Riley’s work, visit www.normanrileyphotography.com.

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