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The Guy We All Wanted To Know—And Count As Our Friend

David J. Swift dies suddenly in Jackson Hole and we remember his everlasting spirit

As the doleful mantra goes, bad news travels fast, terrible news at blinding speed, first by disbelieving word of mouth and then, when details are confirmed, as they were by the Jackson Hole News & Guide and shared online in the early evening hours of Tuesday, January 16, 2018, the verification of what we never expected to hear spilled out publicly like this:

“David J Swift, who documented Jackson Hole’s residents and social events with his lens, died Tuesday. He was 69. Swift was cross-country skiing alone in Grand Teton National Park when he apparently collapsed along Teton Park Road about a mile north of the Taggart-Bradley trailhead.”

Quickly, gut-punch sadness permeated.

I say this emphatically, without exaggeration, that in 33 years of being a professional journalist, seldom have I met an individual who was more universally beloved in a community where he lived. This is saying something, because David J Swift interacted prolifically, moving effortlessly and inconspicuously among people who, because of their politics, find themselves at odds with each other.

Swift was more than a good friend to many and a one-of-a-kind visual pollinator, documenting for posterity how a living community like Jackson Hole gathers across a span of 40 years. He could have run for mayor in his adopted hometown and won handily.

David became one of Mountain Journal’s founding stable of columnists and he provocatively titled his intended installments,Trigger Warning. I had known him since 1986. He emerged from retirement and over the last few months we had a stream of conversations, over the phone, in person in both Bozeman and Jackson, and via social media, the latter typically piqued by something wickedly droll he posted on Facebook.

David was working on several new columns simultaneously, he told me last week, feeling stirred up by current events, though he had been waylaid somewhat by a visit to California to help look after his mother. 

No one saw this coming. 

American landscape painter Kathryn Turner, a valley native, may have been the last person to see David alive. They stopped to chat on the trail while skiing in the bending light of the afternoon. Beside them rose the snow-sheathed Tetons.

“Yesterday when I was skiing,” Kathryn wrote on Facebook, “I was fortunate to find a treasured friend on the track. David J. Swift.  We talked about the blessings in our lives—family, friendship and all that is beautiful. With David, it takes no time to get to the heart of things. That’s because he wore his on his sleeve and shared it generously with everyone. I could have never known that, as I was skating back to the trailhead, he had collapse on the track behind me. I am devastated by this thought. Still I want to report to all those who loved David like I did, yesterday, he was happy and strong—soaking up the sunshine and views of the mountains that never seemed so tall. He shared his glittering, abundant love of this valley and those in his life until the very end.”

° ° °

Peruse David J Swift’s Facebook page and you’ll quickly appreciate his formidable talent as both a photographer and sardonic social commentator who, even in the most intense moments of modern life, he could uncork a perfect zinger that delivered levity.  But even more important than gaining a sense of how he assessed things, go there now to fully grasp how much he was genuinely loved, how his friendships involved all different kinds of people, young and old. In his photographs and his presence, he made you feel better.

Read Christian Beckwith’s moving tribute. Or Priscilla Marden’s. Or Christine Langdon's. Or Tamara Ashbury King's. Or TarZan Campbell offering a note about that time David took his photograph when he appeared in the film Mountain Men, starring Charleton Heston and Brian Keith and filmed in Jackson Hole in 1979. 

Swift and his photographs were threads of our own interpersonal connection.

Profound is the number of people posting pictures—of photographs David had taken of them, or their children, weddings, social shindigs, fundraising events, dance recitals, picnics, commemorating them, like sweet valentines of look-you-in-the-eye-recognition that you exist. His portraits done for Dancer's Workshop over the years are nothing less than masterpieces. Companies sought him out for contract work because they knew he had a sightline to impact.
One of David J. Swift many classics captured for the ages. Here, years ago, he took a photo of a special guest musician—Bob Dylan— joining Billy Briggs, player in the Stagecoach Band.  The moment was documented for posterity in a gig at Turpin Meadow Ranch.
One of David J. Swift many classics captured for the ages. Here, years ago, he took a photo of a special guest musician—Bob Dylan— joining Billy Briggs, player in the Stagecoach Band. The moment was documented for posterity in a gig at Turpin Meadow Ranch.
To give MoJo readers from outside Jackson Hole a tiny sense of who David was, we did a little Q and A before his inaugural and only column (which appropriately was about unconscious, unreflective bias—poison of the tribal age).

In that interview, he said of his coming to Greater Yellowstone:  “In 1976, following a two-week assignment in Jackson, I surveyed the valley with the exquisite wisdom of any 27-year-old and declared it ‘Little Big Town.’ A surfer of Compton, California, I decided to stick it out the next winter to learn to ski. Forty-one years later, ‘Little Big Town’ seems on the mark.” Read the rest of that short conversation here.  

David Swift, surfer boy? Indeed, given his vivaciousness, you could imagine that earlier iteration of Swifty. The paradox of David was how much comforting presence he exerted for a guy who preferred standing at the edge of a room, watching. He was bashful, semi-soft-spoken, self-effacing. He wasn’t pretty-boy cool though he did have that thick coif of slightly stylishly-disheveled hair; think of him as one of the Beatles pre-Sgt. Pepper's, perhaps John Lennon or George Harrison, with the ability to deliver straight-faced clever broadsides so masterful they continued to resonate after you picked yourself off the floor. But they were never cheap. 

As a photographer, Swift was acclaimed, though it was hard for him to soak praise in; he was good at deflecting. He studied filmmaking, journalism, and photography at Compton College and California State University—Long Beach. He served on the staff of the Jackson Hole News as a photographer and reporter and founded Atomic Digital, a full-service design, photography, marketing, and pre-press facility. There wasn’t a non-profit in Jackson Hole who didn’t know him or of him—when he showed up and photographed events or was enlisted to do a portrait, they were always distinct, emanating the mood, personality, or character of a person or place.

Few in the valley probably realized how revered he was beyond it.  He contributed to distant newspapers, magazines and other marquee publications, including The New York TimesSports Illustrated, MotorcyclistFortunePeople, and closer to home, Big Sky JournalTeton HomeLuxury Living, and Jackson Hole Magazine. He photographed most of the best-selling book Cowboy High Style. He has written, directed, and produced many 30-second television commercials and has received producer credit for two award-winning short films: Killpecker: Origins (a mountaineering satire) and Highway 22 Revisited (a documentary on the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson).

He also took a photograph that is the stuff of local legend—of a visiting Bob Dylan playing with Bill Briggs and the Stagecoach Band. David himself was a musician, playing bass in some bands and sometimes filling in with others. He delighted in telling folks that he was part of Ronnie and the Recessions.
Among the many bands Swift joined over the years was the legendary Stagecoach Band of Wilson, Wyoming. Left to right:  David J. Swift, John Sidle, Brent Moyer, Christine Langdon, Bill Briggs, John Byrne Cooke, and Buddy Thompson. Photo courtesy Christine Langdon
Among the many bands Swift joined over the years was the legendary Stagecoach Band of Wilson, Wyoming. Left to right: David J. Swift, John Sidle, Brent Moyer, Christine Langdon, Bill Briggs, John Byrne Cooke, and Buddy Thompson. Photo courtesy Christine Langdon
Jonathan Selkowitz, the noted outdoor adventure photographer, expressed his admiration. “David made us smarter and happier. He was a great friend to so many. We spent a lot of time working and recreating together. Of all the memories, it is the in-between moments such as car rides and random conversations that stand out most.”

To a person, this is how it went with David Swift.  Shared Brian Siegfried via Facebook: “I wasn't in Jackson Hole but a month when David J Swift took my picture atop Spring Creek Ranch. It was 1992 and I was working as a bellman. The wedding David was shooting was so small they needed me as a witness. I'm holding the rings in this picture. It was the start of our friendship and first of many weddings we worked together as he hired me as an assistant shortly thereafter. Later we started Jackson's first online newspaper, JHLocal.com, together and I treasure the memories of that collaboration and all the witty, precise and plain old funny writing of his I read right out of the tap. And talk about leaving behind a body of work. How many million photos did David take? How many written words on how many journals, newspapers, web sites ... I enjoyed them all. Jackson Hole will not be the same without you.”
Portrait of David Swift by Gregory Zeigler.  Explains Zeigler of his subject and the moment: "The guy who had the courage to shoot Swifty up close w/out a zoom while he was wielding a chainsaw."
Portrait of David Swift by Gregory Zeigler. Explains Zeigler of his subject and the moment: "The guy who had the courage to shoot Swifty up close w/out a zoom while he was wielding a chainsaw."
Had Swift wanted to be a celebrity bigshot lens man, an artiste exuding airs for egotistical reputation effect, and desired a loft in Soho, he could have; he had the talent to, but he so eschewed the limelight and trappings of artifice that he would rather be a nobody. Here, he was the somebody we were all glad to know and besides, he could never fathom life beyond Jackson Hole though he toyed with and perpetually rejected flocking with snowbirds.

This place was, after all, a valley where you could spend the afternoon gliding along the foot of the Tetons with nary another around.

It was at the then-Jackson Hole News where I met David and it was there where he enjoyed his most devoted cult following—by colleagues lucky enough to work near him.

David had left the paper by the time I arrived in the valley but he remained a fixture in our newsroom. To gain a reference for what I’m talking about, bring up David with Diane Benefiel, Dava Zucker or Cammie Pyle, Paul Bruun or Bert Raynes, Mike Sellett (who owned the paper then), Mary Lohuis, Tim Sandlin, Mary Gerty, Connie Wieneke, Rich Viola, Teresa Thomas, Kathy Olson, or Marylee White. It was an astoundingly passionate group of people who today are counted among the old-guardists of community memory.

“David was critical in helping bring the Jackson Hole News to national attention for its photo use and reproduction in the late 1970s. He was both a photographer and pre-press technician, top-notch in both fields,” says Angus M. Thuermer Jr. the longtime managing editor of the News who today is a correspondent for Wyofile.
Swift on assignment: A White House photographer took this picture of Swift and Keith Benefiel exchanging wit with President Bill Clinton when he visited Jackson Hole in the 1990s.
Swift on assignment: A White House photographer took this picture of Swift and Keith Benefiel exchanging wit with President Bill Clinton when he visited Jackson Hole in the 1990s.
“He was perceptive — a talented photographer and social critic. He was the definition of a professional photographer and could shoot any assignment, from documentary photojournalism to sports, wedding, events or real estate. When writing, he observed things with acuity and put them in a unique Swiftian perspective. Anybody who had Swift's byline in a publication, his name on a masthead or in a photo credit, had spice.” 

For a few years, David wrote a column for the News called “Pop Cult”; it was so incisive, and in the age prior to the present when Siri answers every question for us as if we're Lt. Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise talking to a wall computer.

Swift, without aid, was resourceful, routinely congealing a constellation of cultural information—he could effortlessly reference Noam Chomsky, Ayn Rand, Gilligan’s Island, Proust, the Bee Gees, f-stops, Edward Abbey, Richard Nixon, the Bronte Sisters, Johnny Cash or the emerging gravitas of internet prophet John Perry Barlow of Pinedale—in a couple of paragraphs, pulling their seemingly discombobulated oblique congruency together and leaving you realizing how damned deceivingly smart, and well-read, he was. Again, this was long before the arrival of Google. He channeled, with mirth, what we ought to pay attention to and he reminded us why it's important to laugh at ourself.
I remember a conversation that played out between David and the late John Byrne Cooke in the Wort Hotel's Silver Dollar Bar. It started with Cooke riffing about his time as manager of Janis Joplin but turned into a connect-the-dots clinic on the formation, breakup and composition of 100 different bands going back to the Sixties.

It would be improper to shade David in political terms, other than to note he belonged to the tribe who cheered for underdogs, who had no respect for the status quo, the brainwashing of anesthetizing consumerism or those who had no passion for the environment. That’s why he lived here.

“Most people have very admirable traits,” said David’s good friend, Jackson Hole attorney Bob Schuster. “People would say David was a gifted photographer. Yes, he was. He was bright, curious. But it wasn’t as if he was a guy, some Pollyanna person with a smile on his face. He was a very serious man, constructive, upbeat. And happy. Sometimes those descriptions are used to describe somebody fatuously. He was anybody but that. He just had a presence about him. He was just very gifted at being a human being and few people are. He made interaction better for the people he was with.”

One of Swift's closest amigos, a blood brother who accompanied him on front and backcountry forays, was photographer Ted Wood, who also worked at the Jackson Hole News. They made mischief and together chronicled absurdity with their cameras. “David had the spirit of a child, endlessly inquisitive, always looking for the beauty and grace in everyone he met,” Ted, heartbroken, said this week as he and David’s former partner, Colleen Thompson gathered at David’s apartment. Colleen during their time together helped David find organization in his creativity. Though they weren't married, they fondly referred to each other as "spousal equivalents."

“For me he was a champion of light, of the absurd, and a constant reminder that everyone has an elegance that transcends preconceived notions," Wood said. "David was open to the world, and in turn the world, especially his beloved Jackson Hole, opened to him. David chased the sublime, and if I’m given solace by anything, it was that his last image was of sparkling hoarfrost on a perfect winter day in the Tetons.”

Ted spoke of what they called their “dumb-boy adventures” in the mountains and desert on skis, two tires and hiking trails. “We would see the track followed by most people and decided, wisely or not, we weren’t going that way; whether we were prepared to do it or not. Always, we got into some kind of trouble but were able to escape the reaper a number of times."

After pausing, Ted added, "David was that kind of person you can never imagine not being here.”
Our last glimpse of David Swift. Kathryn Turner took this photo of him as they rendezvoused while cross country skiing in Grand Teton National Park. Photo courtesy Kathryn Turner
Our last glimpse of David Swift. Kathryn Turner took this photo of him as they rendezvoused while cross country skiing in Grand Teton National Park. Photo courtesy Kathryn Turner
On the day he died, David and Kathryn Turner took photos of each other, then went their ways.  He was alone. The image above by Kathryn captures him as he ought to be remembered. 

When David passed through Bozeman last summer, in the build-up to MoJo’s August launch, an intended hour-long dinner lasted four. As Kathryn aptly said, conversations with David would cut to “the heart of things.”

No doubt, Swift would have a tickling, delicious retort to the very thought of his name ever appearing in his own obituary.  So don’t consider this that. Obituaries recite stiff stats but often miss everything else.

The only thing David would have insisted upon here is mentioning something important, the thing, in fact, that mattered most to him.

It involves his son, Dyson, whom he raised together with Colleen. Like Dads do, we shared stories about our young adult children on his last visit to Bozeman; their directions, joys, struggles, and acknowledging our parental yearning for connection and usefulness in their lives. He and I had designs on luring Dyson into our stable of MoJo writers. David thought it might be a collaboration, him illustrating Dyson’s words and emerging voice with his photographs.

It was the sincere, earnest, vulnerable, compassionate soft look that David offered, and the cracking in his voice, that revealed how much he loved his son—how more than anything he looked forward to spending more time with him as a young adult.

When grown men talk of such things, about our kids as they are trying to figure out who they are, us not wanting to offer unsolicited advice, or pre-empt their learning and occasional painful discoveries that await, sometimes we tear up. And then we look at each other and, as everyone in Jackson Hole did with David, we laugh. That’s what happened.

To me, David J Swift was like a community’s treasured and abiding tree-lined park set in the middle of town. It enhances the aesthetic feel and character of a place every day you pass by it, and yet, when it vanishes you feel the unbelievable aching void of its buffering effects. It involves a sense of loss that cannot properly ever be expressed in words. To seek the everlasting spirit of Swift, now we can only look—and find it—in his photos. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: As a gift to both Dyson and David's daughter, Heather, visit David J Swift's Facebook page and let them know what you thought of their Dad.
Embrace the mystery: Swift called after the eclipse and described it as a profoundly meaningful experience, especially because it was shared with his son, Dyson, who took this photo of his Dad. David gladly circulated it on social media with this description:  "Dyson shot me brandishing my moue of wonder and a hybrid flare-shoo."
Embrace the mystery: Swift called after the eclipse and described it as a profoundly meaningful experience, especially because it was shared with his son, Dyson, who took this photo of his Dad. David gladly circulated it on social media with this description: "Dyson shot me brandishing my moue of wonder and a hybrid flare-shoo."
Just a sampling of some memorable recent photographs taken by David Swift in the last several months of his life. Captions in his own words:
"Castle Geyser geysering all over the place. — at Yellowstone National Park."
"Castle Geyser geysering all over the place. — at Yellowstone National Park."
"No, hey, really, this is how the colors looked. #beachcombing — at Mendocino Coast."
"No, hey, really, this is how the colors looked. #beachcombing — at Mendocino Coast."
"Rothko-ing again. Sorry about the gaudy colors but It shows off those big lines that separate color fields. I call this cheesy technique The Maxfield Parrish. #rothko — at Grand Teton National Park."
"Rothko-ing again. Sorry about the gaudy colors but It shows off those big lines that separate color fields. I call this cheesy technique The Maxfield Parrish. #rothko — at Grand Teton National Park."
"Happy Day'o'Birth to Derrik Hufsmith who has been a delivery system of the brightest, funniest and most rewarding moments of my life. That is, the moments that happened in full view of a large crowd as we stood naked on stage, at it were, trying to coax the partygoers into flexing their limbs and spines a bit more.  This image is a portion of a composite I created to capture the man's willful schizophrenia. (Poignantly, Derrik's nerd character, created for our Baby Boomers novelty act, was part Jerry Lewis whom we just lost.) Here's to the region's most fiery and versatile performer."
"Happy Day'o'Birth to Derrik Hufsmith who has been a delivery system of the brightest, funniest and most rewarding moments of my life. That is, the moments that happened in full view of a large crowd as we stood naked on stage, at it were, trying to coax the partygoers into flexing their limbs and spines a bit more. This image is a portion of a composite I created to capture the man's willful schizophrenia. (Poignantly, Derrik's nerd character, created for our Baby Boomers novelty act, was part Jerry Lewis whom we just lost.) Here's to the region's most fiery and versatile performer."
"Hey, what's with the unrest up there?"
"Hey, what's with the unrest up there?"
"Early morning at Pine Creek Falls, Montana, with color tweaked to make you shiver."
"Early morning at Pine Creek Falls, Montana, with color tweaked to make you shiver."

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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