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Long Journey To A Masterpiece

Bozeman photographer Jake Mosher wins prestigious prize for his portrayal of Yellowstone River following enigmatic path that led him back to nature's beauty

Jake Mosher of Bozeman was awarded a top photography prize in 2020 for this portrait of the Yellowstone River with the Absarokas and cosmos above. Photo courtesy Jake Mosher
Jake Mosher of Bozeman was awarded a top photography prize in 2020 for this portrait of the Yellowstone River with the Absarokas and cosmos above. Photo courtesy Jake Mosher

By Todd Wilkinson

Fellow New Englander Horace Greeley completed his newspaper apprenticeship in Vermont, but it wasn’t Greeley’s controversial slogan that convinced Jake Mosher to seek out the Rockies.

"I grew up in Northern Vermont, and when I was about five years old saw a photo of a man holding up a string of trout with large, snow-capped mountains in the background. I got it in my head that it was taken in Montana, and was determined, from that moment, to live out West,” he says.

That inspiration has, in turn due to a series of meandering events, proved to be fortuitous for us, too. It eventually led Mosher to take the award-winning photograph above you now—a mesmerizing image of the Absaroka Mountains, set in front of the Yellowstone River with the Milky Way above. The image titled “Cold Night on the Yellowstone” recently took home top prize in the National Wildlife Federation’s 2020 landscape division.  The federation referred to Mosher, who lives in Bozeman as an "astral photographer,"  appellation he doesn’t mind in the least.

But, to continue the story of how Mosher became a Greater Yellowstone inhabitant, his involved a decision that has applied to many, across generations, over the years.  “As my name was being read at my college graduation - literally - I was hauling ass for the Big Sky state in a beat-up 1981 Ford Tempo with everything of note that I owned, namely a rifle, shotgun, a crude Brother word processor, and dreams of being the next great Montana novelist packed inside,” he said.

Nature photographer Jake Mosher
Nature photographer Jake Mosher
Settling in that literary hub known as Butte, he by necessity put his journalism degree on the back burner and got a job cutting timber for a boss whose crew was otherwise comprised of all pre-release inmates. For Mosher, it was part of the process that used to be called “paying one’s dues,” learning that the non-pampered, non-leisure-time focused existence of gaining experience, hard earned, was far more valuable than the low wages. 

‘It was incredible life experience, but after a year of living in a 1950s delivery-van-turned-trailer, trying to write short fiction, I applied to and was excepted to the University of Montana School,” he says. “It was a brief moment of weakness, one quickly dispelled when I hit on the idea for my first novel. I signed back on for another year in the woods, spent a winter as a semi-pro club boxer, grew more accustomed to sharing my "home" with a packrat, and very slowly began learning how to write.”

Wait a minute. What’s that you said, we asked Mosher, semi-pro club boxer? 

Yes, and we’ll get to that too.

Eight years later, with a pair of books to his name, he admits that “the starving artist lifestyle had again worn thin.”

So he, of course, did the obvious natural thing.  “I packed up, with not much more than I'd taken when I left Vermont, and drove straight through to Nashville, where I spent eight months working construction. And then one day in September when it was just a touch cooler out it occurred to me that 1600 miles west there was an elk bugling. I was gone before nightfall, hiring on with an explosives company servicing the Golden Sunlight Mine in Whitehall.”

Let’s assess those touchstones again: Comes to Montana aspiring to write the next great American novel. Signs on to a timber crew with inmates, tries to bolster his wages as a box, heads to Nashville to work construction and then returns to set off TNT. “The work came naturally to me - what guy doesn't like blowing things up"

With that valuable experience, Mosher in 2007 learned of a management position in eastern Montana and jumped at the opportunity for career advancement. “For ten years, I ran all blasting operations at the Crow Native American-owned Absaloka Coal Mine near Hardin,” he says. “For that decade, while I kept the ATFE [federal Bureau of Alcohol-Tobacco-Firearms-Explosives] happy, worried about swings in the stock market and 401k contributions, and even though I lived debt-free, an inner voice, refusing to remain silent, began gnawing at me. My soul simply wasn't content.”

Seeking guidance for what to do next, he drove to the top of the Beartooth Highway in 2017, “and beside a small, no-name pond where brook trout rose for the occasional fly, I decided to walk away from it all, throwing myself headlong into photography,” he says. “It was the perfect way for me to spend more time in the places that I love most and to share what I hope is a unique vision of the beauty that surrounds all of us, particularly when we get off the beaten path.”

Intrigued, I had the exchange, below, with the newly-minted award-winning astral photographer.
"Moonset Over Lone Peak" by Jake Mosher
"Moonset Over Lone Peak" by Jake Mosher
MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: Some photographs are truly timeless and fall into the category of masterpieces. Tell us about your award-winning image. Did it just happen or did you pre-visualize it?

JAKE MOSHER: So many of the images that I'm most pleased with involve more luck than they do planning. I knew what I wanted to capture when I drove to the Yellowstone in the middle of the night in terms of a general photo, but I couldn't have predicted the wonderful river of fog that adds so much to this scene. Sometimes what I see and what my camera reveals don't line up, but in this instance, when I looked at the finished photograph, I thought, "Yes. That's what I saw. I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time."

MOJO: In life, no experience whether filled with exaltation or pain, consciously processed or stuffed, goes to waste. You've been willing to take turns down new paths. As one might say you've come a long way from Vermont. What did your industrial work, as an explosives specialist employed by a mining and coal company, teach you?

"Eternal Season" by Jake Mosher
"Eternal Season" by Jake Mosher
MOSHER: If my soul isn't happy doing what I'm doing, and by happy I mean truly excited for tomorrow, challenged with solvable problems, and looking forward to seeing something entirely different on a regular basis, then money and job security mean very little. I was fortunate to work with some super people in the explosives business, gained a great deal of managerial confidence, and hopefully built a small nest egg, but what I'm most thankful for is the realization that wild places, pristine nature, and country that doesn't often hear the footfalls of human beings is where I'm happiest. It was an epiphany that came all at once as I contemplated two futures - one known and stable and safe and the other risky as hell but beckoning in a way I simply couldn't resist. To paraphrase another New England artist, the road less traveled is really what makes the difference.

MOJO:  Before we continue, tell us about your tender in the ring.

MOSHER: As for the fighting, I have always been competitive. I was a college baseball player and fought Golden Gloves when I was younger. When the club boxing scene became popular in Butte, it was a way for me to earn some extra, winter income. One season of it was enough for me, being 30 years old, but it was fun and I emerged with most of brain cells still firing.

MOJO: At what point did the camera come into your life. What role did it play? How would you describe your relationship with it?  And were there pivotal moments that convinced you to take up photography as a serious professional pursuit? 

MOSHER: My first camera was a Polaroid that I got when I was 10, and I burned through all the film in fifteen minutes. I've always been intrigued with a camera's ability to preserve a fleeting moment in time, and perhaps more to preserve a moment unique to a photographer's perspective. I think good photographers show a lot of themselves and their world view through their photos. I bought my first "professional" camera in 2012 without any intention of continuing with photography as more than a hobby. But I've got a competitive, seeking nature and eventually saw photography as a path to hunting year round. 

Searching for those elusive, perfect moments in the outdoors, I distinctly remember the first photo I took that nudged me to consider photography as a career. It was a star trails image I shot in Northern Vermont and looking at it I realized it was something no one had ever seen before and even to me— a harsh critic of my own work— it had unique aesthetics. I could imagine someone saying, "Hey, I'd like to hang that on my wall."
"Beehive Lake at Moonlight" by Jake Mosher
"Beehive Lake at Moonlight" by Jake Mosher
MOJO: Earth and sky figure prominently in your work, especially the ethereal convergence between western topography and celestial cosmos. Getting a great picture isn't easy. What are you looking for, what are you hoping to see?

MOSHER: I often have a very vivid "photo" in my mind that I want my camera to represent. The trick becomes capturing the real-time image as I envision it, and that has been a process of trial and error. Another challenge is taking a "great" photo that is also marketable. Capturing a jumping spider with its baby positioned between its front legs is a great shot, but it's not the type of thing I'm going to be able to sell as wall art. The reality of it is most people have a fairly narrow list of images they'd be willing to cover precious wall space with. What I'm trying to do... what I'm hoping to create with my photos is art

MOJO: Okay, riff a bit more on that.

MOSHER: I mean to not be so far "outside the box" that my work is art but only interesting from some technical standpoint. Instead, I want it to be something unique to me but with enough conventional aesthetic appeal to help me earn a living. Western landscapes with their expansive horizons and natural beauty lend themselves to my astro work. I love the way I can produce a perspective that shows connection between the terrestrial and celestial, between what is sometimes very small and what is extremely vast. I like thinking that my best photos convey a little of the magic that I believe persists in the universe. Looking into the night sky, I hope we don't unravel all of its mysteries, because for me that's part of its beauty.  
"Celestial Rainbow" by Jake Mosher
"Celestial Rainbow" by Jake Mosher
MOJO: Special places have their own kind of carrying capacity before their essence is destroyed by development or too many people. We all have our own places that speak to our souls. Many of your panos are epics and some feature places that can handle more human presence. What do you make of the movement to have GPS coordinates removed from photos that are posted on social media?

MOSHER: I hate to say it, but I'm afraid that in this day and age we have to manage increasingly for the lowest common denominator. It only takes a few people who don't respect the environment to cause catastrophic harm to a fragile location. People have defaced pictographs, destroyed natural arches, started untold wildfires, and polluted places like the Beaten Path in the Beartooth Range to the point where you've got to filter human waste from the water. Much of the thrill for me in the wilderness is discovering places on my own, and I'm inclined to let others do the same. There are enough GPS and satellite imagery programs out there to give a good jumping-off point without needing photos with exact locations embedded. That said, I'm not sure coordinates need to be regulated beyond a personal preference, but people need to be aware that sharing with all is very different than sharing with some. I'm generally happy to share shooting locations with people who reach out personally, but I'm hesitant to provide road maps to the masses. 
"Field of Dreams" by Jake Mosher
"Field of Dreams" by Jake Mosher
MOJO: How does photography speak to your values and love of nature? Do you believe that photography can move people to care more?

MOSHER: We don't protect what we don't care about. And for many of us, we are unaware of the beauty that nature holds, sometimes right out our backdoors. One of my hopes is that through my photos people will gain awareness that this natural world around us is a special, beautiful place well worth protecting. If an image gets someone to stop, even for a moment, and think about the environment in a new light then it has served a purpose more enduring than simply providing something pretty to look at. In a world that has always been a challenging place for artists, where success and financial independence may not run parallel, opening someone's eyes is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. 

EDITOR’S NOTE: To see more of Mosher’s remarkable collectible images click here.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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