On photo safari with Jodeen Stephenson
Vail, CO, Colorado
It’s 4 in the morning ” so dark that when you open your eyes, it feels like you still have them closed. Then, the night’s stillness is rent with a terrifying roar. Jodeen Stephenson and her husband, Robert, know that they’d be foolish to emerge from the tent just then, and a guide’s light proves them correct. A trio of lions, just feet from their tent, are attacking a cape buffalo.
Instead of hiding deeper under the covers and praying for daylight, what does this intrepid photographer do? She grabs her camera, while her husband goes for the video camera, and the two jump into a jeep with safari guides to get a better look … and a few prime shots. The result is a riveting, but chill-provoking picture of lion, fresh from the kill, staring straight at the photographer and her camera.
Those shots are now part of an impressive collection of photographs by Jodeen, who teaches art and gifted education at Eagle Valley Elementary School. She has a passion for photographic art.
This month, several of Stephenson’s impressive wildlife photos, along with her dreamy landscape photos, are on display at the Eagle Public Library.
The collection is printed directly onto canvas and stretched on frames, giving it the look of paint on canvas. The diverse collection, several years in the making, shows Stephenson’s wide artistic range.
There’s sharp, lifelike images of wildlife caught in brief moments and exotic surroundings. The images include giraffes, zebras, and water bucks in Africa, a pair of dueling igua as and a brilliant Blue-footed Booby from the Galapagos Islands.
Then, there are landscapes, several captured right around this valley, from the Flattops to the Eagle River. Some are so surreal that they are almost impressionistic. The flowering lily pads from the Botanic gardens in Steamboat are refreshing in their simplicity; and her picture of cottonwoods frosted with fresh snow is stunning.
Everywhere there is a blaze of color and captivating images; but it is Stephenson’s approach to her art that sets it apart.
“I like a very graphic image,” explains Stephenson of her work. But sometimes, she adds, she likes to take that image to the abstract to capture the emotion of the moment as well.
For instance, her photograph of an aspen grove seems to shimmer and shift, making the colors far more vibrant and alive. “I’m trying to get a feeling,” she says.
Doing so goes against years of training, she admits. “In art school, everything had to be absolutely perfect,” recalls Stephenson, who has a degree in art education. “This is more expressive.” She has image perfect pictures of the same aspen grove, but, she says, “there’s no story.”
And Stephenson, who also occasionally writes stories to accompany her photographs for journals, likes to tell a story with her art. Another example is her abstracts of an elephant, taken at very close range and then divided into body part shots – an unbelievably dexterous trunk here, a beautifully lashed eye there.
Sometimes, her best work comes about almost accidentally. For instance, one day she was set on capturing a landscape, but even after waiting, it kept raining. So, she decided to go with the flow, and now she has an entire wonderful series of emotive rain photos. “Instead of fighting the rain, I let it take me in a whole new direction,” she recalls.
Another time, she saw the alpenglow hovering over the mountaintops while driving from Yampa. She pulled over and snapped the picture with an inexpensive portable camera. It remains one of her favorites.
“It’s serendipity,” says Stephenson of those moments.
Setting up the shot correctly is only a part of being a photographer. Stephenson has learned patience “there’s a lot of sitting and waiting involved in taking good photos. Typically, she shoots 30-40 pictures of the scene she is trying to capture. Still, she explains, most of the best picture opportunities happen in a flash of an eye ” if she blinks, she’ll miss it.
For instance, there is a shot of a violet-breasted roller bird soaring over a rock, feathers shimmering brilliantly in the sun, a perfect shadow cast below.
“It looks like it was hovering,” Stephenson says. It was a one in a million shot.
Even more of a surprise is her picture of a movie-set lush jungle extending over a valley beyond. In the forefront, a baboon stares calmly at the camera, as if posing. But he had actually suddenly appeared out of nowhere, surprising Stephenson, whose quick fingers and eye still managed to capture the shot. She also has a dramatic shot of crabs scampering away from a crashing wave ” again, an unpredictable shot.
A number of Stephenson’s photos are taken in Africa. The wildlife is habituated to the coming and going of safari vehicles, admits Stephenson. A leopard even walked right underneath their jeep one day.
Stephenson’s passion for photography dates back to childhood, when her mother first handed her an old box camera.
Her parents recognized and encouraged her talent. By middle school, she spent afternoons locked in the bathroom printing and experimenting with her photos.
Today, her camera is always her companion.
Stephenson and her husband, Robert, travel during the summers. This year, they will spend a month in Africa, which has become their favorite destination. They’ve visited Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Robert, an avid bow hunter, likes to go on safaris to hunt. Stephenson tags along to view wildlife and take photos. They also love to just travel around and see the county and meet the inhabitants.
“You see stunning vistas … without power lines,” she observes.
The people also draw them back to Africa year after year.
“The people there don’t have a lot, but they are the happiest, warmest, most generous people I’ve ever met,” she says. Even though they may have a meager hut and barely enough food to keep their families alive, the Africans are quick to offer food to strangers.
Stephenson dreams of moving to Africa. But right now, that dream will have to wait a bit. Stephenson and her husband are currently relocating to Hotchkiss. She is taking a leave of absence from teaching to travel and concentrate on her photography.
After they travel to Africa, the Stphensons will return home to Colorado for two months, then head to Morocco. Later in the year, they will trek to New Zealand.
Stephenson, who has worked for the Eagle County school district for nearly 17 years, is now poised to make a potentially life changing decision. During her year’s leave of absence she plans to create a larger collection of her work so she can pursue her art in earnest. After a year, she will have to decide whether to return to teaching, or turn artist full time.
“I want to see if it’s a pipe dream,” she says.
Visit her display at the library, and judge for yourself.
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Are we seeing more bears because there are more bears on the valley floor, or because we’re all spending more time at home? It could be a bit of both.