Photographer Mike Rawlings has been documenting Vail Valley lives for more than three decades
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EAGLE — At a time when we endlessly document our days with phone cameras, the difference between people who take pictures and professional photographers has never been more apparent.
Anyone can take a great picture on any given day. But scroll through your phone gallery and try to find something that you would want to blow up to life size and hang on your living room wall.
We take lots of pictures, but when a life event happens that we want to remember forever, it’s time to call in a professional such as Mike Rawlings.
“I want to create art for people’s homes,” Rawlings said. “That’s what I can do that a phone can’t do.”
Rawlings has been photographing people in the Vail Valley for more than three decades now — first as a staff photographer for the Vail Trail and then as the owner of the business that bears his name. He has made his living by employing an intangible skill — the ability to see what makes a truly special picture.
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Dreams of being Dr. Rawlings
Growing up in St. Louis, Rawlings’ earliest career aspiration wasn’t to shoot pictures. Rather, around fifth grade, he decided he wanted to become an osteopath. He was a self-described sports nut and he wanted to become a team doctor.
“I thought it would be cool to do knee operations and shoulder operations,” Rawlings said. “What I didn’t figure out was I wasn’t that good of a student.”
By that time had enrolled at the University of Missouri at Columbia to pursue his medical education and had earned respectable, but not spectacular, grades. As he realized that his dream of medical school wasn’t going to happen, he felt a bit adrift. Then Rawlings shared a fateful conversation with a cousin who happened to be an accomplished journalist. Rawlings realized he enjoyed writing and photography and he happened to be enrolled at a university that boasted one of the best journalism programs in the country. He applied to journalism school and didn’t look back.
As he reflects on that decision, Rawlings said photography actually combines two skill sets he picked up from his parents. His dad was an accountant, and math plays an important role in photography with F-stops and light ratios. But Rawlings’ mother had an artistic bent that obviously influenced her son.
Way out West
“My first job out of school was for a newspaper in Gillette, Wyoming,” Rawlings said.
He had just graduated from college when he found out that the Gillette News Record was looking for a new photographer. The previous staff photographer was a Missouri grad, and the paper was so happy with that hire they returned to the school to find a replacement. He sent off his portfolio (by mail, because this was a pre .jpeg era) and flew to Wyoming for an interview. The editor sent him out to shoot photos and write a story, and his work that day earned him the job. His first day was June 1, 1979, and he remained at the paper for five years.
One of his duties was the “Neighbors” column. Drawing on the idea that everyone has a story, Rawlings photographed and wrote a brief story about random people from the community.
“I did that every week for five years,” Rawlings said. That experience proved formative — it taught him communication skills he values to this day.
While he truly enjoyed his time in Gillette, the newspaper — and Rawlings by association — fell victim to the area’s boom and bust history. During a boom, the paper expanded from a five-day-a-week product to a six-day-a-week-product. Additionally, the paper launched color photography. When the economy took a dip, the newspaper had to cut back and Rawlings was laid off.
“I was devastated. I had never gotten laid off from a job in my life,” he said.
Little did he realize that losing that job opened up the opportunity of his lifetime.
Landing in Vail
About the same time that he was laid off from his job in Gillette, Rawlings was scheduled to take a ski vacation with some college buddies who were living in Vail. He called up one of his friends to tell him what happened and cancel the trip. But then his buddy told him the Vail Trail was looking for a new photographer and the vacation was back on. He applied to work at the Trail, and Rawlings started as staff photographer June 1984. He was with the newspaper for seven years, and to this day, people come up to him and talk about how he shot their picture for Street Beat — a staple of the Vail Trail that included a mug shot photo and the subject’s response to a particular question.
“I did Street Beat every week for seven years. That means I met at least five new people every week for seven years,” Rawlings said.
During his Trail tenure, Rawlings shot the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships, numerous World Cup races and countless community events.
“I really do miss being a newspaper photographer. I miss the energy of it. I don’t want to go back to it, though, because it is a young guy’s game,” Rawlings said.
Those years at the Trail were great, though. There were four newspapers in the valley, offering a scrappy news-gathering scene. Rawlings remembers he and Jack Affleck, of the Vail Daily, were friendly competitors, always trying to get the best shot of the day.
Rawlings’ living conditions during the early 1990s were the envy of all his friends when he landed a caretaking position for a home located at Camp Hale. He lived for free in the residence, surrounded by national forest. Because of his limited living expenses and a respectable amount of money in his savings account, Rawlings eventually decided to take a break from journalism after several years at the Trail.
“I just lived a great life in the best base camp of all,” he said. “My choices for the day were should I go fly-fishing or mountain biking?”
During his time at the Trail, Rawlings had made a number of friends in the Vail community, including fellow photographer Rex Keep. At times, Keep would call on Rawlings to help him shoot a special event — such as the Crystal Ball in 1997.
Met at the ball
Rawlings had finished his part of shooting the 1997 event when he was invited to stay for dinner. Longtime local Bob Dorf was emceeing the evening’s auction, and his daughter, Heather, decided to crash the party. She came over to the table where Rawlings was seated to say hello to her childhood friend Carolyn Keep. The photographer and the party-crasher hit it off and started dating. They were married in 1999. Today, the Rawlings live in Eagle and are the parents of sons Jamie and Jensen.
Rawlings’ business blossomed around the same time as his relationship. He began his professional career photographing homes for real estate listings. Then he photographed a close friend’s wedding and starting branching out.
“At that time, the photo journalism approach was the big thing in wedding photography. People wanted fewer staged and contrived photos,” he said. “I would meet with a couple and they would say they wanted a photo journalism style and I would tell them I had worked as a newspaper photographer for 12 years.”
Documenting a special day
A few hundred weddings later, Rawlings has developed his own formula for a successful shoot. That means listening to his subjects’ suggestions, as well as making a few of his own.
“My philosophy is to prepare as much as possible,” Rawlings said. That means he makes sure to get a good night’s sleep before a job, eat a healthy meal and check and double check his equipment. Before a wedding, he makes a list of must-do photographs so he gets every shot the couple wants.
But beyond these basic preparations, Rawlings strives to really understand what’s important for the people he photographs. For example, he once worked with a bride who talked about her close relationship with her grandmother. Rawlings made an extra effort to get lots of shots with the grandmother at the wedding. A few months later, he learned the older woman had passed away.
“The bride called me up and said what I did for the wedding was perfect. I can ride a high like that for months,” Rawlings said.
As he looks back on this 30-plus years in the valley, Rawlings has documented special times for many families. Fittingly when asked about his body of work, Rawlings said his favorites photos are the pictures he has taken of his own kids. He hopes to continue to document special moments and provide families with photos they cherish, and he is profoundly grateful that his eye and his skills have provided him with his life’s work.
“I have been so lucky,” Rawlings said. “I have had such a blessed life.”