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TV Guys Through A Different Lens
Their work was on-air; their passion is photography
His job is one coveted by photographers around the world, but National Geographic’s Jim Richardson once gave this simple advice to those seeking to follow in his footsteps: “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
For decades, the four men profiled in these pages spent their career standing in front of a camera, talking about interesting things with interesting people. But it’s their work on the other side of the lens that may be the most fascinating of all.
It turns out Dan Milham is just as skilled shooting Gulf Coast landscapes as he is predicting a hurricane’s landfall. John Snell reports on environmental issues that he sees firsthand by bringing his camera into the Louisiana marsh. Eric Paulsen may get up with the sun each morning, but it’s nighttime photography that’s his favorite. Dennis Woltering spoke to thousands of people through the TV camera, but his photos are best when he focuses on just one.
Meet four men who put as much care into their photographs as they do the on-air work that’s made them famous, learn what drew them to the hobby and inspires what they do behind the camera and not just in front of it.
Dan Milham has held prestigious titles throughout his career in New Orleans. He has been a radio station program director and anchor, WDSU-TV’s chief meteorologist and now chief meteorologist emeritus. But it’s the title he jokingly gives his father – tinkerer – that may have best helped spark a lifelong interest in photography.
“My dad had a brilliant mind, even though he only had an eighth grade education, and loved to figure out how things worked, which probably helped develop his interest in photography and cameras,” Milham says, adding that his father turned the basement of the family’s Detroit home into a darkroom. By the time he was a teenager, Milham had held a camera many times and learned about photography by watching his dad and uncles take family photos, then taking the camera out himself.
The interest would grow while he served overseas in the Vietnam War and purchased an inexpensive camera in the Army PX. Before long, the demands of married life, children and a career would put his hobby on the back burner. But it was always there. And in 2008, retiring from his nightly weathercasting duties at WDSU, where he worked for more than 30 years, gave him a chance to – pun intended – develop his skills even more.
“All of those years spent in the studio certainly contributed something to the hobby, whether I was realizing it or not. For one thing, though it was a different medium, it enhanced my appreciation for what happens when light goes through a lens to be picked up by the human eye,” he said. “Being with studio camera operators and photographers and seeing them set up a shot or having them explain why a shot wouldn’t work – all of that informs you.”
He said the feedback from friends and colleagues on his photography over the years was so encouraging that when he retired, he felt comfortable enough to start his own photography business.
“I started out thinking I would try to sell my pretty pictures, but that’s not as easy as you think, since it boils down to hoping that people see a picture and it fits them, which is a totally personal and discretionary thing.”
Soon, Milham gravitated more toward commercial photography, and has became a favorite of convention groups, clubs, professional organizations and businesses who hire him to photograph their parties and conventions, annual meetings and other events. One thing he won’t do is shoot weddings. “I like my weekends too much,” he says.
“The thing about shooting for clients, particularly group meetings and events, is that everything is different. I have yet to shoot for the same organization twice because it’s so rare that a group will have its annual meeting two years in a row in the same city, so that keeps things interesting.”
Milham also donates his services to nonprofits, including New Orleans Medical Mission Services, the group he recently accompanied to Nicaragua to document the work its volunteer doctors do providing eye surgeries and medical treatment to the underprivileged.
While shooting pictures professionally has become a new focus, Milham says his true love remains nature photography and snapping shots of birds in particular.
“There are so many different kinds and they give you a challenge because they’re in motion and you can’t pose them. Keeping up with them, with the right exposure settings and depth of field, keeps you on your toes and requires a great deal of patience.”
The same attribute is required when photographing children, which Milham often does at home with his two young grandkids.
“Sometimes my granddaughters will look for me with my camera and assume you want to take their picture and other times the last thing they will let you do is take a picture, so you just have to let it happen naturally and you get some great shots that way.”
Like most in his field, Milham finds that digital photography has made his decades-old hobby so much more enjoyable and also allowed for fun experimentation.
“You have so much more flexibility when you’re shooting digital. I know there are film purists out there, but I’ve found that without the cost of film and external developing, I’ve been able to experiment more and therefore develop what I think are more artistic and satisfying techniques.”
Always the teacher and communicator, though now as a photographer and not forecaster, Milham has also learned to love sharing his knowledge with other shutterbugs, on his website, danmilhamphotography.com.
When Dennis Woltering stepped away from the WWL-TV anchor desk in May, the retirement gift from a group of close friends included gift certificates earmarked for spending on a hobby they all knew he’d be spending even more time on: photography.
What is more, Woltering arrived to his farewell party with a camera strapped around his neck, proceeding to take as many pictures of his co-workers that night as they did of him. For someone who’s spent nearly 40 years in front of the camera, there’s a comfort level behind one as well.
“Like other people, it really started for me in college, at Oregon State University,” he says. “I took a photo class and loved the process of taking pictures and then manipulating the images with the chemicals for just the right shot.” He got so good at it that the school asked him to take the cover photo for an annual publication distributed to incoming freshmen. It was a portrait of a young coed. The picture seemed to set the stage for a lifelong interest in photographing people.
“I really enjoy that more than anything else – the expressions, the emotion, the surprises, really just capturing the human spirit. That makes up more of my photographs than anything else.”
As the years went by and he and his wife Carol moved to New Orleans (in 1977 so he could take the job at Channel 4 and they could start a family here), Woltering says photographing his two young daughters, Denise and Kristen, became a particularly fun way to practice his skills.
“With the girls, I took a lot of pictures as they were growing up, and then I read someplace about close-ups and the fact that the closer you are, the more expression you see and the more you get a feel for the person.”
The station even used one of his close-up photos of his daughter Denise in a 1980s TV Guide ad for a series of reports he did on foster children. Since then, Woltering’s trademark close-up photos of family and friends have captured countless special occasions and everyday happy moments.
He credits many of the talented television photographers with whom he’s worked over the years for expanding his own knowledge. That includes those at WWL and at WCAU in Philadelphia, where he worked for about 10 years in between his two stints at Channel 4. He also gives thanks to his former co-anchors (and onetime married couple) Garland Robinette and Angela Hill, who he remembers shared the use of the darkroom in their Uptown home.
“We lived just a few blocks away from them at the time and I remember borrowing their darkroom sometimes to develop pictures,” Woltering says.
Now his work is all digital, and his family has grown to include two granddaughters, ages 5 and 6, both photogenic but sometimes only willing to pose for their grandfather’s camera on their terms.
“Just like their mothers did when they were younger, they go through phases. Sometimes they want to be photographed and sometimes they run away and don’t want anything to do with the camera, so you never know what you’re going to get,” he laughs.
Realizing that, Woltering says he particularly loves when a surprise moment makes for a cherished photo. He recalled taking one of a clown surprising his father-in-law at a family gathering and another of his wife playing with the family dog in the swimming pool. She smiles as the dog lovingly licks his wife’s face, saying thanks for a fun time in the water as only a canine could.
While he and his camera have lucked into shots like those, Woltering has also developed a gift for capturing the spontaneity and colorful craziness of the celebrations and culture that make his adopted hometown a photographer’s paradise.
“I particularly love shooting at Mardi Gras and taking pictures of people in costume,” says Woltering, who’s known for donning his own creative costume each year for Channel 4’s parade coverage and embodying the Carnival spirit as a member of several krewes.
“Along with Mardi Gras, I also love New Orleans architecture and what I’ve noticed both here and in Philadelphia, when I lived there, is that so many of the historic buildings have special architectural features that are hidden away but make for beautiful shots.”
Anyone who has watched or worked with John Snell during his 30-year career in New Orleans television knows that when he pursues something – whether a complicated environmental or economic story, or in this case a personal passion – the WVUE-TV anchor gives it everything he’s got. Though he says he always had some interest in photography, even while in front of the camera, the bug really bit a little more than a decade ago while he vacationed with his then-teenage son.
“We both fell in love with the American west and started taking vacations out there together,” Snell says. “One time when we visited Yosemite National Park I pulled out a cheap digital camera and started taking photos, then played around with the software that came with the computer I bought, and one thing just kind of led to another.”
Just as he would with any story he covers, Snell threw himself into his new hobby, devouring books and magazines on the subject and doing his homework to learn the tools and tricks of the trade. He calls the expensive photography equipment he’s bought since then “the boat I’ll never own,” but says it’s been worth every penny. Unlike some other lifelong film buffs, his has been a purely digital experience, since he came to photography just as computer technology was taking hold during the past decade. Since then, for someone with an intense work ethic and busy on-air schedule, nature photography has become a great release.
“I can think of two particular times when I have a feeling of true serenity: when I’m standing along a shore at sea level taking a picture of a beautiful sunset or when I’m taking a picture at 11,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.”
He is also known for capturing beautiful images closer to home of Louisiana landscapes, swamps and other local settings.
“I get more comments on my sunsets and landscapes but my favorite is photographing birds,” he admits.
Snell’s photos can sometimes be seen on air during his newscasts or used by the station’s meteorologists to help illustrate the day’s weather conditions. Facebook has also opened many eyes to his talents. “I’ve found that it’s a great way to get feedback about what touches people.”
A few years ago Snell mounted an exhibition of some of his photographs at a local gallery, but for now he said he has no interest in pursuing still photography as a second career or even side business. He does hope a photo book may be in the offing.
Always seeking to expand his own personal knowledge, Snell said he’s experimented by taking some portraits, trying his hand at trick photography (of a shattering glass, for example) and even shooting photos on the sidelines at New Orleans Saints home games.
“That is fascinating work, very difficult. Sports photographers are one of the most talented groups in all of media. What they do is so challenging and they make it look so easy. It was fascinating to be on the field, but a full day’s work, too.”
Snell has worked in local television since 1983, first as a reporter and anchor at WWL-TV and then the past 20 years as an anchor at Channel 8. He says that he has often been amazed to watch a photographer he’s been paired up with think of creative ways to illustrate the story they’ve worked on together.
“Especially if I were doing an economic or political story, which isn’t necessary the most visual,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some great photographers in the business and I would often pick their brains. Why did you get down on the ground for that shot?
What were you thinking when you did that? So often they would take it and make it much better than you ever thought it could be.”
He said that while he and his son continue to enjoy vacations out west and to America’s National Parks, his dream vacations would be to Africa and Australia. He shot some favorite photographs during two trips to Alaska – once while on assignment and once on vacation. But he is also proud of the many shots he’s captured during the workweek, whether while on assignment (he now always carries a still camera) or while spending his morning out in nature, before heading into work in the afternoon. He said it isn’t unusual for him to spend four or five days a week outdoors taking photos.
“Early on, I’d have a bit of a guilty conscience while taking photographs while I was out on a story, but now the way our business has changed, it’s actually being encouraged now more and more through social media, which makes it worthwhile both personally and professionally.”
For fans, and even many longtime friends, of WWL-TV anchor Eric Paulsen, word of his photography hobby came not through Facebook or prints of favorite images framed on his walls, but through – of all things – a published book. Your Power Is On!: A Little Book of Hope features more than 40 of Paulsen’s photographs accompanying inspirational messages and favorite scripture passages of his friend and co-anchor Sally-Ann Roberts. When Pelican Publishing Company released the book last year it opened new eyes to an old hobby for this multi-talented TV journalist.
“Sally had seen my photos over the years and as she talked about doing the book, I invited her over to my house to look through some of my photographs and see which ones might lend themselves to the book she had in mind,” he says. Many of the photos came from Paulsen’s vacation trips, to places as far away as Spain, Canada, the Caribbean and Italy – including a striking one of a sunset in Capri that graces the book’s cover. Other photos highlight the rich natural beauty of Louisiana’s bayou country, City Park and Lake Pontchartrain.
“Every person sees something different in every photo. We were at a book signing recently and each person who came up mentioned a different photo as their favorite, but even those who mentioned the same photo liked it for different reasons,” he says.
Paulsen says his interest in photography dates back to his early years in his native St. Louis, and later as a college student at Southern Illinois University.
“I took a film class there and I guess that’s what first opened my eyes to the world of photography. I’ve loved it ever since,” he explains. He even has the photo of himself to prove it: a young blonde-haired Eric Paulsen, photographing himself gazing into a mirror. Years later, when he met his wife Bethany, also a onetime photography student, she pulled out a similar photo of herself in almost exactly the same pose. He dedicated his photographs in Your Power Is On! to her.
Though his career path put him in front of the camera, Paulsen says he has always kept up the photography hobby, especially as WWL (which he joined in 1977) offered him opportunities to travel the world – often with a still camera in hand right alongside his microphone. He traveled extensively for Channel 4’s nightly show “PM Magazine” in the ’80s, sometimes carrying his personal camera, sometimes not. The rigors of the production schedule often meant the hobby took a back seat to the work.
“I did take some great shots in a balloon over Burgundy, France, but some of my biggest regrets are not having a camera with me for my interviews with Ella Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams,” he says.
As his passion for photography has grown, Paulsen says nature photos, and landscapes in particular, have become his favorite. For someone who has risen before the sun for some 30 years to anchor Channel 4’s “Eyewitness Morning News,” it may be a surprise that night photography is also a favorite.
“The different images you get, with different exposures and streams of light are just beautiful,” he says.
While he loves taking photos around town, Paulsen also says that his travels around the world have provided him with some particularly memorable shots. Favorites include photos taken in Paris and Florence, while one shot from Quebec of a red-roofed church covered in snow also stands out.
As a young photo buff, Paulsen says he was known to burn up an entire roll of film while trying to get the perfect shot. But he has embraced the advances of digital photography and the tools that can enhance great shots or erase the simplest of mistakes. That technology even includes his smartphone, which he confesses he used to snap one of the photos featured in the book.
“In the end, it isn’t about the camera or the technology. It’s really all about the eye.”