The 1,300-pound polar bear was about 20 feet in front of him.
Sam Swartz had driven all day straight north from Lincoln, across the Canadian border, and then taken a 16-hour train even further north, all the way to the town of Churchill, Manitoba, situated on Hudson Bay, regarded as one of the best places in the world to see these giant white bears. He had been spending hours each day, mostly waiting for a bear to get close so he could photograph it.
Then one came very, very close. He'd had some close encounters on this trip already, including one bear that charged past him as close as 20 yards, but this was different. One-half of this bear's face was rouged with blood – "blush," Swartz jokingly calls it. Either he had been in a fight with another bear, killed something a little early on his eventual march to hunt seal, or found a random carcass to munch on. The bear had been showing "less than pleasurable body language" by popping his jaw, Swartz says. To someone unaware, it would look like yawning. But Swartz knew this was a bad sign.
That November 2013 trip to Churchill was just one aspect of Sam Swartz's photography. A Lincoln native, he has been photographing weddings for several years. But while Swartz is busier than ever with brides and families, he is also developing his wildlife photography.
“For me, photography started off as just a great passion for the love of outdoors, nature, Colorado," Swartz says. "When I started off, I found I was able to capture God’s creation and share it with people who might not be able to see it, or see it the way I am able to see it.”
He received his first camera as a high school graduation present, and worked selling food while he was establishing his business. Along the way, he was inspired by Nebraska native Thomas Mangelsen, a noted nature photographer.
“I knew I loved the camera and counting the mountains and seeing nature," Swartz says. "And when I saw the way [Mangelsen] was doing it, I said, ‘I want to do it like that.’ And someday I hope to do it like that."
Full disclosure: I've known Swartz since we were both in seventh grade, although I didn't know he had started photography full time until he was already well-established among Lincoln wedding photographers. Swartz's pictures stand out as vibrant and dramatic, with a creative twist – in angle, color or moment – that makes them distinctive.
The same individuality can be seen in his wildlife photos. (“I love doing them both," he says of weddings and wildlife, "but for very different reasons.") Swartz also does corporate work, senior photos and, of course, engagement sessions as well.
In whatever type of work he's doing, for Swartz, a great photo doesn't have to be about finding some dramatic subject. Instead, it's equal parts moment and light.
“A great photo would be perfect light and a perfect moment," he says. "So you don’t need a big grand scene, you don’t need this perfect mountain scene, but with great light it helps. You can take a picture of a blade of grass in the perfect light, and it creates a moment and emotion in people that isn’t there without the light.”
While, he jokes, "Brides pay better than bears," it's easy to see a particular zeal for photographing the outdoors. In his Burkholder Project gallery, near the door, he has a map with pins showing all the places in North America he has been to take pictures – all over the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Swartz has traveled to Alaska many times and to Hawaii as well, and he has a bucket list goal of visiting all 59 U.S. national parks.
Above all, though, he confesses to a special fascination with bears. This fascination is what took him to Churchill.
Even with the half-ton bear close by, Swartz stuck it out. Through a series of maneuvers, he managed to get his truck out of the bear's way without incident. The bear and his blushed face eventually passed him by. It was an encounter Swartz wouldn't soon forget.
“Photography," he says, "especially nature photography, it’s what you spend your energies doing – chasing those moments in great light.” From hearing his enthusiasm, he has a lot of chasing left to do.
In Swartz's gallery, of course, you can see the photo of that polar bear, looking straight into the camera, looming large and white in the frame.