It was near the end of a long summer day in July 1987 as Tom Bean stood on a rocky beach in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. He watched as the final rays of golden sunlight lit up the base of snow-capped peaks. In front of him, a lone iceberg floated slowly through the still ocean water.
And that was when Bean, a Flagstaff-based nature photographer, snapped the photo that will be one of 16 showcased on the newest collection of postal stamps. The stamps highlight national parks, monuments and preserves across the country of the National Park Service’s centennial this year.
“The sun was kind of flaring the sky into these colors,” Bean said. “It is something that happens quickly, then the sun sinks below the horizon and that magic light is gone.”
Bean recounted the story of how his nearly 30-year-old photograph was chosen to grace envelopes and packages across the country from his home at the edge of Fay Canyon, just south of Flagstaff. The experience is certainly a rarity — the Postal Service gets about 40,000 suggestions for stamp ideas each year, but chooses only about 20 of them.
A few months ago, Bean said he was contacted by someone researching potential photographs for the national parks stamp collection. The researcher had found Bean’s photograph of Glacier Bay and wanted to see if it would be OK to put it up as a possible option. Bean consented, signed a lengthy contract and then heard nothing until last week, when he got a call from a U.S. Postal Service public information officer. The man told Bean his photograph had in fact been chosen and that the news would be announced the following week.
He was surprised and relieved, Bean said, adding that the flurry of related attention from media and friends has been unexpected.
A CALLING TO THE CAMERA
During the summer that he snapped his now famous stamp photo, Bean was traveling through Reid Inlet in the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve on a kayaking trip. It was part of a three-week assignment from the National Geographic Society to shoot the Inside Passage, a long chain of islands along the West Coast from Washington State to Alaska.
Bean’s history with national parks goes back much farther than that, though. His first job out of college was with the National Park Service, working as a seasonal ranger-naturalist at Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He spent five summers there, and though he didn’t have previous experience with cameras, he started photographing the park’s varied landscapes for his campfire educational programs. Bean’s boss was the park’s chief naturalist and encouraged the budding photographer, even letting him borrow some of the park’s equipment until Bean bought his first camera in 1972.
It was in 1976 when Bean’s former boss, who had then moved to Grand Canyon National Park, gave him his first professional assignment to photograph the canyon for the park’s educational and outreach programs.
That same year, Bean was offered a summer ranger job at Glacier Bay. He spent five summers there, using his days off to explore the park and photograph “the majestic beauty of its mountains, glaciers, rainforest, mist, and fog,” he wrote in a short biography for the U.S. Postal Service.
Bean moved to Flagstaff in 1982, which is when he decided to make a go of it as a professional photographer. The profession allows him to celebrate the natural world but also inform people about it, he said. He said he wants his photos not just to be hung on walls but to be used to help explain and spread awareness about national parks, for example.
“There is definitely an editorial element to it,” Bean said.
Besides Alaska, photography has taken Bean to Mexico, Canada, and around the United States.
Many times his work is self-directed, Bean said. He will notice something is going on around the area, like mechanical thinning for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative or a city decision to purchase land on Observatory Mesa for open space. Then he will go out and snap photos that he will later pitch to publications and organizations.
He also has done work for textbooks and stock photo agencies and produced books with his wife, Susan Lamb, who is a writer and former park ranger. The couple has examined the history, culture and ecology of places like central Italy and Walnut Canyon.
Some of Bean’s recent projects have included a feature about forest thinning for Arizona Highways magazine and another on Walnut Canyon for the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Plateau magazine.
Even after having spent so many years photographing landscapes around Flagstaff, Bean said he is still finding new places he didn’t know were here. A favorite view of his is two miles down the road looking from Lake Mary Road into Walnut Canyon, which he said he only discovered after living here for 15 years.
“I really like finding places that aren’t the cliches,” he said. He rarely photographs Sedona but has recently been exploring areas around Lake Mary, Marshall Lake and Mormon Lake.
When he’s out in nature with a camera, which is most of the time, Bean said his eye has been trained to search for interesting patterns in light and texture.
“Having done it for decades, it’s sort of built into the way you see things,” he said. “It allows you to look closer than most people.”