Although the Beartooth Mountains are only minutes from his back door, Merv Coleman still has gaps in his knowledge and photography of the vast and high Montana mountain range.
“That’s the amazing thing about the Beartooths, how much terrain there is to explore and so many lakes,” he said.
So at age 66 he continues hiking, backpacking and photographing.
Coleman has been photographing the mountain range in all its seasonal moods since 1980, when he left the Bureau of Land Management and started his photography studio after moving to Red Lodge.
This summer, Farcountry Press published a book of Coleman’s photography, “Beartooth Country, The Absaroka and Beartooth Ranges ($12.95),” that explores the region and its wildlife in pictures. It’s a diverse and unique landscape, as Red Lodge author Gary Ferguson noted in the foreword to the book.
“Beartooth Country is a startling place — a nearly incomprehensible geological marvel, a world of wandering animals and swimming fish and soaring birds of prey,” Ferguson wrote. “Notably, much of the region still possesses nearly its full historic complement of wildlife — from wolves to wolverines, moose and martens and grizzlies. Besides claiming the magnificent 943,000-acre Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, this area is also an integral piece of a larger, 11-million-acre wild landscape stretching west all the way to Idaho, and south through Wyoming past the mighty Tetons.”
The book is a first for Coleman, who landed the contract after the publisher solicited photographs from several shooters.
“Their goal was to work with as few photographers as possible, and after they saw my photos they decided to go with one photographer — me,” he said.
That meant Coleman spent a few weeks digging through old files of slide film, some of it stored in boxes in his basement, to find images to meet Farcountry’s needs. He submitted 400 photos for the 80-page book.
“The images cover the whole 32 years I’ve been here,” he said. “One is from 1980 when I was using medium-format negatives. So there are a variety of negatives, slides and digital images.”
Thumbing through the old photos was a trip into the past, sparking memories of outings and people from years ago. He remembers taking one sunset photo as his children fussed in the car, honking the horn to urge him to pack up his gear and take them home.
“So I always tell everyone that I earned that one,” he said and chuckled.
He found other pictures that made him want to return to the files when he was done, but now said that’s unlikely.
“It’s out of the brain cells already,” he said.
The holes he had to fill were in photographs of the Paradise Valley, on the Absaroka Mountains’ western edge. He also had few to choose from in the Stillwater River region; he knows he had shot the area but couldn’t find the negatives.
“Those are the ones that are still bugging me,” he said.
As his children grew up and became busier, and as his studio business took off, Coleman said his visits to the Absaroka-Beartooths were fewer for awhile. But after a cancer scare about five years ago, he became interested again in exploring the region.
“That woke me up, and I thought I better get going,” he said. “My friend Gary Allison was a big incentive, as well. We’re paced about the same. And he is always willing to take a little more so I could carry more camera gear. We’re always looking for more sherpas, though.”
Out of those more recent trips, Coleman said, Black Canyon and Arch lakes stand out as some of the most beautiful, and difficult to reach, in the Beartooths.
“That’s the other thing about the Beartooths,” he said. “You can do easy things, or really challenge yourself.”
Since 2003, Coleman hasn’t shot one photograph on film. He has completely embraced the digital format.
“It just makes it so much more versatile that you can change the ISOs, and there’s less noise,” he said.
ISO or ASA used to refer to a film’s speed. The slower the film, the more light that was needed to make the photograph, but the image would appear less grainy. A sharper image is referred to as having less noise.
The other part about digital photography that Coleman enjoys is that he can take more photos, sometimes too many.
“I always said I was a charter member in the over-shooters anonymous,” he joked.
More recently, he’s embraced printing his photographs on aluminum plates. The plates eliminate the need for framing, if preferred, and contain a vibrancy of color and depth that photographic paper doesn’t seem to relay.
Color and light are what Coleman looks for when he’s shooting photographs.
“I guess I would say I’m sort of an opportunist,” he said. “I go with something in mind, but it may end up being something entirely different. When you go with a set mind, it doesn’t always work out.”