The bright yellow arc of fly line extending from the foreground seems to have electrified the tarpon.
The fish leaps straight up out of the black rippled water in an explosion of droplets that resemble a star-filled sky on a dark wilderness night.
The dynamic photograph is just one of the unusual shots captured by Brian Grossenbacher. The 46-year-old Bozeman photographer has taken an unlikely — almost haphazard — path to become one of the most innovative new angling and outdoor shooters today.
“He’s able to capture that moment that, once he’s got it you say, ‘Damn, that says it all,’ ” said Carter Andrews, a television fishing show host and friend of Grossenbacher.
The tarpon photograph was purchased by Orvis — the huge outdoor gear and fly-fishing company based in Vermont — for the cover of one of its catalogs.
“Brian just gets it,” said Tom Rosenbauer of Orvis. “He intuitively knows what we want and doesn’t need a lot of direction.”
That’s partly because Grossenbacher — whose last name means big river in German — was a fly-fishing guide for 18 years. (His brother-in-law jokes that the name means fat baker.) Claim to fame: He and his wife, Jenny, guided Oprah.
Grossenbacher’s career as a photographer began when he and Jenny — who is also a fly-fishing guide, former model, dancer and accomplished angler — signed on to write a Montana fly-fishing guidebook. When they saw the publisher’s meager funds allotted for photography, the couple decided to buy a digital camera, some lenses and shoot their own photos. Grossenbacher said it was just his luck that he read the camera’s instruction manual.
“Anything he does he does to the nth degree,” Jenny said. “It was amazing to see. I knew he was a great writer, but I hadn’t thought of him as an artist. He took photography and totally made it his own.”
Serendipitously, Grossenbacher became a fishing guide only because his chosen path as an education administrator was stalled by Montana State University when he first moved to Bozeman in 1990.
“That little delay kicked off my guiding career,” he said. “I don’t think anyone gets into guiding
because they have a specific life plan.”
By the time the guidebook was published in 2007, Grossenbacher had already sold a few of his photographs to Orvis and fly-fishing magazines.
“The art of fly fishing and the grace of what our sport offers, that’s what I was trying to capture,” he said. “And luckily, it was well received.”
As his photography business began to take off, Grossenbacher guided less and less until in 2008 he decided to make a clean break and shoot photos exclusively. To do that, though, required the couple to sell their dream home, downsize and pay off some debt.
“That was one of the toughest days in my adult life,” Grossenbacher said.
His two daughters — Mackenzie and Sable — were in tears, but his wife “never once questioned” the move, he said.
“Just the opposite, I owe her a tremendous amount of credit for being there,” he said. “In the end, it really paid off.”
Jenny admitted that the transition was difficult, but that it was completely necessary.
“It wasn’t an easy time, but it was the right thing to do,” she said. “It was our dream house, but it’s not perfect when you’re stressed and not sleeping.”
A year after selling the home, Grossenbacher landed Simms Fishing Products as a new client. The Bozeman-based company is most well-known for its durable fishing waders.
“He’s the best-kept secret in Montana, in our industry and the advertising world,” said Dan Bryant, of Owner Make Studio in Portland, Maine, and the art director for Simms.
Simms’ signature is black and white photography, even for its fishing products.
“Brian has the ability to evolve within the box we put him in,” Bryant said. “He has the ability to keep making things fresh.”
That skill has opened doors to Grossenbacher shooting at lodges in Mexico and Alaska and taking fishing trips to places as varied as Panama and Russia.
Many of those trips he made with one of his best friends, Carter Andrews, whom he met in 2000 at the ESPN Great Outdoor Games at Lake Placid, N.Y. Andrews and Jenny were both competing at the games.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to do a lot of traveling with Brian,” Andrews said. “He’s got an incredible sense of humor and can also be annoying at times. He’s very witty, always up for an adventure or a good party. He loves his wife and kids and has a really good strong group of friends, which speaks highly of him.”
In December, Grossenbacher had just returned from the Bahamas for a Simms shoot, none of which was scripted.
“We’re not concepting stuff and going out and shooting three photos, just the opposite,” Bryant said, comparing it more to photojournalism.
“My guiding experience has been very beneficial in terms of where to be and where not to be,” Grossenbacher said. “I really just try to disappear and let the moment try to create itself. Those are the moments where the true art happens.”
Although Grossenbacher’s photography and fishing skills have taken him to some glamorous and remote locations, his most memorable trip was into the Bolivian jungle.
“We flew into an airstrip cut into the jungle by drug runners,” he said. “It was not meant to be seen from the air.
“Bolivian Indians took us upriver in dugout canoes for eight days on a river about the size of the Gallatin, and we were catching golden dorado up to 30 pounds. Certainly that was the pinnacle in terms of interesting trips.”
After the Bolivian jungle, other trips may have seemed less adventurous, but viewers wouldn’t know it by looking at Grossenbacher’s photos.
“He connects with people in a very genuine way,” Bryant said. “It shows in the imagery.”
Grossenbacher said he is living a dream come true, one that he hadn’t even imagined a decade earlier.
“I really feel like I’m the luckiest guy in life,” he said.