We had the honor to sit down with legendary photographer Val Atkinson. He has been a flyfishing and travel photographer for over 45 years. From continent to continent, Val has had the chance to catch the unique beauty in landscape and the fish that live there.
Flylords: Who is R. Valentine Atkinson?
Val: A towhead kid from a small rural town in Ohio called Zanesville which has the distinction of being the birthplace of Zane Grey the famous writer of western novels like “New Riders of the Purple Sage”. He also loved to fish. All over the world.
I grew up reading and daydreaming about the destinations in those books. After finishing high school I applied and was accepted to Columbus College of Art and Design in the big city of Columbus Ohio. After studying fine art and photography for 5 years I packed up and moved west in 1970 to try and make a living as a photographer and fished the beautiful western rivers which I had been reading about.
Flylords: Why are you called “The longest full-time fly fishing lifestyle photographer on the planet”?
Val: After trying to make a living photographing in San Francisco dabbling in everything from weddings to architecture to fine art and not being emotionally satisfied or financially rewarded, I happened to go on a fishing trip with friends to Hat Creek in Northern California where I documented our camping trip and sent the pictures to a Flyfishing Magazine and astonishingly they bought them all for a photo essay. (Actually paid me money). Bingo, I inadvertently discovered what I was to become: a flyfishing photographer. In those days there were maybe only 4 or 5 others doing the same thing. It was mostly black and white film then and because I had taken an Ansel Adams course I learned some of his secrets in the darkroom- how to make the blacks black and the whites white. That combined with good composition and lighting that I learned in art school helped to dazzle magazine editors with quality images.
After doing this for maybe 10 years I signed a contract with Frontiers International Travel as their staff photographer. They were a brand new travel agency just starting up and they represented fine lodges from all over the world with both flyfishing and wing shooting. That was an extremely fortuitous break for me as I was soon jetting around the world to exotic flyfishing destinations.
In the 18 years that I worked with them, I went through 4 separate passports and visited 29 countries which obviously changed my life dramatically. These days I have a site that has more recent images from the last 5 or 6 years of destinations that can be viewed at valatkinsonphotos.smugmug.co,
Flylords: Who or what influences your work most?
Val: I’m a romantic at heart and learned to love the English landscape painters in art school.
I’ve always tried to impart particular emotions in my imagery with light, composition and content.
I‘m definitely not a “grip and grin” guy – they make me “grit and grimace”. There are so many very creative photographers today producing fine work that I could name dozens if not hundreds.
Flylords: Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken?
Val: I have many favorite images taken over the years. I guess a couple of them would be: “Jumping Mullet”. which was taken in the Seychelles when a huge school of mullet started porpoising in and out of the water headed straight for me. Probably spooked by a cuda or shark, several bumped right into me as they passed by. It all happened in about 3 seconds. I had my camera around my neck and just grabbed a shot. The amazing thing is that it’s in focus.
Another picture I like very much is the mayfly in the Guinness beer. This happened in Ireland on an assignment for my book “Trout & Salmon”. A group of us were sitting around in a little smokey pub having a beer when a mayfly fluttered in off the river and landed on the table. Someone picked it up and chucked it in the foam of the beer. It promptly fluttered its wings and sank. Define a photo op with a challenge. We needed a particularly thick foam head to support another bug and the bar tender was only to happy to attend. Needless to say we all had fun and most importantly got the shot.
Flylords: When was the first time you picked up a fly rod?
Val: I’ve been a “bend pin” fisherman since 6 or 7 years old. My first fly rod trout came along at age 15 when my father took me to Penn’s Creek in PA. I can still remember the whole event just like it was yesterday. It was a brown trout and I was using a St Croix rod and a Yellow Sally wet fly. He was about 16 inches long, came out from under a big rock and inhaled my fly. We ate him.
Flylords: Favorite species to shoot photos of?
Val: Everything that swims…
Flylords: Other than fly fishing, what else do you like to shoot photos of?
Val: I’m in love with making images no matter what the subject matter. As the famous photographer, Galen Rowell once said: “Learn to recognize good light and go photograph something in it”.
Although my reputation was made in the world of flyfishing and I continue to shoot it – these days I also like making pure landscapes. The short answer is I shoot everything.
Flylords: What is your ideal camera setup?
Val: I’m a firm believer in the adage that “less is more”. Too many folks today are hung up with way too much gear. I usually go out with my Nikon and 2 or 3 prime lenses – 24mm and 85mm. Maybe a 180. Of course, I have the full armament but I like to travel light when I can.
Flylords: What are the toughest challenges you encounter as a photographer?
Val: Time and weather.
Flylords: Name a beer you would recommend to all fly fishers.
Val: Anything with an I and a P and an A.
Flylords: Where is your favorite place to shoot and what is the landscape like?
Val: I’m in love with the old farmhouse that Susan Rockrise and I purchased on Fall River. It’s now my home river and I love Susan, the house and the river very much. Fall River is one of the largest and finest spring creeks in the world full of big hungry selective rainbows.
A very pastoral setting with cows in the meadows and old red barns on the banks. Other than Fall River I love shooting and visiting in New Zealand and Argentina.
Flylords: Would you rather catch a fish of a lifetime or shoot a photo of someone’s trophy fish?
Val: I’m sorry but I’ll have to plead the 5th on this one. I’d rather do both and I have.
Flylords: What’s next for you?
Val: I’ve been giving photography workshops at my farmhouse in Fall River which has been very successful. We are also making fine art prints on Metal which is a relatively new technique that is truly stunning.
The 5 books I’ve had published have sold out by now, but you can get good used copies on Amazon. My favorites are “Distant Waters” and “The Greatest Flyfishing Around the World”.
Interview was conducted by Flylords Team member, Collin Terchanik.
Also, check out our other Faces of Flyfishing interviews!