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Exploring National Parks Through The Lens Of Steven Bumgardner


Intricate details of Yosemite National Park -- the seasonal run of frazil ice, moonbows, and "neon red asparagus" -- all have fallen before the lens of Steven Bumgardner. How did he get his start capturing the essence of Yosemite, and what's next on his schedule? Traveler did a quick Q&A with Steven to learn the answers to those and other questions.

National Parks Traveler: What's your background? Did you train in photography/videography in school? Are you an NPS employee?

Steven Bumgardner: I've always had a camera, even when I was a kid. In college, I did the darkroom thing, and started messing around with 8mm motion pictures. Eventually, I migrated West, and began working in Sequoia National Park, initially as a cave guide at Crystal Cave, and eventually I worked as an interpretive park ranger.

After about 8 years of working in the park, and treating my photography and filmmaking like hobbies, I decided I would try to switch over to full time filmmaking. I self-produced a one-hour documentary about caves called The Underground World of Sequoia National Park. In retrospect, the idea of choosing a dark, wet and cramped subject like caves as your first film might not be the best idea. There weren't any light-sensitive DSLR cameras back then or cheap, bright LED lights like we have today, so it was quite a technical challenge to pull it off, but ultimately, the video was reviewed by the LA Times and it's still sold in the park today. This work then led onto several other projects in Sequoia, including a film about bears that plays in the theater of the Lodgepole Visitor Center.

NPT: How did you get your start in Yosemite? Is producing videos your main job, or do you need to do something else to make ends meet?

My video work in Sequoia helped me get hired as a seasonal Audio Visual Production Specialist in Yosemite in 2005. I produced the first seven episodes of Yosemite Nature Notes as an NPS employee, but in 2008, the Yosemite Conservancy provided a grant to produce the web-series, and I then began to produce Yosemite Nature Notes as a freelancer.

Yosemite is my main regular gig, but I also do other work for other national parks and non-profits. I've got a new theater film that's playing in Pinnacles National Park, and I've just started producing some web videos for Yellowstone, and a backcountry safety video for Grand Teton. I've also had a ten year relationship with Finley-Holiday Films, and I've shot many of the Western parks as well as all the units around New York City for them. They're a great, family-owned business that has been selling slides, movies and DVD's in national parks for over 50 years. Thanks to them, I've spent weeks at the Grand Canyon, lots of time in the Utah parks, and even got to shoot the most recent eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 2004.

NPT: What do you look for in deciding which projects to tackle? Simply something "out there" in nature, or is there a more specific approach you utilize when deciding what to film?

SB: Whether it's an obscure natural phenomenon such as frazil ice or a moonbow, or a remote location like the Maclure Glacier, I like to create timeless pieces that show viewers something they've never seen before. I try to avoid politics and management issues and focus instead on turning people on to the natural world so that they'll get out there and explore it for themselves. There are so many untold stories about the natural world out there, especially in our national parks, that I'm sure I can spend the rest of my life doing this type of work.

NPT: What is your favorite production to date, and why?

SB: I think the "Night Skies" episode of YNN is my favorite, for a variety of reasons. One, it took me over three years to shoot, and each night was different adventure in a different location in Yosemite, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. It's also one of the few episodes on YouTube where there are several comments that said it was so beautiful, that it made people cry. It's pretty satisfying to make that kind of emotional connection with folks around the world. And despite that fact that it took over 30 nights of shooting to get enough footage, this one was a quick edit, which is always satisfying.

NPT: What was your most difficult production, and why?

SB: Despite the fact that we only shot for about 36 hours, "One Day in Yosemite" was pretty tricky to pull off! This project was an attempt at documenting a day in the life of Yosemite National Park, and I wrangled up 30 filmmakers to help shoot. There were a fair bit of logistic involved in the planning the shoot, and lots of nervousness that the weather or a fire would ruin our chosen day. The actual shoot went pretty well, it was a long day, but everyone got something good, no one got hurt, and only one lens was broken and one tripod lost! The biggest challenge was taking the nearly 3 terabytes of footage and creating a story out of it. This took me several months of editing to finally get something worth watching, and a year later, I'm still pretty happy with the results.

NPT: How did your visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton come about?

SB: Yellowstone contacted me about year ago about helping bring their "Yellowstone InDepth" web-series back to life. I was honored to be asked, since I had used their web-videos as an example to Yosemite on why we need videos in our "Y" park. I'll be producing four videos for them in the next 18 months, on geysers, bison, water and the Northern Range, aka the American Serengeti.

The Grand Teton project is a safety video for backcountry hikers, more of a traditional scripted and narrated affair. My friend and colleague Vicki Mates (from the Frazil Ice video) is now the Chief of Interpretation in Grand Teton, so she connected me with the backcountry office. I'm hoping that this video will lead to more work in Grand Teton, because I have had a love affair with that park for several years now. It's probably my second favorite park, after Yosemite.

Traveler postscript: To see more of Steven's works, visit Traveler's Yosemite page.

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Every now and then the NPS comes up with an idea that is truly outstanding. Steve Bumgardner's "Yosemite Nature Note" videos are indeed exceptional. I first became aware of his masterful skill in 2008 when attending a ranger reunion in Yosemite Valley and noticed a preview of the Half Dome YNN being shown on a screen in the East Auditorium of the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center. It totally captured my attention. Since then I have been thrilled and pleased to view each of his releases. His videos are a perfect venue for reaching out to a larger audience beyond the borders of the park to captivate one's curiosity about the park and build an extended public constituency for the park. I'm glad to learn that other parks are seeking his expertise. Most of my favorite YNN videos are mentioned in the article above. I would like to add the YNN on Half Dome and the one featuring the Mather Ranger Club as highly recommended videos. The latter was featured in National Parks Traveler some years ago and received lots of positive commentary from many of us who once resided in that historic building in Yosemite Valley. Thank you Steve Bumgardner's for a job very well done.

I'm always thrilled when I see a new video by Steven. The guy is a genius with a camera.

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