“Birds” Exhibit by Native Son at SAM

Reviewer: Janet Martineau

Venue: Saginaw Art Museum

When he was a 15-year-old kid, Steve Jessmore had the audacity to ask The Saginaw News if he could shoot photos for the newspaper. It took him on, assigning him mostly rock concerts.

Now age 64, the Saginaw native returned home Wednesday night (Feb. 7) to open his “Birds Doing Stuff” exhibition at the Saginaw Art Museum, 1126 N. Michigan.

“I took my first art class here,” he recalled in remarks to the audience, which filled the room to capacity with family, friends and former Saginaw News coworkers.

In the show are 27 metal prints (no matt, no border,  no frame; fresh-looking) mostly  intense close-ups of, well, birds doing stuff. Among them are three National Audubon contest winners, culled from the yearly event which attracts upwards of 10,000 entries.

Among the birds in the show are green heron, great blue heron, sandhill crane, hooded merganser, red-winged blackbird, bufflehead, loon, mute swan, snowy owl, great egret, tree swallow, warbling vireo, goldfinch, cardinal, bald eagle and mallard … taken throughout Michigan.

All of them using his lifelong occupation of  photojournalism, capturing moments in time and telling a story. A shard of light across a bird’s face, a bird’s breath, skimming the water, feeding a baby,  a territorial dispute, reflections, carrying nest materials, napping.

So how did a person capturing photos of people doing stuff move into taking photos of birds doing stuff?

Jessmore calls it his Covid project, when as a self-employed photographer he went from 100 invoices a year to six invoices.

His supportive wife, Brenda, urged him to use his talents and try something new that he would love to do.

Shooting images for a kayak company, he began noticing birds and got up earlier and earlier to observe  them.  Struggling to take decent pictures of ducks flying overhead, he said it was “game on.”

He upgraded his equipment and got his own kayak and camouflage outfits. He recalled 2 1/2 hours spent with a hawk on a cold dark winter day. Hand-holding his camera and its 600mm lens which weighs 15 pounds.

“My process is to get up a half hour before sunrise and get in place and then sit. Often tucked in the reeds. In the morning I shoot into the sun and in the evening with the sun at my back. I might shoot 2000 images in one morning of birds just living their lives, and with me as an observer journalist. Sit, wait, watch.”

From a distance, so he doesn’t disturb them. Nor does he bait them, or make noises to attract them.

Recent  highlights, he said, was both a loon and a sandhill crane occupying a nest and laying eggs. He was there when the loons hatched. He observed the crane from Memorial Day to July 4, some 40 visits and all, but the eggs never hatched.

In between the 15 year old and this bird thing, Jessmore won five Michigan Photographer of the Year as a newspaper photographer. He was the chief photographer and director of photography at The  Saginaw News from 1984 to 1999, the former chief photographer and director of photography at The  Flint Journal from 1999 to 2008, a photojournalism instructor at Central Michigan University from 1999 to 2007, a photographer and assistant photographer of photos and image marketing at CMU from 2013 to 2018, and in August 2018 formed his own Steve Jessmore Photography company.

He graduated from MacArthur High School (now Heritage) in Saginaw Township and today lives in the Grand Rapids area.

On March 2 at 1pm he will give a full lecture at the Saginaw Art Museum. “Birds Doing Stuff”  remains on display through  May 11.

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