Mitch Kezar has been lugging his photography gear across grasslands and city streets all over the world for 50-plus years.
DELANO, MN – As drastically as the hair on his head and upper lip has transformed from a sharp brown to a wise gray, the world of photography has evolved immensely over the 50 years Mitch Kezar has looked through the viewfinder.
Kezar’s darkroom is now digital, but his passion in getting the shot and giving viewers their 1,000 words worth for each picture has never eased, even as his focus has shifted from still images and photojournalism to video production and promotional campaigns.
“I was an early adopter of every last piece of gear the manufacturers could conjure up. I think that’s what kept me in the business. I have an innate need to tinker with that stuff and learn it,” he said recently from his Delano home, where the shelves are filled with vintage camera bodies and dozens of lenses of various focal lengths. “Video is vastly more complex than stills, because you have to master sound and movement and think many steps ahead. But I think being a good still photographer is really an added benefit to being a good video producer, because you see the pictures first. I line it up just like I used to do with stills, and just let the action happen.”
Kezar recently completed a video for Federal Premium promoting the Kids and Clays Foundation. In less than a week, that video was viewed more than 2,000 times on Facebook.
“It’s nice to know your work is getting out there, and that people are seeing it and appreciating it,” said Kezar.
Hunting, fishing and wildlife conservation projects have taken Kezar’s focus for much of the past three decades, but, during the earlier years of his half-century photography career, Kezar’s cameras were capturing hard news and feature subjects: everything from the flock of sheep at his family’s farm, to crime in Montgomery, AL, to Cuba, to presidential candidates, to celebrities, and everything in between.
“I had a good time chasing presidential candidates around. I traveled with Jimmy Carter, Scoop Jackson, George Bush, Reagan and Ford,” he said. “I’ve got a list of celebrities I’ve met over the years that is as long as both of your arms.”
Like most photographers, though, major figures and celebrities like Carter and John Travolta were not the subjects of Kezar’s photographs at the start.
Those aforementioned sheep and some geese on the family farm were favorite subjects of Kezar’s in his infant stages of photography, as a kid growing up in Thief River Falls.
“Mom would run up to the drug store and get the film back and there would be a bunch of pictures of a flock of geese and our sheep. That was my favorite subject matter,” he said. “I used to steal her camera and burn off a few frames.”
Kezar’s 50-plus year photography career all started with his mother’s Brownie Hawkeye camera that now sits on the shelf in Kezar’s kitchen in Delano.
Also on that shelf is the Graflex Speed Graphic camera Kezar used at his first paying job.
“Three days before I got out of high school, I was hired as a staff reporter and photographer and floor sweeper at the Thief River Falls Times. That was June 8, 1969.”
Fifty years to the day after walking through the doors of the Thief River Falls Times, June 8, 2019, at his cozy home in Delano, Kezar and a large gathering of friends, celebrated his career with a hog roast and enough memory-spurring libations to make all photographers appreciative of autofocus.
Those memories for Kezar, include many steps through the photography world.
“I started out at a small-town newspaper and that led to a little bit of college journalism, and that led to not a great draft number, and that led to enlistment in the Air Force.”
Kezar wanted to put his photography talent to work for the Air Force, but it almost didn’t happen.
“The Air Force wanted to make a jet engine mechanic out of me. I said, ‘Look here, Sergeant, a wrench doesn’t fit in my hand; I’m a photographer,’” Kezar remembered. “He said, ‘I hear that every day.’ I said, ‘Well, I have a press pass.’”
The Sergeant did not believe Kezar until he flashed that press pass.
“I still carry a media pass,” Kezar noted.
Kezar became a combat media specialist in the Air Force. He was never shipped out for combat, himself, but several friends served in Vietnam.
While still in the Air Force, Kezar began working as a staff photographer at the Montgomery Advertiser, and went on to serve as president of the Alabama Press Photographers Association.
Kezar moved on to the Tampa Tribune, where he oversaw 37 photographers as the director of photography for seven years.
“We covered everything from the Yucatan to Cuba,” he said of his tenure in Florida. “It was a pretty heavy time.”
Kezar returned home to Minnesota in 1981, when he accepted an offer to oversee the photo staff at the Minneapolis Star. When the Star and Tribune combined in 1982, he became the assistant director of photography for the largest newspaper in the region.
“I love that paper,” he said of the Star Tribune.
With a portfolio to back up his skills and experiences, Kezar left the newspaper business and ventured out on his own as a freelance photographer for national magazines. His work has been featured in TIME, Newsweek, National Geographic, Fortune, Business Week, Family Circle, and Woman’s Day.
As the digital technology began taking over the photography world, Kezar panned his camera away from the world of general circulation magazines, and aimed it at the world of hunting and fishing.
Field & Stream and Outdoor Life are two of the largest outdoors magazines to feature Kezar’s images. His portfolio grew to include corporate work and advertising campaigns, and his medium switched from still photography to video.
Not an easy move, Kezar admits.
“It was nasty. It was an awesome, awful, technical, head-banging learning curve to get into it,” he said. “Once you got it, you got it, though, so its a matter of keeping your head down and learning.”
The list of companies that feature Kezar’s still images and videos is a who’s who of corporate giants in the outdoors world — Federal, Remington, Winchester, Leupold, Bushnell, Realtree, Mathews, BowTech, Filson, Abu Garcia, Fenwick, Old Town, Pure Fishing, Outdoor Channel, and Savage Arms.
In the corporate world, Kezar’s clients have included FedEx, HB Fuller, General Mills, and 3M.
A farm kid who served in the FFA and in 4-H, Kezar never forgot where he came from. He has produced more than 200 covers for Successful Farming Magazine, and is working on a multi-year project for the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition.
He takes special pride in the grasslands project.
“It’s a lovely career job, because it’s a story I know and it’s a story I believe in,” he said. “It’s a blast shooting it. We get to hang out with ranchers in their environments, and tell their stories of successes and failures in introducing grasslands to areas that were indigenous grasslands back when the buffalo roamed.”
His work with the grasslands project and the promotion of returning the land back to the hoofed animals that once roamed it, relates to an assignment two decades ago that Kezar will never forget.
It was 1989 in Africa, where Kezar was photographing a hunt for Leupold, a leading optics company. He was in a hot air balloon soaring over the Mara River.
“People ask what’s the coolest thing I have seen in my career; that has to be it,” he said. “We were up at 10,000 feet, which is bloody high for a hot air balloon. You would look off to your left and see herds of plains animals — topi, zebra, wildebeest, impala; all the hoofed animals — as far as the eye could see. You look to the right and see them shoulder-to-shoulder to the end of the earth in that direction.
“I’m not sure that is possible now. From what I heard in 1989, that was sort of the end of the grand migration.”
Kezar is also the founder of Windigo Images, a stock photo business that houses “the most comprehensive image collection of hunting, fishing, camping and great outdoors,” and, with girlfriend Ellen Becker, created Kindred Small Films, a company that produces family documentaries that preserve one’s history for the sake of future generations.
What Kezar has seen through the viewfinder in half a century could fill a book or two. Actually, his work has filled many pages — in newspapers, books, magazines, and calendars, as well as websites and social media platforms.
He has photographed in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and China.
“I was trying to figure out the other day whether or not I have ever taken a goof-off vacation. Maybe two in all these years,” he said. “I figure I have logged over 8 million miles so far. My cases look like it.”
Those cases were back in South Dakota this past week, safely housing the gear and equipment that will capture the images in Kezar’s eye.
“I have been really fortunate to do what I like to do; something I think I’m halfway decent at doing,” he said. “No sign of slowing down. I have stuff to do and stories to tell.”
To see more of Mitch Kezar’s work, visit kezarmedia.com.