Iditarod photographerlooks for new angles
Jeff Schultz, one of Iditarod's two official photographers, will mark his twentieth year chronicling the race when the dog sledding teams leave Anchorage next March. Originally a portrait and wedding photographer, he was swept up in Iditarod fever after shooting a portrait of the charismatic Joe Reddington Sr., a founder of the modern race who passed away last year.
That seed planted in Iditarod's early days has blossomed into an Alaska-focused career for Schultz, who now shoots editorial and corporate assignments and owns the the stock agency Alaska Stock Images at alaskastock.com. Schultz himself regularly shoots outdoor and adventure stock in addition to his annual coverage of Iditarod.
Much has changed since the race first reached Nome in 1973, and since 1981, when Schultz hired a pilot on his own first year on the trail, and "could only afford to fly the trail half way." More teams, more media, and more machinery have turned the Iditarod into a high-priced, worldwide event.Yet much remains the same as in those early days. Iditarod now has a much more televised start, a much more photographed finish, but the 1100 miles of slow motion will always be in between. Getting out on the trail is a still a grueling financial and physical test of endurance.
"Covering Iditarod is a kind of a logistical nightmare. The dog teams can be spread out over hundreds of miles," says Schultz, who notes that photographers often have to pay $5,000 to $7,000 per seat on bush planes that follow the race. As an Iditarod staffer, Schultz flies for free with volunteer pilots, but says that doesn't make the assignment any easier."Even with the pilots I find who are well experienced and able to land anywhere given the terrain, more often they land where they can, then you hike or snowshoe to where the trail is," says Schultz.
"You could be flying along, you spot a team, and you fly down the trail a ways to a place that looks good. Whether it's scenic or treacherous, you walk back to that spot and wait for the mushers. You can wait for an hour, or 10 minutes. You can time it just right, or you could miss the mushers altogether.
"Another scenario is where you know there are going to be a number of teams passing a certain place. So you hire a snow mobile from a villager and you wait for the teams to come by, then you go down the trail a ways and wait for them to come by again. Then you work your way back to catch another team. There is no easy way to do it."
Though probably millions of photos have been shot of the Iditarod over the years, Schultz says it's good to remember that every race and every team is different. And there's always a new angle.
He shot the photograph from the dog's perspective during his seventh Iditarod, when, he says, "I finally figured, 'How about putting the camera on a remote?' I dug a hole in the snow, buried the camera and put a radio remote control on it. The dogs won't run into it. I left just enough out of the ground so that it wouldn't get hit by the sled."
Some of his favorite images were taken on the first-time Iditarod visit of Los Angeles Times photographer Anacleto Rapping. "He did photos of mushers taking off their boots. Sometimes you take that for granted, but he did something new with it."
As a volunteer year-round for Iditarod, like the hundreds of other volunteers who run the race and support the sled teams, Schultz is unpaid for his work during the annual event. He begins planning his Iditarod photo coverage only a short time before the dog teams hit Anchorage.
"A couple of weeks before the race I will go through the photos and photo requests we have received and I try to write down the things I haven't shot before," he says. "I will try to think of the mechanics of the race, the images I don't have yet, or need to reshoot. Other than, you just make sure you have everything with you."
Though he tends not to use flash, Schultz uses Canon film cameras and an Olympus 2500 digital camera, along with rechargeable battery packs. Compared with his early days shooting Iditarod, he says, "I am just thrilled that with a high powered Ni-Cad pack I can shoot at 50 below and not have to change batteries."
Those battery packs get their greatest use during the start and finish of the race, when Schultz says he uses the digital camera so he can get his images to his corporate clients of Alaska Stock, and onto the Iditarod website quickly. "Then," he says, "I take the film camera and I go out and shoot what I really enjoy. That's the small dog team in the big landscape."
One of his favorites is the shot opening our main Destinations article on Iditarod 2001.
"That was one where I had the pilot land in the middle of nowhere. I walked around looking for a spot, slogging through the snow because I didn't have snow shoes. I finally found what I thought might be the right place, and then I thought, 'It's far away, do I have the right lens?' I figured 17mm would work.
"There was very little noise. I waited an awful long time, and only one team came by. I had been to that spot before, and have been back there since, and it hasn't been the same. Maybe they moved the trail a little bit."