Photographer Captures International Exposure

Hometown Heroes, People
on May 20, 2001

Jim Petek spends most days pushing rocks and dirt with massive machines at a precious metals mine. But the hand-to-eye-coordination honed at his day job finds a more delicate use in Peteks real passioncapturing images of birds on film.

That passion paid off when Peteks photograph of Bohemian waxwings fluttering from a mountain ash tree won the composition and form category in the 2000 BG Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, sponsored by British Gas.

He snapped the winning photograph just three blocks from his home in Red Lodge, Mont., (pop. 2,204).

You read the photo books, and they all say, Know your back yard, he says. The narrow street Petek lives on is lined with mountain ash trees. In the fall, Bohemian waxwings bunch up and search out the trees for their bright orange berries.

Petek often cruises his neighborhood paying more attention to the trees than the road.

Its a wonder we havent run into each other because were always driving with our heads out the window, says fellow photographer and friend Merv Coleman, who owns a gallery in Red Lodge.

On one such trip, Petek sighted a flock of waxwings and set up his Pentax P21 camera with a 600 mm lens on a tripod. When the waxwings concentrated, Petek picked up his 80-200 mm zoom lens and began walking toward the birds.

I knew they were going to explode, so when they did, I was ready and let the motor drive go. The result was an award that included a plane ticket to London, a cash prize, and honorary status at the awards ceremony at the Natural History Museum in London.

The lanky, 6-foot-4 former college basketball player has a broad smile, huge hands, and a relaxed manner that probably helps him get close to his flighty subjects.

Petek, 52, earns money and vacation for wildlife photography by driving excavation equipmentbulldozers, loaders, and track hoesto build dams and roads. He uses some vacation to travel to out-of-state wildlife refuges, while his 10-hour-a-day, four-day-a-week schedule gives him long weekends to pursue photographic quarry at refuges across Montana.

Petek got seriously interested in photography about 20 years ago. Thats when I really started to put money into the better equipment, he says. But his father, John Petek, introduced him to photography years earlier. The elder Petek operated a commercial photography studio in Billings for many years and would take his sons to his lab. Petek recalls he was more interested in playing ball.

His father gave him his first camera as a wedding present. But it wasnt until he put down his hunting rifle and purchased a longer lens that Petek began taking an interest in wildlife photography. In the beginning, he photographed all types of wildlifebears, coyotes, and elk. Then he became interested in birds.

His waxwing photo won him recognition from a German magazine, attracted the attention of a London photo agency, which wanted to represent his work, and earned high praise from the BG Wildlife contest judges.

Simon King, a filmmaker and judge who wrote the caption for Peteks photo in the commemorative book Wildlife Photographer, said of the photograph: What do you see? Pure unadulterated natural beauty, thats what. I could go into details … or I could talk about shutter speeds … but all that would be just so much hot air in the face of something so purely beautiful.

The international exposure doesnt mean he can afford to quit his day job.

This worked out a lot different than I planned, Petek says. Then he jokes, I planned for me to retire and for Betty to keep on working.