On March 18, 1996, Earl Nottingham walked into the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department headquarters to start a new job, replacing the legendary Leroy Williamson as agency and magazine photographer. Immediately, Earl hit the ground running, dispatched to capture images of an oil spill near Galveston.
“On such short notice, the only motor pool vehicle that could be found for me was an ancient, rusting gray van with peeling paint and bald, out-of-balance tires; it was normally used to shuttle kayakers on river excursions,” he recalls. “It made no difference to me as I wobbled and squeaked toward Galveston — I was proud to be driving a vehicle with the TPWD seal on the door.”
Twenty-five years of award-winning photography and a few thoroughly worn-out TPWD trucks later, we bid a grateful farewell to Earl Nottingham in this issue as he retires as our beloved chief photographer. Earl has amassed a quarter-century of imagery that defines this magazine and the agency: rivers and canyons, sunsets and sunrises, smiles and tears.
“Working with Earl for the past 15 years has not only been a pleasure but also a valuable learning experience,” says TPWD photographer Chase Fountain. “Throughout the years I have studied his shooting style and techniques in real time — taking it in and adding in my own style. He will be missed.”
It’s not all bad news for Earl’s fans, though. Texas A&M University Press will release a coffee-table book portraying a retrospective of his TPWD photographs later in 2021, and the fruits of his immense archives will grace the pages of this publication for many years to come.
We leave you with a few of (what we fondly call) Earl’s Pearls.
How did you get this job?
As a freelance photographer for several years, I was shooting for several state and national publications. In the late 1980s, former Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine photo editor Bill Reaves began to give me frequent freelance assignments covering the things I was passionate about, the woods and waters of Texas. In time, a full-time staff photographer position opened up with the agency, and Bill encouraged me to apply. Thanks to the track record I had built as a freelancer, and against the odds due to the massive number of people who applied for the position, I got the job.
What memory is most likely to make you misty?
Ironically, my most memorable photo assignment with TPWD was not shot in Texas but in Louisiana, when I accompanied our Texas game wardens to document their search-and-rescue efforts in the flooded Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The scene was beyond surreal; the images of death and human tragedy will forever be etched in my memory.
What do you think about during all that time you spend alone?
With a state the size of Texas, most of the time on an assignment is just getting from point A to point B. For long drives, I’d be lost without music on the radio. On location, most assignments can be shot fairly quickly and it’s a quick turn-around back home. There’s a lot of downtime on multiday shoots, but between downloading and editing the day’s photos on a laptop and preparing equipment for the next day, time passes pretty quickly.
What would surprise readers most about the lifestyle?
Many people tell me that I have the best job in Texas. I often have to remind myself, “Y’know, I really do.” But, while the job might be seen as romantic by some, there’s always the underlying responsibility to come back with the right photos to tell the story. If the light or the subject doesn’t cooperate, I’ve wasted a trip. Many people don’t realize that only 10 percent of the job is shooting. The other 90 percent is spent on the back end, editing and writing in front of a computer, not to mention state paperwork.
Best part of the job?
Without question, the best part of my job is traveling to every corner of Texas and photographing the people who love it and who are doing their part to be good stewards of it. This involves not only the almost 3,000 TPWD employees, but private landowners and other conservation-minded individuals as well. Of course, I enjoy shooting the scenery, but I really love photographing people in context with their involvement in the outdoors.
Hardest question. Favorites?
Picking a favorite subject or place to shoot is like picking a favorite child. It’s impossible to do, as well as probably not very wise. If pressed, however, I would have to say that, for photography, the Big Bend region of Texas is probably my favorite location. I would even go as far as to say that its rugged beauty and siren call is “addictive” and keeps drawing me back, providing new vistas no matter how many times I visit.
Many photographers don’t write. What part has writing played in
I agree with the person who said, “I don’t particularly like writing, but I like having written.”
As a visual person, writing doesn’t come easily to me. Luckily, an older outdoor writer once told me that it’s easier to write about something you already know — it’s just a recipe, with
a beginning, a middle and an end. He was right. I enjoy sharing my photographic knowledge with the readers of the magazine.
I try to keep my writing conversational, like I’m talking to a friend over a cup of coffee. After all these years, that’s what the readers have become. Coming up with the first sentence is the hardest. After that, the words start to flow; soon, there is a story that I like having written.
You’ve spent a lot of time teaching others. What does that mean to you?
I’ve had so many good teachers and photographic mentors over the years. Each had their own effective techniques of teaching subject matter in ways that stuck with me. I’ve tried to incorporate some of those techniques when I teach photography. While the basics of photography are really pretty simple, they may seem overwhelming to beginners. I enjoy seeing eyes light up when someone has that “Aha, I get it!” moment.
So, what are you going to do now?
I’m not quite sure what I will do upon retirement. One thing is for sure, though; it will still involve photography. I’m anxious to see what Earl 2.0 will look like!