South Dakota Photographers Reflect on Their Craft

Aug 19, 2014

The first photograph ever taken.
Credit Joseph Nicephore Niepce

2014 brings the 175th anniversary of photography, being celebrated with “A Day in South Dakota”.  It’s an opportunity for people to take photos of what living in the state means to them, and send them along as a video archive of the day.  Collecting memories and recording history have obviously moved along as technology has improved photos and made them simple enough to take.  

If you plan on taking part in today’s “A Day in South Dakota” event, I can guarantee you you’ll have an easier time chronicling the day than that of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.  He was a French chemist credited with taking the world’s first photo, which, by the standards of 20-14, looks really primitive.   It’s called, “View From the Window at Le Gras,” and depicts—I guess—the courtyard of Niepce’s country home as seen from a bedroom window.  He used what was then known as a “camera obscura” to burn the image on a bitumen-coated plate, and took several hours to complete the exposure.

From that, the world has gone from box cameras, to the Polaroid devices which brought photos out to develop before your eyes—we now have digital photography which lets everyone channel his or her inner Matthew Brady.  Professionals disagree on whether this is a good thing.  Professional photographer Greg Latza doesn’t think so.

Latza says, “From my experience, and this is personal experience—I find that having access to a digital camera, and being able to take multiple photos on a card, or a collection of memory cards, makes a person forget they’re trying to capture a moment.  When I was shooting film, and it was more expensive, and I was trying to shoot a roll of 36 exposures, I would be more careful to expose those properly and be more careful, so you didn’t spend as much money getting that film developed.”

But the modern methods of photography intrigue other people who take pictures for a living—Chad Coppess is a senior photographer with the State Office of Tourism. 

Coppess reflects, “Well, it probably depends on what aspect of the industry you’re talking about—basically, I love the switch to digital.  It has made my job easier and harder at the same time; but I’m a much better photographer now than in my film days—it’s partly because of the instant feedback; it’s partly because I’m doing more of the editing work myself; and I love the fact that it’s creating a lot more people taking pictures than there were when they were shooting film, and it was a bit more expensive.”

Coppess has wanted to take photos for a living ever since he saw his dad work at camera at an outing.

He says, “My dad took me to Thunder Valley Raceway in Marion, and he had borrowed a camera from his office and took pictures, which I thought was really cool.  So I decided right then and there—I was probably in Eighth Grade—I wanted to be a photographer for Hot Rod Magazine or something like it.  And I had no idea how to go about that.”

He went about it the way most photographers collect experience—by working on high high school yearbook and taking photos whenever he would get the chance.  He studied the craft at Black Hills State University. So—with all his years of experience, and some beautiful photos that appear on South Dakota’s state government website—what does Coppess consider to be the perfect photograph?

Coppess admits,  “I think that eludes every photographer.  I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘perfect photo.’  Or, if it is, it’s still out there somewhere.  I haven’t found it, I know that.”

Greg Latza doesn’t describe the perfect photograph—but he looks to find a way to move people with his efforts.

Latza says, “For instance, when I’m driving through the back roads of South Dakota, and I see a landmark or a scene that everybody else has driven by that scene their entire lives—I try to show it in a new way; something that is beautiful, something that surprises the viewer.  The biggest compliment I ever get is when people say ‘I saw that book, that photo of this area that I’ve always lived in, and I’ve never looked at it that way.  I’ve never seen it that way, I think it’s awesome.”

Today SDPB hosts “A Day in South Dakota”. The idea is that people from around the state capture all things South Dakota in photos.  Latza shares the enthusiasm for the project.

As he says,  “I think it’s a great idea—I think that South Dakota has a lot to offer, as far as great scenery and cultural opportunities, fun things to do; and I’ve always loved the idea of putting a collection of photos together of the one-day idea—because it really is a snapshot of one day, and shows everything that’s going on across a large area like our state.”

If you’ve taken a photo for “A Day in South Dakota,” thank you—we all look forward to seeing it.  If you haven’t, find a place you think reflects what the state is about, and hit us with your best—wait for it—snapshot.