(Riverton, WY) – Depicting his journey from military photographer to capturing stunning images of Wyoming’s nature and wildlife, Fremont County native Wes Uncapher shared his story—along with his extensive gallery of photos—as the first in the 2023 Discovery Speaker Series at the Riverton Museum last Wednesday.
“I couldn’t even operate one of those throw-away disposable cameras,” Wes said, describing his experience in photography before joining the Navy. Scoring well on the ASVAB, he originally wanted to go in as a Seabee, but waited to see what the Navy would offer. He was approached by a nuclear engineering recruiter, but his name was also put into the hat as a Photographer’s Mate (military photographer).
“I had no idea such a thing existed in the military,” he said. “I was trying to find the job description in the historical records on the internet, but I couldn’t find or figure out what it was they handed me. Photography was an anomaly that I fell into; I could see it as a trade outside the military. That was a criterion for me.”
Wes attended the US Naval Schools of Photography, and, as a Photographers Mate, was able to travel to places in the world such as Iraq, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Hong Kong. “The Navy, at that time…you did have photographers embedded with all kinds of different units, whether it was on a carrier or on a battleship, with Seabees, SEALS, aerial reconnaissance…I seemed to have a predisposition for it,” he said.
Many of his military photos, such as aerial or on carriers, were a challenge to take. “It was all film, no digital back then,” he said. “It was difficult to get a nice, crisp picture (especially if someone’s shooting at you), but if you can get a somewhat usable picture, we’d call that a heck of a good success.”
“They (the Navy) try to give you a foundation in everything because you really don’t know what you’re going to be faced with out there,” Wes continued. “If you do well and you have the scores for it, you have a chance to go back for further training. They give you the confidence you need to deal with some of the situations you’ll face. If you can’t do it, nobody can. You gain the understanding of the pressure that you’ll be subjected to.”
With the transition from military to a civilian photographer, Wes was successful in having many of his photos published in popular magazines such as Wyoming Wildlife, Wyoming Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Bugle Magazine, Outdoor Life, North American Hunter, Colorado Outdoors, Montana Outdoors, Montana Magazine, Cowboys and Indians, Gun Dog and more. His photo, “Elk Storm” received 4th place-Honorable Mention in The Motif Collective’s 2022 Winners Gallery.
“I was looking to what I was going to do after I got out,” he said. “That took a bit of doing. Back in the days of slides, it was hard to break in…it still is, to a degree. But it was harder then because you send them a sheet of twenty slides, and then they (publishers) hold on to them for months. In the meantime, I built my portfolio…I really didn’t have that many. Now, it would be no problem for me…but at that time, I’d send the slides to a magazine, wondering if they’re going to use them, and you hope, ‘Of course, they’re going to use them!’”
Some publications were specifically on Wes’ to-do list after the military. “Wyoming Wildlife was one; the Elk Foundation was another, mainly because we grew up with those,” he said. “I was fascinated as to how they got their photos. People magazine…I always enjoyed that one.”
National Geographic was also on his list, but Wes said that he was a bit disenfranchised as to how political the magazine had evolved over the years. “There’s a lot of ex-military photographers that ended up in it,” he said. “In 1993, I remember there was an issue that came out that had both Somalia and Wyoming in it as the main articles, so I know a fair bit about both. The Somalia one was done pretty decent, but the Wyoming one? I was like…”if this is what they’re publishing, they’re going to love me.”
“When you look at a magazine like that, its content is interesting…and it should be interesting,” he continued. “There’s a great big world out there, and I suppose that had an influence on me as I went to go see that world. The world we live in now…it’s not so much about the art or the content, it’s about the political sway. It’s a shame.”
When asked what he’s doing these days…“it’s kind of to be determined,” Wes said. “The idea is that I’d go out and offer a local service…help out businesses in need of photography and imagery.”
Wes Uncapher’s photography is currently being exhibited at the Riverton Museum. His website, BelchingFrog.com, presents samples of his impressive works in portrait, western lifestyle, outdoor lifestyle, wildlife, scenery, and industrial/commercial photography.
The Riverton Museum hosts the Discovery Speaker Series throughout the year, with the next event scheduled for Wednesday, May 17, featuring local uranium historian Zach Larsen, “Gold Fever in the Atomic Age: Wyoming’s Uranium”…a 70th-anniversary event on the discovery of uranium in the Gas Hills. For more information, visit the museum’s website at fremontcountymuseums.com/riverton.