Dean M. Chriss
A Biography

My Life So Far

Photo of Dean M. Chriss

My passion is seeing, experiencing, and photographing the natural world. I began taking pictures in what used to be rural Ohio when I was around 10 years old. My camera was a Kodak Instamatic 100 that was given away to promote some paper towels. I photographed everything from cool cars to dilapidated buildings, but the most available subjects were those in nature. Not long after entering college I bought a Minolta SRT 201, a couple of lenses, a bellows for doing macro work, and a flash with proceeds from various part time jobs. The most memorable of those was working at a pizzeria and Italian restaurant, and being a substitute janitor at a local school system. It was my first "real" camera, and at the time it seemed to cost a fortune. That old Minolta stayed with me through way too many years of studying theoretical mathematics and physics, along with quite a bit of chemistry and psychology. I never enjoyed learning facts, but was enamored with learning how to derive and discover them.

My first job that didn't involve pizzas or sweeping floors was in the engineering department of a large corporation. There I quickly became friends with a well travelled colleague who, like me, obsessively enjoyed photography. I bought a Canon A-1 and a bunch of lenses during my first year there in preparation for a trip we planned to New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. I had never been further than a six hour drive away from home and could hardly believe the things we saw. That trip and those places had a profound effect on the rest of my life.

With constant deadlines, 50 to 60 hour work weeks, and just a few weeks of vacation each year, the time available to pursue my passion was woefully inadequate. I used holidays that could be combined with a few precious vacation days to make photo trips of a week or so. The company was always closed from Christmas Eve through New Year's Day so I either combined that time with vacation days for long trip, or took it separately for a shorter trip. After five years I had three weeks of vacation. That helped but was never enough to seriously pursue the things I wanted to do, and I always had to spend holidays away from family and friends in the middle of nowhere. During this part of my life I learned that time is all a person truly owns. Everyone needs food, shelter, and other necessities, but beyond that you can impoverish yourself by selling too much of your time.

After about eight years I managed to get a three month leave of absence to explore America. It was the best thing I had ever done. After returning to work I remember my boss saying it was good I had gotten that out of my system while I was still young. He obviously had no idea how my system works. By then I had done some thinking about trying to make a living doing nature photography. I knew it was a huge financial risk, and I would need to do things that have nothing to do with what I love about photography, like workshops, equipment reviews, and the like. As a dear friend and photographer once told me, "Turning a passion into a job is a great way ruin a passion." I decided against it and resigned myself to a corporate job and scrounging for as much time as I could get to practice photography. A year later I got lucky.

One of my former managers, two other colleagues, and the person who hired me into the company nine years earlier, all left to start a small consulting firm. Not long after that they asked me to join them. My decision took about ten seconds. Much of the work had me in the Rocky Mountain states and desert southwest. Instead of flying home each weekend I usually opted to work 40 hours in four days leaving three days each week with free lodging and rental vehicle to go off and take pictures. I also had a lot more vacation time. It was great, though perhaps too much of a good thing. After about four years, spending more time in motels than in my own home proved very tiring. Soon thereafter I struck out on my own, becoming self-employed as an engineering consultant. For the next thirty-some years I explored wild places and practiced photography for an average of three months spread throughout each year. The situation also gave me the time needed for things like image processing, printing, arts festivals, gallery openings, and year end holidays at home with family and friends. I have generated some money doing photography, but that was never the point. I'd have made far more if I worked at my "real" job for those three months every year instead of traveling around and piling up expenses. My wife and I don't need much, especially if that means being a slave to our possessions. Our passions are a lot more important and mine has remained fully intact. I have been incredibly lucky.

Photography was initially my way of celebrating nature, but it eventually brought me to realize that the world is literally dying before my eyes. Today, forty years after my first big photo trip, it would be impossible to see and do many of the things I have done. The opportunities no longer exist due to overcrowding, disappearing wildlife, and climate change induced fires, insect infestations, droughts, and floods. Today's children cannot hope to have the opportunities I did. As terrible as that is, their children's future is far worse, and their grandchildren's future is best described as apocalyptic. Thirty years ago, when scientists began warning us about where we were headed, such a dismal future was easily avoidable. It is still avoidable, but having wasted most of the time we had to make changes, a truly massive effort would now be needed. The best mathematical models say we have about ten more years, until sometime around 2030, before we reach a "tipping point". That's a line in time, after which halting natural processes that human caused global warming is already setting into motion becomes impossible. Crossing that line is not a dramatic event that people will notice, but it seals the fate of our descendants. That ten year timing is the most probable predicted by models. It could happen sooner or later with equal probability, but it will happen, and it will not take another 20 years. With the future of humanity and the world we know at stake we should act quickly. History says we will not.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s I spent large amounts of time working for environmental causes. There were only small successes, the best being a city owned lakefront nature preserve and a tax levy to support it, on lakefront land that was slated for a housing development. Unfortunately no environmental group or movement has ever improved the big picture, or even kept it from getting worse. Many don't realize what is happening or how bad it is because they are not out in nature enough, over a long enough period, to see the changes. This ignorance combined with America's tribal politics and the fact that many will stop at nothing to develop, cut down, and otherwise monetize every natural thing has prevented most positive change since the 1970s. In recent years it has become far worse. Radical, anti-science, conservative extremism has replaced facts with beliefs, turned political parties into cults, and stolen the future. My days of campaigning and lobbying are long gone. Younger people must do that, and suffer the most severe consequences if they are as unsuccessful. I wish them great success and luck. I will continue to do what I can to minimize my personal environmental impact and enjoy what remains of my days.

To that end my wife and I began living in Australia in late 2022. Living near family in a place where people and their institutions are far more reasonable and not so polarized is a joy every day. Even the most conservative politicians here recognize environmental problems, and more has been done about them than will ever be done in America. Whether it is adequate is a much different question, but this is certainly more helpful than denying that the problems exist. The global nature of the issues means everyone suffers the same fate, but it feels better to be in a place where people are at least trying to do what's right. Beyond that, the lack of firearms, mass homicides, and overarching negativity, makes people happier, safer, and friendlier. There are parks everywhere, and the comparatively low population means most of them are not crowded. Most days I wake up feeling that we are the luckiest people in the world.

After five or six months of settling in I began to doing quite a bit of photography within an hour or two from home. That has made me see that the effects of global warming are as severe in Australia as they are elsewhere. It's not "just" the weather and temperatures, but the rising sea level is undercutting cliffs along the seashore and causing them to collapse, sometimes along with stairways built for access to incredible scenery. Massive bushfires in recent years have destroyed vast areas of tall eucalypt forest and everything that used to live in them. Over a billion animals were killed by the 2019 - 2020 fires. Even the luckiest person on earth can't be happy about that.

I am still driven to see and photograph as much as I can before it is gone, and while I am able. Nature photography, especially the field work, brings rewards that are intangible. My relationship with the natural world is among my greatest treasures. Photography allows me to share my view of that world and has in turn helped me to see my subjects in a much more intimate way. Concern and respect for my subjects is the driving force behind my photography. I believe that a personal connection with one’s subjects is as a prerequisite for the creation of compelling images.

My photographs are my attempt to show the essence of my subjects, all of which are vanishing or diminishing. They are statements saying "This exists in our world." They are questions of conscience, asking how we can knowingly wipe these things from the face of the earth and live with ourselves. They are a hope that people might realize that destroying nature is destroying humanity's future. To that end I try to present the unblemished face of nature without signs of modern human presence.

I have printed all of my own work digitally since 1997. This allows me to maintain a consistent visual interpretation from the first eyewitness view in the field all the way through to the finished print. I have also made prints for other photographers, reproduced works for painters and other visual artists, and digitally restored and printed historically significant photographs for corporate and private collections. My photographs were first published in the United States in 1986 and have since been published in more than twenty-five countries distributed across Europe, North America, and South Asia.

As time passes our perspectives sometimes change. It was once a thrill to sell a print or have an image published. Now the hassles outweigh the rewards, but it remains a thrill to see and experience nature. Photography is still the best way for me to do that. The resulting images allow re-seeing and reliving those experiences, including those that are extinct.

Dean photographing a reddish egret
Dean with new printer
Dean coming home from work