The Flyfish Journal: Hey Kyle! Go ahead and introduce yourself for those who may not be familiar with your work. Usually, this ends up knocking out some standard ‘getting to know you’ type conversation and we can dive in to other stuffs.
Kyle Zempel: My name is Kyle Zempel and I have somehow managed to make a living around my passions. Fly fishing and photography. I am a full time fishing guide and photographer. I’m not sure how exactly it happened but here I am and I’m going to ride my passion train until I run out of steam.
I can’t put a finger on how fly fishing and photography became my passions. Out of all the hobbies I have picked up and dropped over the years these two were always there. Travel seems to have a common connection to these passions. In 5th grade I was chosen as the “top safety guard” and was rewarded by going on a trip to the nation’s capital. WOW! It was one of my first trips I can remember and was certainly the first without my mom. She let me take her camera (a basic Kodak film) and upon my return she may have regretted sending it with me when she had to flip the bill for the 8+ rolls of film to be developed. Apparently, I enjoyed taking photos, using the trip money I was given to buy more film instead of fake Oakley’s and useless knick-knacks. One could say this was unknowingly, the start of my photography passion.
Fly fishing came later in life for me, but fishing did not. At a young age my grandfathers were inspirational in my love for fishing and that love eventually found me with a fly rod in my hand during my high school graduation celebration. I still had no idea what the hell to do with it, not until I started hanging with the Pavlovich brothers (they show up in many of my photos). My journey took me out west for a zip-line guide position, camera in hand and fly rod in the trunk. I was lucky enough to work in the San Juan National Forest and live on the upper Animas River for multiple summers, photographing black bears and honing my cast. Out west, like many others is where I truly cut my teeth with the fly rod.
Now, I reside in the quiet hills of the Driftless Area, near the small town of Black Earth, Wisconsin. I like to refer to it as the Black Earth Retreat, my place of peace and happiness, the place I began my company, Black Earth Angling Co. Over the many years since my trip to D.C., I have dabbled in almost every kind of photography. At some point you start to weed out what you are good at or enjoy and surprisingly enough it has boiled down to fly fishing/adventure, nature, and wedding. The wedding photo thing throws most folks but I enjoy it. It pays the bills and I am surrounded by very happy people (at least for that day).
TFFJ: We’re very lucky to be doing what we love and riding that passion train. Do you see some parallels between guiding and the portrait/wedding aspect of your photography business? It seems like there might be some overlap there, in the people person sense. Getting comfortable around the folks you are photographing as well as them becoming comfortable around you and in front of the camera and gaining that trust, seems like that is kind of what you’re going for as a fly fishing guide as well. Often people change the minute the camera gets aimed and it can take a bit for them to kind of drop that guard. I consider photographing people to be one of my downfalls, I don’t think I’m that great at it and it is something that I have struggled with, but that is also motivation to get better and keep pushing.
KZ: Yes. I certainly find many parallels, not all obvious, but they are there. I mean, when you put a rod in a person’s hand that you don’t know and have a 6/0 musky fly whizzing by your ear, you’ll get a little nervous. Same goes for shooting that big day. You have this sense of nervousness, even though you’ve done it many times before, I imagine an angry bride is much like getting stuck in the neck with a musky fly, luckily neither has happened to me. The trust thing you mention is the key, your client/subject has to trust and respect you. On wedding day, the groomsmen in particular, can hit the sauce a little too early and the difficult task of taking group portraits can suddenly turn into an absolute shit-show. Similarly, when you’re dealing with a group of beginners and they start shaking their rods violently in attempts to get their tangle out … well, you get the picture.
Breaking down that barrier before the camera is on them is the ticket to success. Earning people’s respect and making people feel at ease comes quite natural to me. Once you have their trust and respect, more times than not they will be comfortable with you coaching them. Instructive humor can be your friend in accomplishing this, as laughter will naturally relax them. On occasion I will run across a client that is tough to crack. This is where you really develop and take it to the next level in both shooting and guiding- your ability to accomplish what you’re after without using your normal approach that works for you 95% of the time.
I agree with that, yes, photographing people can sometimes be uncomfortable for both parties involved. If you were to ask me to walk up to a stranger and take a portrait of them, I would have a hard time with it. It’s a two-way street when building that relationship with a client. I need to feel comfortable with them just as much as they need to feel comfortable with me. When you reach that point you get your best work. The relaxation suddenly spills out and things start to fall into place, the casting stroke becomes more natural and relaxed, the fake smiles transform into the real ones and you can get down to what your client is paying you to do.
TFFJ: Yeah, although I will say I’ve made a few favorite photographs approaching strangers. Usually it was circumstantial, I never sought them out specifically, but once we crossed paths, I knew I had to ask. Joel Sternfeld has an amazing book, Strangers Passing, where he photographed strangers he met while traveling. I’m assuming he didn’t have much time to make the portraits, but I don’t know. Either way, it’s so good.
Got any favorite hashtags?
KZ: #keepemwet is one of my favorites. It raises good awareness of properly photographing and releasing fish (something that many people do wrong and end up causing harm to the fish). The principles when practicing #keepemwet are great ones and can be used by any level photographer or fisher. I’ve actually spoken about these principles to many fishing clubs and chapters around the Midwest. Now I’ve got people sending me their #keepemwet photos. Great to see it works.
TFFJ: Any projects you are currently working on?
KZ: Living life as a guide/photographer is a project in itself. My company, Black Earth Angling Co. is continuing to grow and a lot of it is due to my strong visual presence (both photo and video) that I am continually working on.
There is a crazy phenomenon that occurs on the Wisconsin River where smallmouth bass corral baitfish. It is the only place I have seen it occur at this magnitude. I am working on better capturing those events both with still image and video.
TFFJ: You’re stuck on an island with one fly rod, one lens and one species of fish. What are they?
KZ: Sage ONE – 8wt. Canon 24-105mm. Smallmouth bass.
TFFJ: Good answer. I need to get on the smallmouth train. What are your favorite photographs to make or what sorts of images are you into lately?
KZ: The smallmouth train is a slippery slope. Come fish with me sometime, you may never get off the train.
My favorite photographs to make are ones where it appears as if you were a fly on the wall of a moment in time. Call them candid, call them snapshots, call them whatever you want. I find them appealing. They are far more than simple snapshots. I put great deal of thought into the image, setting it all up in my mind and then executing it when the time is right. Patience is key, waiting for that moment when your subject finally moves into place and the mental picture I had created comes to life.
Lately I’ve struggled to get out and capture images for my personal satisfaction, most of my imagery has been work related. Taking a personal fishing trip somewhere often cures this.
TFFJ: I was recently in Colorado fishing a reservoir and had what I think was a smallie absolutely hammer my fly and proceed to tear around for less than a minute and then spit the hook. I had a quick glimpse of a huge golden-bronzed slab and was pretty astonished at the quick fight.
Hopefully you’ll find some time soon to cure your personal satisfaction!
KZ: Glad you were able to get a short-lived taste of bronze back madness. They are pound for pound the gamest fish that swims. I hope you can get out to their native range and fish for them while floating a northern blackwater river. It is a bucket list experience. My personal satisfaction is soon to be cured. I’m winding down my guide season and taking a needed vacation out to the Rockies. Venturing down to my old stomping grounds near Durango, up to Breckenridge to photograph a wedding and then onto western Wyoming. I can’t wait. I hope my camera knows what kind of torture it is in for. They’ve been known to experience some trauma around the mountains.
TFFJ: Where can we follow along with your travels and work Kyle?
KZ: You can follow me in a number of ways, the most direct would be to join me on my adventures, but if you can’t then use the almighty social media machine…
TFFJ: Anything else you’d like to add?
KZ: Do yourself a favor and subscribe to TFFJ and with any luck you’ll see my work in print. It is an honor to share my story with such a great publication. It’s truly amazing the different turns your life takes once you pick up a camera. I am ever grateful for the opportunities it has presented me and I am thrilled to share a shutter-speed snippet of my life with the world. Like many artists out there, I have a few ideas on the back burner and hope to continually improve and advance my work. Until next time… I thank you and extend the open invitation to come fish. Cheers.
TFFJ: Thanks for chatting Kyle!