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Local photographer brings exotic animals, locales back home

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

There’s plenty of wonder to be found in Williamsburg, but it’s also important to explore what else our planet might have to offer. Photographer Ken Conger aims to capture some of that magic through his work, focusing on wildlife of the world in their natural habitats.

“Photography was like magic for me,” Conger said. “I’ll never forget that.”

He became enamored with photography around age 9, when his grandfather gave him an old Argus camera, and the idea of capturing rapturous moments forever captivated him. In high school, he used money earned from his first job to build his own darkroom and further develop his skills. He was, and remains, entirely self-taught.

Conger’s passion for the outdoors similarly bloomed early in his childhood, when his military family would spend summer vacations camping in national parks. Seeing the park rangers in their uniforms left little doubt regarding what he wanted to pursue later in life.

“We all have our passions in life,” he said. “I just enjoy watching animals.”

Photography took a backseat in his adulthood. Conger got a wildlife management degree, which led to working as a park ranger and later a game warden, including several years spent in the natural beauty of Alaska. Family life also demanded much of his attention. Conger and his family eventually settled in Lanexa (New Kent County), and he retired.

An otter helped reignite his passion for photography. He observed one eating a fish and knelt down to take a picture with his old camera — but it slipped onto the rocks and fell into the creek. His wife, Carole, said it was a sign to get an upgrade. So he went home, sold his boat and took out a second mortgage to fund $14,000 in equipment.

“I knew that’s what I really wanted to do,” Conger said.

A world of adventure

Conger’s career experience extended naturally into the serious pursuit of wildlife photography. He was familiar with many animals and knew ways to get up close without frightening them. Endangered species, in particular, captured his heart as he began to research and seek them out in the wild.

“Because they’re rare, they’re particularly challenging to photograph,” he said.

The photographer once spent two weeks in the foothills of the Himalayas, hoping to snap shots of red pandas. Instead, he only saw excrementitious evidence of their existence. But Conger said it was still an exciting experience.

He’s also traveled to places such as Madagascar, Peru, Nepal, Scotland and numerous other countries alongside U.S. destinations such as New Mexico and Hawaii.

“The most incredible thing is the length he goes to get the images,” said Leo Charette, executive director of An Occasion for the Arts and a fellow photographer who met Conger through shows. “This guy puts himself at risk when he goes out to some get very exotic, rare animals.”

Conger’s trips often take a week or several. He’s encountered and photographed lions, tigers, bears, bison, numerous birds and various other creatures. He prefers a shallow depth of field, so the focus is on the animal rather than its surroundings; he also aims to shoot images in which the animal is looking at the camera or doing something unique.

“It instills an emotional connection with the animal,” Conger said, hoping such moments might inspire others to pursue conservation efforts.

Conger recalled a trip with a friend to Katmai National Park in Arkansas, where he hoped to photograph a female alpha bear named Milkshake — due to the creamy color of her hide. He found a pool of water and knew he needed to capture her reflection, so he waited. Milkshake and her four cubs would go a different way or disappear for days. Finally, his friend was setting up a shot of his own, but he tripped and face-planted — sending the startled cubs running to their mom and setting up Conger’s ideal shot, in which the furry family and their reflection appear to look right at the camera.

“I like to get close,” he said. “You see the true intimacy in the soul of the animal.”

Conger showcases and sells his work on his website and across numerous shows along the East Coast, including An Occasion for the Arts and Art on the Square. In 2015, he published his first book, “Wildlife’s Greatest Connection;” a follow-up focusing on endangered species is in the works. He teaches classes and offers programs at venues such as the Virginia Living Museum and the Williamsburg Regional Library.

“What Ken has done is used photography to really educate people about what is out there,” Charette said. “He really is interested in educating people about the wildlife and how some of these species are actually developing.”

For those interested in the most hands-on of lessons, Conger also hosts group and one-on-one trips to locales such as Kenya, India and Alaska, where he helps others capture magical moments of their own.

“He gets to take people to see animals in their real, natural situations,” said Craig Hill, who met Conger through his Colonial Nature Photography Club. “He’s very passionate about going to see things in that environment.”

Charette said Conger’s work highlights the effort and sacrifices necessary to create worthwhile photographs, and Hill echoed that sentiment.

“What he brings to the community is high-quality images of animals that a lot of people would never see,” Hill said. “I’ve met a lot of wildlife photographers. He’s one of the best.”

Hill emphasized Conger’s humbleness. The focus always remains on the animals and their lives, as far away as they may sometimes seem. Conger said he’s simply grateful for all of his experiences.

“He’s out in the jungles, he’s out in the glaciers, he’s interested in the animals in their natural habitat,” Charette said. “That’s amazing.”

To see his Conger’s art

To learn more about programs and tours, visit kencongerphotography.com.

Conger’s upcoming appearances include:

  • Williamsburg’s Art on the Square, April 29.
  • Richmond’s Art in the Park, May 5-6.
  • Williamsburg’s An Occasion for the Arts, Oct. 7-8.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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