Envisioning the West through the Lens of Luray Parker

By Chris Madson

Four-thirty in the morning is a barbarous hour. It’s about the time the human body reaches its absolute low in the daily cycle — blood doesn’t flow; eyes won’t focus; muscles won’t move. The effect is bad enough through the summer; in the winter with the temperature hovering around 25 below just outside the door, it’s completely paralyzing.

That’s when the light went on. I rolled over and squinted into the corner of the room. LuRay was already in his wool pants and had begun a check of his equipment — batteries, lenses, tripod, film supply. I sat up with a groan and tried to find the gumption to get my feet on the floor.

“Clear morning,” he commented without a look in my direction. “First light should be good.” I caught the faint emphasis on the word “first” and climbed out of bed.

An hour later, we emerged from Gardiner, Montana’s only breakfast spot, climbed into the Parker pickup and headed into Yellowstone for the dawn patrol along the north road between Mammoth and Cooke City. We spent an hour on a bull elk near Blacktail Butte, another half hour on a group of bison near Roosevelt Lodge and the balance of the morning following a group of bighorn rams on the slopes above Soda Butte. The big telephoto and perfect low light of the February morning gave LuRay the chance for some outstanding shots.

By noon, my five o’clock pancakes were a distant memory, and I began wondering where we would find lunch. LuRay led the way back to the truck, but instead of making plans for a meal or offering a snack, he broke out his cross-country skis and set out across the valley to get a better angle for a scenic. As the sun dipped toward the west, we came back to the truck, drove down the road a mile or two and spent another hour on a group of coyotes scavenging a bison kill. As the last light was fading, we checked a grove of trees for a great gray owl LuRay had heard was in the vicinity. No luck.

It was around seven, I suppose, when we checked in with the second shift at the restaurant back in Gardiner. As I recall, I cleaned out the bread basket waiting for dinner and finished up with two slices of warm apple pie a la mode. Back at the hotel, LuRay handed me a garbage bag. “Put your camera gear in here before you go inside,” he said. “Keeps the condensation off.” Until that moment, I’d never considered the damage that could be done to the electronics in a modern camera brought from sub-zero outside into a 70-degree motel room.

We stripped off several layers of outdoor gear and chatted a while, but the combination of dinner and a warm room led us to make the smart decision and turn in. Another day in the life of a wildlife photographer.

Field jobs in wildlife conservation seem intensely romantic from a distance, and there’s no doubt that getting paid to wander over Wyoming landscapes has its appeal. There’s also no doubt that the work can be a challenge physically and psychologically, that the hours are often long and generally lonesome. Wildlife biologists and wardens count the challenge as one of the perks of the job, and for 25 years, so did LuRay Parker, staff photographer for Wyoming Wildlife magazine.

LuRay grew up on a farm in southern Kansas and attended college in Wichita and Enid, Okla. By the time he finished school, he was already hooked on cameras. After a year and a half with a commercial photography studio, he hired on as a motion picture director/producer with Beech Aircraft in Wichita. For the next 10 years, he traveled across North and South America taking promotional footage of Beechcraft airplanes. His backdrops were exotic — Grand Canyon, the Tetons, Monument Valley, Rio de Janerio, downtown Manhattan — and his flying experiences hair-raising. The really dramatic images always seemed to lead far too close to cliffs and rough air, and the airfields were often backcountry landing strips too short for overloaded small planes.

While LuRay was headquartered in Wichita, he maintained a close family connection with Wyoming. He and his wife, Betty Jean, had met at Wichita State University, but Betty Jean hailed from Casper, and the Parker family came to Wyoming regularly to visit relations. In 1969, one of LuRay’s in-laws heard about an opening for a photographer with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and passed the word along. In November 1969, LuRay landed the job, and the Parkers moved to Cheyenne.

The wildlife photographer’s game calls for great knowledge of a variety of wildlife, an unlimited supply of patience and skill with large telephoto lenses. With his background as a hunter, fisherman, bird watcher and cinematographer, LuRay had all those attributes. His pickup was a rolling warehouse of outdoor and photographic equipment. He could have a blind on the ground or in the water in a matter of moments, and he was ready to spend days waiting under cover if the subject demanded it.

His background as a studio and aerial photographer gave him an advantage on assignments that were beyond the normal wildlife photographer’s work. He was adept at multiple flash work. I remember watching him set up three remote slave flashes and a master flash to get images of the Wyoming-Colorado Taxidermist’s Association show. After nearly an hour’s work, he hit the cable release, and the whole room flooded with strobe light. In a matter of minutes, we had the top-quality images we needed for an article on taxidermy.

Another specialized flash assignment was his ongoing hunt for black-footed ferrets. The ferrets offer two photographic challenges: first, they are shy, seldom holding still as the photographer approaches; second, before the advent of auto-focus cameras, it was hard to focus before the shot in total darkness. LuRay modified flashes and spotlights to get pictures of the ferrets in Meeteetse and Shirley Basin. While he took pictures, he also helped find ferrets for the biologists who were conducting research on them. His ferret photo file still may be the most complete photographic record of black-footed ferret research in existence.

LuRay’s experience with the delicate politics and biology of black-footed ferrets led to a subsequent assignment on wolves. He served as one of the pool photographers with the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction in 1994. He spent nearly a month in Hinton, Alberta, documenting the capture of the wolves, then followed them to Yellowstone and Idaho where they were released. Many of the images the Department of Interior distributed of that landmark conservation effort came from LuRay’s camera.

Parker retired in 1995, turning his attention to several of his other passions, which included Macintosh computers and Harley Davidsons. He should have had many years to pursue those pastimes, but after a lifetime of unfailing good health, he developed pancreatic cancer in the winter of 1998-99 and died the following fall.

The Association for Conservation Information recognized LuRay eight times for national excellence in photography. Beyond those awards, Parker established a reputation among thousands of Wyoming Wildlife readers. The single most common compliment the magazine receives is “We love your photography.”

Luckily for Parker fans, LuRay left a great legacy with the Game and Fish Department: nearly 100,000 transparencies still on file. The Parker byline will be a common feature in Wyoming Wildlife for years to come. We have his work, but we continue to miss his expertise, his intimate knowledge of Wyoming’s wild places and his insight into the issues that continue to shape the Western landscape.

Wyoming Wildlife’s view of Wyoming has never been the same since Parker’s passing. We miss him.

An OWAA member since 1978, Chris Madson lives in Cheyenne, Wyo. He is editor of Wyoming Wildlife and a freelance writer/photographer. Photo credits: All photos by LuRay Parker, except for Parker portrait. All photos courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

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