Bellingham photographer Tore Ofteness honored for his aerial images

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 31, 2014 

It was a cold day with scattered clouds in November 1994 when Tore Ofteness went aloft and shot one of the most memorable photographs of Bellingham.

He was riding in a small plane about 5,000 feet above Lummi Island when he pointed his camera toward Bellingham. Behind the city, beyond the north end of Lake Whatcom, rose the foothills with a fresh dusting of snow, and then Mount Baker, reigning over the scene in white-capped majesty.

"People have told me they moved here after seeing that photo," Ofteness said.

Before she became Bellingham mayor, Kelli Linville displayed one of his aerial photographs in her legislative office for more than a decade. Linville called Ofteness a "local treasure" with a national reputation and a soft spot in his heart for the community.

For his decades of quality aerial photography, Ofteness traveled to Las Vegas earlier this month to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Professional Aerial Photographers Association.

While he was away, he received a letter telling him he was one of seven people chosen to receive a Mayor's Arts Award this year from the city of Bellingham.

"It was a pleasant surprise," Ofteness said.

It wasn't a surprise to people who know his work, including George Drake of Bellingham, who has nominated Ofteness for the city honor several times over the years.

In his most recent nomination letter, Drake noted that Ofteness' aerial photographs of Bellingham with Mount Baker in the background have been available in prints, posters and postcards, and "have gone around the world illustrating the magnificent setting of Bellingham to folks in many nations."

BEGAN PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE MILITARY

Now 68, Ofteness spent his first eight years of life growing up in rural Norway, before his family moved to the Scandinavian stronghold of Ballard, in Seattle. After graduating from Ballard High School in 1963, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained as an airplane mechanic.

That's when he became interested in photography, to satisfy his desire to capture on film the scenic beauty he saw from military planes and helicopters in this country and in Germany.

When he finished his stint in the Army, Ofteness returned to Seattle in 1967 and took a one-year course in commercial photography. To broaden his education, he then enrolled at Western Washington University, where he studied contemporary European and African history and served as photo editor on the campus newspaper and magazine.

He thought about becoming a history teacher or a photographer. Photography won out by making him money first.

He started his photography business in 1978, but didn't start doing aerial photography on a regular basis until the 1980s. Many of his aerial assignments involved documenting progress on construction projects.

His body of work includes an extensive collection of images of Georgia-Pacific buildings, inside and out, before demolition of the waterfront mill got underway.

"I'm a compulsive documenter," Ofteness said, reflecting his ongoing respect for history.

While aloft for commercial jobs he often shoots scenic photographs, too, from vessels at sea to the Cascade range to the bright symmetry of tulip fields in Skagit County.

Aerial photography involves much more than pointing a camera through an open airplane window and clicking away. It takes practice and planning, Ofteness said. It takes thinking ahead about the image he wants to capture, while taking into account such factors as the weather, natural light, angles and opportunities.

"It's all about pre-visualization," Ofteness said. "Anticipate the moment."

It also takes patience. One of his goals is to photograph Mount Baker with a full moon in each of the 12 months of the year. That takes good weather, free time to go aloft, and a full moon accompanied by the requisite dose of sunset illumination.

He has been working on the project for years, and still needs moon shots for January, March and June. Fortunately, he plans to keep shooting from the sky, even as pulls back from other obligations, such as teaching photography at Bellingham Technical College, where he recently retired after 24 years.

"It's been a good run," Ofteness said, "but I've run out of steam."

MORE PHOTOS

To see more photographs by Tore Ofteness, go to toreofteness.com.

Tore Ofteness' term studying commercial photography in Seattle was corrected March 31, 2014.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-229 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com .

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